After the Honeymoon, What Then?
Tremendous challenges confront the new president in Guatemala, Ramiro de León Capiro, who assumed office after the “Serranazo”. His biggest headache will come from the army.
Emma G. Martínez
Following two tumultuous weeks of coups and counter coups that seemed like a throwback to the 1980s, Guatemala's history took a 180 degree turn on June 6, surprising the world. At 12:55 in the morning in the congressional assembly hall, government human rights attorney general Ramiro de León Carpio, one of the Guatemalan army's fiercest critics, was sworn in as President of the country. Once the blue and white sash was draped over his shoulders, it was hard to believe that barely two weeks earlier, when then President Jorge Serrano Elías tried to take absolute power in a self directed coup Guatemalans refer to as the "Serranazo", this man had gone into hiding and everyone feared for his life.
"Do you swear that you will not make pacts behind the backs of the people?" shouted one spectator from among the hundreds representing grassroots groups at the heated congressional ceremony. "Do you swear that you are going to purge Congress and other state institutions? Do you swear to defend human rights from violations by the armed institution?" Those challenges embody the major questions that are still in the air today, a month after the swearing in of the new President.
A Country of SurprisesSerrano had completed just half of his five year term when he was finally deposed by Guatemala's traditional power blocs: the army, the private sector and the political parties. De León Carpio will finish out the other half, if he makes it that long.
The political carom shot that finally ricocheted De León into the presidential pocket began when Vice President Gustavo Espina tried to take advantage of the second coup against Serrano on June 1 to take power himself. To no one's surprise, José García Samayoa, minister of defense at the time, backed him immediately, since Espina is a great friend of the army. But Espina's initial support of the Serranazo had earned him the opposition of the business and union sectors and of representatives of the grassroots movement. These sectors formed an alliance known as the Instance of National Consensus to pressure for Espina's resignation and a resolution of the crisis.
"The formation of a group like this, which represents such diverse political and economic interests, has no precedent in Guatemala," stated Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, an analyst with the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). "One could find everyone in the Instance, from Rios Montt backers to Socialists, all united by the moment. In a country such as this, with 30 years of war, tremendous polarization and sectarianism, I think that this union is a very healthy symptom."
Two representatives of the grassroots movement participated in the Instance, but had very limited influence in resolving the crisis. Although the movement has become increasingly outspoken over the past year, it did not manage to demonstrate sufficient strength during the days of the crisis. Several demonstrations and marches brought together no more than a couple thousand participants.
"We managed to get a foot in the door," declared Antonio Argueta, one of those who represented the grassroots movement in the alliance's negotiations. "We're making use of the small space that opened up for us in the National Instance."
The real power was wielded by the private sector organized in the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF). The "Cacifes," as they are popularly known, were worried about the coup's disastrous economic consequences. Almost all countries had immediately cut their bilateral aid to Guatemala and tourism fell off precipitously. The business leaders feared even greater economic reprisals, such as boycotts of their products, and were particularly worried that Washington would cancel the preferential benefits conceded for their exports. After only 13 days the quetzal was devalued, producing capital losses calculated at the equivalent of more than $25 million.
The Carom's PathOn Friday, June 4, three days after Espina had taken over the government, the army shifted again and reached an accord with the Instance, withdrawing its support from Espina. That same day, the Court of Constitutionality determined that Espina could not be President, due to his participation in the Serranazo, backing its decision with articles from the abused Constitution. It also ordered the Congress to convene within 24 hours to choose a new President, thus unleashing an intense lobbying effort by the different power groups.
There was no little irony in the fact that, in the midst of the most acute political crisis in a decade, the country's future would be put in the hands of the hated and discredited Congress. That legislative body, rife with car thieves, alleged drug traffickers and even child abusers (a congressional representative was actually tried for this a few years ago) had to choose the country's new executive from among candidates proposed by the Instance. All sectors of society agreed that the President could not belong to any political party, thus roundly expressing their rejection of a totally corrupt system.
On June 5, after a marathon 15 hour congressional session, the list had been whittled down to two candidates: De León Carpio and 81 year old Arturo Herbruger, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The conservative and manipulable. Herbruger was the army's choice.
At 8:55 that night, as voting between the two was about to begin, the mood in the congressional hall was tense. Hundreds of spectators chanted, "The people united will never be defeated," and shouted insulting epithets at the legislators such as "snakes, thieves, rats."
To win, a candidate needed 79 of the 115 votes. The imposing building resounded with the spectators' shouts each time someone voted for De León. At the end of the first round, he had 64 to Herbruger's 51, but as the second round was just about to get underway, Herbruger decided to withdraw from the race. In that second count, De León won 106 of the 115 votes unopposed. Guatemalans awoke the next day with a new and unexpected President.
Behind the MiracleNothing is known yet about the negotiations with the army or the conditions it imposed to permit its arch enemy Ramiro de León to take office. At first a rumor circulated that the army had required an amnesty for Serrano and Espina, but that soon dried up. Other negotiation points may have to do with a possible Truth Commission and a future reduction in the size of the army. For his part, De León emphatically denied that he had assumed a mandate tied to any conditions.
Whatever the truth regarding those negotiations, various contextual factors also influenced the choosing of De León. First of all, many congressional representatives appear to have voted for him because he had more support from the general population. Given the generalized clamor that the Congress be purged, the legislators wanted to ingratiate themselves at the eleventh hour with their heretofore forgotten constituencies.
A second factor was the coincidence of interests among the country's most powerful sectors. The massive international rejection of the Serranazo affected the army as much as it did the private sector. The fact that it was being said abroad that the army was behind the coup represented a reversal for its counterinsurgency strategy, since that gave the URNG guerrilla forces an edge in the international camp. The army needs a democratic facade, and electing someone with Ramiro de León's credibility would pull the plug on the URNG's arguments to the contrary.
And finally, both the Congress and the private sector threw their weight behind De León because his impeccable reputation might rub off on a political system so discredited that it is on the edge of collapse. After almost three decades of military regimes, hardly anyone believes in Guatemala's political institutions. In the 1990 presidential elections, 60% of the eligible voters abstained, and by the May 1993 municipal elections that figure had risen to 70%.
The political parties are like "electoral animals" that go into hibernation when it is not campaign season. The three most important parties are based only in the urban centers and are replete with professional thieves to boot. Not a single party represents the interests of the indigenous peoples, who make up some 60% of the population. No left party has survived the repression; all have either disappeared after the assassination or forced exile of their leaders or have abandoned their principles.
Where Was the US?The fundamental role played in the crisis by Guatemala's "other" power the US Embassy cannot be ignored. After becoming human rights attorney general, Ramiro de León maintained very good relations with the Embassy, without whose backing he could not have been as firm in his work. With the communist specter vanished, it seems that Washington has decided to support a degree of democracy and demilitarization in its "backyard."
"At this moment military regimes no longer interest the United States; this is an extremely important element," explains Silvia Monzón, a political scientist at the University of San Carlos. "When the gringos say, 'Look, boys, now everybody goes along with military regimes,' everybody goes along. Now they're saying, 'We want democracy,' so everybody goes along with democracy, which is an empty word in our countries, since we go right on being dependent. But we're witnessing a new phase of international relations, in which US interests are imposed in another manner. Now the United States is interested in a cheap labor force and is subjugating us in other ways."
Who Is This New President?Ramiro de León Carpio is far from being a revolutionary. He could be said to be Guatemala's Antonio Lacayo (the minister of the presidency in Nicaragua), born in the capital to a family known for its wealth, lineage and political ties. His cousin Jorge Carpio was a presidential candidate in 1990 and is the editor of one of the country's main newspapers.* Now a 51 year old lawyer, Ramiro de León specialized in constitutional law at Landívar, Guatemala's conservative Jesuit university, in the early 1960s. As early as those days, he stood out for his defense of human rights, organizing other students into a campaign to protest the army's assassination of a classmate's husband.
De León has also dipped in the dirty waters of Guatemalan politics, as founder of the center right Union of the National Center (UCN), one of Guatemala's more important parties. He was also a legislator between 1984 and 1986, during the transition from the military dictatorship to the civilian government of Vinicio Cerezo, and helped draft the 1986 Constitution.
But he did not really begin to distinguish himself in political life until 1989, when Congress appointed him attorney general for human rights. And, even then, he did not demonstrate much belligerence in pursuing violators at the beginning, particularly if they belonged to the security forces. During the two and a half years of Serrano's government, however, he emerged as an unprecedented critic of the army and the government, firmly denouncing human rights abuses committed by both. He also greatly strengthened his post as an institution, appointing assistants in the country's most forgotten corners.
Hero and MythEver more daring actions like his order to close a military intelligence office in the main post office or his open and tenacious defense of the refugees increased his popularity and prestige among the population. But it was Serrano's coup that turned him into a myth. When he awoke on the morning of May 25 to discover that the Serranazo had occurred, and that his telephone had been cut and his house surrounded by police, he made a joke of the security cordon by escaping over the roof. Rejecting offers of asylum from several countries, he went into hiding inside Guatemala. Throughout the crisis he criticized Serrano's de facto dictatorship and met with various sectors to seek a solution to such an unexpected situation.
The new President thus has more credibility than most people even dream of; very few Guatemalans have yet to be convinced of his honesty. A whole other question is whether he can manage to exercise power. However good he may be as a person, he is only one man, facing serious limits to his ability to change an entire system such as Guatemala's, so deeply scarred by corruption and militarism. He is also assuming power with a weak support base inside the country, which means he will have to make concessions to different sectors in order to build and consolidate that base.
Who's For Him, Who's Against HimThe country's most important political parties opposed De León's candidacy, even though their congressional representatives voted for him in the end. It is probable that his scant political support from some parties will disappear altogether if he responds to the widespread clamor to "purify" the Congress and other government institutions.
The private sector did not directly support his candidacy either, though it did sign the consensus document that proposed him among others. For the moment, the large capitalists are delighted about the almost immediate restoration of international aid, as well as the new President's high level of international credibility, which they hope will attract foreign investors.
Future support from this powerful sector, though, will depend on De León's economic program, which so far remains shrouded in mystery. In his inaugural speech, his emphasis on respect for private property did not pass unnoticed. Now, a month after taking office, his declarations have not exceeded the classic general rhetoric: priority to the poorest sectors. Concrete words such as "agrarian reform" considered subversive in this country have not yet entered his vocabulary.
For now, De León's strongest domestic support comes from the Catholic Church, nongovernmental organizations, the academic community, the media, the grassroots movement and though still very reserved the population in general. He also has strong support abroad. A number of countries restored their bilateral aid almost immediately and several foreign leaders, including the US Ambassador in Guatemala, gave him strong backing.
Nonetheless, De León can expect the support he is enjoying from the media, the grassroots movement and the general population to slip away the minute he begins to make anti popular decisions, particularly on economic policy issues.
The very day of his election, leaders of the Unity of Trade Union and Grassroots Action (UASP), the grassroots umbrella organization, declared their support for him, at the same time warning that he would have to live up to his promises to reduce electricity rates and take legal action against Serrano and others responsible for the coup. The other items on the petition the UASP presented to the new President were:
* Presentation of a plan for building democracy with justice.
* An end to institutionalized repression and violence by the government and army.
* Immediate purging of the Congress and Supreme Court.
* Purging of the security forces, particularly the feared Presidential Chiefs of Staff.
* Reforms to the electoral and political parties laws, to permit grassroots participation.
* Cancellation of the privatization of state enterprises, particularly electricity and telephone services.
* Urgent projects in health, education and housing.
* Naming of grassroots movement and national media representatives to the new Cabinet.
* An immediate call for a national dialogue with representatives of all sectors.
* Ratification of Agreement 169, which guarantees respect for the rights of the Mayan people, and of other international agreements that benefit the population in general.
De León's enemies inside the country may be fewer than his friends, but they are more powerful. The majority of the evangelical churches will probably not support him, since they backed Serrano's coup in their services at the time. Their opposition is important because they are powerful in themselves and represent 30% of the population.
It is to be expected that the political parties farthest to the right will actively work against him. Equally to be expected is that his biggest headache will be the army.
A Wounded Animal?One military affairs analyst says that the Guatemalan army cannot be viewed as monolithic and that the institution was weakened by the Serranazo. Up to that moment, he says, the army had managed to maintain a public image of unity, but the crisis exacerbated its latent divisions. According to this expert, the Serrano coup was supported only by a small group of high level officers, but the majority did not back it because it meant a 10 year setback in the military counterinsurgency strategy and in the country's international image.
Thus, some mainly younger officers began to organize a counter coup and to go public with their discontent. During the crisis, some media received messages from an anonymous group called "The Ethical Officers," stating that 90% of the officers did not back the coup.
"The contradictions in the military ranks became uncontrollable and prevented the armed institution from carrying out its plan," explains the analyst. "The army's way out of the crisis was to elect Arturo Herbruger. It didn't want De León, but could not avoid his election in the end, because it was divided and civil society was united."
On June 7, hours after taking office, the new President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces announced his first changes. General Francisco Menaldo Ortega, presidential chief of staff, and Minister of Defense García Samayoa were sent into retirement. But to the dismay of many, the latter was replaced by General Jorge Roberto Perussina, another hard liner. Many believe that, from his position as defense chief of staff, Perussina had been behind the "Serranazo," together with the two dismissed.
The fact that Perussina was promoted instead of retired like his two colleagues brought protests from the grassroots movement, which interpreted De León's decision as a grave sign of his weakness. It was rumored that he had wanted to name General Mario Enríquez Morales, a moderate, instead, but that Perussina stopped him cold.
De León insistently denied a companion rumor that Perussina would be retired sooner or later, but on June 28, he surprised everyone by calling the media to his offices for an announcement of Perussina's retirement and the swearing in of General Enríquez Morales as the new minister of defense. In his brief declaration, President De León Carpio said only that the decision responded to "the consolidation of democracy." It rather seemed to respond to his own need to impose his authority and send a clear message to those who would resist the changes.
It is probable that the younger and more moderate army officers see De León's presidency as an opportunity to improve the international image of Guatemala and of the army itself. The army can allege that it saved the Constitution, thus milking the crisis for its own benefit. But the hard liners will hardly be satisfied by the rise of "moderates" to such key posts as minister of defense. Thus no possibility can be discarded for the near future, including another coup.
"We are entering a very dangerous period," opines the military analyst. "The army is like a wounded animal, and it is going to attack. There is no doubt that it will take selective reprisals for what happened."
Monumental ChallengesThe new President's most immediate challenge was to choose his team without succumbing to heavy pressure from various sectors to impose their own agendas. He presented the Congress with a list of candidates for Vice President, from which the legislators chose the elderly Herbruger, who will hardly be the dynamic companion De León needs to help face such monumental challenges.
His most important achievement was to name the defense minister he wanted, but he has dragged his feet in filling other posts; by the end of June he had not yet firmed up all of his Cabinet choices. That was in part due to the enormous pressures, but also because some of those he appointed refused to accept for fear of getting mixed up in problems.
The few government officials confirmed by the end of June are better known outside the country than within it since most have careers in foreign universities. The new minister of education, however, is Mayan, the first indigenous person ever to be a member of Guatemala's Cabinet.
Another enormous challenge is the economy. According to FLACSO analyst Aguilera Peralta, all of the macroeconomic achievements of the past two years were lost in the 13 days of the crisis.
The President will have to decide very quickly whether or not to continue the anti popular structural adjustment policies set in motion by Serrano. Like many other Latin American leaders, De León will find himself between the rock of multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the hard place of a grassroots movement that rejects them. That movement feels it has the authority to demand more from De León because he supported grassroots causes before becoming President.
The purification of the Congress and courts will also obviously be a major challenge. And, if all this were not enough, the former human rights attorney general now has in his hands the responsibility for negotiating an end to the longest war in Latin America. The last session with the URNG in Mexico fell apart in May, shortly before the coup, when the Serrano government refused to sign a human rights accord. Now expectations are mounting that, because of who he is, De León's election could speed up the negotiations. The URNG commanders are also expectant, but their questions are different: How long will De León last? Can he really do what neither of the other two civilian Presidents, Cerezo and Serrano, were able to do control the army?
As grassroots leader Ricardo Curtz summed it up, "He has the opportunity to make real changes: to recognize the Communities of Population in Resistance as civilian, to assure that the civilian patrols are voluntary, to eliminate forced recruitment, to lower electricity rates and to try to punish those responsible for the coup. We believe he can do it and are hoping that he won't betray the people. We're throwing the ball back in his court and will see if he acts as he was suggesting when he was attorney general. If these steps are taken, the people will love him greatly. If not, he'll have problems very soon."