Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 167 | Junio 1995



Four Unknowns Before the Elections

Will General Rios Montt be a candidate for president? Will the URNG participate in the elections? Will there be a third force in the process? How will the peace process influence the elections?

Gonzalo Guerrero

Almost nine months after initiating negotiations on the rights and identity of indigenous peoples, the Guatemalan government and the URNG finally signed an accord on March 30. The event went by virtually unnoticed, however, given the political scene saturated by accusations of CIA Guatemalan military complicity. This lukewarm reaction also has to do with the fact that the agreement except for points related to human rights will go into effect only after the signing of a Peace Accord.

Multiethnic, Multicultural and Multilingual Country

Some of the most "innovative" aspects of the accord are those related to cultural, civil, political, social and economic rights. Among the most outstanding, FLACSO analyst Gabriel Aguilera Peralta points out, are "those that strengthen the role of indigenous community authorities in managing their own concerns and broadening their jurisdiction. The greater recognition of customary rights and broader and more complete treatment of the land rights issue also stand out."
Aguilera, an expert in negotiation processes, calls the accord an announcement that "peace, which is being won through such hard work, can introduce important changes in our society." There are, however, doubts about government willingness to implement the most controversial reforms.

The Mayan groups reacted with a mixture of optimism toward the accord's formal achievements, and reservations about its implementation mechanisms. "It is the first time in Guatemala's history that the state and the government recognize and accept that discrimination against Guatemala's indigenous peoples exists at all levels," concluded Mayan Unity and Consensus (IUCM), a body that includes 76 member organizations. IUCM, however, warns that "in the economic aspect, the [accord on] rights for Mother Earth is very superficial and inadequate."
The Mayan groups also criticized the lack of indigenous peoples' participation in formulating the accord, which left huge content gaps. "We are concerned that the accord does not mention militarization, given that the Mayan people are seriously affected by it. Nowhere does it deal with the destructive effects of militarization in our communities, much less establish a solution to the problem," states the IUCM.

Despite its limitations and "integrationist" focus, the indigenous groups in the Council of Mayan Organizations (COMG) consider the accord "acceptable" because "it begins to give the Guatemalan nation a new definition and characterization as multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual."
With the signing of the accord, the government only agrees to promote the respective legislation in Congress. The accord's implementation remains in the hands of National Assembly representatives, who do not represent the country's indigenous majority. In that sense, the most concrete result of this round of negotiations has been to establish a minimum consensus for future work.

The Next Rounds

The next round of government URNG negotiations will address socioeconomic and agrarian issues. These are key issues, since they have been the principal cause of the country's historic conflicts and could stagnate negotiations due to the powerful interests at stake. URNG leaders have promised to put forward proposals covering four major areas: the state's role in the economy, strengthening of the state through tax reform, agricultural modernization as a solution to the land problem, and basic social service reforms in education, health and housing.

On April 27 28 the government and the URNG presented their proposals in a mini meeting. Later, both delegations met with delegates from international financial organizations to analyze the viability of their proposals in the context of the world economic reality. They will begin negotiations on these issues in the second week of May. The Civil Sectors Assembly (ASC) and the members of CACIF, the umbrella organization of big business, have both prepared proposals related to the socioeconomic and land themes as support documents.

The peace process has gotten farther behind the rescheduling agreed to in January. It will be extremely difficult to sign a peace accord in August, as was agreed to by both sides, given the complexities of the issues still to be addressed socioeconomic and agrarian aspects, civil power and the army's role in a democratic society, constitutional reforms, the electoral schedule and, above all, the cease fire.

And the Bámaca Case?

The scandal that erupted in Washington in March with accusations that the CIA withheld information about the alleged participation of a Guatemalan army colonel in the killings of guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca and US citizen Michael Devine, have not had the expected results. The accusations were made public at a moment of great tensions within the army, and it was expected that they would exacerbate the fissures between the different sectors of officers.

During February and March, a former guerrilla and a Guatemalan congressperson accused army officers of involvement in illicit activities: kidnappings and car thefts. Sources close to the army said the accusations came from officers who were beginning purge efforts. The tensions reached the point that security measures were increased around the President, the Defense Minister and the head of the Presidential High Command.

Also in March, the magazine Central American Inforpress reported that "the US diplomatic mission sent President De León Carpio a list naming just over 30 army officers linked to drug trafficking and whose retirement would be asked of the President. ...The unexpected US petition provoked a virulent reaction by hardliners within the armed institution, to the point that they reactivated intentions of a coup."
The Bámaca case emerged a week later, and many felt there would be even more fissures in the armed institution. But that has not happened. President Ramiro de León Carpio defended Alpírez, the implicated officer. The High Command "closed ranks" in what observers termed "an organizational defense." Héctor Rosada, president of the government's Peace Commission, called the campaign "conjurings" cooked up in Washington.

The Guatemalan President has "resolved" the impact of the scandal provoked by Torricelli's declarations with the simple argument that "the most serious problem is not in Guatemala, but in Washington, where a Federal agency is accused of committing crimes in Guatemala. That is very scandalous for that country's domestic policy."
"The decision to declassify CIA documents generated more problems domestically in the United States than here," said Rosada, "because this is a sort of truth commission for them."
Two aspects of the scandal appear to weaken the pressure that the US government can exercise on the Guatemalan army. First, the documents that supposedly support Torricelli's declarations have not been released. Second, the cover up logic in the corridors of power in Washington is very similar to that used by the powerful in Guatemala.

Fissures in the Army?

Few political analysts have managed to explain the internal dynamics of the Guatemalan army, possibly the continent's most hermetic. Some, studying the ideologically distinct sectors within the officers' corps, argue that the "institutionalists" have managed to impose their plans at the cost of the "hardliners" in recent years. Others believe that differentiating between sectors of the army is equivalent to "distinguishing between classes of Nazis," as Jennifer Harbury, Bámaca's widow, commented. The first want to promote the modernizing sectors and convince or isolate the hard, liners. The second believe that everyone is guilty and all should pay.

Perhaps what can be said with most certainty is that there are moments when the internal divisions define the army's strategic policies. And there are others when the army is totally united.

In recent years, officers' attitudes and reactions have been determined by four major interests: the need to militarily defeat the enemy (in any of its forms) through any necessary measure (the hard line); the need to maintain the armed forces' integrity in the face of changes in national and world political conditions (the institutionalists); the use of institutional impunity and authority for illicit enrichment; and the fear of being judged and sanctioned for direct participation in human rights violations and war crimes.

The last two issues arouse no disagreement. Officers of any ideological line could be involved in fragrant rights violations or could have illicit businesses. And the borders shift: an officer who believed in the "by any measure necessary" creed twelve years ago, could today be an institutionalist.

The armed institution is now facing various challenges. Once the peace accords are signed, a historic clarifying commission will analyze the role of an army with the worst history of human rights violations on the continent. In the last five years, the international community has increased its criticisms of this army and demanded an end to the wall of impunity that protects it.

The end of the Cold War, the possibility of a negotiated agreement to the armed conflict and international pressures for reforms to the security system, together point to important changes in the army.

At this moment, the attacks are crossing over. Officers with illicit businesses are accused by sources linked to the institutionalists. All officers "with skeletons in the closet" feel threatened by the revelations that Colonel Julio Alpírez allegedly participated in assassinations and tortures. And even a well known institutionalist, ex Defense Minister General Alejandro Gramajo, is plagued by a civil suit in the United States. A US judge ordered the general to pay $47 million for damages to seven people during his term as defense minister.

While the attacks are directed at individuals for corruption, violations not linked to counterinsurgency, etc there may be space for divisions and purges. But the moment that all of them feel threatened or the attacks are seen as "conjuring" against the institution, the reaction will be unified and institutional.

Ríos Montt?

Although only six months remain until the general elections, the probable results remain unclear. Four unknowns will affect the electoral situation: whether or not retired General Efraín Ríos Montt will participate in them; whether the URNG will decide to take part in or abstain from the electoral process; how the achievements at the URNG government negotiating table are linked to electoral issues; and the definition of a third political force in the country. As of now, there are no clear indications about the future of these four variables.

Polls and political analysts identify Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) as the most popular party among the voting population. Its principal rival, the National Advancement Party (PAN), a modernizing rightwing party with a primarily urban base, appears in second place. The most recent independent poll shows that 48.5% of those polled lean toward Ríos Montt, while 30% favor Alvaro Arzú of the PAN.

Ríos Montt's candidacy is overshadowed by constitutional obstacles that prohibit any person from seeking the presidency who became President through a military coup. Ríos Montt supporters reject the prohibition, arguing that it cannot be applied retroactively and that the general occupied the presidency two years before the ratification of the Constitution.

They also claim that the prohibition was made to block Ríos Montt's aspirations and is undemocratic because it prevents voters from choosing who they want for President. The FRG plans to insist on the General's candidacy and try to reform the electoral laws. It hopes to create enough political pressure to force the tribunals to accept its candidate. "If they don't let me participate, anarchy will intensify in Guatemala," Ríos Montt has warned.

Arzú and the PAN

With or without Ríos Montt, the Ríos Montt phenomenon has defined a dividing line in the electoral field. Many Guatemalan refugees in Mexico would postpone their return if he becomes President. Human rights groups, organizations of victims of violence, unions and indigenous leaders have also expressed their concerns.

Apart from his history as the head of a repressive de facto government, Ríos Montt represents a style of authoritarian, top down government based on a twisted version of Old Testament morality that emphasizes order and security. At a moment when civil society is making efforts to extend its political participation and decentralize public decision making, a paternalistic government offers little hope.

For now, PAN and Alvaro Arzú appear to be the country's second political force. Although PAN has been called a modernizing rightwing party, Arzú has had little luck in winning the confidence of traditional business sectors.

PAN's hope is that Ríos Montt will be excluded from the elections. The fears of the population's broad organized sectors that Ríos Montt would become President have given PAN the opportunity to consolidate an "anti Ríos" vote.

PAN's two attractions are that Alvaro Arzú is not Ríos Montt and that in recent years, even in the National Congress, the party has managed to avoid the political wear attributable to corruption and opportunism. The political risk for the party is that its base the modernizing private sector and urban professionals fears both Ríos Montt and the reforms proposed by the popular sectors, so a swing to the left could endanger PAN's traditional base.

A Third Force?

With the two largest rightwing parties dominating the National Congress, the panorama is not encouraging for the other parties. Between them, PAN and Ríos Montt's FRG hold almost three quarters of the seats in the Congress (57 between the two). Ever since the Congressional inauguration in September 1994, the other parties have tried to maneuver their limited political force with tactical alliances that could tilt the balance in favor of one or another of the two larger forces. But it has not gone beyond this. In mid April, the formerly powerful Guatemalan Christian Democrats (DCG) and the headless Union of the National Center (UCN) decided to ally with the weakened Democratic Socialist Party (PSD) to form the self termed National Front.

The strategy of the three parties consists of creating an alliance able to attract all potential voters from the center and the left those who oppose the FRG as the party of the general and distrust the PAN, considering it a "class party."
In its favor is the National Front's dose of ideological pluralism and the absence of other viable alternatives for social sectors traditionally marginalized from politics. Against it is the long history of opportunism, corruption and accommodation, from the Christian Democratic Cerezo government in 1986 to the downfall of the Jorge Serrano Elías government in May 1993.

While some political analysts see the triple alliance as a better possibility of defeating the right, the legacy of corruption and opportunism weighs in any evaluation of its credibility.

The National Front already has a candidate: Fernando Andrade Díaz Durán, foreign minister during the Cerezo government and famous as "the power behind the throne" in various military governments. Today he maintains friendly relations with one of the URNG leaders. Andrade Díaz Durán was key to the transition to a civilian government in 1985 and it was said that his naming as foreign minister was a concession to the army. Human rights groups distrusted him because of his links with the army.

The Silent Majority

At first sight, PAN appears to be the party most affected by the National Front, though much will depend on the strategy chosen by the URNG and the popular organizations and the level of grassroots interest in the electoral process. In the last elections in August 1994, more than 80% of the eligible voting population abstained. To date, no one has motivated the interest of the population because no party has touched the most controversial issues: access to land, militarization in rural areas and autonomy for the indigenous peoples.

Citizens might be more motivated to participate in the elections if electoral law and political party reforms were to allow local civic committees to participate in legislative elections. But the national parties show little willingness to make reforms that would eliminate the monopoly they currently enjoy in proposing legislative candidates.

Another factor that could increase electoral participation would be the legal reforms that may result from the peace negotiations, the position that the popular organizations take and URNG participation in the elections. There are still many unknowns, but everything in Guatemala is beginning to smell of elections.

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