Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 175 | Febrero 1996



President Arzu: A New Stage Begins

During his trip to Central America the Pope hailed the “joyful moment” of the peace agreement in Guatemala. That peace, according to the Pope, should be the fruit “of integral development that is inclusive of all parts of the population.” This is the great challenge that faces the new government.

Gonzalo Guerrero

Like the fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea," the National Advancement Party (PAN) made an admirable "catch" with a small "bait" in the two recent election rounds. With the support of less than 18% of eligible Guatemalans, PAN's modernizing right won the presidency, 140 municipalities and an absolute majority in the National Congress (43 of the 83 seats).

Recent history, however, shows that there is a sea of difference between winning the presidency and controlling the state. In the four years that Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen has to get the country to a safe port, the sharks abounding in Guatemalan political waters will try to rip to shreds the new President's ambitious expedition across open seas.

The Election Results

None of the 19 presidential candidates won an absolute majority in the first round of the general elections, held on November 12, 1994. That forced a second round on January 7 between the two candidates with the most votes: Alvaro Arzu of the PAN and Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), General Efrain Rios Montt's party. In that first round, Arzu won 37% of the votes and Portillo 22%.

More than half of the registered voters (54%) abstained from the November elections and 14 of the 23 parties were eradicated because they did not receive at least 4% of the vote or get at least one of their candidates in Congress.

The 16 least popular parties averaged less than 1% of the votes. Two of those parties the National Liberation Movement (MLN) and the Democratic Union (UD) were saved from extinction by winning a congressional seat.

In third place, though far behind the two finalists with only 13% of the vote, was the National Alliance, comprising the Guatemalan Christian Democratic Party (PDCG), the National Center Union (UCN) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD).

Its success in the country's interior was due more to the party infrastructure of the PDCG and UCN both with a significant number of mayorships than to the platform of its candidate, lawyer and ex Foreign Minister Fernando Andrade.

The relative failure of the National Alliance is interpreted as a rejection of traditional "centrist" parties, a reaction to the bad image of Christian Democracy after its 1986 91 presidential term and the UCN's disintegration after the June 1993 murder of its founder and main leader, Jorge Carpio Nicolle. The UCN and the PDCG won 68 representatives between them in 1990. This time they only won 7.

The electoral surprise belongs to the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), which won 6 congressional representatives and several municipalities in the interior. The FDNG even beat the National Alliance in the capital.

What Died and What was Born

According to new FDNG congressional representative Nineth Montenegro, "The traditional right died in the November 12 elections; the modern right was born and a new democratic left wing was formed." Montenegro is president of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), made up of relatives of disappeared or detained individuals.

Among the other new FDNG representatives are Amilcar Méndez, leader of the Runujel Junam Ethnic Council (CERJ), based in Quiché, and Rosalina Tuyuc, president of the National Coordinating Body of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA). In recent years, all three have been accused by the army of forming part of the "guerrilla's political arm."
Although the majority of international observers returned to their countries satisfied that the elections were clean and the results legitimate, others doubted the validity of the process and the representativity of the political parties. The complaints center on legal obstacles that kept local groups from proposing congressional candidates, the high number of unregistered citizens and the high abstention levels.

Considering that a third of Guatemalans of voting age were not registered, real participation in the first round drops from the official 46% to 30%, and electoral support for the governing party, PAN, becomes less than 12% of the total. A full 70% of Guatemalans abstained from registering and/or voting. The FRG could not convince more than 7% of the population to support its project. The two winning parties both of which represent rightwing currents thus moved on to the second round with less than 20% support of the citizenry.

Arzu's "Victory"

When Alvaro Arzu spoke with envío in 1994, he stressed the importance of an ample victory to be able to win the battle against discrimination, privilege and extreme poverty. Without a clear demonstration of popular support, he said then, it would also be difficult to carry out the reforms necessary to overcome problems of impunity, corruption and crime. From that viewpoint, the January 7 results could not be less encouraging; Arzu lost in 18 of 22 departments, and won only due to the majority he got in Guatemala City, where PAN supporters are concentrated. Arzu defeated rival Alfonso Portillo by only 32,000 votes (2.4% of the valid votes), which is the closest presidential victory in the country's history.Since only 37% of those registered voted in the second round, Arzu gained the presidency with the support of only 18% of registered voters. Taking into account the 33% of non registered adults, the result is even more disconcerting: the new government was elected by only 12% of Guatemala's eligible voters. In the zones of greatest conflict over the last 18 years Quiché and Huehuetenango abstention reached 75%, a convincing indicator of how little people in those areas were convinced by the electoral process.

The Right vs. the Right

In large measure, the heart of the battle between Portillo and Arzu was a clash between two business classes. To understand this, one must look at the patterns of the accumulation of wealth in Guatemala over the last three or four decades.

The 1954 counterrevolution was the rejection of a state modernization and economic model that included agrarian reform, infrastructure improvements, de monopolization of the private sector and labor and social security reforms. In its place was imposed a state dominated by a military guided by a "national security" doctrine. Analysts have amply discussed the tragic political implications of this, but have not given the same attention to the impact it has had on the accumulation process.

Militarized Economy

The decades of military government have had at least four economic effects:

By linking union and peasant movements with the revolutionary struggle, the private sector justified levels of repression high enough to destroy the movements and maintain extremely low salaries.

The resulting economic advantage for Guatemalan industrialists and agroexporters has been undervalued labor, but at the cost of modernization or production diversification.

Political violence and impunity has favored private sector monopolies and created barriers to new business ventures. Two notable cases have been beer and cement production.

The army's direct control over the state until 1986 was the main source of enrichment for the military class and its allies. Overvalued infrastructure projects, management of public finance, customs and property registration and control of police corruption were some of the "business" activities of state functionaries who never had to be accountable to anyone.

The armed conflict and militarization of the state not only caused death and destruction but also discouraged private investment, triggered decapitalization of the economy and encouraged short term and speculative investment tendencies.

A peculiar style of "crony" capitalism was consolidated over the last four decades, which managed to reproduce itself without renovations, making repairs in the social fabric only when absolutely necessary, and then by force.

PAN Has a Project

The battle between Portillo and Arzu was largely a battle between this status quo and the modernizing sectors. The greatest threat to the status quo today is not the ghost of revolutionary socialism. It rather comes from the demands of a liberal economy for competitive markets, free access to production factors (land, labor and capital), a functional judicial system, representative democracy and clearly established and accepted game rules.

Arzu's victory over Portillo and Rios Montt's supporters was an important step in the process of re legitimizing the state. Some army sectors initiated that process 13 years ago, after the military threat the guerrilla insurgency posed had been neutralized.

Various signs indicate that the new government may avoid some of the errors of the three previous civilian governments. In the first place, PAN has a party commitment to maintain a political project that goes beyond the next four years. As Vice President Luis Flores, a presidential hopeful for 2000, said, "Since our first day in government we must be looking towards our last day. What will we be able to say about our efforts?" Since PAN has a long term project, it will not easily fall into the temptation of immediate benefits that have political costs for that project. PAN's leadership comes primarily from a group of professionals, administrators and technocrats born and educated in the capital. They are university educated and their ideology favors a market economy, respect for private property and the promotion of private initiative as a solution to the country's problems. That "modern business estate" has certain ideological autonomy, as opposed to those who historically ran the country: the army and the agroexport producers.

Impunity: Bad Business

Alongside this "managerial" group, another capitalist sector also supports PAN, made up of businesspeople who consider corruption, impunity and the insecurity caused by organized crime to be bad business. Such vices traditionally involve powerful sectors of the security forces. These capitalists are promoting a state that facilitates the insertion of Guatemala's economy into the current globalization of investments and markets.

Conscious of the importance of its honeymoon period, when it enjoys the greatest power and credibility, the government has taken several important first steps: cleaning out the National Police and relieving various high level army officers.

PAN's control of Congress and its legislative experience will facilitate the reforms the new government is contemplating. Arzu has announced legislation related to the executive branch, decentralization, the probity and responsibilities of government officials and public safety, as well as various municipal reforms.

The current struggle between two business classes offers Arzu and PAN a broad battlefield, enough to absorb all their energy and to measure successes or failures. They won't have to use up energy in the country's other, more complex historical conflicts: those between social classes and those provoked by ethnic demands.

There are clear signs, however, that these struggles will not stop. There are many pressures to restart the stalled peace process, whose accords are seen by many as an unfinished rendering of society. It is no coincidence that the talks broke down eight months ago, during the discussion of the socioeconomic and agrarian accords. Insofar as these issues are medullar parts of the national situation, the peace process will be thorny for a government that proposes "modernization" as the magic wand to resolve all structural problems.

In the second place, to the extent that militarization, impunity and corruption are controlled and the judiciary system and public safety are improved, the grassroots movement's political space will expand, resulting in increased organization and protests. The fact that two currents of the right were almost tied in popularity in the elections could be an indication of the destabilization potential existing in the country; neither project has a clear popular mandate.

Changes in the Army

One week after Alvaro Arzu's inauguration on January 14, the Army High Command announced over 250 changes in command posts, adding that at least six generals would be relieved of their positions. Though the army tried to portray the changes as part of normal officer rotation, these were clearly important changes within the officer corps, which would have the following consequences:

A younger generation of officers was promoted to relevant posts in the country's interior, the Defense Ministry and bases in the capital. Several officers who have been considered "hard line" or who expressed support for Alfonso Portillo have been moved, retired or put on "reserve." This almost generational change reinforces the "institutional" tendencies and weakens generals identified with the hard line. The ascending sector tends to be more identified with the new government and willing to accept the army's "modernization." Recently promoted officers will probably give important support to the High Command, grateful for their promotions and hoping for future ones. The day before taking office, Arzu fired Defense Minister Marco Antonio González Taracena, a general, replacing him with General Julio Balconi Turcios. Former President De León Carpio had named González Taracena to head the ministry last October, when General Mario Rene Enríquez resigned following the Xaman massacre. In less than three months, nearly half of the army's 23 generals have been removed from their posts. General Otto Pérez Molina, head of the Presidential High Command, was transferred to the Army General Inspector's Division. Other removed generals include: Carlos Enrique Pineda Carranza, High Command; Jose Horacio Soto Salan, head of the Mariscal Zavala base in the capital; Florencio Castellanos Reyes, head of the Honor Guard Brigade; and Jose Rodriguez, head of the Ambulatory Military Police. Four factors influenced the promotion or demotion of officers: their identification with the reformist line, the existence of proof of their involvement in official corruption, their direct role in the most serious and well documented cases of violence and their affiliation with political parties or pressure groups. The "porous nature" of the officer groups in relation to these four factors makes it hard to analyze the changes solely by ideology or their personal history.

In an interview in mid January, Defense Minister Julio Balconi spoke to envío of the need to "restructure" officer posts. He said the army only needs approximately 100 colonels but currently has 200. "The restructuring implies eliminating some colonels who don't fit in the new organization," he said. Balconi's goal is to remove 100 colonels without destabilizing the institution. "What benefits will we give officers so that they don't later become a problem for society?" he reflected, without answering his own question. In January, the new Congress began to study a bill, tabled since May 1995, that would reduce military service from 33 to 31 years for generals and to 30 years for other officers. If this proposal is now approved, it would lead to the retirement of at least four graduating classes of active officers.

Changes in the Police

The same latent fear of firing officers "what will we do so it doesn't become a problem for society?" is also a central concern with respect to the National Police. On January 25, the new Minister of Government, Rodolfo Mendoza, and his Vice Minister in charge of Security, Mario Cifuentes, announced the layoff of 118 police agents and officers; 34 were administrative workers and almost half headed stations in the capital or the country's interior.

These changes are the first step in purging officers implicated in acts of corruption. In coming months the Congress will consider a bill to unify the three police institutions under civilian command: the Treasury Guard, the National Police and the Ambulatory Military Police.

This is the second time Mario Cifuentes has tried to reform the National Police. During the government of Ramiro de León Carpio, Cifuentes was removed from his position as police chief under pressure from sectors affected by his reformist efforts. Now he is seeking the support of the United Nations Guatemala Mission (MINUGUA) and the Spanish government to put in practice a police model similar to the Spanish Civil Guard. Unifying the three police forces and recruiting 4,000 new agents would mean a total of 20,000 police, double the number currently in the National Police.

Police Corruption

Cifuentes considers that corruption among police has its roots in the institution's structures. Six months ago Cifuentes declared to envío that only 30% of the members of the Police are "salvageable" and that the level of corruption increases as one rises within the institutional hierarchy.

There were 1600 violent deaths in Guatemala in 1995, among them 39 police agents. With a monthly salary equivalent to $150, few policemen want to risk their lives and many speak of a "quota" system of illegal payments to superiors and the buying of posts in areas where it is possible to increase income through bribes. According to Cifuentes, the three essential conditions for effecting a significant change in the Police are: the signing of the peace accord, which would reduce the army's preponderant role in national life; a constitutional change that would limit army functions to defending the nation against external threats; and direct support from the international community in police training.

And the peace process?

On November 17, a group of lawyers representing a sector of large landowners who oppose the peace process filed a motion of unconstitutionality against two governmental accords that marked stages of the negotiating process between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). At the same time, they began penal actions against Hector Rosada, coordinator of the Government Peace Commission (COPAZ), and launched an international campaign against the negotiation process.

With these legal and diplomatic actions, the landowners managed to put the peace process in check right when the government and URNG were discussing "socioeconomic aspects and the land situation." They are questioning the constitutionality of the accord that formed the now dissolved National Reconciliation Commission in 1987 and the one in 1992 that was the source for COPAZ. They argue that "it is impossible to justify the attitude of a government that negotiates peace with terrorists and armed bands, even while these bands are ambushing government members, destroying infrastructure and lowering the country's international prestige."

The landowners' action "demonstrates that the socioeconomic and agrarian issue is causing concern to powerful sectors," says Carlos Aldana, director of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office. Rosada, who resigned as COPAZ coordinator with the arrival of the new government, considers that the country's most conservative sectors achieved their goal at the end of 1995. "Their strategic objective was to prevent an accord and to make changes in the Commission," he said. "And they got both."

The great question

The Arzu government has not yet named a new COPAZ coordinator. In fact, Arzu's campaign promises only contemplated some accords that it was assumed would already be signed by the time he took office. Although the direction of the peace process is unclear, there are indications that the government is not willing to return to negotiations based on already prepared accord drafts. The root of the problem is in the concept of "land's social function" and the expropriation implications this would have. For Rosada, "The big question is whether or not this new government will have the ability to manage the pressure from the economic powers that are opposed to national interests."

FDGNS'Nineth montenegro: "we will be a sounding board"

FDGNS'Nineth montenegro: "we will be a sounding board"

During the 1993 institutional crisis, a number of grassroots organizations and unions broke down the doors of the Legislative Palace and occupied the National Congress hemicycle to demand real participation in the resolution of the "Serrano" crisis. Cameras caught the Mutual Support Group's smiling president sitting in the congressional president's chair. Nineth Montenegro returned to the hemicycle on January 14, 1996, but this time as an FDNG legislator, so the door was opened for her.envío spoke with the 37 year old Nineth, who is in her final year of law school at the University of San Carlos, two days after her election.

What do you think will be the FDNG's work in Congress?
We will be a minority force and will respect that balance. We want to be witnesses of honor, a sounding board that will be denouncing, advising, opposing policies that protect impunity or promote privatization. It will be very hard work. We have a legislative agenda that overlooks issues of impunity, demilitarization, transformation of the political system and policies to combat poverty. Those are our four priorities.

How would you judge the two majority parties in Congress?
I would say that the FRG is Guatemala's neo fascism, with populist, authoritarian and militaristic ingredients.

Behind it is a person with a questionable background. But the neo fascist ingredient somehow awakes interest in a population that feels abandoned, unprotected and insecure, that finds no help or reference points. The PAN is the modern right, not conservative. Many PAN members are linked to the economic sector. The conservative right is dying with the MLN, and the modern right is being born.

Why did the FDNG decide not to support either of the two finalists in the presidential elections?
With respect to the FRG, we do not support the military continuing to run the country. Fascism and neo fascism need to be put behind us and a new alternative force for Guatemala must be created. As to the PAN, certain sectors of it are linked to the economic sector that has been keeping the people hungry. The FDNG felt it was up against a wall, because along with the impunity, violence and repression that has taken away our family members, the economic power has hit us hard and has impoverished the majority through poor distribution of wealth. Both political and economic violence affect us and we want to remain distinct from both of them.

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