The Impenetrable Wall Built by the Rich
The rich in Guatemala have built a solid wall between themselves and the rest of their compatriots. Violence and poverty have formed a vicious circle on the side where the poor struggle to survive while the rich shore up their side with capital from the traditional oligarchy, a new class of entrepreneurs
and organized crime.
Juan Hernández Pico
When the International Monetary Fund’s executive director Rodrigo Rato visited Guatemala, he openly declared that the country won’t be able to function as long as the state fails to collect the taxes it needs to increase social spending and thus help decrease its enormous inequalities. Guatemala’s traditional business class—those who make up its longstanding oligarchy—hasn’t heard such a heretical statement since Raul Prebisch of the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America proposed “import substitution” over half a century ago. Nor did it go down well with the country’s new class of entrepreneurs.
This government’s actions increasingly shed light on its dependence on the traditional business class and, above all,
on US geoeconomic and geopolitical interests. And so its finance minister responds to the IMF by saying that it’s
not going to increase taxes, or its Vice President announces that all those people left homeless by tropical storm Stan—extremely poor indigenous peasants, in the main—will have to wait another year for decent houses, or argues that to talk about land reform is to irresponsibly play with reactions similar to the ones that triggered the revolutionary movements.
Throughout Guatemala’s history, the rich have built an impenetrable wall between themselves and the majority of the Guatemalan people. Even worse, they plan to keep building it higher for the foreseeable future. It is a wall built with violence and poverty. Like other walls the world has known, it is a shameful one that keeps the poor on the other side, on the far edge of poverty and trapped up in a whirlwind of violence.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Peace Accords, but the delays in their implementation have become virtually epidemic. A few years ago, the schedules for implementing the accords were at least revised periodically. Now they seem to have fallen entirely into oblivion and Guatemala is caught up in the hard contradiction between its plans for peace and the daily reality of violence.
Violence and poverty: a vicious circleViolence and poverty are not two separate phenomena. They are inextricably linked in a vicious circle formed precisely by the denial of that link. President Oscar Berger says that the problem of violence and the resulting lack of public safety is his government’s top concern and public opinion polls show that most people name it as the country’s most serious and urgent problem. Nonetheless, such interpretations reveal only part of the truth. When we add together the percentages of people who pick the economy, poverty, unemployment, high prices, the housing shortage, lack of access to health and education, lack of social security and other social and economic problems as the country’s most serious and urgent problems, the result is a percentage as high or higher than the number who focus on insecurity and violence. The surveys have many more categories for poverty than for violence. Thus the vicious circle between poverty and violence is not made apparent. These two public concerns are at least in a technical tie, a very important indication that they can’t be adequately addressed separately.
Homicides, theft, In 2005 there were 5,338 homicides in Guatemala, 770 more than in 2004 and 1,101 more than in 2003. According to figures from the 2005 Human Development Report, Guatemala has the second highest percentage of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Latin America, with 38.19 in 2004, after El Salvador, which had 49.4. Of the homicides in 2005 nearly 10%—over 500—were feminicides. In 334 of those cases, the victims were children, up from 284 in 2004. In some 90% of the total homicides, guns were the weapon of choice. It is estimated that there are between 700,000 and 1.5 million guns in private hands in this country. The fact that there is such a wide discrepancy between the lowest and highest estimates is in itself a serious indication of the lack of control over the availability and use of guns.
guns, prisons, impunity
In addition to the homicides, there are a multitude of robberies and assaults that cause minor or serious personal injuries and material damages. Only 1.79% of the complaints lodged with the Public Ministry end in convictions. In yet another manifestation of injustice, the perpetrators of serious crimes enjoy impunity, while many men and women who commit minor infractions have to wait for years in prison for the justice system to address their cases, deprived of liberty and immersed in the efficient school of crime that is prison. Serious crimes are planned and monitored from the country’s prisons, while the new bill to overhaul the penitentiary system languishes on a dusty shelf in Congress. The nomination of Alejandro Giammattei as director of the penitentiary system is the only sign of any progress on this issue, one step towards creating more secure prisons, separating those accused of the most serious crimes from those accused of small infractions, and purging corrupt or vicious prison guards from the system.
Political violence Four years ago, we published an article in envío about “the armed wing of the hidden powers.” With the help of an analysis by the Myrna Mack Foundation, we tried to classify the violence in Guatemala. The past four years have brought the matter into clearer focus, allowing us to draw up a taxonomy in which violence is the genus and the various kinds of violence can be subdivided into species.
represses economic rights
The first “species” is political violence. This isn’t the same as the violence the state exercised from 1954 until roughly 1994, especially during the internal armed conflict. This was violence against the human rights—including life, liberty and personal integrity—of all its opponents, whether they were members of the guerrilla organizations, the civilians around them,
or members of opposition parties, unions, churches or the media. Today the state has no policy that programs the violation of these human rights, but there is still a subspecies of political violence: the state, through the current executive branch, is implementing a policy to repress the economic rights of certain social and political sectors. It applied this policy forcefully against the demonstrations against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005, and has used it in an especially unscrupulous form in evictions of peasant farmers who have occupied land, leading to several deaths and many more wounded, and leaving whole families homeless. And it does so with impunity, as none of the internal investigations or legal proceedings against the police allegedly involved in this repression have led to more than a suspended sentence, despite photographic or filmed proof of the damage they caused.
Something differentiates this government from the previous one, during which no evictions took place, even though court orders authorized them. The current government’s readiness to carry out these orders, coupled with its failure to undertake an agrarian development program that includes the distribution of land and training so people can learn to cultivate it—as established in the Peace Accords—is a very serious indication that the government is dominated by the interests of the traditional oligarchy, just as the government of former President Alfonso Portillo was dominated by the interests of a new class of emerging, non-landowning entrepreneurs.
The watering down of the cadastral law is another important sign. It is an aseptically technical law that won’t encourage the redistribution of wealth or maximize the country’s agrarian potential, but will only guarantee the status quo of agricultural and agroindustrial property. President Oscar Berger owns a large farm and his father-in-law is one of Guatemala’s largest sugar producers. Agriculture Minister Alvaro Aguilar, former president of AGEXPRONT, is heading up a ministry where he is both judge and party. Thus, Vice President Eduardo Stein’s efforts to hold substantial dialogues with peasant organizations are clashing with the traditional views of the President and the power of the agriculture minister, firmly backed by Government Minister Carlos Vielman and Police Chief Erwin Sperisen, both rooted in the same class of capital as Berger and Aguilar.
Political violence of the hidden powersAnother subspecies of political violence is the one exercised by the “hidden powers” against competent and honest police officers, judges, lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses, critics in the media, human rights advocates and others. It aims to frighten them into dropping their cases, withdrawing their demands or stifling their protests to ensure that trials don’t lead to convictions. These hidden powers include the old death squads organized by the army, police or other parties responsible for the organized violence that long plagued the country, or groups created by unscrupulous extremist businesspeople that have become clandestine criminal groups. The hidden powers also include new illegal clandestine groups—which sometimes overlap the old—organized with the capital of drug trafficking and other kinds of illegal trafficking, especially in arms, all linked up in a system of global criminal capital, which understands that its worst enemies are an honest and determined justice system, brave and experienced investigative journalists and defenders of human rights.
Political violence against Another subspecies of political violence is exercised against those involved in the ongoing clarification of the disappearances and other human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict: families of the disappeared, other victims of the conflict and forensic anthropologists. With their help, the victims’ families are trying to locate clandestine cemeteries, exhume the bodies illegally buried there, and after the difficult identification process, bury their dead and thus bring the mourning to a close, since without the ceremonies accompanying burial in legal, known and accessible sites, it is very hard for people to get on with their lives. After this complex process, people continue to bear the pain, but with somewhat healthier hearts and minds. Former military commissioners, former leaders of civil self-defense patrols and retired military officers are behind the harassment, threats and other more striking forms of political violence against the clarification of what happened in the country’s recent past.
Drug violenceAnother kind of violence is produced by the hidden powers that thrive off the industry of drug production and trafficking. There are several cartels in Guatemala—in Zacapa, Izabal, Cobán, Sayajché in El Petén, among many others—whose members live clandestine but often manifestly ostentatious and luxurious lives, protected by the complicity of the threatened populations around them. Given the nature of their business, they obviously can’t operate without links to other Central American, Caribbean and especially Colombian and Mexican cartels. But nor can they do so without links to wholesale and local distribution networks, including street dealers, in the United States, the European Union and other rich countries of the Western world.
They form part of a transnational drug network that works with mafias extending from the United States to Italy, Turkey, Japan, China and the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. They are links in one of the largest global production, trade
and financing chains, of which money laundering is a key part. They are often also involved in other kinds of contraband, arms trafficking, tax evasion, trafficking in migrants, murder by hire, trafficking in human beings or their organs—all kinds of trafficking with life under the aegis of organized crime. Their victims may be members of rival cartels or mafias, young people obliged to traffic—sometimes after being kidnapped and addicted—and people who live around their trafficking routes or their ostentatious “hideouts.”
Violence of organized crimeOrganized crime is the criminal procedure used by the hidden powers, whether of political, economic or strictly criminal origins, to protect their interests and infiltrate the state, if not with their own members—although that possibility cannot be ruled out, as Vice President Stein charged when speaking of the upcoming 2007 elections—then in other ways. According to accusations made by a deputy government minister who has so far declined to name names, the current Congress is infiltrated by these hidden powers. The US Embassy also implied that this was the case by canceling the visas of two congressional representatives, one for the National Union of Hope and the other an independent.
The Myrna Mack Foundation’s proposed Commission to Investigate Illegal Forces and Clandestine Associations against Security would be an important step in the effort to overcome impunity. This hybrid commission, made up of Guatemalans and UN officials, would be granted the authority to investigate cases that neither the National Civil Police’s Criminal Investigation Dept. nor the Public Ministry effectively investigate, most likely because they are also infiltrated or corrupt. The Constitutional Court blocked the first proposal to create the commission on constitutional grounds, arguing that only the Police and the Public Ministry have the constitutional authority to carry out such investigations. Vice President Stein has introduced a new proposal that takes the Court’s objections into account.
Gang violenceYet another kind of violence is related to youth gangs—known in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as “maras” from “marabunta,” the army ants that sweep through the jungle destroying everything in their path. These groups are the result of many factors, including a transcultural imitation of the street and gang violence practised in Los Angeles by young Latino emigrants.
The transplanting of this youth subculture—a kind of cultural “remittance”—has taken a form that isn’t in itself unusual; young people, whether marginalized or part of a dominant culture, have tended to come together in groups or bands from time immemorial. It happens during the stage of life when the uncertainties associated with growing up and establishing one’s own identity produce a need to distance oneself from the world of adults that translates into the building of a new, albeit provisional identity.
This distancing is all the more pronounced when the family environment is broken and brutally violent, devalued but imitated. The media, especially television and movies, serve up violence without compassion or scruples to everyone, including the young, as though it were their main product.
And our countries, immersed in a culture of violence whose roots go back to pre-Colombian culture, to the Conquest, the colonial period, the independent republic and above all the military or dynastic dictatorships and the wars of liberation and counterinsurgency of the second half of the 20th century, form an ideal petrie dish for germinating gang violence.
If you sow repression and war, you will reap violence. This is especially true if the war and repression are cemented in the exclusion of misery, the polarization of inequality and the population’s segregation and concentration in marginalized urban neighborhoods. To some extent, the gangs see themselves in the mirror of the violent culture of the United States and of the dominant classes, police forces and armies of our own countries.
The involvement of young gang members not only in consuming but also in dealing drugs only contributes to the violence. Many gang members have thus been swept up by organized crime, becoming part of the hidden powers’ chain of corruption and criminal interests until they lose their souls and become dehumanized.
Another element of this violence is the phenomena of “social cleansing,” this brutally clandestine form of violence in which the state—masked, of course, behind the darkened windows of unmarked cars—or anonymous groups of citizens take justice into their own hands in a society where violent death was made an article of daily consumption during the years of state terrorism and guerrilla violence. Lynchings are just one of these brutal forms of social cleansing, in which the leaders who enflame the crowds are generally former patrol members or military commissioners, accustomed to the culture of terror. Also included here are the nighttime killings of street kids in a macabre game of racism and disdain.
The daily violence of common crimeAnother kind of violence comes from common crime. This is the daily violence that surrounds a population on the verge of desperation. It includes assaults and shootings in city buses, armed robberies in residential neighborhoods, drive-by shootings of people in the street to carry out who knows what personal, group or family revenge, casual killings during robberies in banks or stores…
This violence is nourished by the culture of violence in society, which has turned petty crime into an adventure or a game where people risk their lives to get quick and easy money. Too many people see no other solution to the unemployment and misery of the putrid marginalized urban slums than this desperate resort to violence.
Rural society is also plagued with violence. And although many might disagree, we also have to include here the brutal recklessness of drivers of inter-urban buses and trucks, who drive their vehicles at prohibitive speeds on narrow, curvy roads, passing on the curve or competing to see who wins. According to the simple law of probability, many such violent adventures end up in horrifying crashes or plummets into ravines, where the number of victims is always high and the drivers or their aides, if they survive, invariably run for it.
Domestic violenceAnd of course there is domestic violence. Grounded in a patriarchy that makes no concessions and manifest in daily macho behavior, domestic violence is likely at the root of all violence, the father of them all. The domination of women, which can even be carried to the extreme of killing them, is the template for all feelings of religious, class, racist, urban or other kinds of superiority, which for those who feel it justifies oppression, exploitation, the maintaining of inequalities and, at the extreme, violence and death. While some women use violence against their companions or children—including some single mothers abandoned by their men—their violence was also learned from the violence used on them by grandfathers, fathers, uncles and spouses or partners before they disappeared from the scene.
Some anthropologists have suggested that the rising rates of feminicide in our society and the world in general are caused precisely by our machista society’s refusal to accept that women’s roles are changing as they have been liberated by work outside the home, by education or profession, and by the increased self-esteem they derive from all of this.
The subculture of violence All these species and subspecies of violence make up a subculture of violence or derive from it. It is a subculture because it stands alongside another subculture, one of peace, seen by example in the huge, festive celebration of the canonization of Saint Pedro de Betancur a few years ago. There, before John Paul II, 700,000 Guatemalans including women and men of all ethnic groups and colors displayed another face of the country and made us imagine the other possible Guatemala. That country would be more possible if, as the Bishops’ Conference continually reminds us, all of those people would assume Brother Pedro’s Good Samaritan attitude and go out into life to reinterpret his 17th-century actions in the 21st century.
vs the subculture of peace
This subculture of peace, which flows through the open veins of Guatemala, can be found in the emancipation of indigenous people and the revitalization of Mayan identity, the will to survive after the massacres, the epic of migration, the struggle for human rights and democracy, the Church’s accompaniment of victims. It stands in contrast to the subculture of violence.
The subculture of violence got stuck like a bone in the throat during the colonial period, based on the appropriation of land—the first great “land reform”—by the dominant classes that were the origins of the current oligarchy, and on caste discrimination and executions. The memory of these events is revived in the novel by Francisco Pérez de Antón, Los hijos del incienso y de la pólvora (“The Children of Incense and Gunpowder”), as well as in previous scientific works such as the economic history of Murdo McLeod and Christopher Luz’s historical anthropology. The subculture of violence intensified with the theft of indigenous communities’ lands perpetrated by Liberal reformers—the second great “land reform”—and forced work on the coffee plantations and highways through the time of Jorge Ubico (1930-1944). After the parenthesis of the revolutionary decade (1944-54)—the only time land reform was carried out on behalf of the poor—the subculture of violence was elevated to a brutal paradigm. This shaped Guatemalan society through the terrorism with which the state responded to the armed challenge to the established order posed by the guerrilla movement.
The results of all this are an institutionalized insecurity and the failure of electoral democracy. Some have gone so far as
to posit that “the attempt at democratic governance has not worked in Guatemala.” And some, including former President Alvaro Arzú, have argued that what we have to do instead is move towards an “authoritarian democracy,” in the style of Putin in Russia. But the truth is that Putin is restoring not only authoritarianism but also state capitalism, based on Russia’s immense energy potential and technological progress. Here in Guatemala, a move toward such an “authoritarian democracy” only makes sense if the Guatemalan state is conceived of as the oligarchy’s state, in which capitalism is of the state in the sense that the state is governed by the classic, now globalized owners of capital, and the impoverished majority of the population is made invisible. This could only be done if all that matters are private interests rather than the common good, which democracy should in principle serve.
In 2006, the 10th anniversary of the Peace Accords, it is urgent to recall that the huge economic inequalities in Guatemalan society and the poverty of the vast majority of its population were among of the most important causes of the internal armed conflict. Without an authentic social contract to distribute the nation’s wealth equitably among its citizens, internal peace will be profoundly undermined and could only be maintained with the garrote. For this reason, the Peace Accords stressed the importance of a different kind of economic development, with a redistribution of wealth. The proposed goal was a sustained average annual GDP growth of 6% for a sufficient but unspecified period of time.
How much growth? According to an unpublished study by Arturo Grigsby of the Nitlapán Research Institute at the Central American University in Managua, the average annual GDP growth in Guatemala during the 1990s was 1.5%, lower than the average annual population growth of 2.5%. This was also Mexico’s average annual growth rate, despite the free trade agreement with the United States and Canada. In Central America only Costa Rica grew by a healthy 3.5%, and El Salvador by 2.5%. Since the Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala, there has only been one year, 1998, when the GDP grew by a reasonably sound 4.5%, but it fell after that with two years of negative growth until beginning to rise again under the current government to reach 3.5% in 2005, according to the Bank of Guatemala.
How much poverty?
In the 1990s, according to these figures, Central America (except for Nicaragua and Honduras) grew at higher rates than the rest of Latin America, but in Guatemala, the growth was below the rate proposed by the Peace Accords, and far too low to fight misery and poverty.
According to a 2002 ECLAC study, Guatemala’s poverty rate was 60.1% in 2000. In round figures, about 40% of the country’s population lives in poverty and 20% in extreme poverty or misery. In 2000, the UN declared its “Millennium Goals” calling on nations to cut extreme poverty and misery by half by 2015. Poverty has indeed been falling in Guatemala, from 69.1% in 1990, or nearly 10% over that decade, according to the ECLAC study. The rate remains very high, however, and it will be increasingly difficult to reduce it any further. By comparison, the poverty rate in Costa Rica in 2000 was 20.6%, in Mexico 41.1%, and in El Salvador 49.9%; the average in Latin America in 1999 was 43.8%. Compared to most the rest of the region, the situation in Guatemala is disastrous.
Inequality, migration and remittancesThe Guatemalan panorama appears even worse when we consider the Gini co-efficient, which measures inequality within the structure of the population’s access to wealth. In this statistical index, 0 is the coefficient that signals maximum equality, while 1 indicates maximum inequality. In 2000, Guatemala had a Gini co-efficient of 0.58, one of the worst in Latin America, behind only Nicaragua (0.59) and Brazil (0.64). According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the richest 20% of Guatemalans took in 64% of the country’s total income in 2002, while the poorest 20% earned only 1.7% and were nearly 38 times poorer. The average daily income of a male urban worker in 2004, according to the UNDP’s 2005 National Human Development Report, was 70.87 quetzales, equivalent to US$9.45, while that of a female urban worker was only 43.87 quetzales, or $5.85. The income of a male rural worker was 34.47 quetzales ($4.60) and a female rural worker, 19.17 quetzales ($2.56). And this doesn’t take into account the large differences between the earnings of indigenous and non-indigenous workers in the cities and in agriculture.
In this light, the lure of migrating north is understandable. In the United.States, workers can make $8 an hour or at least $64 a day on their first jobs, even when they’re undocumented. The appeal of migrating is even more understandable when good years in the coffee or sugar plantations aren’t reflected in increased income for those who harvest the crops. The plantation owners argue that they have to reinvest the profits, which they spend not only on equipment but also on ostentatious new buildings and high salaries for a select few. In a country that exported some $3 billion and imported nearly $7.2 billion in 2004, leaving a $4.25 billion trade deficit, the migrants’ remittances—what Jesuit economist Javier Ibisate calls “poor-dollars”—have become enormously important. This money sent back home to Guatemala totaled nearly $3 billion in 2005, without including the $600 million that remained in the hands of intermediaries.
The tax burden’sTen years after the Peace Accords were signed, the tax burden in Guatemala—the government’s tax revenues as a percentage of the GDP—still remains barely above 10% (10.3% in 2004), although it was supposed to have been increased to 12% some time ago. In light of the country’s situation, the failure to increase taxes on those who should be the largest contributors shows an unconscionable lack of civic responsibility by the traditional ruling class, which has always been more than ready to overthrow governments to avoid paying taxes. The tax burden in Guatemala is one of the lowest in Latin America and the lowest in Central America. This explains the IMF director’s sharp rebuke on his visit to Guatemala. The wall of the rich is a thick one, however, and such rebukes bounce off it. Dionisio Gutiérrez, co-president of Multiinversiones (which owns Pollo Campero and many other companies) and director of the Sunday television program “Libre Encuentro,” constantly intervenes in the program to label those who propose a tax increase as “demagogues” and “populists,” insisting that it would “discourage investment.”
According to the UNDP’s global report for 2000, the tax burden ranges from 30% to 35% in the countries with the highest level of human development in the world, such as the Scandinavian countries. In the United Kingdom and France it is over 39% and in Belgium and the Netherlands 40%. Even in the United States it tops 20%. In Latin America, the tax burden in 2004 in Chile was 18.4%, in Costa Rica 23.1% and in Nicaragua 23.9%.
It seems clear that if taxes in Guatemala don’t surpass the goals set in the Peace Accords and reach at least 15% of the GDP, it will be impossible to achieve the Millennium Goals. In addition to the commitment to cut extreme poverty, these goals include ensuring that no one dies of hunger in the country by 2015, that infant mortality has been reduced by two-thirds, that primary education is universal, that all 15-24 year olds are literate, that AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis rates are declining, that environmental sustainability has been guaranteed and, among other no less demanding goals, that the lives of at least 100 million people who now subsist in hovels—600,000 of whom some are Guatemalans—have been substantially improved.
Links in the catastropheOnly people or groups blinded by their lack of civic responsibility and solidarity could fail see the relationship between the spread of violence on the one hand and hunger, misery, the constant frustration of basic needs and the aspirations encouraged by the media and shopping centers on the other. Although violence and poverty are based on developments that are to some extent autonomous, this autonomy is only relative and does not exclude inter-dependencies. Sow indifference and a lack of solidarity in the culture and you will reap storms of violence. This is bringing Guatemala to the brink of catastrophe, one that will only be greater if Presidents like Berger respond to peasant protests by ordering the police to use the full weight of the law against those who break it and Police Chief Sperisen reports, after carrying out the President’s orders, that “all force was used against those who were interrupting the economy”—as if the protesting peasants didn’t experience the “interruption” of their own vital economy every day of their lives.
The successful GuatemalanOne of the explanations for this painful lack of solidarity can be found in Guatemala’a paradigm of a successful person. This paradigm is a Guatemalan man—not woman—of Spanish descent, a landowner and tax evader who is violent and/or authoritarian and can look most people up and down and call them “my son” or “my daughter” with a blatantly patriarchal attitude echoing the origins of mestizaje, and thus assuming the submission of all others in a kind of extended family that was founded with the country. We’re speaking of a malformed family, in which these “my sons and daughters” will never become heirs because they’ll never become “equal.” And if they try to be “equal,” they will be rejected and disdained.
The consequences of this paradigm are serious. The first is a dominant oligarchic culture entwined in the backwardness of the landowning class, which for this reason is elite and basically anti-modern, however much it has assimilated new technologies. Ownership and concentrated possession of land and, above all, the paradigm of the wealthy plantation owner who rides purebred horses during his weekends in Antigua all help maintain the Guatemalan oligarchy’s pre-modern mindset and heart, as though it were part of a pre-republican ancien régime, predating the birth of citizenry. It is the mindset and heart of a blueblood lineage for whom everything that smells of “liberty, equality and fraternity” is dangerous subversion.
Without education or land reformWhen the renowned legal scholar and political scientist Norberto Bobbio was asked if there is any difference between the political Left and Right in the world today, given that all parties appear imprisoned by the extremism of the center center-right, center-left, center-center), he replied that yes, there is a clear difference: the authentic Left proposes projects that progressively bring us closer to equality, while the Right continues to propose the privileges of inequality. Although the Guatemalan Left, including the ethnic Left, suffers from fragmentation and cannibalism like perhaps no other, “its heart beats on the left,” in the words of Oskar Lafontaine, a German social democrat as committed as any.
There is no citizenry without a basis of equality. The clearest evidence of this can be found in education. Guatemala has one of the lowest education budgets in Latin America. The wealthy have access to quality education, guaranteed privately by the concentration of wealth in their hands, but the poor majority’s access to quality education is not guaranteed by the country’s public education system. Not even the large increases in the public education budget since the Peace Accords bring us close to the percentage of the GDP allotted to public education in Costa Rica, Panama or even El Salvador.
The fierce refusal to even think about the possibility of land reform is rooted in this pre-modern mindset. No “recently industrialized” state (such as the “Asian tigers”) has modernized without imposing land reform on its recalcitrant oligarchy. This is true for Taiwan and South Korea, and for Chile, though less drastically. Neither Brazil nor Guatemala—among the most inequitable countries in Latin America—will succeed in making the transition to modernity and citizenship without carrying out land reform. This is why it’s so sad that the cadastral law has been eviscerated and the government has failed to carry out the provision in the Peace Accords designed to ensure that state-owned land in the Petén and along the Northern Highway serves a social purpose, including land illegitimately appropriated by military officers that is well-suited for agriculture, cattle ranching and oil and mineral exploitation.
The state at whose service?Naturally, to achieve this we would need a strong state, one far more independent of the interests of the traditional oligarchy, the new class of entrepreneurs and the criminal capital of the drug business. And this can’t happen as long as these classes govern, infiltrate or bribe the state. It can’t happen by recruiting candidates for Congress who want to live off of politics rather than serve the citizenry. It can’t happen with a tax base that is ridiculously small for the functioning of a modern state like those that are still welfare states, although less so than they were in the 28 years between World War II and the first oil crisis of 1973.
The state as an instrument of capital, a source of wealth for politicians or a fiefdom of criminals trafficking drugs and weapons—in the first two cases as a servant of the US fight against terrorism and drug trafficking—can only be strong when repressing people’s demands, containing migration or international terrorists and drug traffickers, but not when building citizenry.
A fragmented, Opposite the state, we have a fragmented and impoverished civil society. The labor movement has been reduced to little more than an aging leadership with no real base. The culprits are global trends such as the flexibilizing of work—which is increasingly temporary in nature, with no consistent training or social security and no union protection—and the unions’ inability to recover from the militarization to which they were subjected by the guerrilla strategy and the state terrorism that decimated them. In addition, the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations too often leads to rivalries between individual protagonists, with too many organizations spending too much time jockeying for position rather than doing the work.
impoverished civil society
The brain drain is sapping the potential of our intellectual class, which was also decimated by the armed conflict and has been further impoverished by the massifying of education at the University of San Carlos and by the corruption and bureaucracy of the university leadership, which no longer produces rectors of the stature of Martínez Durán, Cuevas del Cid, Valdeavellano Pinot or Osorio Paz; nor intellectuals like Arévalo Martínez, Muñoz Meany, Piedrasanta Arandi, Molina Orantes, Villagrán Kramer, Martínez Peláez, Guzmán Bockler, Torres Rivas or Díaz Castillo; nor student leaders like Torres Rivas, Díaz Castillo, Oliverio Castañeda or Vela.
The mass media are businesses. Some, like the leading television and cable stations, are monopolies while others, like the newspaper Siglo XXI, take a critical stance at the start only to end up responding to the interests of the oligarchy. Yet others, like Prensa Libre, may be critical of the new class of entrepreneurs and the corrupt government that represents them, but again, serve as spokespeople for the oligarchy. Although both Prensa Libre and El Periódico still have critical columnists in their pages and from time to time produce decent investigative journalism, their most popular sections are their sensationalistic, sexist tabloids, like Nuestro Diario, which contribute nothing to the formation of an informed citizenry. In this landscape, Mayan intellectuals and some of their ethnic organizations and the people who lead them are among the few positive forces in civil society. So are certain social research centers, as well as some of the pro-justice and human rights associations.
At the root, racismRacism lies at the root of the problem. The racist monster lurks behind the oligarchic culture. There’s a great fear that “the other,” which has been kept down by political power, will awaken and descend from the northwestern highlands with the force of an unstoppable avalanche. Although some don’t hesitate to use unfettered racist language when talking in private about indigenous people, whether poor peasant farmers or successful professionals, their public arguments are based on social Darwinism seasoned with Nietzche: if the indigenous people are at the bottom of the heap, they argue, it’s because they belong to families of the human species less gifted by intelligence or leadership or the desire for power. To keep them there, to prevent the avalanche from coming, it is essential to avoid or even attack historical memory. It is also requires preferring an electoral democracy’s benign bad governance over any attempt to ensure the realization of constitutional guarantees; the first, second and third generation of human rights; and the project of nation designed in the Peace Accords. In the end, one can always resort to authoritarian democracy in the case of a serious crisis of governance. This is why the ruling class has no interest in a constitutive assembly that would make it possible to exclude the army once and for all from any role in domestic security.
An even more solid wallAll of this is not taking place in some isolated country, but rather in a globalized one. CAFTA is the most recent example of the triumph of the worst side of this globalization in our country and our region. It is the triumph of the freedom of the all-powerful market, paradoxically a planned market in which the transnational companies—and Guatemalan capital associated with them—will have all the protection they have demanded for their investments and for what they call their intellectual property. The freedom of all other groups and people will be a lesser evil of democracy, which we can do without if market freedom is endangered. This is the free trade agreement: a treaty to protect transnational investments rather than simply a treaty for the free exchange of merchandise, as its name implies.
The inequalities in this country will increase as small- and medium-scale industrial producers as well as small farmers and farm workers lose their livelihoods, resulting in food insecurity for the country in the medium run and a thicker, more solid wall for the rich.
Juan Hernández Pico, sj is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.