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  Number 365 | Diciembre 2011
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Guatemala

Forty years later, another military President

Without fraud, the electing of a military officer, albeit a retired one, takes Guatemala back to its past. Otto Pérez Molina promised a “hard hand” and “compassionate heart.” Will his government also be civic and democratic? The burden of proof falls on the President elect: he will have to convince the country that it’s not heading down the militaristic road. Some of his first declarations are worrying omens. Will we witness an even greater deterioration of democracy?

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

On November 6, the same day as Nicaragua’s elections, but without the fraud or violence, Guatemala held its second round of voting for President. Retired General Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriot Party (PP) won with just under 54% of the valid votes cast, running against his second-placing opponent in the first round, lawyer Manuel Baldizón of the Renovated Democratic Liberty (LIDER). The overall difference between the two was 7.52%, but Pérez Molina ran notably ahead in the big cities, especially the metropolitan area of the capital (66% vs. 34%). Although Baldizón lost overall, he won a lot of departments in the interior of the country (51.65% vs. 48.35%), attracting the votes that would have gone to Sandra Torres, First Lady to the current President, Álvaro Colom, who divorced him to avoid nepotism laws, but was eliminated anyway.

A good turnout

The second-round turnout made history because it was only 8% less than for the first round, a record 60.8% of the eligible voters. Of those, 4.10% left their ballot papers blank or spoiled them. In the 2007 general elections, 60% turned out for the first round but only 48% for the second.

Otto Pérez Molina was elected with the greatest number of valid votes in the last 26 years of civilian governments, although the difference between the two candidates wasn’t much greater than in 2007 (6.64%, between Pérez Molina and the incumbent Colom). The big difference this year was the notable increase in overall voter turnout in both rounds, probably explained by the citizenry’s huge desire to see something being done about our daily insecurity.

A military President once again

Electing a retired officer takes us back to the past. Colonel Carlos Arana Osorio was elected 41 years ago (1970-74), also without fraud, although some say the elections “lacked transparency.” The following two military governments did result from obviously fraudulent elections. History has recognized what the military didn’t recognize at the time.

In the late 1960s, during the government of Julio César Méndez Montenegro, a civilian who had to agree to give the army “free rein” in order to become President, Arana Osorio headed the military campaign that defeated the first Guatemala guerrilla forces. Known as “the Butcher of Zacapa” due to his severe effectiveness against guerrilla violence in the eastern part of the country, especially the Sierra de las Minas, and also in the capital, Arana ran in the next elections and won.

Now the majority of voters have again voted for a man of a military cut. It’s a reaction against the lack of political will and capacity, or impotency, of the three previous governments, from Alfonso Portillo in 2000 to Oscar Berger in 2004 and Alvaro Colom in 2008, to detain the growing wave of violence. It’s only fair to say that dealing with Guatemala’s violence is seriously complicated by the opening up of a rearguard for harassed Mexican drug traffickers, especially the brutal Zetas who originated in the Mexican police and army and in some cases the Guatemalan army’s equally brutal Kaibiles.
In the 2007 election campaign, candidate Colom promised to use “intelligence” to deal with the violence, as opposed to the “hard hand” his opponent Otto Molina was already promising back then. Colom was unsuccessful, although a number of drug dealers were captured and some were extradited to the US, largely with help dein the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Pérez Molina’s role
in the war is questioned

Approximately 31% of the country’s eligible voters have again opted for a military man who’s still promising a “hard hand,” though he softened it in this campaign by adding “compassionate heart” to his slogan (the promise to fight against poverty and create jobs).

As an active officer in the regions seriously affected by the war’s harshest offensives between 1978 and 1985, especially in the Ixil Triangle in the Quiché department, Pérez Molina was questioned for his participation in a policy that included genocidal and scorched earth strategies. He was also an instructor for the Kaibiles, a special military unit that executed with particularly zeal these policies that violate international humanitarian laws of war. In his book The art of political murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, Francisco Goldman writes that, according to his investigations, Pérez Molina was in a nearby bar the night Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi was assassinated.

The President-elect also took part in blocking the attempt at a self-coup d’état by then-President Serrano (1992) and was one of the negotiators of the Peace Accords on the army’s side.

Manuel Baldizón’s unwise offer

Pérez Molina’s adversary in the electoral contest, Manuel Baldizón, who represents an emerging well-to-do class that is trying to snatch the link with State power away from both the traditional and modern elites, was not a more prudent alternative. His campaign promises—to establish the death penalty and pay a 15th-month bonus being the most notable and unrealizable—were close to crazy, as they would respectively have meant denouncing the San José protocol and brutally indebting the State. Furthermore his personal bonanza in a department as linked to drug traffickers as northern Petén, on the border with Mexico, raised serious and unresolved questions about his links or pacts with those groups.

The sole debate between the two contenders didn’t throw up any authentic or realistic keys and turned into a fight that made them look more like embattled neighbors than presidential candidates. The polls always favored Pérez Molina by more or less 55% to 45%, although the final result was slightly closer than that.

Will Baldizón run
again in four years?

Does the result of these elections show that we’ll see Baldizón running again as presidential candidate next time? Beaten today will he triumph later, as has been the tradition in Guatemala, with few exceptions, in the last few decades?

General opinion thinks probably not. Firstly, Baldizón’s bench in Congress (13 seats) is too weak to give him a platform for the fight. It could also abandon him, totally or partially, at any moment. Secondly, President Colom’s ex-wife wants to lead his party (UNE) and she hasn’t lost her presidential ambitions. UNE has a strong bench in Congress with at least 20 seats.

The UNE-GANA Alliance won 48 seats, although some 7 or 8 legislators split to form an independent bench led by current Congress president Roberto Alejos, who also has presidential aspirations. The GANA seats aren’t secure since their most important occupants have stated that while they will normally vote with UNE, they won’t always do so given that the UNE-GANA Alliance was only for the purposes of the presidential campaign. Bench fragmenting and side switching are inherent feature of Guatemalan congressional politics.

Those in charge of the transition

The transition period got underway very quickly. It will end on January 14 with Pérez Molina’s swearing in. To manage the transition, the government appointed Arnoldo Noriega, who did time in prison for sexual abuse. He’s intelligent and enjoys Álvaro Colom’s complete political trust. The person appointed for the Patriot Party is former Vice President Eduardo Stein.

Stein’s mediating capacity is indisputable. He was recently put to the test as head of Honduras’ Truth Commission, which with great precision and adherence to reality clarified the facts that led to the overthrow of then-President Manuel Zelaya and the installation of the de facto Micheletti government. Without knowing Stein’s motives for accepting this task in the transition, particularly as he is not a member of the PP, both his appointment and his acceptance are astonishing.

New ministers of the interior,
finance and communications

Pérez Molina’s first appointments are noteworthy. The two most important have been retired Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio López Bonilla as minister of the interior and Pavel Centeno as finance minister.

López Bonilla took part in the armed conflict, especially from the army’s Intelligence Department, after which he left his military career to study political science. He has been one of the President-elect’s closest collaborators since the Patriot Party was founded, and directed his electoral campaign. A serious and very intelligent man, he has shown organizational capacity and a willingness to dialogue. Pavel Centeno, a former Social Democrat, is a serious economist, trusted by the private enterprise elite.

Pérez Molina has promised to continue the Police reform headed by Helen Mack the past two years. Mack has informed him she will leave her post by the end of March, just enough time to implement an effective transition. Pérez Molina announced that the position would be filled by Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte, who served as minister of the interior during the last year and a half of Berger’s government and ran for President in this campaign on her National Development Action party ticket. While interior minister, she whipped up interest for a Police reform that would include a real training academy and a real police doctrine, different from military doctrine.

Alejandro Sinibaldi, losing candidate for mayor of Guatemala City, was appointed communications minister. A number of people consider this Perez Molina’s biggest mistake in his first few days, fearing that his Ministry will become a nest of “created interests” and corruption. Lucy Lainfiesta was appointed to head the newly created Ministry for Social Development, an evident attempt to wrest the banner of the fight against poverty from Sandra Torres.

Priorities of the new President

The President-elect’s first announcements concern his agenda’s three priorities. In first place is security, which is why he put an intelligence expert at the head of the Interior Ministry. In second and third places are budget approval and fiscal reform. He’s not prepared to go down the rocky road Colom’s government had to travel, partly thanks to the congressional work of Representative Roxana Baldetti, now Vice President-elect. For the past two years they had to work with the 2009 budget, with the Patriot Party bench doing everything possible to prevent a fiscal reform on the pretext of hindering corruption.

The fiscal reform should raise the country’s tax burden to at least 12% of GDP, as the Peace Accords established should happen in 2000 or even before. Currently it’s a little higher than 9%. Guatemala’s economic elite has always opposed a seriously financed State and consequently governments with significant investment in education, health and infrastructure benefitting the country’s marginalized urban and rural indigenous and ladino poor.

Plaza Pública, the digital magazine of the Rafael Landívar University, seems to support the opinion of various Guatemalan analysts that the Pérez Molina government will be less llaissez faire than the military governments of the 1970s tried to be, and will favor somewhat more state-financed development.

Second-round friends
and competent people names

Former evangelical pastor Harold Caballeros, founder of the El Shaddai Church in Guatemala, who has Harvard degrees in both theology and sociology, has been appointed foreign minister. When he lost his bid for the presidency in the first round this year, Caballeros asked all those who voted for him to give their votes to Pérez Molina in the second round. Not so Ninette Montenegro, Caballeros’ ally in the presidential campaign. She didn’t commit her party, Encounter for Guatemala, to back either of the two second-round candidates.

Dr. Francisco Arredondo, a competent doctor who has run for President for minor parties, was one of Perez Molina’s first appointments, and will be his new health minister. The former rector of the University of San Carlos, Efraín Medina, who was Harold Caballeros’ vice presidential running mate on the VIVA ticket, has been chosen as agriculture minister. And Carlos Contreras, ANACAFE’s labor adviser, was selected as labor minister.

Sergio de la Torre, a well-known business leader, will head the Ministry of the Economy. Director of the big business umbrella group CACIF in 2006, he has announced that his priorities will be to create wealth (half a million new jobs) and give confidence to businesspeople.

Energy and Mining will be headed by engineer Erick Archila, who will have to give up his current position as director of Canal Antigua (TV). Carlos Batzín, a representative of indigenous peoples on Pérez Molina’s team, will head Culture and Sports. He is the third indigenous person in succession to have been chosen as head of this ministry.

The final ministries to be awarded were those of Education, which went to Cynthia Del Águila, graduate of del Valle University, and Environment, which went to another del Valle University alumnus, Roxanna Sobenes, a specialist in environmental law, co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation and delegate to the Tri-nation Alliance for the Conservation of the Gulf of Honduras. Martha Estrada will head up the Peace Secretariat, which is responsible for implementing the Peace Accords.

Only the defense minister and, above all, the private secretary and general manager of the President’s office and the secretary for strategic affairs, posts incredibly close to the President and because of this, highly influential, remain to be selected.

People are talking about the PP’s newly elected representative Valentín Gramajo, who has a social democratic background, as candidate for Congress president. These elections made the PP the biggest bench, with 58 seats, 21 short of a simple majority.

“Military” or civil
democratic government?

The onus probandi (burden of proof, to convince with practice) that Guatemala will not go down the slippery military slope to the detriment of democracy falls on the President-elect. Pérez Molina’s declarations to Mexico’s El Universal, to the effect that he will employ the Kaibiles to fight drug trafficking on the borders with Guatemala could presage a Mexican style war strategy. Where would that lead us?

The great challenge for Guatemalan citizens lies in establishing a new inter-generational and inter-gender grassroots movement, deeply honest and as such with members of a fail-proof capacity, given that the first source of corruption is precisely the incapacity of public administration. Such a new grassroots movement from below would have to work on long-term organizing and mobilizing to start generating a political movement that would commit itself to a new possible policy. For this it need to educate itself in all disciplines that touch public life, particular good government, not the neoliberal governability that avoids conflict, but good governance, the art of governing well, in other words humanely. This country’s people deserve no less, as they have so often been sacrificed as fodder for gain and dominance.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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