Retired General Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s new President,
began his speech by announcing, rather demagogically:
“The change has begun, the change has arrived,
the change you were promised, that I gave my word about.”
But invoking and promising change isn’t the same as achieving it.
The new government’s four years will demonstrate whether or not he can.
Juan Hernández Pico
On January 14, a full two-and-a-half hours late, 61-year-old retired Army General Otto Pérez Molina celebrated his investiture as the first military-career President since the country returned to democracy under its new Constitution in 1985. The event was held in the Dome in Guatemala City’s Zone 13, very close to the airport and the crafts market. And for the first time ever, the inaugural ceremony was separated from the report of the outgoing President, who delivered it in Congress earlier in the day.
The Vice PresidentThe new Vice President, Ingrid Roxana Baldetti, the first woman to be voted into this office in Guatemala, was also sworn in on that day. Baldetti, who represented Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party in the last two legislatures and is currently the party’s secretary general, was mentioned in the incoming President’s speech as the official “who will be responsible for transparency and internal social auditing, as she has worked hard implementing e-government.”
The President didn’t mention that Baldetti, along with representatives from other benches, had also worked very hard to hinder Congress’ approval of the 2011 budget, forcing Álvaro Colom’s government to work with insufficient resources, and wasted precious legislative days on the continuous questioning of Colom’s ministers. Roxana Baldetti was also a junior official in the administration of Jorge Serrano Elías (1990-93), deposed for attempting a Fujimori-style coup.
A President whoThe new President didn’t fail to mention that he is “fully aware that our society has suffered not only from shortages and inequalities but, above all, from over 36 years of internal armed conflict. Like all my generation, I lived and suffered through that war.”
participated in the war
It would have been important for him to expand on what happened in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996, the 36-year period of “internal armed conflict,” an official euphemism to describe what in some years was out-and-out war. The new President didn’t remind anyone in his speech that he was first a member and later on an instructor of the special forces, the dreaded “kaibiles.”
He had to admit to this in his interview before taking office with the esteemed CNN journalist Carmen Aristegui, who asked the President-elect about the type of training he gave these soldiers. His answer was to stress the special conditions they were operating under: hunger, sleep deprivation and solitary survival in the jungle. He didn’t talk about how, as part of their training, they butchered animals alive and devoured them raw while singing slogans asking for blood. Aristegui tried to get at the fact that a number of former kaibiles are currently incorporated in the Zetas drug cartel in Mexico, known for its atrocious murders. The President-elect accepted that he knew the names of 13 or 14 former kaibiles now in the Zetas.
Nor did the new President mention that he had commanded the Gumarkaj Task Force in the Ixil triangle (northern Quiché) during the toughest part of a war without quarter against guerrillas and the nearby civilian population. Pérez Molina told Plaza Pública, the Rafael Landívar University of Guatemala’s digital newspaper, that he’s still convinced that civilian population supported and shielded the guerrillas.
“The change has begun,The new President’s speech began by announcing, somewhat demagogically: “The change has begun, the change has arrived, the change you were promised, that I gave you my word about,” adding that the trust people gave with their vote to “this government that starts today represents an enormous responsibility.” He spoke about how he has been noting since he was elected that “people have a generalized, wide-ranging, enthusiastic, high anticipation about the changes we all want.” And he stressed that he insists on “change as a tool for building a new social reality. We’re talking about profound structural change, not just something cosmetic.”
the change has arrived”
His explanation is important given that “building a new social reality” could be interpreted sociologically as building a new social image, without necessarily involving a change in the country’s social reality or its structures.
He went on to state that “people want to participate; they want Guatemala to change and are prepared to pull their weight. I remind you: countries change when the majority of the people say they want to be part of the change, and that’s what we’re now feeling in Guatemala.” Inevitably, we hear in this a subliminal reference to the “Arab Spring,” to the grassroots struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, although perhaps not to the active protests of the “Indignants” or the occupiers of Wall Street and other capitalist areas.
“Evidence” of changeThe new President spoke about this grassroots enthusiasm and, especially, about the “substantive decisions in the approval of this year’s budget” as evidence that the change has now arrived. He was referring to the 2012 national budget, passed at the end of 2011. He said this budget will allow him “to increase the resources needed to bring about the changes to which we are committed: real peace; agile and efficient justice, the comprehensive security we all crave, social and integral development for those most in need and economic development for all.”
He omitted explaining that approval of the 2012 budget was made possible by the cooperation of representatives from other parties, including Colom’s losing UNE. This was a truly patriotic act and one that Pérez Molina’s Patriotic Party denied Colom’s administration a year earlier, forcing him to govern with a budget that was already spent.
Very little elegance or realism The least elegant part of his inaugural speech was his unrelentingly negative description of the country’s condition at the end of Colom’s administration. He began it by promising “transparency to rescue the public institutions from the disorder and corruption with which they are infected.”
But you can’t talk about disorder and corruption in the Foreign Ministry when Guatemala was given a seat on the UN Security Council through the work of Haroldo Rodas, who was foreign minister during Colom’s four years in government; or when President Colom chose Helen Mack two years ago to be presidential Commissioner for Police Reform; or when Colom—albeit forced by civil society— appointed Claudia Paz y Paz as prosecutor general and supported her work in the Public Ministry; or when the cooperation with the US DEA resulted in important captures of drugs and various drug lords from different cartels, now extradited. Nor should it be forgotten that Colom came out with flying colors from the conspiracy by dark forces to accuse him of the murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg when the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) determined it was a suicide staged to involve him. Finally, you can’t cavalierly disregard the efforts of the social welfare institution called Social Cohesion to alleviate the vast majorities’ enormous unmet needs, even if its funding was misappropriated by Sandra Torres, Guatemala’s First Lady until April 2011, for her electoral campaign. This allegation has to be investigated and resolved in the courts. In speaking so utterly negatively about the previous government, Pérez Molina runs the risk of sounding like he’s preparing an alibi for failure in the event that he can’t deliver the promised changes.
Illusions to the Mayan “prophecy”The new President also spoke of measuring the “effort of change...in a worldwide change of an era” and in the Mayan change of era after 5,125 years, which he identified as a new baktún. As is common knowledge, the end of this Mayan cycle actually corresponds to the end of 13 baktúns.
Pérez Mollina spoke of the “beginning of a new era of peace, prosperity and hope for Guatemala, the cradle of Mayan civilization.” He continued, stating that “over half the population is direct heir to that vision of fundamental changes at the start of a new era.” The most recent population censuses indicated that more than 40% of the Guatemalan population is of Mayan origin.
These errors (13 baktúns and not one and the demographic inaccuracy) seem to indicate that the reference to the end
of a Mayan cycle was nothing more than folkloric window dressing. Though he stated that “there’s no more significant event for indigenous communities in all of Mesoamerica than the start of a new baktún,” there was no promise in his speech of a referendum to consult grassroots opinion on the constitutional change recognizing Guatemala as “multiethnic, pluricultural and multilingual.”
Nor did he promise to comply with the Peace Accords by establishing that the large estates illegally appropriated (especially by the military) on both sides of the North Transversal Strip be returned to the government for agrarian development policies favoring indigenous communities.
A country in “economic bankruptcy” After evoking peace, prosperity and hope for the new era, the President made another tremendously negative comment about the previous government: “Today we received a country in crisis, a nation close to economic and moral breakdown. Economically bankrupt because today’s debt level is the highest in our history. We found abandoned, destroyed infrastructure and unprecedented floating debt, which preliminary studies couldn’t precisely determine even in the two transition months, caused by administrative and financial disorder and chaotic handling of programs for the interior that instead of breaking the circle of poverty result in clientelism and populist management.”
Pérez Molina drew a picture of the Colom administration’s economic management so bleak it bordered on incredible. The book Rendición de Cuentas (Accountability) by Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, finance minister for two-and-a-half years of Colom’s administration, makes clear that things are rather more complicated. In Guatemala, the private sector’s veto power ensured that fiscal reform could not be pushed through. Fuentes says this veto power “is inconsistent with democracy and the needed strengthening of the State.” Politicians, especially First Lady Sandra Torres and Colom himself, but also a majority of the representatives who depend on private economic power, were greatly responsible for this. But private economic power itself, which wasn’t even mentioned in Pérez Molina’s speech, was decisive.
The new President went on to say that “shortages in health, education and malnutrition have reached great limits.” His statement is indisputable in terms of quality but it can’t be forgotten that, by making education free of charge, Colom’s government significantly increased the enrollment of children and adolescents in schools. He also expanded the health centers and similarly mandated that they be free of charge. Indubitably, the lack of medicines and other equipment in the public health centers is a terrible reality, even more lamentable given that Colon’s Vice President was the internationally famous heart surgeon, Rafael Espada, who, it must also be said, saved the Roosevelt Hospital’s cardiac surgery unit from an imminent emergency.
“A country in moralPérez Molina spoke of moral and leadership bankruptcy. “I speak of moral bankruptcy because we have almost lost our traditional Guatemalan values. The concept of respect for authority, justice and the rule of law have been replaced by a systematized, widespread culture of corruption and impunity.”
and leadership bankruptcy”
In invoking such abstract values, the President is conveniently forgetting that authority in Guatemala—especially the authority written into the economic system and in its military wing—is responsible for horrendous massacres and tortures, producing 93% of the 200,000 victims from 36 years of war, according to the Commission for Historical Clarification. And the same is true of the judicial authorities, largely and formally inaccessible to the poor, indigenous majority, as well as of the authority of laws that reinforced the current system’s exclusive, antagonistic and confrontational rule. Moral leadership shouldn’t be invoked without first apologizing for the moral distortion of this authority and the deep scars it has left on Guatemalan culture and tradition, as evidenced in today’s levels of violence.
The “fundamental Pérez Molina also mentioned the rescue of “the family’s fundamental role as the cornerstone of society.” Once again his speech entered the realm of abstract idealism. What’s the fundamental role of the many families with no economic independence, despite their hard work cutting sugarcane or picking coffee? What’s the fundamental role of the many families that have been torn apart by migration?
role” of which family?
What might be the fundamental role of all those families that migrate to cities to live in overcrowded squatter settlements, families often headed by single mothers whose partners first inflicted daily abuse on them then abandoned them? What is the fundamental role of the many defenseless families living in areas prone to landslides, flooding and other natural and social calamities? What’s the fundamental role of the many middle and upper class families, split apart by divorce or by other relationships, maintained mostly by the husbands? What’s the fundamental role of the rich and powerful families who see their lives in terms of the accumulation of wealth, power and prestige and not as a mission of service supporting the poor majorities? Clearly it’s important to rescue the fundamental role of families: specific, real families not idealized ones.
“A ship adrift” and After describing the depressing situation he deposited exclusively at Colom’s doorstep, Pérez Molina expressed the urgent need for effective leadership: “If, in recent years, we have felt like a ship adrift for lack of leadership, today I come to reaffirm the commitment of me and my team to provide the citizenry that leadership.” He also promised to demand of himself and his team that they “stand up, make decisions, take responsibility and be the first to set an example of honesty, hard work and commitment.”
the urgency of leadership
In this, Pérez Molina put his finger on one of the truly major deficiencies of the previous President and his administration. From the very start, even as early as his somewhat improvised inaugural speech, Álvaro Colom showed a lack of leadership that often resulted in uncertainty and indecision. He also failed to quickly put together a good ministerial team, which is why he then had so much turnover in those heading the ministries. And he had to endure his First Lady’s leadership as head of Social Cohesion. This, as Fuentes Knight points out in his book, had an impact on the preparation of the 2010 budget and the ambivalent posture toward tax reform, and even more so—we would add—on the tragi-comedy fiasco of the divorce of convenience, believing they could thus circumvent the Constitutional prevention of Torres’ presidential candidacy. In this light, we must acknowledge both the promptness with which the new President has formed his ministerial team, with the ministries close to him, and his remarkable decision-making ability. Let’s hope there’s nothing to regret in the duo of Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti, his so-far inseparable Vice President, a political situation similar to that of Colom and Torres.
“The last war generation” After mentioning the Peace Accords’ precarious implementation—”many of the causes that gave rise to the conflict are still present, the spirit and part of the strategic objectives of these agreements have been betrayed”—the President recalled that he represented the Army in the negotiations and signed the Accords asking God for “the wisdom to vigorously promote a real reconciliation, the strength to address the arrears and injustices, repair the social fabric, and the means to invest in the most valuable part of Guatemala—we Guatemalans—to build a peaceful society and culture with total respect for human rights.”
This statement is obviously very important. With great enthusiasm he added: “I dream that mine will be the last generation of war in Guatemala and the first of peace.” Then he prayed that “shortages be changed into opportunities and, by caring for the environment, we make the best use of our natural resources and show the world what we are.”
A pact for peace,In the middle of his speech he talked about the three pacts he would like to make: for peace, security and justice; against hunger; and for economic development and fiscal regulation. All would be based on a “vision of change underpinned by the rule of law, institutional strengthening and respect for the law, which is above us all…”
security and justice
“The pact for peace, security and justice,” he said, “is to raise awareness in all sectors of society about the origins of criminality and the commitment we must all make to prevent crime, defend ourselves from criminals and promote new areas of peaceful coexistence. To this end, we make a comprehensive across-the-board appeal for ongoing multi-sector discussion and the implementation of widely legitimated actions.”
It will be important to ensure that this appeal for society’s active participation doesn’t degenerate into the formation of vigilante groups that take justice into their own hands or engage in social cleansing. In this, more than in any other decision, respect for the rule of law is imperative.
The new President assured that the pact he wants to make “will not only rescue the institutional framework, through the national security system, but also incorporate practical suggestions and contributions for risk management. Implementing citizen and border security plans and strengthening national security and the justice system are a priority.”
He mentioned “national security” twice in this one paragraph. Let’s hope this is something different and that Guatemala won’t go back to the “national security system” with which all of us in Latin America have had such terrible experiences. There are certain suspicions about this: according to some Guatemalan media, Pérez Molina was very impressed by Álvaro Uribe’s security policy in Colombia, which involved considerable collaboration with the US through Plan Colombia and, according to Jesuit sociologist and philosopher Javier Giraldo, was based on serious human rights violations, especially in the “false positives”: young people forcibly recruited, dressed as guerrillas and killed by the Army in order to present successes against the guerrillas. Álvaro Uribe was in Guatemala for a whistle-stop visit on October 13, 2009, during the second year of Álvaro Colom’s presidency.
Security defined as the priorityPérez Molina touched on the measures to fulfill his first pact that he had already announced, exuding military jargon and confidence in his approach, during his campaign: “The formation of five institutional task forces, consisting of the National Civilian Police, the Guatemalan Army, Civilian Intelligence, Military Intelligence with the requested support of the Prosecutor General’s Office and ongoing accompaniment by the Office of Human Rights Defender to guarantee human rights and due process.”
He indicated that “this is an example of a multi-disciplinary effort to legally deal with major social impact crimes.” The
five specialized task forces will deal with kidnapping, femicide, contract killings, extortion and the theft of vehicles and cell phones. With this the new President wants to show that he’s complying with one of the “principal focal points of his campaign” and is “willing to make major sacrifices to defend the lives of all Guatemalans.” He pointed out that he wants to convert these campaign commitments into “government commitments,” adding that “security is still the priority, but a comprehensive, public, civic, community security, fully integrated with food and nutrition security.”
Victims of violence and hungerIn this context he uttered perhaps the most visionary and realistic part of his speech: “The right to life, as part of fundamental human rights, will be a priority because in Guatemala victims die as much from homicidal violence as from hunger, destitution and malnutrition.” Hence his vision: “That three meals a day are ensured in deepest Guatemala and that we can soon see the day when all families walk the streets without fear of theft, attack and violence against women.” He also raised the need to protect “people and their property via natural disaster prevention.”
And he referred to the measures required to do all this: “Modify bridges and roads; get additional resources for the Supreme Court of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office to strengthen the new criminal investigation model; implement a new officers’ school for the National Civilian Police; reform the Police and add two new Army brigades to defend national sovereignty.” He said he already has the necessary budget entries for all this. Indirectly, the President acknowledged that the previous government had done something in this direction by talking about “strengthening” rather than creating.”
A pact against hunger He spoke of installing his own Zero Hunger-like program in Guatemala: “We believe that poverty and malnutrition result from undeveloped rural areas.” That’s why he’ll promote the “peasant economy and the focus we’ve called rural development.” He failed to mention that this was already covered but almost totally unfulfilled in the ambitious contents of the Peace Accords and also appeared in the Agrarian Platform plans of Berger’s government.
In his vision, peasants will become “agents of their own development,” although he acknowledges that “there are families that need more government support in order to live in dignity.” He was also realistic here in recognizing that the previous government’s Social Cohesion programs were necessary and must be continued, purged of their dead weight: “That’s why I support such interventions as conditional money transfers, but within a transparent institutional framework, not for political ends.”
This was a reference to the “My Family Advances” and the solidarity fiscal programs led by Sandra Torres in the previous government. It’s clearly unrealistic for the government not to take advantage of what is already being done for its own future political projects, if it’s done well. But it’s a whole other thing to take advantage of people for sheer vote-buying purposes.
Only rural hunger?The President wants a policy conducive to “transparent resource allocation, citizen participation and accountability.” To this end he advocates creating a Social Development Ministry “as the governing body for efforts in the struggle against poverty.” In fact, his party’s representatives introduced the bill in Congress in January and succeeded in fast-tracking its passage.
Pérez Molina again insisted on the food security strategy and vowed that during his four-year administration he would lower the chronic child malnutrition rate, currently at about 48%. He also pledged to “struggle to preserve biodiversity and get international commitments on environmental issues.”
Limiting the struggle against hunger to the rural areas leaves urban poverty outside this pact. While it’s probably quantitatively less than rural poverty, it’s still huge when contrasted to the wealth of others, raising aspirations and hence increasing relative poverty. But, even quantitatively, we can see that urban poverty is enormous by studying the unequal distribution of land and the precariousness and overcrowding in marginal urban housing. Nothing in the President’s strategy against poverty considers the social urgency of expropriating urban lands, or even providing roofing.
A pact for economic development The new President set out the principle on which his third pact will be based: “I firmly believe wealth is only produced through entrepreneurship. That’s why we will provide a plan that respects and guarantees the economic rights of individuals and corporations in our country.” In the rural areas he said he will promote a triangle of employment, partnerships and diversification of crops for national and international markets. And he will seemingly take nongovernmental organizations into account, if indeed they are the ones he’s referring to when proposing “the search for alliances with productive development organizations.”
and fiscal regulation
He said he’s committed to economic growth and to achieving it “by attracting investments and generating secure employment,” giving major importance to “the agenda of competitiveness and its four development engines: exports, tourism, energy and logistics.” He again mentioned security and legal certainty for both national and foreign large and small entrepreneurs.
He also declared that he has given “special priority to a valid government agreement that facilitates tax administration, effectively and comprehensively addresses the challenges of current state financing, improves the allocation of spending and above all ensures transparency in its implementation.” Although all those points are important, he didn’t tackle or even mention a real tax reform that raise taxes on the profits of big business and personal and family fortunes.
Economic or human development?President Pérez Molina mentioned the need “to modernize public administration, reorganize and strengthen public finances, restructure the civil service and its officials, ensure transparency and quality in spending and create instruments for the effective accountability of officials.” But all these are only tools; he didn’t specify what he’s going to do with them, where he’s going to orientate social investment or what his whole program will be.
He only said these tools were important for people and investors to be able to trust government and insisted that he will adopt “a results-based management model.” Because he referred to “economic development,” not “human development” in the third pact, as I think he should have done, his mention of education as a priority to form human capital was less forceful.
A brief nod to Guatemalans abroadPérez Molina briefly discussed foreign policy, saying that it should promote democracy, justice and peace within a framework of respect for international law. He guaranteed that Guatemala will take its seat on the UN Security Council responsibly, although he didn’t acknowledge that the previous government had already done so. He thanked foreign cooperation and expressed the conviction that the more closely it agrees with government’s strategy, the more effective it will be.
He gave a special greeting to the 1.4 million Guatemalan migrants abroad, who “have emigrated in search of work and whose family remittances now constitute a major income for the country.” While he promised to fight to the maximum to benefit them, he didn’t specify exactly how he would make their right to vote a reality.
Admitting that legalizing He left two “transnational phenomena,” both of which concern Guatemala “because of its geographical location,” to the last: drug-trafficking and human trafficking. He said that drug production, trafficking, use and investment, along with the violence associated with these phenomena, “represent a battlefield on which we can’t be and don’t want to be alone.” He forcefully stated that starting in Colombia, passing through Central America and Mexico and including the US, we must “confront this challenge to regional security with a greater degree of shared responsibility for preventing and combating drug trafficking.”
drugs is a better solution
Remarkably, a few days after his inauguration, he indicated that legalizing drugs would be a better solution than fighting trafficking and illegal consumption, admitting that such a decision would be inoperable without regional concurrence.
Regarding trafficking in persons, he stated that Guatemala “is committed to vigorously fighting to eradicate it.” And, to demonstrate his willingness to fight for the rule of law and respect for human rights “of all peoples and nations,” his government will ask Guatemala’s Congress to ratify the country’s approval of the International Criminal Court.
The new President ended his speech with: “Guatemala isn’t just the sum of its problems. It’s a great country full of generous, creative, energetic people. Our cultural and linguistic diversity is the expression of vigorous wealth and not a pretext for national division. I want to count on all Guatemalans because all of you count on me and my whole team.”
A government team ready for work Pérez Molina’s government team was virtually complete once Luz Lainfiesta was named social development minister. In a major improvement on the last government, it was formed quickly and is already working as a team, with retired Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio López Bonilla as its most important figure, at least for now.
The government has tried to present results as quickly as possible: creation of the Social Development Ministry; negotiation with the mining companies (government royalties on gold raised from 1% to 5% as long as it doesn’t drop below $935 an ounce, and from 1% to 4% in silver, with lesser increases for other minerals); the presentation of a tax reform law (affecting tobacco and income tax but not value-added tax) for discussion with the 40G group of Guatemalan economists, the business umbrella organization CACIF and other organized groups; the creation of certain crime task forces; and starting the organization of two new Army brigades. He and his inseparable Vice President also led a march to the Agua volcano, where he hoisted the national flag and lowered the indigenous peoples’ flag, “because we are all Guatemalans.”
The military’s new roleSome analysts believe this government is determined to continue in 2016 with Mauricio López Bonilla, Roxana Baldetti and others as possible candidates, and intends to prepare for this by working with the masses in the municipalities. What is clearer is that the military are taking on a new role in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and even Mexico—with Calderón’s military strategy against drug traffickers. While some wonder if this isn’t a move by US arms manufacturers, it seems unlikely given that our market is rather small and the United States is concentrating its efforts in anticipation of a conflict with Iran.
Globalized capitalism’s current crisis is increasingly demonstrating its savagery in finances, especially visible in the companies engaged in “country-risk” ratings, which are trying to bring Europe to its knees. This is causing our capitalists, very junior partners of the global entente in which they are grouped and in which they invest, to urge that they should be defended by the military again. Although they preach that entrepreneurship or business undertakings are also for peasants, they “faithfully believe that only entrepreneurship creates wealth,” defining “entrepreneurship” as that of the 1% wealthiest in the world and in our countries.
We must closely monitor the development of this rise in the traditional military’s role in Central America, Mexico and Colombia, and also that of the military of another ideology in Venezuela. Unnecessary confrontations could be brewing because that same 1% of the capitalists don’t like Chavez’s regime.
Juan Hernández Pico (SJ) is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.