Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 270 | Enero 2004



The New Government Sparks Optimism and Expectations

After four politically catastrophic years, Guatemalans are optimistic. But they are also impatient with the country’s mounting problems. The new government’s challenge will be to go beyond the band-aid approach and identify solutions for the most crucial of these problems.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The official results of the second round of Guatemala’s presidential elections on December 28 were ready the very next day. Oscar Berger had beaten out Alvaro Colom with 54.13% of the 2,282,171 valid votes. Of the total ballots cast, only a combined 3.8% were either annulled or left blank. In this runoff round, only 46.78% of the registered voters turned out, 12% fewer than in the first round. Even so, Oscar Berger has the distinction of having pulled the greatest absolute number of votes in Guatemalan electoral history, nearly 64,000 more than Alfonso Portillo got four years ago in his overwhelming victory against the man who is now President.

A mainly urban, ethnically differentiated victory

Berger’s victory over Colom was not overwhelming, but it sufficed. While he won by an overall margin of 8.26% of the voters, his main edge was in the capital (70%-30%), the rest of the department of Guatemala (58%-42%) and Alta Verapaz (64%-36%), a department with some of the country’s most densely populated municipalities. Berger also won in the east (Jutiapa, Jalapa, Zacapa and Chiquimula), Baja Verapaz and one of the western departments (Quetzaltenango), although by a slim difference (51%-49%). In sum, his victory was based in the capital and 8 of the 22 departments.

Excepting Quetzaltenango, Colom won the western region, but his victories in several of the most populous departments, such as Huehuetenango, San Marcos and Quiché, were less impressive than Berger’s (54%-46%, 57%-43% and 56%-44%, respectively. Colom also won in the southern coastal departments (Suchitepéquez, Retalhulehu, Santa Rosa and Escuintla), part of the north (Petén and Izabal), and El Progreso, although in the latter only by 0.5%. His largest victories were in Escuintla and Petén, where he pulled 59%.

It was clear that the strong Mayan majority in the west (Quiché, Mam, Kaqchiquel, Ixil, Kanjobal and others) lacked confidence in Berger, although he did well in other Mayan regions, carrying Alta Verapaz, Baja Verapaz and some municipalities of the department of Guatemala that also have strong Mayan majorities (Kekchí, Achí and Pokomam). While it cannot be claimed that the Mayan peoples outside of the capital voted against him, it would not be unfair to say that he will have to win over the largely Mayan west through genuine attention and effective work. The President will be able to win this confidence only if his government creates the conditions for Guatemalans to develop new habits of interracial respect, to recognize the country’s multicultural identity and experience it as a wealth of intercultural communication. New job opportunities will also have to be offered to the Mayan population.

Weakened parties, personality-based politics

Oscar Berger is the third candidate to be defeated in his first try (1999) only to emerge victorious on the second (2003). The same thing happened to Álvaro Arzú (1990 and 1995) and Alfonso Portillo (1995 and 1999). Not since the transition to democracy in 1985 has any party identified with the incumbent President as been able to win the next presidential elections: not former President Vinicio Cerezo’s Christian Democrats (DCG), former President Jorge Serrano’s Solidarity Action Movement (MAS), the National Advancement Party (PAN) or the Guatemalan Revolutionary Front (FRG). The MAS has in fact now disappeared from the political stage and the DGC, the oldest party among those still in existence, would have lost its legal standing this time had former President Vinicio Cerezo not again won a congressional seat on the national at-large list. The PAN has suffered various splits and its number of legislative seats has dropped from 37 in the 1999 elections (32% of the 113 seats) to 17 this time (10.76% of today’s 158 seats). For its part, the FRG has slid from 64 seats (56.64%) in 1999, when it also won the presidency, to 43 (27.21%) in these elections. Both the PAN and the FRG are already beginning to lose more legislators (three from each party have resigned their respective affiliation and remained as independents). Colom’s National Union for Hope (UNE) and the leftwing New Nation Alliance (ANN) have also lost two each in the same manner.

In Guatemalan politics the parties do not have strongly ideological electoral platforms and offer virtually no program that defines and distinguishes them. They are mere trampolines for launching presidential or legislative candidates with political clout but more or less fleeting appeal to the population. Once elected, the Presidents lack solid parties to back them up. If they want to try to run a good government, this obliges them to go directly to the people and listen, and to surround themselves with teams of highly competent individuals with proven skills and unimpeachable honor who can build an authentic project. It also means basing their government on overarching lines of national unity aimed at beginning to resolve the country’s most serious national problems.

A new style: Going to the people

Since his inauguration on January 14, Berger has attempted a new style of getting close to the people. On Sunday the 18th, he and Vice President Eduardo Stein, together with their wives, received a multitude of people in the National Palace of Culture, who used the opportunity to meet their new President, express their concerns, put forth some brief but pressing petitions, and above all, express their optimism and hope that Guatemala would be transformed into a better country. Two days later, he received more than 200 of the 331 mayors— the most prominent among those absent was ex-President Arzú, the capital’s newly elected mayor—to open channels, create links and lay the groundwork with the local governments for decentralization and cooperation, independent of the parties to which their authorities belong.

And only a few days after that, Berger started showing up at some of the neighborhoods in the capital that are most affected by crime and insecurity. The idea was to supervise the joint police-army operations and assure the citizenry that no human rights would be violated to achieve peace and tranquility. In his first two weeks of government, he also visited some of the poorest hospitals in the country. And before January had ended he traveled with Cabinet members to the Ixil Triangle, the northern part of the department of El Quiché, to hear the demands of the populations of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal and begin winning over people who for the most part voted for his rival. With this new style, Berger is trying to show that he wants to live up to the words with which he began his brief inaugural address: “I am a citizen like any of you who ever dreamed of a Guatemala with solidarity and unity.”

Danger of remilitarization

Many people today feel torn between their urgent need for security and their concern over the army’s return to the streets. They see the naming of a general, albeit a retired one, as security commissioner as a danger that the country could be remilitarized through the “social cleansing” of gangs and other “undesirables” with a cruelty and implacability that are still all too present in the army.

In the area of security, shortsighted clean-up operations conducted by a corrupt police force and an unrepentant army that has yet to even recognize the enormous excesses it committed during the armed conflict, much less apologize to the Guatemalan people, are not the answer. What could truly generate security over time is a serious program that attacks poverty, with increased investments to create jobs accompanied by redoubled efforts in health and education. It could help to launch a serious program to purge corrupt officers from the police force and unredeemed ones from the army, educate both institutions on values and provide proper military training, and put honest people in command who are committed to transparency and humanism, even in pursuit of crime. It would also help to pay fair, adequate salaries to those responsible for ensuring public safety even at the risk
of their own lives, and to institute serious rehabilitation programs in the jails and reformatories to make them safer and more human.

The essential points of any government plan

The current optimism and positive expectations have not been felt for a long time in Guatemala, and taking advantage of these energies is a challenge for Berger’s government. But alongside the optimism is enormous impatience, a demand for results from the new government in all areas. President Berger and his top-level collaborators must speak straight to the people: the ills accumulated over such a long time will not be resolved overnight. But to get that message across, they must also recognize the needs and lacks overwhelming the majority of the people and thus the justice of their multiple demands. And they must have the courage and intelligence to work out what part of these demands they strategically can and must deal with. The government must be able to show that it has a project and that this project can be implemented by stages. To demonstrate this, it must provide a calendar for the stages that can be implemented during this presidential term.

In his inaugural speech, Berger said that the Guatemalan people are basically united in their objectives, although they may have diverse ideas about how to achieve them. He went on to say that the peace accords are “basic” to this unity. As the citizenry has internalized the fact that the peace accords have been only minimally and half-heartedly implemented for the past seven years, the new government will have to define a clear path to their fulfillment and the steps that will be taken along it. Demilitarizing the state, investing in and creating the jobs needed to recover an economic growth that exceeds demographic growth, prioritizing the education and health budgets, taking a civic and humanist approach to security and making a practical commitment to an ethnically, culturally and linguistically pluralist Guatemala are all crucial to launching the national project envisioned in the peace accords.

Part of the required investment must be public: infrastructure projects that help provide well-paid work and reduce the costly inefficiency in electricity distribution, telecommunications and transportation. Another crucial point is whether Berger’s foreign policy will line up behind Brazilian President da Silva’s initiatives against hunger and in defense of Latin America’s interests in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations currently underway.

In his inaugural speech, Berger pledged to govern as “the country’s primary public servant,” transparently and “without caudillo traits,” fighting against corruption within the state and against any hint or suspicion of impunity. The fight against corruption, the promise to investigate “corruption scandals and abuses of power” and “submit the results of the investigation to justice” are important ways to revive and start consolidating the battered rule of law. The President also showed awareness that civic participation—the exercise of citizenship that goes beyond the vote in the form of proposals and critiques—is indispensable if the government project is to have any possibility of success. He recognized that “if Guatemala has not collapsed” it has been “thanks to the effort of the people and the help of remittances.” It remains to be seen whether this first fair recognition of Guatemala’s emigrants also translates into providing at least the right to vote to these people and any other nationals who live, work or are found temporarily outside Guatemala.

Fiscal pact, land registry and the agrarian problem

Two essential issues will force the Berger administration to move from a simple band-aid approach to the formulation and implementation of solutions. One is fiscal. Berger has already announced that he inherited a government in bankruptcy. As serious as this is, it is resolvable. Far more serious, because it is structural, is that the state still does not have the income it needs to make the required public investments and efficient social spending. Recovering the spirit of the aborted fiscal pact cannot be put off to tomorrow, because that will be too late.

The other problem is agrarian. Is it fair to hope that a farmer President will take this critical problem by the horns, pushing through the legislation needed to conduct the land registration promised in the peace accords and investing in the countryside in a way that creates small landowners aided by all the training, technology and credit required?

Part of Guatemala’s business class, the sugar sector, heralded the coming of Berger’s presidential term by hiking sugar prices. “They put their brand on the new government,” said some, alluding to Berger’s well-known family ties to the sugar growers. In response, outgoing President Portillo raised the quota for sugar imports. If President Berger and his new economic minister cannot reach an agreement that favors the basic market basket and worse yet revokes the rise in the sugar import quota, the criticisms of the government as “excessively” pro-business will be proven correct. The government will begin to be seen as favoring not business “productivity” but simply business profits. This is almost unavoidable given that electricity rates and the price of other basic products, not to mention the prices of petroleum derivatives, went up when Berger took office. The situation will get even tougher once it becomes impossible to hide that the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) has nothing to offer the majority of the population.

A fragile consensus in Congress

Fortunately, the specter of chaos dissipated in the Congress and a fragile but incipient consensus on governability was achieved among the Grand National Alliance (GANA), UNE and PAN benches. Not counting the legislators who split from their benches to go independent, these three political groupings still have 90 congressional representatives among them, which is 57% of the Congress. That gives them the majority needed to present, debate and approve ordinary laws, although in the inaugural session of the Congress adherents of this consensus stressed that it is no blank check for a legislative agenda.

Other alliances will have to be made to push through the urgently needed reforms to the electoral and political party laws, as they require a two-thirds majority. Some of the smaller benches, such as those on the Left, complained in the new Congress’ inaugural session that they had not been considered for the governability pact.

Most legislators raised a ruckus when Congress’s new president announced that honoraria would no longer be paid for working on commissions since they had never even been created and that congressional members who had not requested and obtained permission to be absent would not be paid for days missed. This insensitivity and unreasonableness augurs hard times ahead in Congress. The president, who is from the UNE bench, was even forced to backpedal and agree to pay the full amount for January, which is a notable privilege for the legislators while the majority of the population must struggle to merely survive.

Berger’s team

What kind of team has President Berger chosen? In the first place, it is complicated by the appearance of a relatively new—at least numerically—type of official: the commissioner. The linkages between these officials and the ministers on the one hand and the Vice President on the other are not at all clear. Constitutionally, it falls to the Vice President to “coordinate the work of the ministers of state,” by which definition the commissioners can only be helpers or assistants to the Vice President on any issue or any type of ministerial coordination.

Furthermore, as the commissioners are a sort of presidential representative for following up on certain issues, problems or projects, it seems prudent to think of them as “advisers” to the executive branch. Were that the case, it is again the Vice President who is constitutionally designated to “preside over the executive’s advisory bodies.” Finally, the Constitution seems to grant the ministers total jurisdiction over their ministry, subject only to approval or disapproval—including dismissal—by the President and coordination with other ministers through the Vice President. This suggests that the commissioners can have no jurisdictional or coordinating function over the ministers.

President Berger initially named 11 commissioners, 13 ministers and 9 presidential secretaries. On January 7, when he publicly presented almost all of his Cabinet members, Vice President Stein explained to the journalists that “the post of commissioner is to maintain greater coordination with the executive.” He also indicated that they would be “remunerated in keeping with their responsibilities.” Nonetheless, two weeks later, President Berger stated that the presidential commissioners “are not going to cost the state a cent,” and are not going to direct the ministers but rather will be “project visionaries (designers, supervisors) and their commissions will have “few personnel and limited infrastructure to work with.” One of the commissioners, former Vice President Luis Flores Asturias, explained that the Vice President is “the legal and institutional coordinator of the ministers and their Cabinet.”

The foreign affairs and economic ministers

Does Berger have a better government team in his own branch than in Congress? Jorge Briz Abularach was named minister of foreign relations after losing the race for mayor of the capital against Alvaro Arzú.

A lawyer at the Rafael Landívar University, he is a founder of the Renovator Party, one of the three that make up GANA, the strongest force in the Congress. Briz has no experience in foreign relations, but is a trader, has been a director of CACIF, the big business umbrella organization, and president of Guatemala’s Chamber of Commerce, and led a business strike against the Portillo government in August 2001. He can try to represent Guatemalan capital’s interests in adjusting the new free trade agreement and in the FTAA talks, but his post seems more to be a condition for GANA’s stability, one of those “deals” cut even before Berger’s victory. Berger also named Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú as his ambassador to promote international support for the peace accords.

As finance minister we find economist María Antonieta Del Cid, formerly vice president of the Banguat bank, Central American representative to the International Monetary Fund and Inter-American Development Bank director for Central America and Belize. The new economy minister is Marcio Cuevas, a systems engineer and businessman, formerly CACIF vice president and manager of AGEXPRONT, an association representing exporters of nontraditional agricultural, industrial, marine and arts and crafts products.

Architect Eduardo Castillo was named to head Communications, Infrastructure and Housing. He is the business brains behind urban housing projects and as deputy mayor of the capital (1991-99) collaborated closely with Mayor Berger.

In Agriculture, Livestock and Feed is AGEXPRONT’s most recent general manager Alvaro Aguilar, an industrial engineer with a masters degree in business administration. In Energy and Mines is economist Roberto González Díaz-Durán, who has a masters in finances from Chile, holds a seat in the economics department of the Francisco Marroquín University and also worked in the capital’s municipal government when Berger was mayor.

Various commissioners are collaborating with these ministers. Investment and Competitiveness Commissioner Miguel Fernández was a high school classmate of both Berger and Vice President Stein, is a civil and industrial engineer and a former general manager of Pantaleón S.A., which is a sugar-based industrial complex belonging to one of Guatemala’s wealthiest families, the Herreras, who also own a sugar refinery in Nicaragua. Fernández is also an executive of Koramsa, a textile and garment maquila that employs 13,000 workers and is the largest assembly plant for re-export in Central America.

Luis Flores Asturias, an odontologist who was Arzú’s Vice President and is now an elected legislator representing the department of Guatemala, was named commissioner for mega-projects and the Social Investment Fund. Willi Kaltschmitt Luján, Guatemala’s former ambassador to Cuba, a businessman in the chemical industry and director of sports organizations, is the tourism commissioner.

Various secretaries also have to be added to this group. Heading the General Secretariat of Planning and Programming is Hugo Beteta Méndez-Ruiz, an engineer with a doctorate in economics from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a former administrative vice rector of the Rafael Landívar University and a member of the Barómetro group founded by Jesuit Xabier Gorostiaga. In the National Council of Science and Technology is former rector of the Valley UniversityHéctor Centeno, an engineer who studied physics in Brazil and the University of Texas and is a member of the Accompaniment Commission for both the Peace Accords and the Fiscal Pact.

The ministers in the social area

María del Carmen Aceña was named minister of education. She is a systems engineer with a masters from INCAE, formerly director of the national project to decentralize education, executive director of the Francisco Marroquín University’s National Economic Research Center, professor in that university’s economics department and also a member of the Barómetro Group. The health minister is Marco Tulio Sosa, a chemical engineer who also held the post under the Arzú government. The new labor minister is Jorge Gallardo, an engineer and former general secretary of the National Solidarity Party, another of the three allies in GANA.

Heading up Environment and Natural Resources is biologist Mario Dary. He is the son of former University of San Carlos rector Mario Dary Rivera, also a biologist, who was among the first to promote environmental awareness and was killed by the armed Left in 1981. In Culture and Sports is Manuel Salazar Tezahuic, a Kaqchiquel with a bachelors degree in Philosophy and Arts whose former posts include education minister and dean of humanities in the Rafael Landívar University.

To these ministers must be added the commissioner for local development, Rodolfo Páiz Andrade, an engineer with a doctorate from Harvard in business administration who was finance minister under the Cererzo government. As general secretary of the Union Democratic Party (UD), he withdrew his presidential candidacy in favor of Berger. Two others also belong with this group. First is the new director of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, labor lawyer Frank La Rue, a disciple of Mario López Larrave, murdered during the Lucas García military government (1978-82). La Rue was a member of the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG) in the UN, former director of the Legal Assistance Center for Human Rights and another member of the Barómetro Group. The second is Víctor Montejo, who heads up the Peace Secretariat. A member of the Mayan Jacalteca group, he has a doctorate in anthropology, is a professor in the Native American Studies Department of the University of California at Davis, which he also directs, and is a former president of the Foundation for Mayan Education.

The ministers in the security and defense area
The new minister of government is Arturo Soto, a lawyer and former Supreme Court justice, and the new minister of defense is Brigadier General César Augusto Méndez Pinelo, who has 28 years of service, was a military attaché to Guatemala’s embassy in Honduras and has military intelligence experience. General Méndez is close to retired General Otto Pérez Molina, who will be working with both ministers as the new security commissioner. Pérez Molina used to run the army intelligence division (D2), then headed up the Presidential High Command and was one of the government negotiators of the peace accords. He is the general secretary of the Patriot Party (the third of the three parties in GANA) and, like Vinicio Cerezo, won a national congressional seat. The new secretary of administrative affairs and security, Juan Carlos Leal, was very involved in Berger’s electoral campaign. His secretariat is the successor to the defunct Presidential High Command.
Still to be named is the strategic affairs secretary, and still to be created is the National Council of Public Security, whose members must be proposed to the President by civil society organizations. Helen Mack has been mentioned as its possible director.

Three commissioners for the reform of the state

The President has also named several other commissioners, three of whom can be grouped around problems related to the better functioning of state and government. The commissioner for political reform is Mario Fuentes Destarac, who has been dean of the Rafael Landívar University’s law school as well as a CACIF lawyer and a columnist on political issues for El Periódico.

The commissioner for the modernization of the state is engineer-businessman Harris Whitbeck Piñol, who collaborated with Ríos Montt’s “bullets and beans” program when the general was head of state following the 1982 coup and later helped him found the FRG. A member of one of Guatemala’s oldest oligarchic families, Piñol was secretary of executive coordination in the Alfonso Portillo government, in charge of decentralization until Portillo dismissed him for disobeying one of his orders in 2002. After that he stopped participating in the FRG.

Helen Mack has been mentioned as the possible director of the still-to-be-created National Council of Public Security, whose members must be proposed to the President by civil society organizations. The commissioner for follow-up to the government plan is Richard Aitkenhead Castillo, who has an undergraduate degree in economics and a masters from the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was minister of economy and finances in the governments of both Serrano and Ramiro de León Carpio, is a member of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Social Equity Forum, president of INCAE’s National Committee in Guatemala and a former member of the Rafael Landívar University’s board of regents.

Two commissioners to fight against hunger and corruption

The remaining new commissioners could work together around two particularly worrisome problems that became prominent during Alfonso Portillo’s administration. The commissioner for transparency and against corruption is businessman Carlos Vielman, former president of the Chamber of Industry who in CACIF’s name helped forge the National Body of Consensus against President Serrano’s 1993 self coup. The commissioner for the anti-hunger front, Andrés Botrán, is a businessman in the liquor industry whose rum labels carry his name. He was the most prominent businessperson to sign the July 2003 manifesto of human rights defenders protesting the Constitutional Court’s decision to permit Ríos Montt to run for President despite having been brought to power by a coup two decades earlier.

There are also several other important posts in the presidential secretariats. The head of the Private Secretariat is Alfredo Vila, a sugar industrialist whose father is Fraterno Vila, PAN’s financial wizard back when Arzú dominated it and Berger was part of his closest circle. In charge of the Secretariat of Executive Coordination is banker Eduardo González, former head of the Banco del Café and Berger’s campaign director. Jorge Arroyave, former secretary of Guatemala’s Municipal Council during Berger’s mayoral term, heads the General Secretariat, and Rosa María Angel de Frade, a businesswomen and diplomat, heads up the Secretariat of Social Communication as the presidential spokesperson. Still to be named is the secretary of women.

A business-oriented, professional and academic Cabinet
In this array of top level government officials are fifteen business leaders, at least three of whom are closely identified with CACIF; six professionals, including one active and one retired military officer; eight academics and one person from the community of human rights defenders. Only about a third of those in the top posts, including the President and Vice President, have government experience, either in the executive branch, the Supreme Court, international institutions or diplomacy. Some of the new officials, including Vice President Stein, have doctorates in their professional specialties.

Three of them are also newly elected congressional representatives and have been granted permission to take indefinite leave so they can occupy their post in the executive branch. This has exposed Berger to strong criticism for continuing the long and perverse tradition in which citizens elected to represent their constituencies in Congress end up in the executive branch. This not only reduces the quality of the Congress but also replaces those elected with their alternates, whom the voters did not even meet during the electoral campaign. In a parliamentary system, Cabinet members are also legislative representatives, but Guatemala is a presidential system, where this should not be the case. Berger has also been criticized for loading his Cabinet with businesspeople and giving them the highest-level positions in his government, as well as giving little space to either women or Mayans. Among the 33 people analyzed above, only 4 are women and only 3 are Mayan.

Such criticisms aside, Berger is still being given the benefit of the doubt during his government’s honeymoon period. It is hoped that at least some of the business leaders chosen will reveal firm ethical values as members of a new species of socially conscious entrepreneurs who know and accept that the greatest enemy of prosperity, their own included, is Guatemala’s enormous poverty. It may be that some of these businesspeople, professionals and academics still believe in the education they received in the institutions that make social justice an essential part of a Christian conception of life. Berger has made this very point in trying to justify the profile of his Cabinet: “We’ve put together this team, strongly aimed at productivity, to promote investment and generate jobs for all.” This way of speaking fits in with the conviction he communicated in his electoral campaign that job creation is his government’s greatest challenge.

The underlying challenge

The Berger government’s most basic and immediate challenge, however, is to identify those three or four crucial points on which his program must focus, because no intelligent government can hope to address everything that needs to be resolved with the same urgency and intensity. This triage does, however, require seeing the connections between what it elects to tackle and what must be left for later.

Only 15 days after taking office, President Berger himself recognized that the government had only been putting band-aids on problems and had not started designing real solutions. Admitting this requires courage and sincerity. Will the situation he has found after four politically catastrophic years so absorb his attention and time that it forces him to cave in to the custom of only putting patches on reality? Or will he have the time, willingness and intelligent assistance to consolidate another way of running government? 

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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