Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 236 | Marzo 2001



No Coup, Just Irresponsible Government

Portillo promised to build his government on five pillars, but over a year into his term, he has not even begun to erect them. And while rumors of a coup d’état run through uatemala’s streets, this extremely irresponsible government has already dealt a sharp blow to the country as a whole.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

At the end of February, just as in October last year, rumors swirled of an imminent coup d’état. Some held that the army would rise up in a traditional takeover. Others hinted that President Portillo had decided to send in his resignation from a foreign country, as Peru’s Fujimori did.

The gulf between Portillo’s bombastic promises to bring progress to the country and his government’s paralysis, the influence within his government of capital stemming from organized crime, the increasing corruption and the ineptitude or political unwillingness to halt these trends lie at the root of a growing political uncertainty in the country. The rumors of a coup are only one indicator of this instability.

The legacy of "Boozegate"

Four months have passed since the "Boozegate" scandal broke, but the case has yet to be resolved. The scandal involved illegal and secret last-minute maneuvers by 23 legislators from the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), including Congress president General Efraín Ríos Montt, to alter a tax law to benefit the country’s powerful liquor producers, violating the Fiscal Pact agreed to by the country’s various social sectors. The lawyers for the FRG representatives presented an endless series of appeals that went all the way to the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial institution, to prevent the Supreme Court from hearing the accusations, but they were all dismissed. On March 6, in an historic step in the fight against corruption and impunity, the Supreme Court ruled against Ríos Montt and the representatives, suspending their parliamentary immunity so they would have to stand trial.

Still, whatever may happen, some lurking questions that are not being raised as yet will undoubtedly lead to a troubling conclusion. The President insists that he does not answer to big business—in this case, the monopolizing beer and liquor magnates, whose earnings are largely independent of global market prices—but this is not the first time they have sought to block a tax law reform on products that so harm the health of consumers and have left such turbid marks on national identity.

It is perhaps appropriate to recall the words of Luis Cardoza y Aragón, in his classic Guatemala, las líneas de su mano ("Guatemala, the lines of your hand"), written in 1955, before the country succumbed to 36 years of brutal violence: "We get drunk to be more alone. We get drunk around others to increase our loneliness. We don’t talk; there’s only monologue… each obsessed with one’s own concerns… We don’t look beyond ourselves and if we do, it is not to begin a dialogue but rather to burst out above the monologue. We yell, we empty pistols into the air, we unburden ourselves so we can hear ourselves better; we address ourselves… Getting drunk is not social. It’s not something we do together. Violence, born out of resentment, perhaps stems from the fact that anyone who has been kicked around feels that he should kick someone else around too… Getting drunk is a sullen activity that seldom brings happiness, laughter, song… Without alcohol the party doesn’t get lively, as everyone remains withdrawn in silence, insolent and absent. We drink until we cry, until we kill, until we die. The country drinks and the zeal is obvious because when we drink, we drink too much. The conquest, colonial subjection, tyrannies, economic discrimination, all have something to do with the nature and excess of our parties."
Before ending its first legislative year, Guatemala’s new Congress voted— this time legally—on a tax law on alcoholic beverages that reinstated the rates from before the illegal "Boozegate" maneuverings. The FRG representatives pushed it through virtually alone. Should anyone be surprised that President Portillo has said nothing to distance himself from the scandal, when he is rumored to spend whole afternoons of his work week in his favorite restaurant watering down his long lunches with exquisite wines?

The Fiscal Pact: A sinking ship

The scandal around the tax law on alcoholic beverages touched on the most important issue in national politics and one of the crucial points in the peace accords. It is impossible to build a strong state able to increase social spending to benefit the country’s inhabitants and modernize the country without a significantly higher level of fiscal revenue than is currently the case in Guatemala. Portillo’s government has been unable to convince private capital to pay higher direct taxes on its profits or on the use of buildings and urban land or on idle rural land or on exports from the free trade zones. Nor has it been able to raise the value added tax, so that people would pay higher indirect taxes.

The ongoing crisis ensnarling the Tax Administration Office ever since its creation under Alvaro Arzú’s government leads one to think that the Guatemalan state will also never be able to increase fiscal revenue by decreasing tax evasion or ensuring a more complete coverage of those obliged to pay taxes. Rudy Castañeda, director of that office, says it will take a long time to cleanse the customs offices of the plague of corruption that characterizes them. The problem is compounded by the fact that Portillo’s government has no plan to link social spending, modernization and the country’s development with its potential tax revenue. This means that the Fiscal Pact, signed in May of last year, is a ship foundering without fuel or a navigation map.

The surveys say…

In early November, Vox Latina released the results of a survey it did on October 13-16. In response to the question of how those polled would rate Alfonso Portillo’s government after its first nine months in office, 40.8% said "poor" and 12.7% "very poor," while 32.7% answered "good" and 1.2% "very good." In other words, over 53% of those surveyed gave the government a negative rating, compared to under 34% positive. Just two months later, in the days between December 21 and January 5 leading up to the first anniversary of Portillo’s government, Vox Latina repeated the survey. This time 52% rated Portillo’s performance as "poor" and 10% "very poor," for a total of 62%. Only 27% answered "good" and 1% "very good," for a total of 28%. In less than three months, the government’s negative ratings had increased by nearly 10% while the positive fell by 6%.

A record drop

No other civilian government of the democratic transition in Guatemala, from 1985 to date, has suffered such a sharp drop in approval ratings during its first year in office. This is especially significant since Portillo won the first round of the elections with nearly half the votes and the second with 68%, higher percentages than those won by Vinicio Cerezo, the first civilian president in the transition, in 1985-86. The drop in voter turnout is also striking, from 68.8% in 1985 to just 53% in 1999.

Alfonso Portillo and Ríos Montt’s FRG raised relatively high expectations among Guatemalans. After so many years, the middle class saw Portillo as a standard bearer of the frustrated "revolution" of 1944-1954. There is no doubt that he appeared to many of the poor as someone extremely sensitive to poverty, while the FRG under Ríos Montt’s strong hand would stop the increasing violence and guarantee public safety. Others, such as the hundreds of thousands of former Civil Self-Defense Patrol members and military officers, also expected the return of their authority, which the peace accords had quite justly disqualified.

A blow to the country

All expectations went up in smoke during the first year of Portillo’s government, even if the specter of a coup roaming Guatemala’s streets may never materialize. Obviously, the vast majority of people hope it will not, because they are just becoming familiar with the rites of democracy. Few think that a coup would succeed in any case, given the current national and international context.
But this makes no difference. President Portillo and the FRG-controlled congress with Ríos Montt at its head have already dealt the country a sharp blow. The enormous irresponsibility of presuming to exercise state power with no preparation—no matter how weak that power may be in times of globalization and of the rise of identities other than patriotic identity—is a blow from which the country is unlikely to recover any time soon, since this misgovernment still has three years to go.

In his inaugural address last year, Portillo referred to five large pillars on which he would build his government: the peace accords, decentralization of power, economic reform, a program to address extreme social inequality and the fight against impunity and corruption. Unfortunately, he has not even begun to put any of these pillars in place.

Peace accords: No budget or timetable

The peace accords were proposed as state policy, not the capricious project of the government that preceded Portillo’s. What has been done? It appears that 30 army posts have been dismantled. The President also sent Congress a bill to create a body to follow up on the Historical Clarification Commission’s recommendations, but Ríos Montt got it shelved because he rejected the commission’s findings. While Portillo has publicly confronted many powerful forces in the country, he has not confronted Congress over this affront to his bill. Finally, Portillo named Rubén Calderón, one of the progressive people who gave his Cabinet a luster of social sensitivity, to head the Department of Peace, but since Calderón failed to make any progress in fulfilling the peace accords, he was replaced by Gabriel Aguilera, deputy foreign minister under Arzú’s government.

The timetable for implementing the peace accords has been revised, but was not done seriously. The peace accords are a kind of plan that seeks to improve the country in many ways. Taken seriously, they contain a blueprint for a new Guatemala that can be built within 20 years. But for this to happen, the accords need to be ordered and prioritized, assigning a budget and specialized personnel to the task, and drawing up a detailed calendar for the progress that should be made in carrying them out. When and how does the government plan to begin to fulfill the accord on doing a national land survey? There is no state initiative in place to undo the illegal land deals made in the northern part of the country and the Petén under the military governments of the 1960s and 1970s, as the accords require. The government also seems to have thrown in the towel on the goal of achieving fiscal revenue equal to 12% of the GDP. It will be impossible to go on demilitarizing the country without constitutional reforms. No plan has been established to ensure that the courts use the country’s main languages. The notorious Presidential General Staff remains in place. And the government has shown no determination to promote investigating and trying those responsible for the serious human rights violations the state committed during the armed conflict, even though in 17 specific cases these violations have been recognized before international entities.

A challenge without a schedule

The decentralization of power has been affected by a strange institutional situation. Two people were working on this task during Portillo’s first year in office: his decentralization secretary, Harris Whitbeck, and his decentralization commissioner, Rokael Cardona. Their respective prerogatives and functions were never clearly defined, however. This case typifies how the Portillo government’s ideological plurality has led to administrative confusion. Whitbeck is a leading FRG member and former Ríos Montt collaborator. Cardona is one of the progressive academics Portillo met during his student days when he was afflicted by revolutionary "weaknesses." With a Ph.D. in sociology from Paris, he has participated in numerous Central American initiatives aimed at developing municipal power. At the end of 2000, Portillo announced that he was entrusting the decentralization process to him. If this turns out to indeed be the case, it will be an encouraging example of the kinds of decisions that are all too rare in his government. Decentralization, along with its counterpart, local participation, is one of the pivots of the accord on socioeconomic issues and the agrarian situation, in turn one of the most important of all the peace accords. The bill on decentralization, along with other directly related bills—on urban and rural development councils, regionalization, and reforms to the municipal code—are on the legislative agenda but no date has been set for their debate or vote.

Inaugurating works and shooting off promises

The 1999 elections divided municipal power among various parties: of 330 municipalities, 147 went to the FRG, 106 to the National Advancement Party and 25 to civic committees; of the latter, 12 went to the New Nation Alliance (ANN), a leftist coalition that includes the URNG. There are rumors that the FRG-governed municipalities are taking exclusive advantage of the national budget line constitutionally earmarked for the municipalities. However likely that rumor may be, decentralization is not the most "visible" thing around the country today. Far more visible is President Portillo’s ubiquitous presence in the municipal seats—like Fujimori, wearing the indigenous clothes of the region visited. Usually accompanied by General Ríos Montt, he is there to inaugurate works and shoot off promises in an ongoing electoral campaign.

The economy isn’t recovering, but may be dollarizing

The economic reform is another pillar in crisis. The main failure lies in the government’s inability to take advantage of the Fiscal Pact and put it into effect. As there is still no law to better regulate and supervise financial activity, more than a few banks are dangerously close to failure. Unbridled speculation takes an enormous cost, while the main stockholders and boards of directors of some banks routinely make loans to their own companies that far surpass the allowable percentage. Nor has the interest rate been substantially lowered, so it is very difficult to obtain credit. The banks, and the armored cars in which they transfer their funds, are under constant threat of armed robbery.

The government has managed to keep most macroeconomic indicators—the exchange rate, fiscal deficit, inflation rate—stable. The exception is the interest rate. In contrast, he has been unable to reactivate the economy after the slowdown that began in Arzú’s last year of government. The sword of Damocles hanging over privatization of the telecommunications and electrical companies has done nothing to help increase foreign investment while the fall in international coffee prices—partly because the World Bank’s subsidizing of Vietnamese coffee plantations helped saturate the world market—depressed the value of Guatemalan exports.

Neither the increase in the international price of sugar, nor the remittances sent by family members abroad, nor tourism, nor nontraditional exports, nor the free trade zones have succeeded in overcoming the uncertainty and distrust produced by the government’s incoherent policies. The legislature’s lack of initiative and its technical inexperience in drafting bills compound the effects of Portillo’s populist lurching—importing sugar, buying fertilizer without first soliciting bids, importing chicken, lowering tariffs, and other such moves aimed at forcing the country’s monopolies to lower prices on the domestic market. It is unclear how the economy will be affected by the new free trade agreement with Mexico, which goes into effect in 2001, or the possibility of opening dollar accounts in the national banking system, which may be a precursor to dollarization.

A country of inequalities

Portillo announced a program to do away with the country’s extreme inequalities. Along with Brazil and South Africa, Guatemala tops the list of countries in the world with the most inequitable distribution of wealth. In 1998, the country’s richest 20% received 61.4% of its income, while the poorest 20% received just 3.5%. The income of the richest 20% is 17 times that of the poorest 20%.

A program to reduce this inequality over the long term would have to achieve various goals. First among these is job creation and, even more important, training to prepare people for skilled work. There are no signs of a public sector job creation program to respond to this need, nor is there any word of negotiations between the government and private enterprise for a bill to provide tax relief to companies that invest in training. In 2001, education represents 12% of the national budget and 1.9% of the GDP, though the goal set in the peace accords for 1999 was 2.4% of the GDP. The budget assigned to education this year falls even some US$ 60 million short of the budget assigned in the last year of the Arzú government. An educational reform program does appear to be underway, however, along with a controversial literacy program.

No programs have been established to ensure better distribution of water, especially to rural housing, or to build a drainage network or wells or latrines. Programs to deal with the enormous land shortage in both rural and urban areas and to address the precarious nature of housing are also notably missing. The steep ravines surrounding the capital, where Hurricane Mitch did so much damage, await the coming rains while the miserable adobe houses of the countryside await the next earthquake. It is hard to tell what has become of the previous government’s most important program, which aimed to improve communications, especially the country’s road infrastructure, but the minister responsible for this area is being hit with a growing wave of accusations of corruption.

In the hands of "hidden powers"

The fight against impunity and corruption may well be the pillar that has most discouraged the Guatemalan people. Eight months after taking office, Portillo decided to replace his government minister, naming FRG representative Byron Barrientos, a former army intelligence officer, to the post. The Bishops’ Conference, the diplomatic corps and UN agencies in the country have denounced an alarming rise in threats and attacks against organizations working on human rights and the struggle against impunity. Barrientos not only confirms the existence of these activities by systematically attributing them to "common crime" but predicts their occurrence, which looks a lot like a self-fulfilling prophesy, since the resources are still there to make it happen.

There has also been a stunning rise in the capital’s murder rate, and in the number of women found raped and murdered in ravines and deserted streets. Might this signal intolerance of the growing feminist consciousness? Assaults are another enervating plague. In the municipality of Santa María Chiquimula in the department of Totonicapán, whose population is 99% Quiché, not a week passes in which salespeople traveling from town to nearby markets are not assaulted. The police never patrol rural roads and are never stationed where the assaults typically occur. Lynchings are also continuing, and increasingly often, especially in El Quiché. Those at the scene report that former Civil Self-Defense Patrol members are responsible for inciting them.

The ongoing discovery of corrupt agents and even high officials within the newly-formed National Civil Police is also striking. Without them it would be simply impossible for so many bank robberies to be carried out in nearly absolute impunity. The government’s response to the problem of insecurity gives the impression that the President and those under him have closed ranks with easy money, with what the Myrna Mack Foundation calls the "hidden powers," that world in which speculation is allied with organized crime and its global tentacles. Portillo promised that he would deliver a report on the assassination of Bishop Gerardi, letting it be understood that his report would help clear up the case within six months. But over a year after his promise, Portillo’s report says nothing of importance and the case has yet to be resolved.

A new awareness is emerging and solidifying

The signing of the peace accords has clearly had an effect on Guatemalan consciousness, though peace itself does not appear among the concerns people raise when surveyed. They take peace for granted now, knowing that it has made the country more open to change, that the air they breathe is freer, and that without an armed conflict, neither arms nor the army have the loudest voice, but rather civilians.

During his campaign for the presidency, Portillo would say, as a kind of motto, "Yes we can!" It had resonance because Guatemalans’ new awareness and new way of thinking has shown them that misery, corruption, racism and discrimination, illiteracy, malnutrition, lack of credit and usury, unemployment and impunity are not their destiny. They know that all of the misfortunes they have borne as destiny are really products of political will, stifled growth, poor education, technical shortcomings, ethical irresponsibility and a denial of solidarity, all vices clothed in the force and arrogance of arms. The big change that has taken place in Guatemala is that, since the signing of the peace accords, that arrogant use of arms to maintain misery, poverty, inequality and exclusion is against the law, illegitimate and beyond the limits of people’s tolerance.

What we call the cultural legacy of violence—which is undeniable—is the residual of a dark age with immemorial roots in the conquest, brutally exacerbated by 36 years of armed conflict. Despite this legacy, however, Guatemala’s current culture is one of peace; for this reason is open to a process to ensure public safety and human development, which people are demanding and expecting as a right at the same time that they are working to win it.

The statistics of disillusionment

A year ago, nearly half the voters either punished what they perceived to be the broken promises of Alvaro Arzú’s government and the PAN, or preferred to trust Alfonso Portillo and the FRG. Today, according to the results of the Vox Latina survey, nearly 81% of the people think that the economic situation is worse now than it was under Arzú’s government, nearly 71% feel that public safety has declined, 69% think that the job situation is worse and 64% feel there is more corruption. A full 78% believe that this government is responsible for its waning approval ratings, while barely 14% think that others have discredited it.

A 61.6% majority feels that the press reports the reality of the country’s situation, while 34.2% feels that it exaggerates to undermine the government, whose credibility is on the floor: 80% do not believe President Portillo’s speeches, proposals or promises, although when asked which of the two is more trustworthy, 27.6% chose Portillo and 13.1% Ríos Montt, while 56.2% believe neither one. Only many years of accumulated impatience can explain why voters disregarded the inconsistency of Portillo’s political history, from the revolutionary left to the Christian Democrats to the FRG. Only a certain anxiety in response to the country’s increasing violence and machista atavism made them overlook the two violent murders which he himself admitted having committed at a drunken party when he was exiled in Mexico. With respect to Ríos Montt, it was inevitable that people would become disillusioned with someone who, if he not the strategist behind a campaign of massacres as brutal as the one took place during his term as head of state in 1982-83, tolerated it with complicity while dedicating himself to the moralizing fanaticism of his evangelical mission.

A democracy emerging at the wrong time

Another hypothesis that helps explain what is happening in Guatemala after one year of Portillo is the global connection. Guatemala’s young democracy, like those of all the other countries in Central America, with the possible exception of Costa Rica, is entering its formative years at a time when, around the world, democracy is going through a profound crisis of exhaustion.

Democracy’s crisis has to do with the fact that national governments now have less power, less maneuvering room and thus fewer possibilities of carrying out their plans. If people who are democratically elected based on certain programs and ties to certain figures lack the power once in office to begin implementing these programs, representative democracy becomes devalued. Moreover, in the case of Portillo’s government, the numerous promises in his program made it really rather empty, akin to a fairground lottery with multiple prizes, where no one wins anything in the end.

Many factors continuously interfere with the capacity of those who govern to act. Among these factors are the global networks of multinational companies and speculative money; the shortage and precarious nature of work that lies masked behind what is today known as "labor flexibility"; the displacement of historical time by simultaneous and instantaneous virtual time in which decisions are made that leave out the vast majority, the link between globalized crime networks and criminal or corrupt capital within each country, the creation and destruction of images and messages in the mass media and cultural movements based on religious, group, anti-patriarchal, generational, communal or other kinds of identity. In Guatemala, Héctor Rosada, Gustavo Porras and Edgar Gutiérrez—three influential figures in the country’s three most recent governments—have spoken with frustration of the national government’s reduced sphere of action and power.

Participatory democracy: The challenge and the hope

It is crucial to take up the challenge and the responsibility of developing participatory democracy. Whatever the real power of government institutions may be, it is not the same to elect one government as another, one President as another, one congress as another. In Guatemala, perhaps the most important race now underway is the one to elect the ten members and alternates of the Constitutional Court. Throughout Portillo’s first year, the Constitutional Court showed notable independence when it came to maintaining the rule of law—as it also had during the Arzú government and, most crucially, during the 1993 "Serranazo," when former President Serrano tried to stage a coup. The Constitutional Court reviewed all appeals filed involving the alteration of the alcoholic beverages tax law, and dismissed them all. (The demonstrations held by human rights and pro-justice organizations in front of congress, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court also helped ensure that the representatives presumed responsible for the illegal alteration will stand trial.) In March, the High Council of the University of San Carlos, the Lawyers’ Association, the Supreme Court, the Congress and the President will each elect two members to the Constitutional Court for its next term. The pro-justice movement, which includes many civil society associations and organizations, has been working to make people aware of what is at stake in this election. Forums are being held in various academic institutions to help ensure that the elections tare an honest, transparent and non-politicized.

Many occasions, some positive signs

This is but one example of what is meant by an interest in democratic participation. There will be other occasions. Over the coming months, one of the most important points in the peace accords will be addressed: the reform to the electoral law. Democratic participation will have great significance at that time. The general law governing decentralization will offer another important opportunity to participate; it is important to raise awareness to ensure that the law is aimed at democratic openness and not control.

There are also positive signs. People like Helen Mack continue to work against impunity, defying the inertia of institutions and the danger of corruption with the force of symbolic politics. The Catholic Church in El Petén has published a splendid pastoral letter, "The Cry of the Jungle in the Jubilee Year," which contains an environmental message. The "Moloj Kino’ jb’al Mayib’ Ixoqib’," the Political Association of Mayan Women, was recently launched in Guatemala to encourage indigenous women of diverse political views to participate in politics.

It may be that local movements and social, civic and humanitarian causes are providing another arena for the recuperation of polities in Guatemala. Perhaps they can not only carry out a social audit of the state’s use of power, social impact and overall ramifications, but also mobilize their own forces to improve people’s immediate situation.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Casting Nicaragua’s Electoral Flick

If the Elections Were Held Today…

Economic Forecasting in an Election Year

Dollarization: El Salvador’s Third Earthquake

El Salvador
Santa María Ostuma: The Voice of the Earthquake Victims

América Latina
We Women Want Power

The Agricultural Sector: Dominated by the QWERTY Economy

No Coup, Just Irresponsible Government

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development