Can Álvaro Colom Become a Social Democratic President?
There’s undoubtedly a move for change in Guatemala, but there are also well-founded suspicions that dark forces within
the government itself are trying to block any moves in that direction. Only time will tell if social democrat President Álvaro Colom will end up heading a Social Democratic government,
thus vindicating his historical heritage.
Juan Hernández Pico
President Álvaro Colom Caballeros started his inauguration speech on January 14, 2008, with an audacious phrase that tied his government to a serious commitment: “I thank God that for the first time in 50 years the time has come for Guatemala to change toward a social democratic government, a government with a social focus.” His mention of half a century intentionally looked back to the two governments under Presidents Arévalo and Arbenz following the 1944 revolution, which ended when the latter was overthrown with CIA help in July 1954. “We didn’t witness the democratic spring of 44,” said the new President, “but we still have the great social advances of Juan José Arévalo.”
The birth of social democracy But what exactly does he mean by a social democratic government? Evidently, one that tries to govern with the principles and programs associated with social democracy, a movement that emerged over a hundred years ago, at the end of the 19th century, headed by Edward Bernstein, splitting with the communist movement and the parties it had inspired.
It was born as a social movement and a political party linked to the workers in Europe, particularly industrial workers, who sought power through free elections rather than armed revolution. They proposed governing not through a dictatorship of the proletariat, but rather in a democracy subjected to the see-sawing of periodic elections; with a program based not on social revolution with radical structural changes, but rather on social justice through institutional reforms, particularly favoring fair wages; one that was open to cross-class solidarity rather than exclusively under the flag of class solidarity and one that put international working class alliances on the back burner, rooting itself in a firmly national consciousness. The main social democratic parties were the German Social Democratic Party, the British Labor Party, the French Socialist Party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and, above all, the Scandinavian socialist parties, which proved the most successful. All of these parties are still relevant in contemporary politics.
Social Democracy slowly detached itself from its Marxist roots to become a political movement focused on the social reform of capitalism and supported by the social strength of massive workers’ unions. Social democratic parties and movements adopted Keynesian economic doctrines and in quite a few countries managed to set up “welfare states,” which have left their mark on institutions through collective labor contracts that ensure fair wages and job security, as well as severance pay, social security and adequate retirement pensions.
In Latin America, Costa Rica is perhaps the country with the most effective social democratic party. The union movement that built it even managed to put the brakes on its social decline by firmly opposing the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2007. The Chilean Socialist Party, Brazilian Workers’ Party, Peronist Party in Argentina and Democratic Revolution Party of Mexico have all evolved in this direction to a greater or lesser degree, while Peru’s American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) has decidedly shifted toward the center-right. This general bifurcation within the Socialist International has often been defined as social democracy versus democratic socialism.
Globalization undermines The growth of transnational companies, which beat the workers to the utopia of internationalism, has imposed a new structure based on corporations operating as networks in different countries. This has made the labor force more flexible, segmented and dispersed, of course making it much more difficult to achieve collective contracts. These corporations are also making work temporary, combing the world for the places with the lowest wage costs, attacking social security and privatizing pensions. While the welfare state in the North has not entirely disappeared, it is threatened by the globalization of capital—particularly finance capital—and the huge costs of social investment by the state. Few of today’s social democratic parties would embrace the declaration of identity proclaimed by Oskar Lafontaine, who abandoned Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic government in Germany soon after it took office in 1998, accusing it of moving to the neoliberal right. He insisted that “the heart beats on the left,” inferring that the heart of social democracy is the fight to reduce the inequality that maintains world poverty. Norberto Bobbio has said that if there is a difference between Left and Right, it is the Left’s sensitivity in favor of equality and in opposition to inequality.
“We will earn that inheritance”Álvaro Colom’s is a member of a Guatemalan family that has already produced one great social democratic leader. His uncle, Manuel Colom Argueta, twice elected mayor of Guatemala City, was assassinated a few weeks after his party was legally registered in 1979, during the government of General Lucas. This was typical of the kind of criminal deceit perpetrated by the military governments of the seventies in Guatemala.
The new President has named Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight as his minister of finance, one of the most crucial Cabinet posts. Fuentes is a technically competent and socially sensitive economist and son of former Guatemalan foreign minister Alberto Fuentes Mohr, a founder of the Guatemalan Social Democratic Party who was assassinated just a few months before Manuel Colom.
Despite his social democratic family roots, Álvaro Colom does not want to claim the right to that inheritance because he says he and his minister will have to earn it with actual deeds. “What wouldn’t we give to have Alberto Fuentes Mohr or Manuel Colom Argueta in Congress or possibly on this podium?” he said. “They gave their lives for this moment; they died to water a fertile field. I know that Juan Alberto Fuentes, Alberto’s son, doesn’t feel himself to be his father’s heir; I feel the same about Manuel. We’ll earn that over the next four years.”
“The privilege of the poor”Social democratic family roots and political inclinations are one thing; but actually managing to govern with a social democratic program is quite another. Álvaro Colom publicly pledged to produce a government that is different from the previous one, marked by business interests. He defines it as somewhere between “everybody equally” and “privileging the poor,” not without a certain contradiction:
“That change will begin with a definite priority: those who have less. Maintaining national unity, keeping all Guatemalans equal, but today begins the privilege of the poor, those with no opportunities. It’s a commitment acquired over these last nine years struggling for the plan of hope. I’m convinced that by giving to those who have less will mean more for all of us. Our country will exploit its potential better by giving to those who have less, by Rafael [Vice President Espada], Álvaro and their government team thinking first about those with less, those who are most abandoned, in all the decisions they make.”
The weight of history on his backThroughout his speech, Álvaro Colom tried to outline a new perspective, situating his new government within Guatemala’s history, particularly linking it to the 1944 revolution and its attempts at modernization and social justice. “Guatemala,” he said, “deserves that change because Guatemala has that potential. Today is one of reflection. My President friends asked me yesterday and today how I feel. I feel the weight of history on my back: 50 years of trying, 50 years of attempting everything, even a perverse war whose wounds are still bleeding; 250,000 Guatemalans were lost in that war.”
Linking up with that history in Guatemala, however, has a very strong potential for generating division, raising the revolutionary ghosts and causing fear and paralysis. That’s why Colom wants to privilege the poor in a climate of reconciliation and tolerance, in the new climate that the Peace Accords could and should have created had they not been overwhelmed by the violence of organized and common crime in the war-inherited culture of violence. Colom is proclaiming that “we intend to correct intolerance, discrimination, inequality and the absence of solidarity.”
An improvised, genial styleThe new President spoke in a style not previously heard in presidential inaugurations. It was an improvised, genial style that departed from the written pages on the lectern. It didn’t always have the kind of coherence conventionally expected of an inaugural speech because he let his emotions come straight from the heart and talked as if he were among friends and colleagues rather than in the solemn surroundings of the Miguel Angel Asturias Cultural Center’s National Theater:
“Our friends in the press have asked me what the change consists of. The change is that social policy will be the main instrument for the country’s harmony, for its unity and reconciliation.... Our most serious responsibility is to build that bridge: a bridge of justice constructed on solidarity, a bridge that is strong and firm in national unity, strong and firm in national reconciliation.”
That fateful January and March of 79“Today I want to make a commitment to those under 40, those who didn’t live through the tragedy of the sixties and seventies. Let my generation, my government bear that tragedy, because we want to turn the page. I call on my generation not to pass on either the rage or the prejudice we were forced to live through that March 22, 1979 [the date of Manuel Colom Argueta’s assassination]. They murdered not only a leader, but also Guatemala’s hope, and they denied our youth democracy. The young were left no other option: the guerrilla movement or the army, the grave or exile, or, as some of us decided to do, just practicing our careers.”
This is a new style, with a linguistic familiarity some would say isn’t very presidential and others would see as a sign of utopian purposes whose practical application hasn’t been thought through very well yet.
His election was “a miracle”Colom is aware of the institutional fragility upon which the Guatemalan political system still rests. He mentioned it at the very beginning of his speech, when he qualified his own election as a “political miracle.” What was he referring to? Perhaps how difficult it was to prevail at the ballot box against a retired general like Otto Pérez Molina in a country sick of delinquency and violence. He mentioned it again later in his speech, when he talked about the instability of Congress and the political parties, including his own National Unity of Hope (UNE), which is already starting to display some cracks, restlessness and vexations.
“It was our fragile political system that allowed that miracle,” he told his audience. “People are no longer shot dead or massacred; now they’re defamed, maligned and lied about instead. As for that political process, that political party system, I want to thank all the general secretaries of the political parties for the example of unity they displayed today in the election of the Board of Directors [Congress’ governing body]. Today I want to value the work of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and our commitment to modify the Electoral Law so that the system of political parties can be improved. Hopefully this will prove to have been the last campaign with negative campaigning, defamation and lies.”
This is a very complicated and touchy statement, which blends awareness of political party instability with the satisfaction of forging an alliance among his own UNE, Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front, Alvaro Arzú’s Unionist Party and Mario Estrada’s Union of National Change Party to direct the Congress from its Board of Directors. And in which he values the work of the TSE and announces his intention to further reform the Electoral and Political Parties Law.
With the chirimía and the tumThis was followed by a couple of other tortured paragraphs, almost certainly the result of improvisation and emotion, that again interwove several themes: his family; the political parties again—a truly Guatemalan nightmare—and indigenous peoples, whom this new President deeply appreciates. Despite being from a Catholic family, Colon is said to have been consecrated as a Mayan priest: “Today I would like to steal a minute to thank our seven children, who never complained; all of them trusted their father and their mother because we are a united family; they never questioned because they also never doubted their father and their mother. Today that commitment to change, to evolve our political party system toward something more, more democratic and safe. We’re going to fight for that country unity; for that harmony of the indigenous peoples. Today is the first time the National Council of Elders has been invited to a presidential inauguration.
“Years ago, in the Totonicapán mountains, I heard the chirimía and the tum that sounded just a moment ago. I was always taught that these were melancholy, sad instruments, but after the elders explained to me that the tum was the heart and the chirimía the spirit, every time I hear them now, I hear the vibrant heart of 23 peoples awaiting development, awaiting harmony and the elimination of discrimination.”
The first program: After that, Colom’s speech followed other, more programmatic channels. He presented four programs as the basis for national reconciliation: regionalization, productivity, governance and solidarity,
wrapping them all in an appeal for cooperation in an attempt to create operational alliances.
Colom presented the first program—regionalization—with very vague features, including for the first time the goal of creating a social welfare state, in line with his identification with social democracy. He hinted that this policy or international cooperation program is above of a Latin American or Ibero-American nature—”brother peoples”—although he didn’t express it in those terms. “What we want to promote through the Regionalization Program,” said Colom, “is an international policy in which Guatemala stops being sensationalist news and acquires a different image. Today I want to thank all the commissions, all the delegations, the heads of state, his highness, the Prime Minister [of Belize], as this has been the best attended inauguration. There are expectations surrounding this change in Guatemala and you strengthen my commitment, because it’s a national commitment, a commitment among brother peoples that have always acted in solidarity with Guatemala, in the midst of the war, working for peace, and now trying to bring about the solid future of a social welfare state.”
The second program: Based on his own past as a businessman and head of business associations, the objective of his productivity program is to blend lucrative private production with social responsibility and initiate via the government an economically responsible poverty reduction process. A fundamental part of this overall program will be rural development. As Colom explained, “I’m inviting my dear friends from the country’s productive sector, the cooperatives and small and medium producers, the organized private sector and all those who produce and move the country to a great national productivity program and I pledge to impose order in the executive branch so that it can initiate a productivity program that is irreversible. Every cent of taxpayers’ money must not only be well collected but also invested with quality in our government program, which the people legitimized on November 4.
“This productivity program will be directed by a council, which we’re going to call together almost immediately to truly create jobs and generate national and foreign investment, but in an organized way. After 19 years in the private organized sector, as the head of the Chamber of Industry and the Exporters’ Association, I still hear about the need for clear rules. Let’s sit down and get the rules clear once and for all, so that Guatemala can exploit its economic potential.
“That productivity will be strengthened nationally by two programs that are important to us and the overall government program: the strengthening of the Economy Ministry’s already-existing small and medium business program and the birth of an unprecedented rural development program, in which we have the support of many friendly countries. I’m sure that comprehensive development program will be underway within a year. And not only underway: if we get there before this year’s planting, cooperatives and peasant groups will benefit from that program. We want production. I said as much to some of my business friends the other day: produce. Businesspeople don’t invest to lose money; they invest to make money. Earn money, but with social responsibility, and allow me to initiate a poverty reduction process with economic responsibility.”
The third program: The governance program seeks to respond to the great concerns surrounding public insecurity and took up the lion’s share of the presidential speech. The program consists of two parts: the strengthening of the justice system to progress toward a rule of law; and a call to a national dialogue, which will be prolonged through working groups to discuss fiscal matters, education, rural development, indigenous peoples, health, etc. This dialogue process will be headed up by a new presidential Secretariat for Dialogue.
As regards strengthening the justice system, the President talked about modernizing the armed forces so they serve the nation, fashioning an army over which he can exercise his responsibility as civilian commander-in-chief, even if it’s not constitutionally possible to name a civilian defense minister. He tied in the strengthening of justice with the fight against poverty, because there can be no real peace in a country where most people are starving. He also broached the thorny topic of a definitive fiscal reform that establishes fixed rules for the long term.
Colom included the development of the Mirador Archeological and Wildlife Preserve as a project that would help develop the Petén region and the fight against drug trafficking. He also detailed the development of one particular municipality on the border with Mexico—Ixcán in the department of Quiché—which was a nucleus of the war and now the target of a special government rural development effort. Finally, he stressed a fight against mafia groups—presumably the drug-trafficking and multiple, multifaceted contraband mafias—jointly with Mexico, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador, based on an already-signed pact. And once again Colom made a challenging call for alliances—particularly within Congress—to ensure the speedy and responsible processing of the bills he’s planning to send to Congress as soon as possible.
“Justice is the soul of a people”In Colom’s own words, “A governance program in two defined chapters. Support for and ongoing struggle to attain the rule of law. There can be no governance without security, no governance without justice. Justice is the soul of a people, the soul of the democratic system. We have a lot of work to do; we have to fight the impunity that is oppressing us.
“I have visited the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitutionality Court and the Attorney General, and have promised that my government is going to support the justice system, without conditions, manipulation or negotiations. We want justice soon, and for all Guatemalans. We want a comprehensive security program that has already begun to territorially reorganize the security forces and to build institutional capacity, that has taken advantage of the progress in various components of the current administration [the outgoing administration of President Berger].
“Today I want to recognize—I don’t know if I’m the first—the naming of a defense minister based on his career and experience. We’re going to have an army that respects the Peace Accords; a modern, well-equipped army that works for its society. I don’t have the slightest doubt. They asked me for a civilian minister: there can’t be a civilian minister, but there is a civilian commander-in-chief. We want to achieve that democratic governance we’ve been dreaming of for so long with respect for the law. However, and here lies the integrity of our program, nothing we do with respect to justice and the security forces will mean anything at all if the social development policy program doesn’t succeed. A hungry people will never be peaceful. A people bereft of economic opportunities has very little chance of social peace.
All-out war against the mafias“This governance program has another extremely important component, which is the system of national dialogue. We’ve had dialogues since 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords and we intend to use those previous dialogues as part of a national dialogue. We hope to have finished this in June of this year, so that we Guatemalans can decide what kind of Guatemala we want and how much that Guatemala costs; so that after the national dialogue we can set up working groups, which we believe will include ones to discuss a fiscal pact, education, rural development, indigenous peoples and possibly other issues, such as health.
“We want a united country, but we don’t want to impose it. Unity and peace cannot be imposed; they are things people need to be convinced of. The new dialogue system will be coordinated by the Secretariat of Democratic Development. We don’t want to return to the past, to commit the mistakes of the past; we want to institutionalize the changes and the transformation.
“This governance program necessarily involves an all-out war on the mafias, on organized crime. We have the great advantage that Guatemala and our neighboring countries have signed a commitment to our regional security. The mafias have regionalized, so now we have to globalize the actions against them. I would like to thank the Presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize for the joint fight we’re going to wage.”
Developing the mirador park“We want to promote a production system that attracts investment. It’s not difficult to generate employment in Guatemala. I did so for many years, in the middle of a war, and we’re no longer at war. We have to provide components such as security, so we can push ahead.
“I want to announce something very important for Guatemala: we’re going to work with small producers, with small and medium businesses in both rural and urban areas. But there’s one project we’re really going to push, and that’s the Mirador Park in the north of the Petén. Mirador was discovered a few years ago. We Guatemalans are proud of the Tikal Park, which is a beauty. The Tikal Park covers 16 square miles of pyramids; Mirador covers 42 square miles and its structures include the largest pyramid in the world in terms of mass—I believe it beats one of the Egyptian pyramids by a meter in height. That project will bring great benefits for Guatemala and the Petén, but it’s also a project that contributes to humanity, as there are an estimated 4,000 Mayan buildings in that region. It will be a gigantic park that will also preserve our rainforest, which we are losing due to lack of development. If we reach an agreement with the government of Mexico and Campeche, we might be able to make a binational park with that lovely reserve they have over there in Campeche.”
Fighting for transparency“This governance program contains one part dedicated to justice and the rule of law and the other part to the dialogue, which cuts through all government activities. I’ve entrusted our Vice President, Rafael Espada, to head up the struggle for transparency in government. We will be promoting transparency because we want to put public finances and the whole state administration in order once and for all.
“As part of the governance pact growing out of the dialogues, we want to achieve a stable and responsible fiscal policy, fiscal stability that allows us to project over many years and not be changing our taxes every time a new government gets in. We want something serious, something long term; we want the local and international private sector to feel secure with our laws. But to achieve that we have to reach agreement in 2008.
“We will obviously respect the independence of the National Congress to achieve this governance. I have great expectations of legislative governance, that we will all unite around a national agenda and confront each other over those agendas we don’t agree with. But as for the priorities—poverty, security, which are national issues, issues related to national harmony—I humbly ask the National Congress to
help us pass the public security laws and poverty mitigation laws as quickly as possible. We have only just taken office, but will soon be sending Congress important bills—some are even fundamental—to transform the country.
“We want to legislate against illicit or inexplicable enrichment so that the justice system can really exercise that national transparency, that effort to stop money of dubious origins being laundered in Guatemala and used here. We’re going to promote the law of human dignity, establishing appropriate punishments for anyone who touches an old person, a child or someone with a disability.
“Today we’re overwhelmed by great emotion and great enthusiasm. We know very well that it won’t be easy; we know quite well that we’ll have many social demands, because there has been a long wait, but we also know we have the ability as moderates to dialogue. They are very probably listening to me in the north of the country today. I told the team a few days ago, ‘We managed to pacify Ixcán, the most violent municipality throughout the war, the municipality I actually had the opportunity to visit with Colombia’s now-President Uribe, back in 95... Today it’s in peace, but people are waiting for development. Today marks the beginning of that rural development process because it will also strengthen governance.”
The fourth program: Colom spotlights the program dedicated to solidarity as the heart of his program of hope. Practically speaking, this program will channel all of the funds that make up his government’s social investment. The President announced the creation of a Social Cohesion Council to direct this program, presided over by the First Lady’s Secretariat of Social Works (SOSEP) and the ministries of health and education.
It had been rumored for a long time that, as well as being first lady, Sandra Torres was going to have real influence in his government. That rumor has now been confirmed as the whole orientation of the government’s social investment will pass through her, “while we put the institutionality of the ministries in order,” as the President described it in a cryptic phrase open to numerable interpretations: Financial audits? Institutional restructuring? Reallocation of functions? The whole idea was left with a whiff of mystery. It was precisely while announcing this fourth program that Colom mentioned the 100-Day Program, which will apparently also be in his wife’s hands.
The President explained this program as follows: “The fourth program is the solidarity program, which is at the heart of our program of hope. It allows Guatemalan women to be treated the way they deserve to be, allows comprehensive programs for women, children, people with disabilities, youth. The solidarity program is going to function under the direction of a Social Cohesion Council, while we put the ministries’ institutionality in order. This Council will direct all of the resources from the social funds earmarked for social investment.
“These new programs include conditioned transfers to replace child labor in both poor urban areas and rural areas. We really want rural girls to have the possibility of going to school, with a responsible state acting in solidarity by giving a small stipend to their families to substitute the work they do at home. We’ve been hearing for years that Guatermala will develop if we educate girls. We can’t go on marginalizing them from studies and from access to education.
“We want to foster solidarity by supporting working mothers, single mothers. In short, it’s a set of programs that will be formed by the SOSEP secretary, and the health and education ministers under the Social Cohesion Council. We want health and education and have committed ourselves to a 100-day program that we’re going to fight for and honor. We want free health and education as stipulated in the Constitution and it will be hard work straightening out health and education to make them really accessible to all Guatemalans.”
Cross-cutting issuesIn his inaugural speech, Álvaro Colom also mentioned a series of cross-cutting issues:
The family. The new government is proposing the creation of a Family Ministry to recover values and increase opportunities for the country’s youth, “to close the social faucets that produce the maras [youth gangs] and youth non-conformity.” The President committed himself to a program for 200,000 low-income houses with resources provided by the government, international cooperation and the beneficiary families, because no family can scrape by without a house. In another typical feature of his speech, he personally involved himself and his wife: “Sandra and I are willing to provide the example. We’re ready to really sow these principles and values so that our society comes to act in solidarity.”
. The environment. . Colom recognized that Guatemala, for so long an eminently agricultural country, actually has a vocation for forestry and needs to be oriented in that direction, learning from the indigenous departments of the Altiplano, such as Totonicapán, how to preserve its forests and to reforest. “The country of eternal spring,” with its perfectly defined rainy winter and dry summer, has become affected by climate change, with winter and summer merging together.
. The indigenous peoples. . Within the commitment to the indigenous peoples, the enormous number of efforts made since the signing of the Indigenous Identity and Rights Accord in 1992 need to be combined. There is also a need for greater harmony among peoples, cosmovisions and cultures.
. The Peace Accords. . The President reaffirmed his “unbreakable” commitment to complying with the Peace Accords and human rights: “Let’s turn over this bloody page in Guatemala’s history. I’ve asked for eight months to obtain stable security. Let’s turn it over, let’s turn it over, let’s get working for Guatemala’s development, all united, all strong; it doesn’t matter if we think differently, the important thing is to think about Guatemala first.”
. Private property. . As a good social democrat, Colom said, “I also want to repeat once again my profound respect for private property. There were many lies, many rumors about property. Our government will respect private property, and not only because it’s the law, but also because it’s a basic principle for the country’s modernity.”
. Religious freedom. . Colom registered his commitment to religious freedom with a confession of his and his wife’s own particular faith: “We will obviously respect the freedom of worship; the free exercise of worship in Guatemala. I just pray that the whole of Guatemala will be as close to God as Sandra and I are.”
. National Unity. . This last crosscutting issue, a call to national unity, was based on both his social democratic credentials and his emphasis on other factors that could contain seeds of discord, such as the multicultural reality of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, ladinos and white population, and its religious plurality. However, the most important aspect in this regard was Colom’s announcement that he would not base his government on party logic. He wants to govern with a program of hope that generates unity rather than governing based on his Unity of Hope Party, which with 51 seats has the biggest parliamentary bench although not the majority in the 158-seat Congress. This could appear somewhat politically naive, however, given that the UNE obviously provides the basis for the kind of alliances that will allow him to push forward his legislative program.
Colom put it this way: “I would like to finish by asking the people of Guatemala for national unity and by bidding my party farewell. Here are the UNE’s 51 representatives. I made a commitment back in November 2000: I want a national government not a party one. I want a national government that can lead to that reconciliation. I have honored that by not taking any representative with me to the executive branch, because I respect the people’s will.
“We’ve also gotten half of the total female representatives in Congress; 9 of the 18 female parliamentarians are from UNE. And we’re going to honor each step of our program. I call on the Guatemalan people to work together, to unite so we can find in our agreements the strength to make that big Guatemala, that prodigious Guatemala that God bestowed on us; that Guatemala with 23 cultures, countless micro-climates, countless natural beauties, and enterprising men and women. Let’s give everyone permission and opportunities; give me the chance not to discredit, but rather to build up; give me the chance to unite Guatemala.”
First reactionsIn the first two weeks the UNE parliamentary representatives displayed great displeasure at receiving no budgetary allocations to use as levers of their own power by fulfilling party promises in their jurisdictions. They were also miffed about not having been able to influence the naming of governors or being placed in the legislative work commissions of their choice. The President has been true to his promise of a non-party government. According to some analysts, there are two alliances in Congress: the more formal one that led to the election of a plural governing body; and a more effective one that consists of combining the votes of the three biggest benches—UNE, the now splintered GANA and apparently opposition Patriot Party—to enable the commissions to function and bills to be presented.
Colom wants to establish a hardworking government focused on the idea of national unity. “We won’t rest,” he said. “I have a small problem with the Cabinet: I wake up at 4 in the morning, but very boss-like I accepted the idea of holding Cabinet sessions at 7:30. For me it ought to be at 5 am, but in the end let’s work together, let’s all work for that united Guatemala.”
New winds in Latin AmericaColom sees the closest horizon for his work as a united Central America, collaboration with Mexico and the new winds of greater social awareness blowing through Latin America: “Let’s all work so that Guatemala contributes its fair share to the Central American process; to behave like a responsible neighbor with our Mexican brothers, with that lovely 974-kilometer border, a border that represents a threat right now. But there’s a commitment between Presidents Calderón and Colom to create a border of opportunities. The winds blowing in Latin America and the whole continent are different; let’s take advantage of them so Guatemala can contribute its national unity, its wealth.”
The day-to-day work in Guatemala is where the hope will either be fulfilled or frustrated: “I traveled a great deal during this transition period, because starting today I have to tie myself down here in Guatemala and start to solve the country’s major problems.”
Social Democracy with a Mayan faceThe new President’s inaugural speech concluded with strong emphasis on unity, but also a certain contradiction between “the Guatemala of everyone” and the Guatemala “with a Mayan face.” In Colom’s own words, “Thank you all, thanks to those who voted for us and thanks to those who didn’t. My commitment is to win over your hearts so we can build true unity, true reconciliation, a true Guatemala, that Guatemala of everyone, that Guatemala with 23 faces. I won’t tire of saying that our Guatemalan social democracy is a social democracy with a Mayan face. Let’s dare to write the fifth gospel, the Gospel of the New Guatemala, the gospel of prosperity and of unity. We can do that if we all unite, shed the clothes that differentiate us from each other and start building that prosperous Guatemala, that united Guatemala, together. God bless you, you may go home now. Many, many thanks to those of you who made the great effort to come here today and may God protect you all.”
Security “with intelligence”This speech, which moved between the utopia of creating a welfare state and the rationality of programs that could improve life in Guatemala, had its first acid test in the last two weeks of January with a dramatic increase in violence in the streets of the capital city, resulting in the death of ten bus drivers and assistants, allegedly by “maras” or youth gangs because they refused to pay bribes. A total of 170 murders were registered between January 15 and 28, an average of 13 a day.
Colom had already announced that organized crime planned to escalate the violence during the first days of his government to put it up against the ropes on public safety, the issue that had most divided the two run-off candidates in the second round of the presidential elections. Otto Pérez Molina had promised security with a strong hand, while Álvaro Colom had offered security with intelligence. The new President has established an eight-month deadline to appreciably improve security.
Controversy over the death penaltyIn early February, in the heat of the indignation caused by the wave of murders, with the Public Ministry accusing police officers in some cases, Congress voted to reinstate the presidential pardon of people sentenced to the death penalty through a decree that smacks more of a “hard hand” than of “intelligence.”
An international law protocol proscribes the death penalty in counties that do not offer the condemned prisoner the right to seek pardon, reprieve, commutation or amnesty. And Guatemala specifically ratified the American Convention on Human Rights in 1978, which forbids the application of the death penalty while an appeal is pending.
Thus, to effectively put a de facto moratorium on executions, President Portillo had intervened to eliminate a final appeal procedure from Guatemalan legislation. Congress’ new decree specifies that the death penalty can be executed even if the President merely abstains from exercising his power as opposed to explicitly granting or denying the reprieve. Guatemala currently has 40 prisoners awaiting execution.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Guatemala, Amnesty International and a number of national and foreign entities all urged Colom to veto the legislative decree. The European Union went even further, calling on Guatemala to join the many other countries that have abolished capital punishment entirely. The President first said he was not above the courts and would not make use of his power, but in response to this pressure, he vetoed the decree on March 14.
Colom said he had the support of legislators from his party and three other unspecified parties. The next day an editorial in Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s largest newspaper, agreed that support for the death penalty has dropped, especially among the ruling party in Congress, making it impossible to obtain the 105 votes needed to overrule the veto.
Communications, which is said to have a debt equivalent to nearly $260 million. Another case is the remodeling and extension of the airport’s main terminal, where work has been frozen while the Comptroller’s Office does an audit.
The President also mentioned the squandering of resources on cell phones and gasoline, the exaggerated presence of vehicles in one of the Presidency’s secretariats, the scarcity of ambulances for the hospital network and a notable neglect of police stations. This topic—which was much more forcefully presented in President Berger’s inaugural speech four years ago, particularly referring to the corruption of President Portillo and his team—that could become an alibi for delays in plans and programs.
Open up the army archivesOn February 25, the ninth anniversary of the publication of the Historical Clarification Commission’s final report, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” President Colom announced that as commander-in-chief of the Guatemalan Army he had talked to the army chiefs of staff to order the opening up of the army’s archives to the public. He said that it was no longer possible to ignore the fact that the army was responsible for the vast majority of crimes against humanity and other human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict.
Colom’s voice choked with emotion when he announced this, just as it had when talking of his assassinated uncle, Manuel Colom, during his inaugural speech. Reactions to the presidential decision were generally very favorable, barring the observation that it is one thing to announce it and quite another to implement it. Of course, there was no lack of highly unfavorable and skeptical reactions. Speaking on behalf of the Association of Guatemalan Military Veterans, retired General José Luis Quilo Ayuso said that if crimes had been committed no information would be found on them, that he hopes the archives’ classification as state secret would be respected and that he would not be surprised if a request for legal protection were filed with the Constitutionality Court to block the President’s intentions. Retired General Otto Pérez Molina, the presidential candidate defeated by Colom in the run-off round, seconded Quilo Ayuso’s opinion, declaring that “no orders will be found to mount an operation to kill innocent people; what will be found are orders to mount an operation to control armed insurgents who were threatening people.” He felt the announcement was “just political and raises false expectations.”
Two years ago the National Police Archives were discovered in buildings in Guatemala City’s Zone 6. A judge accepted the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s petition to confiscate them and over 200 workers are currently investigating their contents, but nothing has yet been found that lives up to the expectations of finding testimonies to the violations undoubtedly committed by the National Police.
Something wants to change in GuatemalaThere is no doubt that is a desire for change exists in Guatemala. Nor is there doubt that the suspicions of dark forces operating within the government to block any such change are well-founded. There is little doubt that Álvaro Colom, Rafael Espada, Govenment Minister Vinicio Gómez, Finance Minister Fuentes Knight and Presidential Human Rights Commission and Peace Secretariat boss Orland Blanco are not on the same wavelength as the Alejoses and Quintanillas, etc. And no one is quite sure whether Sandra Torres—whom Colom is rumored to be unable to deny anything—and her close circle are on the President’s wavelength. Perhaps for the moment it would be more honest to give them the benefit of the doubt and see how things play out.
The global context doesn’t make things easy for a social democratic government in Guatemala, although part of the Latin American context does encourage the idea. But there’s a feeling that Álvaro Colom could end up earning his social democratic stripes during his term in office, thus vindicating the historical legacy of the decade running from 1944 to 1954, the blood of the martyrs of 1979 and the blood of so many other Guatemalans killed during the last century.
Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.