Portillo’s First 75 Days: Lots of Noise, Few Results
It’s still too early do a balance sheet on Guatemala’s
new government, but we can already see signs of certain styles, vices and future conflicts. The new President quickly hit the nail on the head when he insisted that the "mother of all battles" in Guatemala’s economy would be the fiscal one. It will be a rough war indeed in a country where the rich refuse to pay taxes.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
Alfonso Portillo’s government has thus far been marked by few significant events other than that Justice Guillermo Ruiz Polanco of Madrid’s National Tribunal agreed to hear the case against General Efraín Ríos Montt and seven other leading figures from the most barbaric period of Guatemala’s long war. That this overshadowed all other news reveals two things: first that the Spanish judge’s decision is transcendentally important, and second that the Portillo government has yet to take any action that would reveal its direction. It appears that instead of a government that knows where it wants to go, Guatemala now has one that is merely administering the most essential actions to ensure that the country doesn’t flounder, while it tries to figure out what course to chart.
The Pinochet precedentNobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú filed charges in Spain’s National Tribunal of genocide, torture, terrorism, extra-judicial executions and illegal detention against eight men, both civilians and military officers, who held top government posts between 1978 and 1985. They are General Fernando Romeo Lucas García (President), Generals José Efraín Ríos Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores (de facto heads of state), Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz, (Minister of Government, a civilian), Aníbal Guevara (Minister of Defense), Benedicto Lucas García (National Defense General Staff), General Germán Chupina Barahona, (chief of the National Police), and Pedro García Arredondo (head of National Police Station 6, a civilian). These individuals all held power at some point during a period when according to the Historical classification Commission the Guatemalan state committed the most numerous and brutal violations of human rights and humanitarian law governing actions in times of war.
After making little headway in her search for justice in Guatemala, Menchú decided to take the path opened up in international law by the Pinochet case, which has encouraged the globalization of respect for human rights and established the principle of extra-territoriality in prosecuting crimes against humanity. She selected several cases: the military attack on the Spanish Embassy, where her own father was killed; the torture and assassination of her mother and two of her brothers; the extra-judicial executions of three Spanish missionary priests with the Heart of Jesus; and the disappearance of a Spanish Jesuit priest. All these cases occurred in the early 1980s. Justice Ruiz Polanco explained that he accepted the case because the claimants have not turned to the Spanish courts "out of whim or frivolity" but only after making other attempts to seek justice, "without skirting the primary jurisdiction" of Guatemalan courts on these crimes. Human rights organizations will also file accusations of genocide against former President Lucas García in the Guatemalan courts in May, and against former head of state Ríos Montt in September.
In another important development during these first months of Portillo’s government, the Guatemalan state accepted its responsibility before the Inter-American Court for one of the large massacres of that period, in Las Dos Erres, a village in La Libertad in the northern department of El Petén, and for the assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990. It must now take responsibility for doing everything possible to prosecute those responsible for these crimes and provide restitution to the victims.
Ríos Montt to the standThe peace accords that put an end to the conflict in Guatemala did not include a law to close the books on the past. While there is a law that waives penal responsibility in political contexts, it expressly excludes the crimes of torture, extra-judicial execution, genocide, disappearances and all other crimes against humanity named in international treaties subscribed to by Guatemala.
A range of opinions filled the Guatemalan media in response to this new chapter in the struggle against impunity. While some deny that there is any basis to the accusation of genocide, others concede that the search for justice is legitimate but feel it will only reopen wounds, hatred and bitterness. Still others believe these developments will restore trust in the courts and awaken the hope of the victims who seek justice. Those who want to judge Rigoberta Menchú as a traitor also had their say.
The most important point here is obvious. Of the eight people accused, the most prominent is General Ríos Montt, head of today’s governing party, who was recently elected to Congress and is now its president. Before he can be brought to trial, therefore, he would first have to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity. Portillo’s whole presidency could become mired in the consequences of this process. And the people’s will, the source of power that elected Ríos Montt as a congressional representative, will now face judicial power both in Guatemala and abroad.
"I am only afraid of God"In a press conference, Ríos Montt said, "I am afraid of God, not the Spanish courts." The phrase made headlines: "Ríos Montt: I am only afraid of God." The general accepted that the charges against him are based in law—"Spanish law, I presume." After these initial declarations, he moved to the defensive, lost composure and began to refer to the journalists as "prosecutor" or "Mr. Prosecutor" while insisting that he should be judged in the national courts, in any case. Finally, when asked if the charges against him were political, he said he preferred not to respond and had the right not to respond, though he indicated that the proliferation of trials for past crimes "is one way to make a good living, to maintain oneself, and the expenses should be justified. I don’t know if economic questions are becoming politicized or vice-versa." He referred to "the economics" of human rights organizations. Several days later, he denied that there had been either genocide or massacres in Guatemala for which he could be tried, thus denying the validity of the Historical Clarification Commission’s report.
Truth replaces the official versionAround the same time the accusations were filed against Ríos Montt, the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission held the Salvadoran state responsible for the continuing impunity in the case of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, 20 years after the crime. In addition, the heads of the Jesuit Central American University in El Salvador asked the Salvadoran courts to reopen the case of the six Jesuits and two women assassinated in 1989. They maintain that the amnesty law is unconstitutional, and directly accuse the five military officers named by the Truth Commission in 1993 as responsible for the crime, in addition to then-Defense Minister General Larios and then-President Alfredo Cristiani, now head of the ruling ARENA party.
Outside of Central America, in the United States, the case of the assassination of Chilean former diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington has already been reopened. Although General Contreras and Colonel Espinoza have already been convicted of this crime in Chile, the discussions now focus on Augusto Pinochet’s direct responsibility and the possibility of extraditing him for questioning. In Uruguay, President Batlle recognized that his presidency would go down in history if it could finally resolve what happened to victims during the brutal years of military dictatorship. The case of military officers who kidnapped the children of imprisoned and disappeared women in Argentina and the case against Pinochet in Chile are also underway.
The truth is finally catching up to those who violated human rights and justified their actions as "reasons of state." Real history is replacing official history. Justice is struggling to make it possible to vindicate victims who have until now been defenseless against authoritarian states. With the cold war ended, an end may also be in sight for that politically biased distinction between intolerable (leftwing) "totalitarianism" and only lamentable (rightwing) "authoritarianism," a concept that Georgetown University professor Jean Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s National Security Adviser, tried to make respectable in political theory.
Guatemala suffers from chronic problemsPresident Portillo finally presented his report on the state of the national economy on March 8, after postponing it on two previous occasions. He said the country is facing a crisis as a result of the actions of the private sector, government and civil society over 50 years. Such a generic evaluation is debatable: if "everyone" is responsible, ultimately no one is. "The economy," said Portillo, "can’t be fixed by magic. The country faces chronic problems. In four years, we will do what we must." Reiterating comments he made in his inaugural address about reforming the state, he went so far as to say that "no state in Guatemala applies the law, and what little we had has been dismantled." He was most likely referring to the state’s bankruptcy and the long history of tax evasion to which the state has patiently turned a blind eye.
Portillo said the state has just enough funds to keep its vehicles running and pay the telephone and electricity bills and salaries, since most of its other income goes to pay off its public debt. He pointed out that Arzú’s government abandoned fiscal discipline in its last two years (1998-1999) and the internal debt nearly doubled, from US$1.15 billion to $2.1 billion. Even worse, he explained, is the fact that most of this is short-term debt: 88% of it comes due in 2001. Despite such dramatic confessions, the news broke a few weeks later, on March 31, that the Monetary Board had bailed out two banks owned by Francisco Alvarado McDonald, a close friend of Portillo’s. The banker had co-signed the rental agreement on the President’s house, and two of his children are employed in the President’s office.
Saying it like it isThe President then cut to the proverbial chase, saying, "Wherever we look, the problem is fiscal." He called on Guatemalans to understand that "we all must pay taxes, pay for democracy, pay for peace… There are expenditure problems, but the main problem is with income." In line with his inaugural address, he emphasized that he would eliminate fiscal privileges, that no more amnesties would be issued and that fines would not be pardoned. He announced that public funds would be managed transparently. Jean Arnault, director of the UN’s Mission in Guatemala, congratulated the President for defining fiscal issues as the heart of the problem.
Portillo accused previous governments of blithely wasting money "without determining whether the expense would increase the population’s well-being." This policy, he said, created uncertainty among producers, lack of confidence in the financial system and instability in the national currency. He announced cutbacks of 10%—over $250 million—in the current budget, warning that "we will all have to tighten our belts." He explained that the burden of paying for crises has historically fallen to the poorest, least organized sectors of society, but now all would pay equally. In this speech, as on previous occasions, he failed to explain how he would achieve the equity he promised.
Aiming for austerityThe image of Portillo’s presidency has changed from one aimed at meeting the expectations raised by his campaign and inaugural address to one centered on austerity. "I am not going to leave the country with its hands tied or leave future generations with financial and fiscal burdens. This is why we might not carry out many new works, why you’re not going to see the President inaugurating water taps." The day after his speech, the congressional representatives in the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) approved the budget cuts then set out for their districts to talk with voters, officials and especially mayors, to dampen the many expectations they had fed during the first weeks of the new government.
Portillo said that fighting poverty and protecting consumers are objectives of his economic policy, adding that in Guatemala the consumer is a slave, not king. The idea seems more like the words of a song than the definition of an economic policy. He also said that it was the government’s job "to set macro-economic policy" while "the private sector should deal with" micro-economic issues—jobs, wages, prices. Was the government wrong, then, to get involved in setting the minimum wage, and were the big businesspeople in the business umbrella association CACIF right to reject this "interference"?
What economic policy?It remains unclear whether Portillo’s government aspires to restore the state’s leading role in economic issues, as it would seem when he says that "there is no state in Guatemala," or if his new government will fall in line with neoliberal orthodoxy.
What does Portillo propose to do with state income, once a truly reforming fiscal pact is achieved and income is no longer the main problem? What will happen in education, health care, the communications and transport infrastructure? What are this government’s priorities: to make a solvent Guatemalan state? Reduce the fiscal deficit? A fiscal reform is important, but to what end? The President didn’t say.
Portillo said his government will not interfere with the autonomy of the Bank of Guatemala and will respect its monetary policy, that it will bolster the Superintendence of Banks to make savings more secure, that it will open up the market for businesspeople to compete in the world. But how? How does he plan to overcome a 50-year tradition of ignoring productive investment, failing to acquire new, competitive technologies or lags in improving business productivity? Every time the issue of a free trade agreement with Mexico comes up, for example, big Guatemalan producers make the same appeal: "Give us a little time to become competitive." They’ve been asking for time for 50 years.
Inaugurating "water taps"The points in the President’s speech sound disconnected, as though problems could be resolved with irony. He said that we’re not going to see him "inaugurating water taps," but in fact these "water taps" mean access to clean drinking water and thus good health. This irony recalls his campaign slogan ("You can’t eat cement"), which aimed to detract from the Arzú government’s achievements in transport infrastructure, though Portillo is no longer trying to detract from anyone. He is merely evoking former President Ramiro De León Carpio, now a congressional representative for Portillo’s party, who somewhat vainly inaugurated a large number of water taps in his final months in office, and acting as if the health situation will improve if he doesn’t do the same thing.
Another easily angered President loses prestigeOn March 21, in Puerto Quetzal, Portillo fulfilled a campaign promise by delivering inexpensive fertilizers to peasant farmers. When journalists asked him about his change of attitude towards the press, he replied, "I haven’t changed at all. You and the owners are the ones who’ve changed. You haven’t given me a single break, any benefit of the doubt, you haven’t recognized anything I’ve done…" Later, he emphasized, "I‘ve always spoken the truth, been very open, but really, a President also has to think, make decisions, discuss things… I’ve been discussing the serious problems facing the country."
The question and the President’s reply refer to the fact that he has disappeared from public sight for up to a week at a time on several occasions during his first 75 days in office. And "in this country of gossips"—as the late journalist Clemente Morroquín Rojas described it—all sorts of possibilities are heard: that Portillo has been thinking about his strategies because he’s overwhelmed by the country’s problems, which are much greater than he expected; that the "anguish" he referred to in his speech on the economy made him try to forget about the problems by getting drunk with his friends. Everyone hopes that the first possibility is in fact the case. Portillo gave his own version of events by revealing that the country’s economic crisis had led to "health problems on three occasions" during his first 50 days in office.
In Puerto Quetzal, the President went after those who accuse him of still not taking the presidency seriously. "They say I’m campaigning. So what? Aren’t they campaigning against me? Well, we’ll see how much it gets to us. We’re going to work hard to make this country progress and we’ll face whomever we have to face." His responses reveal the same arrogance that characterized former President Arzú. Only the style has changed, from that of the oligarchy to that of the middle class—or worse, the neighborhood thug.
Minimum wage: Troglodyte debateFebruary was marked by a conflict between the government and business around the minimum wage. The President announced a minimum wage increase equivalent to US$25 for state workers as well as both urban and agricultural workers employed in the private sector. The reaction of the business community, at least those in CACIF, was predictable. An increase imposed by decree and not based on productivity, they insisted, was sure to produce unemployment, while its purchasing power would be eaten up by rising prices.
Rarely does it occur to the big interests in CACIF to even check whether the profit rates of financial, industrial and commercial businesses could absorb the salary increases "demanded" by the anguishing conditions of the majority of working families. To give but one example of such anguish, the already exorbitant price of a drug can increase by over 50% from one month to the next in Guatemala, and people have no recourse.
Businesspeople rarely stop to think that productivity may be a two-way street, that one can talk about the productivity both of salaried labor—the only thing they talk about—and of business, which is achieved by investing in equipment, new technology, improved administration, better information, the training of workers, marketing. In Guatemala, the discussion over the relations of the productive factors remains stuck in the era of the troglodytes.
A true pulse or a trial balloon?Portillo’s announcement about the minimum wage increase hit a nerve, and a very sensitive one. The day after the decree, leading figures in CACIF made their pilgrimage to the President’s office and Congress. Discussions centered on whether the increase should be left totally up to the good will of the businesspeople, whether it should come as the result of a consensual dialogue, whether it would lead a certain percentage of companies to bankruptcy. The businesspeople counter-proposed a lower wage hike to Congress. After three days of silence, Ríos Montt announced that their proposal represented a miserable trifle when compared to the workers’ vital needs.
At this point in the debate, consumer prices effectively began to spiral upwards, confirming the businesspeople’s warnings. This pre-emptive response by so many small distributors and merchants makes clear beyond a doubt that something must be changed in their thinking, particularly since many of those who unleashed this new inflation into the market have relatives who also suffer from its effects. Finally, Congress issued a decree increasing the minimum wage of private sector workers more than the businesspeople had offered, but less than President Portillo had proposed for them and had decreed for state employees. Nonetheless, CACIF wasted no time in filing an appeal with the Constitutional Court.
Whatever the court’s decision, it is important to analyze how the President and Congress dealt with the CACIF businesspeople. Was it simply an attempt at coherent social policy but without enough technical competence? When the losing presidential candidate Oscar Berger had talked of wage increases in his campaign, Portillo and the FRG called it demagogy. Once Berger was defeated, did Portillo decide it was worth taking up an issue that indeed responds to popular demands? If so, why do it without thoroughly studying ways to deal with the problem that would not trigger a hike in market prices? One possible explanation is that the conflict over the minimum wage may have been simply a way to sound out the private sector’s likely reactions to a future fiscal pact.
The tax taboo Prominent figures in CACIF responded much more positively to the President’s report on the economy. They commended his recognition that "we are facing a national crisis, just as we have claimed over the past 40 days," and responded, "We fully accept our responsibility. We’re ready to compete as long as there’s reciprocity, that Europe and the United States do the same for our products," and affirmed that "the President’s comments are all commendable and correct."
La Prensa Libre, one of the most important representatives of conservative thought in Guatemala, reacted sharply to the central argument of President Portillo’s economic report—that the source of all problems lies in the fiscal area. In all other civilized countries, it is accepted that a state can only function well with a healthy fiscal structure, including a serious and equitable tax structure, fulfilling its responsibility of creating an environment favorable to the market while providing the social counterweight to what the market cannot do. This is not the case in Guatemala. La Prensa Libre’s March 11 editorial warned, "From President Portillo’s lamentations in his speech on the state of the economy, we can see the government’s intention to continue squeezing us with taxes, not only by addressing tax evasion but also by creating burdensome new taxes."
The topic of taxes is taboo for the Right. Its aggressively "anti-tax" position leads it to argue that "it is nonsense to set high objectives in infrastructure or services without first guaranteeing the means to produce the necessary resources." In other words, when taxes are at issue, even the Liberal view of the state as producer of basic services crumbles. Given this thinking, the fiscal pact faces days of enormous tension ahead.
Progress in the Gerardi case and othersPortillo’s government has made some progress in its first 75 days. The Secretariat for Strategic Affairs is purging its personnel. According to its head, Edgar Gutiérrez, any official with a doubtful human rights record is being removed and an effort is being made to demilitarize the work of informing the President. General Otto Pérez Molina asked to be discharged from the army, proclaiming his disagreement "and that of those who cannot speak since they are still on active duty" with the President’s decision to strip the army of the experience of its top officers. One of Portillo’s first acts in office had been to retire or remove from their posts a number of top-ranking army officers.
At the President’s urging, the autonomous Public Ministry reactivated the investigation into the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi. Two military officers—a father and son, one retired, the other on active duty in the President’s General Staff—have been arrested. A good deal of evidence has pointed to them for some time now. Another military officer was also arrested, but the judge in charge of the case accepted the alibi that he was in prison the night of the assassination. The prosecutor is still trying to prove that since the prison system was relaxed, he could have taken part in the crime. Both Father Mario Orantes and Margarita López, the cook in Gerardi’s house, are again under suspicion, him of the assassination and her of being an accomplice and covering up the crime. Judge Flor de María García Villatoro has decided that both López and Orantes should stand trial to prove their guilt or innocence. All rumors suggest that the arrests have not yet reached the crime’s intellectual authors, who appear to be top ranking military officers, both retired and on active duty. President Portillo is committed to resolving this case.
Governance pactThe 10% budget cut mainly affects the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Communications, the San Carlos University, the Attorney General’s Office and the Comptroller’s Office. The last three of these are especially controversial, but the most polemical cuts are those being made to social funds and actions to increase tax collection. For all that, the cuts appear to have been a worthy measure, since they are freeing up funds for a few programs that are arousing great popular expectations, such as the Minister of Education’s announcement that it was assigning US$44 million for an unprecedented literacy campaign.
The President’s call for a governance pact, which includes the fiscal pact, is another very important achievement. The plan is to carry out the discussion first at the municipal level, then in the Departmental Development Councils, and finally among civil society organizations in the capital. The latter organizations have criticized the plan, however, arguing that they should participate in the dialogue at the municipal level from the very start.
Demagogy and legal reformsThe government has made other mistakes and taken several negative steps. The President’s tendency to act demagogically may well be the most serious of these. While in his inaugural address Portillo mentioned the grassroots nomination of candidates, especially women, for regional governments as an example of the cutback in presidential authority, his response to legal questions raised over the designation of governors was, "What difference does it make? In the end, the governors aren’t very important."
No apparent progress has been made in public safety. Dangerous, convicted criminals have escaped from prison; police have been implicated in crimes and in arrogant actions against citizens that sometimes end in crimes and deaths. President Portillo’s appearance among street vendors on a Guatemala City street the day after a policeman killed one of them said a lot for his capacity to turn a conflict into an occasion to get close to the people.
Another very troubling development is Congress’s readiness to reform laws for personal motives., General Ríos Montt can now be reelected president of Congress three times while the previous law prohibited any reelection. Judge Baudilio Portillo can continue as head of the National Civil Police because the approved reform allows him to be "assimilated" as Police Commissioner. There are other examples, the most important of which is a reform to the law governing the Comptroller’s Office that will remove the comptroller from his post before his period ends; the comptroller has not done much, but has done something. The first steps have also been taken to remove the Attorney General from office. His appearance before the acting president of Congress—Reyes López, a close associate of Ríos Montt—only served to show the extreme arrogance of this FRG representative.
Much remains to be doneCongress declared April 26, the day of Bishop Gerardi’s assassination, as the Day of Victims’ Dignity. Meanwhile, in Joyabaj, in the south of El Quiché, another clandestine cemetery was discovered inside the parish convent where Father Faustino Villanueva was assassinated. The Historical Clarification Commission’s recommendation that the state collaborate in exhuming remains in clandestine cemeteries has not yet been fulfilled, and in some places this activity remains very controversial, since victims and members of the former Civil Defense Patrols responsible for the crimes continue to live alongside each other.
The removal of all active duty generals from their previous posts has not necessarily meant a structural change in the army. These generals have been named to posts abroad and when Colonel Juan de Dios Estrada, Minister of Defense, is promoted, they can in theory return to command posts.
Meanwhile, no apparent progress is being made in Congress on the new law regulating the army or the law to replace the Presidential General Staff with a civilian structure. Furthermore, government officials have said that this transformation itself will take time. The army continues to intervene in internal security matters; it can still be seen on the streets, alongside the police, and the Constitution provides no means to oppose this. The constitutional reform that might have done so was defeated in May of last year, along with the other constitutional reforms proposed to implement the peace accords. To fulfill the letter and spirit of the accords, all the government would have to do is abstain from using the army in internal security, but Portillo’s government is not doing this. It is too torn by the contradiction between the FRG of Ríos Montt and Reyes López and the "Portillismo" of the President’s own supporters.
Until the governability and fiscal pacts are agreed upon, the most important issue in the government’s hands is in Congress: reforms to the electoral law. They were also required by the peace accords, but were not made before the 1999 elections. Some of the measures that must be taken to make electoral processes more democratic include bringing polling places closer to where voters live, creating a national ID/voter card, cleaning up the electoral rolls, putting a ceiling on campaign spending, offering all contenders the same media access by preventing the television monopoly from favoring certain candidates. The remaining credibility of the FRG and the two leading opposition parties, the National Advancement Party (PAN) and the New Nation Alliance (ANN), are at stake in this matter.
The first survey and the benefit of the doubtIn any case, it is not yet time to weigh things up. On Sunday, February 27, newspapers published the results of the first opinion poll, done by Borge and Associates in urban areas of the department of Guatemala, which includes the capital. After the new government’s first 45 days in office, 70% of those interviewed felt it was still too soon to judge Portillo’s government; 85% felt that neither the country nor their personal situation had improved; 43% expected changes in the national situation within six months, and 32% in a year. One troubling sign is that 38% felt that Portillo was governing badly, although 57% disagreed.
Portillo has asked for the benefit of the doubt. It is fair to give it to him, but analysts point out that he doesn’t have much time, and he is aware of this.
Changes in the Supreme CourtWhile one state sector seems paralyzed by a rocky transition, this is not true of the Supreme Court of Justice. In October of last year, a new court was elected for a five-year term. Two of its three members are women. The commission charged with presenting candidates to Congress followed an innovative process. According to the Myrna Mack Foundation, it tried to "1) de-contaminate the process by removing political/party influences; 2) ensure transparency in the selection and election of candidates; and 3) choose candidates who fill an appropriate basic profile: political and social legitimacy, honorability, academic excellence and professional experience."
In doing so, the commission followed the guidelines set by the National Commission to Strengthen Justice, created to fulfill the peace accords in 1997. This commission continues to act today through its successor, the Commission to Support and Monitor the Strengthening of Justice.
The fight against impunityBoth the state and civil society are now challenging the impunity unleashed when the codes and norms governing our relations and coexistence were violated with no effective sanction. The Myrna Mack Foundation has detected several "links" in the chain of impunity: "corruption, the intimidation of those responsible for maintaining justice [police, prosecutors, lawyers, judges, prison guards], problems with legislation and the problem of what are known as secrets of state." The foundation insists that the state should not have to take up the fight against impunity and the "hidden powers and parallel structures" sustaining it alone, but should be joined by a civil society committed to furthering democracy with a new, firm code of ethics.
The Myrna Mack Foundation has attributed the "intimidation" to members of state security forces and military or paramilitary personnel (30%), unknown individuals (32%), and people connected to organized crime (21%). The seriousness of the situation is clear. It is enough to recall that in the case of the investigation into Bishop Gerardi’s assassination, a prosecutor and a judge had to go into exile because of threats against themselves and their families.
The new voices of women and peasant farmersOn International Women’s Day, representatives of the March 8 Coordinating Committee, which brings together over 50 women’s rights organizations, marched on the streets of the capital. Marches also took place in Cobán, Quetzaltenango and San Marcos. Although the women knocked on the doors at the President’s office and residence, neither the President nor his young wife Evelyn received them. In Congress, only ANN representative Nineth Montenegro met with them. They demanded that Portillo fulfill his promise to establish a National Women’s Institute to monitor compliance with public policies on behalf of women. They also spoke about the high prices of basic goods, the fiscal pact, and the need to approve specific legal regulations to prevent, sanction and eradicate intra-family violence, which has increased in step with the economic crisis.
A day later, several leaders of women’s movements denounced the increase in sexual crimes against women. The women demanded increased penalties to sanction these crimes, and support for women who break their silence to denounce them.
The land problem remains a burning one. Over 10,000 peasant farmers marched on the capital on March 31, the fifth anniversary of the signing of the accord on the rights and identity of indigenous people. A full 90% of the participants in the march were indigenous, the rest, poor ladinos. According to La Prensa Libre, four out of ten were women, and one out of ten, children. They were respectfully received at the National Land Fund offices. They were not received in Congress, but a small group of officials met with them at the President’s office: Rubén Calderón, Secretary for Peace, and Pedro Pablo Palma Lau, a former guerrilla comandante and current director of CONTIERRA, an organization dedicated to resolving land conflicts. The farmers came out of the meeting satisfied. The slogan of the march, organized by the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous and Peasant Farmers, was "A farmer without land is a farmer without peace."
The voices of women and peasant farmers are the voices of civil society, which is beginning to get organized. Only by working from organized civil society to build a real democracy will it be possible to overcome the sluggishness and ineptitude of governments of whatever stripe.