Who Fishes Best in Troubled Waters?
General Ríos Montt and his followers are trying to remilitarize the country from their stronghold in Congress. Progressive forces in Portillo’s government are pulling the opposite way. It is not yet clear which side is stronger, or who’s in control in the turbulent waters of Guatemala today.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
The first two and a half months of President Alfonso Portillo’s new government were characterized by remarkable inefficiency and punctuated by his own numerous personal and official trips. With lots of overblown language but few real achievements, Portillo had little to show by April. Then that month, events in Guatemala revolved around the crisis sparked by a transport strike, which ended with five deaths and the President’s threat to decree a state of emergency.
In May, the pace changed and so did the mood. The media protested Portillo’s speech to the nation after the deaths, which he opened by trying to justify his government’s actions and closed by raising the possibility of suspending constitutional guarantees. They also condemned both the municipal government for decreeing the fare hikes in the first place, without doing everything it could to resolve the problem through dialogue and consultation, and the national government for putting party interests before the search for a solution to a major national crisis. The media cast doubt on the credibility of the President and his secretary for strategic analysis, and blamed them for not foreseeing the seriousness of the crisis.
An unusually stormy MayThese charges ushered in the unwonted events of May. Edgar Gutiérrez, Portillo’s secretary for strategic analysis, declared that he had in fact given the President a report predicting the seriousness of the crisis well in advance of the events. Gutiérrez did not resign nor did the President deny his statement; in fact Portillo admitted several days later that he had indeed received the report.
Immediately after this, Gutiérrez called a Sunday press conference to announce that he had found a military intelligence report revealing that the state had been spying on over 600,000 people, including children.
Gutiérrez said he had given this report to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, and that anyone wanting to know if his or her name was on the list could find out there. It was front-page news for a week.
These turbulent events were followed by further storms. Four months after being named to his post, the head of the National Defense General Staff was dismissed from that post and retired from the army by the President. Several days later, a number of top-ranking army intelligence officers were also retired, including the assistant director. No one believed the defense minister’s explanation that the changes were the "normal" result of "personnel rotations that take place every three months in the army."
Remarks by the departing General Staff chief in a press interview and in the official ceremony held for his retirement stirred up many people, some with joy and others with disgust. He said that "a coup d’état is the last thing on the officers’ minds" but that he had heard talk from "economically and political influential opponents" of "reproducing the Ecuador phenomenon." Reactions were also mixed to his recommendation that the army reestablish "contact with all of those who accompanied us through difficult moments. I’m referring to the military commissioners and patrol members." He was speaking of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols, which were involved in some of the most serious human rights violations and were disbanded in the peace agreements.
Who’s running things here?Opposition parties frequently fall into factions when out of office. The greater the margin of their electoral defeat, the more divided these factions tend to become. This has clearly been happening in the losing National Advancement Party (PAN), but it is not the only one suffering from such a crisis. Ever since the government took office, the winning Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) has also been involved in a tug-of-war between supporters of the President and supporters of General Efraín Ríos Montt, the party’s founder and current president of Congress.
Kidnappings and bank robberies are once again becoming frequent events; even worse, the tortured bodies of victims have started showing up again too. But when Ríos Montt was asked if this indicates that the FRG has failed to keep its promises to increase citizen security, he shot back, "Is the minister of government not from the FRG?" Of course he is, but he is of its Portillo faction. One can’t help wonder which president is running things, that of the country or that of the Congress? Is this a conflict or a farce?
May was an especially meaningful month as well as an especially troubling one. It brought the specter of a constituent period, the replacement of the National Civil Police chief, renewed authorization for the army to patrol alongside the police, congressional authorization for the US Army to provide support in the fight against drug trafficking and General Ríos Montt’s presence alongside the President in the Vice President’s absence. It also brought the signing of a fiscal pact and of the free trade agreement between Central America’s northern triangle and Mexico, meager results from the legislature’s first session and a fall in the polls by the President. Then there were the US National Security Archive revelations on US government cooperation with Guatemala’s army during the civil war, continuing questions about the government’s position on privatizing TELGUA, the state telecommunications company, and a new report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) on the country’s high poverty levels. May even dropped an exceptional amount of rain, which once again revealed the country’s environmental vulnerability
Falling prestige and rolling headsThe government paid a high price for the urban transport conflict and the social unrest it sparked. President Portillo was the biggest loser. He was out of the country at a key moment and when he returned, he fell into the trap of his own victim’s syndrome. "I wasn’t the one who ordered the increase in transport fares," he said, and then went on to recount everything he had done well in his first hundred days in office. The media, which senses as well as shapes public opinion, was put off by both the complaining tone and the narcissism at a time of pain and mourning. They were more sensitive to this improper attitude than usual since one of the people killed was a well-known news photographer.
One of Portillo’s basic problems is his lack of restraint. Although not much can be expected from him in just over a hundred days, he appears to enjoy living in a state of perpetual promises, with sensationalist moves that take him 100 steps forward and 95 back. Then he complains that so much is being asked of him in so little time and that he never gets a break from all the criticism.
The fact that Portillo did not fire Gutiérrez after his explosive declarations reveals how much he needs his secretary for strategic analysis to keep the other forces attempting to undermine his presidency at bay. Of course, someone’s head had to roll. More than a few FRG representatives in Congress rushed in to demand that it be Government Minister Guillermo Ruiz Wong, but Portillo refused to give it to them. Opening up this post would have been a very dangerous move, since the FRG would have pressed to replace him with one of Ríos Montt’s loyal followers. The media directed its anger at the National Civil Police’s inefficient and inexplicably violent repression of the unrest. And on May 10, the guillotine came down on National Police Chief Baudilio Portillo Merlos.
Vice- President Francisco Reyes López was also discredited, not instead of the President, who should have stayed in the country to be at the helm, but as a replacement pilot whose incendiary partisan comments exacerbated the crisis. An interview with him published after the conflict was titled, "I’m not pushy, I’m just direct." Editorialists commented with dismay that Guatemala is just one heartbeat away from having Reyes López—Portillo’s Dan Quayle and a Ríos Montt follower to boot—as its President.
Of course, the mayor of Guatemala City, Fritz García-Gallont of the PAN, was also discredited by the transport crisis. He had been a good communications minister, especially for his work on the country’s highway and road network. Elected mayor of the capital, he is the first in that post to have a direct face-off with the executive branch and the congressional majority in fifteen years. Partisan interests colored his decisions in the transport crisis. He too quickly became impatient with the negotiations to get a transport subsidy and with the municipal transport company’s difficulty finding a long-term solution to the problem, which has yet to be resolved.
The secretary for strategic analysis also paid a price. Progressive civil society organizations asked Gutiérrez to release the report he sent to President Portillo. When he refused, arguing that it was protected information because of his relationship of confidentiality with the President, his former colleagues in human rights organizations insisted that efforts to create a more transparent, democratic state revolve precisely around the issue of limiting what is known in the intelligence world as "state secrets."
Pellecer appears on the sceneWhen it came time to name a successor to the dismissed National Civil Police chief, yet another storm broke out. On May 26, President Portillo publicly named three potential candidates, including Luis Eduardo Pellecer. Both the media and word of mouth suggested that Pellecer would be the choice; he had been one of the candidates for the Secretariat of Strategic Analysis post that went to Gutiérrez. Many people are familiar with the history of Pellecer, a former Jesuit priest. On September 30, 1981, he appeared on Guatemalan television after having been kidnapped and disappeared several months earlier, on June 9. In his statement, which has been repeated time and time again, Pellecer alleged that he was a member of the EGP guerrilla organization and that the Church of Medellín and Puebla and, more specifically, the Society of Jesus had inculcated in him his adoption of violence. He repeated his story most recently in July 1998, barely three months after the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi, as though he were indirectly, and naturally without mentioning Gerardi, asking what the Church is complaining about, and what horrors it seeks to recover the memory of, if it was itself responsible for the violence? For the past 19 years, Pellecer has worked in posts linked to military security, though he seems to have been kept at something of a distance, at least publicly, during the governments of Ramiro de León Carpio and Alvaro Arzú. Since the Portillo government took office, he has been manager of a private cemetery.
For a President who wants to maintain good relations with the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, merely proposing Pellecer for a post in his government was an undiplomatic move. But Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini appeared to be less indignant than Helen Mack, Frank La Rue and other representatives of human rights organizations, who expressed outrage to the media.
They said Pellecer’s nomination signaled a clear and troubling step back to the country’s militaristic past: military intelligence would continue to control the National Civil Police. The media reported that Portillo’s progressive collaborators would not work on the same team as Pellecer and would resign if the nomination went through.
In the end, however, the President named none of the three candidates he had mentioned. Instead, he had his minister of government name Mario René Cifuentes to the post. Cifuentes had been deputy government minister for a year in Arzú’s cabinet, but was removed when his friendship with a contraband trafficker became known. The alleged trafficker, who is still awaiting trial, was a contributor to Portillo’s losing 1995-1996 presidential campaign. It is not clear whether Portillo planned to whip this ace out of his sleeve from the start, or Pellecer—who is believed to have actually been Ríos Montt’s proposal—was publicly mentioned precisely to burn him in the fire of the noisy protests that his name ignited.
Portillo after 100 daysOn Monday May 22, a month after Portillo’s hundredth day in office, the newspaper El Periódico published a poll by Borge, Arroyave and Associates evaluating those first 100 days. "Portillo promised he would come down hard on crime. Do you believe the President has kept his word?" the survey asked. Nearly 81% said no, while only 13.7% said yes. Adding up the percentages of people who answered that "the country’s main problem" is crime (15.7%), violence (4.5%), citizen security (2.8%) and impunity (0.3%) reveals that just under a quarter of those surveyed are most concerned about such security problems. Nearly half think that the main problems are socioeconomic, including among them the economy (24.2%), poverty (11.7%), unemployment (7.4%), and the cost of basic goods (5.5%). Other responses included education (6%), health care (2.8%), public transport (1.8%) and housing (1.1%).
When asked if the country’s situation was better or worse after Portillo’s first 100 days in office, 65% responded that it remained the same. Asked whether things were "better than with the PAN government," 40.6% said yes, 19% felt the opposite and a full 40.4% did not offer an opinion. Only 30.2% said they are satisfied with Portillo’s government.
Portillo’s grandiloquent, populist rhetoric does not appear to have convinced many people. Over three-fourths (77%) said that he is "not the President of the poor." Over half (52.6%) said he has not made the dramatic changes he promised in his first 100 days in office while 38.2% did not express an opinion on this. And 74% felt he has not kept the public informed of his actions. His "explosive" speeches on trips around the country asking people to support his decisions are seen favorably by 50.3% and unfavorably by 46.7%, while only 3% did not comment. A majority of 57.5% felt that if the elections were to take place tomorrow, they would not vote for Portillo again while 31.9% said they would and 10.6% did not say.
While 20.6% see Portillo as "a good President" and 22.2% as "a bad President," the majority (54.1%) considers him "an average President." Again, only 3.2% did not express an opinion on this issue. Most of the people surveyed still give Portillo the benefit of the doubt, or at least are not yet ready to sharply criticize his work.
On June 4, appearing on one of the most respected television debate programs, the President tried to wrest importance from the survey, saying it only covered the capital. This was not true; it was done nationally and by the same firm that had predicted Portillo’s victory month after month. This is but one more example of the proclivity of Presidents all over Central America to lie in public shamelessly and make light of anything that shines too brightly on a reality they would rather keep under wraps.
Military nostalgia and revelationsJean Arnault, the UN mediator in the peace negotiations and director of MINUGUA, the UN’s mission in Guatemala, was transferred to Burundi. Before departing, he said he was leaving with some satisfaction because, by the end of Arzú’s term, only two issues in the peace accords remained pending: the army and the fiscal issue. He said that while the right steps were being taken to resolve the fiscal problem, the situation of the army must still be addressed. Arnault’s optimism is striking, especially in light of a recently published report by MINUGUA itself detailing all that remains to be done on the land issue and pointing out that the defeat of the constitutional reforms in 1999 left many other agreed-to issues dangling, including recognition of the country’s cultural, ethnic and linguistic pluralism.
May brought troubling revelations about the issue of the army. While some of the noise may be nothing more than saber rattling in the barracks, there is reason for concern as long as top army officers feel they can publicly express nostalgia about friendships with military commissioners and members of the notorious Civil Self-Defense Patrols. Colonel César Augusto Ruiz Morales, the former head of the National Defense General Staff, who was among those unexpectedly retired, expressed such nostalgia. In an interview on January 11, he said in response to a question of whether there is a real plan to modernize the army that "the army has an archaic organization corresponding to the period in which it had to maintain control of the population to ensure the stability of the government. We’re in the process of transforming this whole structure." In the ceremony for his retirement, however, Colonel Ruiz Morales called not for cutting the ties to that "archaic organization," but for "reestablishing contact with the military commissioners and patrols."
Ruiz Morales also spoke of "nepotism and buddyism" as "cancers within the army." The problematic situation of the Military’s Social Security Institute (IPM) is common knowledge, stemming in part from the fact that the Army Bank, which is one branch of the Institute, is rumored to have lost tens of millions of dollars speculating in the disastrous Russian stock market. The press has also reported that 97% of the loans in its portfolio are past due. After Guatemala’s Central Bank had to step in to shore up the bank, several conditions were imposed: it may not distribute earnings and must reduce the overdue loan portfolio to 10% by November 2002. Much more emphasis was put on these facts after Ruiz Morales’ speech, in which he charged that the "buddy system" of power based on kinship and friendship ties with officers from the same region or members of the same graduating class at the military academy "shifts cyclically" and that "the IPM’s problems result from this institutional disease." It has been a long time indeed since a military officer has spoken so publicly and unequivocally of corruption in the army.
Ríos Montt behind the struggle in the militaryThe charge does not appear to be a disinterested one. Ruiz Morales also said that Defense Minister Juan de Dios Estrada has put colonels who, like Estrada himself, were members of the class of ’73 in charge of the main military bases and barracks. The new head of the National Defense General Staff, Colonel Eduardo Arévalo Lacs, belongs to the same graduating class. Colonel Estrada admitted Ruiz Morales’ complaint that "the class of ’73 has filled all the command posts," retorting that "they have the qualifications required by the military laws and regulations. Our class has had some renowned officers, and certain incapable people are unhappy about that."
As if the intrigue weren’t Byzantine enough, Ruiz Morales also had to deny that he had earlier been promoted to head up the General Staff because he is one of retired General Ríos Montt’s allies. He added that "the idea that I was Ríos Montt’s eyes and ears" in the Army High Command arose from "speculations because we attend the same church," the Church of the Word.
The possibility of reducing military officers’ term of active duty service to 30 years is being bandied about in Congress. If this happens, officers from the classes of ’73 to ’75 would have to retire. While this would put no small burden on the IPM’s pension system, the speculation is that with this change, Congress president Ríos Montt would kill two birds with one stone. First, he would get rid of the class of ’73, whose members played a decisive role in the 1983 coup against him. Second, his son, Colonel Enrique Ríos Sosa, now head of finances for the armed forces and a member of the class of ’77, would be available to fill the post of defense minister. "What do we want with battalion commanders in wheelchairs?" Ríos Montt asked in one of those jokes that always hide ulterior motives.
The most important thing about the crisis in the army is that it reveals how many intrigues take place there, how vulnerable some of its members are to talk of conspiracy, and how much remains to be done to create an army at the service of the Constitution and democracy.
Why such sadistic violence? Congress gave the go ahead for small US Army contingents to help Guatemala’s police narcotics squad in the fight against drug trafficking. President Portillo, deluged by protests over the lack of public safety, adopted a proposal by his predecessor, Alvaro Arzú, to establish joint army-police patrols to fight crime. The most troubling fact among recent developments is that the bodies of tortured people are beginning to be seen once again in inaccessible spots or out-of-the-way streets of the capital. These tortures recall a point that the Historical Clarification Commission has already raised: the frequent incidence in this country of an extra dose of cruelty added to a robbery, kidnapping, extortion or murder. We must begin to investigate what psychosocial factors have made violence so sadistic in Guatemala.
In another turn of events in May, indigenous survivors of seven massacres that took place during the civil war filed accusations of genocide with the Public Ministry against the three members of the Army High Command at the time. The plaintiffs include survivors of the March 14, 1982 massacre in Cuarto Pueblo, Ixcán, Quiché, where nearly 400 people were slaughtered; the massacre of Santa María Tzejá, also in Ixcán, Quiché; the Río Negro massacre in Baja Verapaz; and the La Estancia de la Virgen massacre, in San Martín Jilotepeque, Chimaltenango.
The Human Rights Legal Aid Center is advising the plaintiffs. Since their charge is "genocide," which presupposes that the army had a strategic plan to commit the crimes, only the members of the High Command are accused in the suit because only they could have been responsible for such plans, according to the law regulating the army.
This legal action is enormously important, as it is the first of its kind presented in the Guatemalan justice system. A few months earlier, the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation presented a similar accusation before Spain’s National Court in Madrid. Máximo Cajal, Spain’s ambassador to Guatemala when the Spanish Embassy was burned down by the Guatemalan military on January 31, 1980, has already testified in that case. Nineth Montenegro, a congressional representative and widow of one of those forcibly disappeared during the eighties, has also testified. She was one of the founders and for several years president of the Mutual Support Group, which was formed in 1985 to fight for reappearance of the disappeared.
Army archives openedThe intense, stormy month of May ended with the arrival in Guatemala of Kate Doyle, a member of the National Security Archive and director of its Guatemala Documentation Project. The National Security Archive is an academic institution in the United States that uses historical research to recover documents from the country’s six national security agencies once they become available through the Freedom of Information Act.
In 1998, the National Security Archive provided the information it had gathered through its Guatemala Project to the Historical Clarification Commission, which the parties to the peace negotiations agreed to establish in 1994 to investigate what happened during the civil war. Since the statutes imposed on the Commission prevented it from attributing individual responsibility in its findings, the National Security Archive has itself now drafted a two-volume book, titled The Guatemalan Army: What the U.S. Files Reveal, to get around that restriction and make it possible to obtain full knowledge of this history.
In an interview, Doyle said the first volume contains "the profile of 79 military units, which includes the high command, operational structures (like military zones) and intelligence units." It also includes the histories of 227 officers selected for the posts they occupied and the time they occupied them. The second volume contains 48 documents that include "information on the [Guatemalan] army and its relations with the United States," human rights violations and acts of violence. The Archive has a web site where these documents can be found: www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv.
The Archive will also give the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, MINUGUA and the press two sets of material with some 2,000 declassified documents on microfiche. "The armed forces must adapt the data to their own institution’s transparency," concluded Doyle, who also worked with the Truth Commission in El Salvador. "This is an academic contribution to the discussion of the army’s role in a democratic society."
Reactions to this information have been extremely varied, the tones diverse. Some are courageous but moderate. For example, Helen Mack said, "After the presentation of these documents, the army cannot keep denying the acts it committed during the war. It must now deal with the issue and face up to its responsibilities in the conflict." Frank La Rue responded, "How can they try to deny, after so much proof, that genocide was practiced in this country? No country can envision its future without being fully aware of its history. We must all sit down to discuss these acts with the army." Retired General Otto Pérez Molina, a negotiator in the peace accords, had another response: "We need to know the sources if the document is to be credible. The work presented may be a contribution, but it includes half-truths and half-lies. The army’s mistake has been to remain quiet after all of the reports."
Strategy designed with the United StatesThe revelations could not have been worse for the army. The actors in the dirty, brutal war are still alive. They feel that the United States betrayed them, using them for its own ends and now abandoning them, while there is no way to try the various US Presidents and gringo military officers who taught the Guatemalans how to torture and massacre.
It is clear, however, that Guatemalan officers were collaborators not peons in the strategy. In Jennifer Schirmer’s book, The Guatemalan Military Project:: A Violence Called Democracy, General Héctor Gramajo virtually gives this Harvard researcher all the evidence a court would need. And he does so because he is proud of having designed the strategy to militarily defeat the guerrilla movement and of having provided the army’s institutional support to the democratic transition.
Describing the evolution from the "scorched earth" policy used by the Lucas García regime to the "beans and guns" policy eventually adopted by General Ríos Montt after he became head of state, Gramajo recounts to Schirmer: "At that time  we used 70% beans and 30% guns. In other words, out of 100%, we’d give food to 70%. Before it was different: out of 100%, we’d kill 100%." Schirmer adds in a note that "after seeing a draft transcript of the interview taped for the Harvard International Review, Gramajo suggested that the word ‘kill’ be replaced by ‘violently repress,’ and later by ‘pressure.’" The importance of the volumes Doyle presented is that they reveal who killed, and where and when they did it.
In a forum the army held with civil society in 1987, General Gramajo, at the time defense minister in Vinicio Cerezo’s government, the first of the democratic transition, flipped Clausewitz’s famous phrase around. According to Gramajo, "Politics is the continuation of war by different means." It is precisely this idea that must be banished from the country. While any chance remains that the transition may be understood this way in Guatemala, a democratic transition will never take place. The assassination of Monsignor Gerardi, the reaction to the reports of the Catholic Church’s Recovery of Historical Memory project and the Historical Clarification Commission, the barracks saber-rattling in May and the reaction of top army officers to the National Security Archive report all clearly show that democratic institutionality in the political realm has not yet been consolidated.
The danger of remilitarizationFrom their stronghold in Congress, General Ríos Montt and the members of his party are trying to remilitarize the state. The Secretariat for Strategic Analysis and other progressive forces in Portillo’s government are pulling in the opposite direction. We do not know who is stronger, who is more in charge. At the end of May, President Portillo called the entire Cabinet and the FRG representatives in Congress to an evaluation meeting held at a military facility in the capital. The press was not allowed into the discussions, nor were they allowed to interview anyone, even though the meeting was held to coordinate government policy.
Some think that, in reality, there are no essential differences between the General and the President. Ríos Montt has floated the idea of calling elections for a Constituent Assembly. Portillo has accepted it, though recognizing that this may not be the moment to reform the Constitution.
On another issue, however, the President has proposed that the Historical Clarification Commission report be required reading in secondary schools, and has introduced a bill to this end in Congress, which the general opposes. In the poll mentioned above, 61.3% are in favor of Portillo’s proposal and 28% against. Likewise, the President wants to provide financial support for the exhumations in clandestine cemeteries recommended by the commission. Retired General Lucas García has maintained that all of the bodies in these graves are victims of the 1976 earthquake. In the survey, 51.3% support Portillo’s proposal and 43% oppose it.
Portillo insists that, while accused of being a populist, "really I’m different." Certainly, Guatemala needs a "different" President on the path to a democratic transition because we may yet wake up to see, as in one caricaturist’s cartoon, that "the dinosaur in the military hat is still there." In addition, the country is going through a terrible economic crisis that requires effective actions rather than dispersed, uncoordinated ones designed to favor party interests.
The IDB lays the country bareIn his first two months in office, President Portillo traveled to New Orleans for an Inter-American Development Bank seminar, also attended by which IDB director Enrique Iglesias. In mid-May, Iglesias visited Guatemala and promised a billion dollars in aid, which represented a show of support for Portillo’s government.
But along with the IDB’s support came a reprimand: at the end of May, the IDB published a document entitled, "Towards a Strategy for Economic and Social Development in Guatemala," based on eloquent facts. Nearly 70% of the Guatemalan population earns less than two dollars a day. This poverty is especially prevalent among indigenous people, over 80% of whom live in this precarious situation. In the entire hemisphere, only Bolivia surpasses Guatemala’s education gap between men and women, in which women, especially indigenous women, are at a disadvantage. Non-indigenous people have an average of nearly six years of education, compared to two years for indigenous people. Barely 20% of the Guatemalan population believes that the state can resolve the country’s problems; only in Honduras does the public show even less confidence in the state. The life expectancy is 64 years, the lowest in Central America. The inequality between rural and urban areas is enormous, as 76% of the nation’s poverty is found in the rural areas. Nearly half (46.4%) of children under five suffer malnutrition. Housing is also insecure, with 20% of urban families and 80% of rural families lacking property titles for their homes. With respect to basic services, 36.4% of the country’s homes lack access to clean drinking water, 65% have no electricity and 67.4% no sewage system. In 44.7% of homes, people live in overcrowded conditions.
The IDB reports that this poverty coexists with an annual GDP growth rate of nearly 4% over the course of this decade, greater than that of Uruguay, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador, among others. It attributes the country’s problems to "poor administration of public spending, insufficient tax collection, weak financial legislation and scarce attention to historically marginalized populations."
The World Bank representative in Guatemala, Salvadoran José Roberto López-Cálix, "diplomatically" backed Portillo’s proposed economic plan but noted that Guatemala has no social plan or a plan to modernize the state. He then added, "The key to economic stability and sustainability lies in the fiscal pact." This pact was recently signed, but its moment of truth will be when it comes time to deal with the problem of state income, that is, taxes.
The problems underlying all the threats to a democratic transition in Guatemala—citizens’ lack of security, distrust of the state and the corresponding low level of governance, the constant rural-to-urban migration and with it, the growing rate of urban poverty, the extremely high fertility rate, the high abstention rate in electoral processes—can be found in this picture of the country that the IDB has laid bare.
Bishops: the "hidden forces"On May 29, the Guatemalan Bishops Conference issued a statement decrying the lack of a national development plan, delays in fulfilling the peace accords and the tendency to put partisan interests above national interests—seen, for example, in the reform of the regulation barring reelection of the president of Congress and the firing of many capable public officials to make room for party members. Added to that list are the placing of private economic interests above the common good, the persistence of monopolies and privileges, continuing impunity ("of the hidden forces, along with parallel groups" of power), the actions of organized crime (to "get rich quick"), and the resurgence of "social cleansing" activities.
The bishops also expressed concern over the threat of destabilization in the country, through a potential undermining of the independence of the various branches of state and the use of religious fanaticism by certain political leaders. They called on President Portillo to continue dismantling the Presidential General Staff and to strengthen the process of institutionalizing the army. They called on the diverse groups of civil society to commit themselves to strengthening democracy, and on the international community to monitor the human rights situation and the proper use of donations. They urged the media to strive "to be witnesses of the truth and to report objectively, avoiding exaggerations, alarmism and partisan biases of all kinds." Finally, they spoke of reconciliation, which "demands that we recognize past events and responsibilities in order to envision and create a future of peace."
The president of the conference, the Archbishop of Los Altos, said, "We wanted to give the government some time, but because of what has happened, we felt a moral obligation to speak." He insisted that "the government has made many promises it has not kept," while Helen Mack describes "an atmosphere of conspiracy and destabilization" in the country and editorials speak of "the clear dissatisfaction that has grown out of the discrepancy between electoral promises and reality."
Lightning over the palaceOn May 10, immediately before the changes in the army, the newspaper La Hora published on its first page what may turn out to be one of the photographs of the year: the Plaza de la Constitución shimmering with light reflected in the rain, and a huge bolt of lightning against a stormy sky falling onto the National Palace of Culture, a symbol of the country’s government. A premonition?
Among so much uncertainty, the month ended with a happy event: the great Guatemalan writer Tito Monterroso was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature. Monterroso, who spent many years in exile in Honduras, dedicated the prize to Central America. Filóchofo, the great leftist cartoonist who appears in the right-wing Siglo XXI, drew General Ríos Montt as he typically does, with a vampire’s claws and sharp teeth, while "the adult" in the cartoon suggests, "Why don’t you take advantage of the chance to congratulate Tito and enjoy some time in Spain?"
It is a not very veiled reference to the fact that Ríos Montt is among those named by the Rigoberta Menchú suit filed in Madrid’s court, and would be detained if he set foot in the country. If this freedom of expression is allowed to stand and no one is persecuted for it, it will be a sign of democratic hope in the midst of the turbulent waters Guatemala is trying to navigate.