Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 273 | Abril 2004



Some Positive Steps But Many Pending Issues

The new government has taken many important steps in its first 100 days but, without a coherent program, it appears to be simply putting band-aids on the problems. There are only four or five big issues that this government, or any other Guatemalan government, can and must address. Will Berger’s have the political will to begin to do so? The country is holding its breath, expectantly.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

wo and a half months into Oscar Berger’s term in office, the Guatemalan population is still waiting to find out whether his government merits the optimism and great expectations roused by the elections. For the moment, though, the main feeling is one of great satisfaction with the charges of corruption being leveled against high officials in the previous government of Alfonso Portillo.

Encouraging first steps

An arrest warrant was issued against the former comptroller general, Oscar Dubón Palma, who was caught by the Nicaraguan police. Another arrest warrant was issued for the former government minister, Byron Barrientos, who had fled to Mexico hours before the attorney general requested the courts to bar his departure. Marco Tulio Abadío Molina resigned from his post as director of the Tax Administration Office and fled the country just days before investigators discovered an enormous embezzlement of funds through that office. Some of the funds had been funneled into the campaigns of the opposition National Union of Hope (UNE) and National Advancement Party (PAN), which had run against Oscar Berger’s Grand National Alliance (GANA). A “Wanted” poster bearing Abadío’s photo was posted all
over the country.

General Efraín Ríos Montt and a handful of his close associates were placed under house arrest, while others were allowed free on bail but forbidden from leaving the country. All are under investigation for their role in the July 2003 disturbances organized to force Ríos Montt’s registration as a presidential candidate, which led to the death of a Channel 7 reporter.

An investigation into alleged money laundering was opened against former President Alfonso Portillo, his vice president, Francisco Reyes, and several of their associates. When the Central American Parliament granted Berger’s request to expel Portillo and Reyes on grounds of corruption and suspend the immunity they enjoyed as members, the former President fled the country for Mexico, just hours before the Attorney General’s Office called him to appear in court. The attorney general himself was then dismissed, probably for having warned Portillo of what was coming.

The public has reacted very positively to these measures and now expects those caught to be put on trial and punished. Despite all of these steps, however, there is still a sense of anxiety in the air, and an apparent impasse in the government that has people holding their breath.

A blow from a wounded tiger

The anxiety is due in part to these very measures. As they say in Guatemala, when you touch a wounded tiger, you never know where it’ll strike. It is very likely that the corrupt actions committed by these people are linked to what are known in Guatemala as “the hidden powers,” especially to global criminal capital accumulated through illegal trafficking of all kinds: financial investments, arms, drugs, cars, industrial secrets, girls and young women for prostitution and sexual tourism, organs, assassins, migrants... The profits from these activities are laundered effectively, as the embezzled state funds surely were as well.

Some kind of blow is bound to come if these links indeed exist, if the new Attorney General steps up the investigation of these and other criminals, if the holes are blocked in a penitentiary system that allow anyone with money to escape and if the courts operate seriously and honestly. What kind of blow? It may be a brutal attack against some member of the new government, or an attempt to muddy some of their names through bribery or other kinds of corruption so as to insinuate that “if everyone’s corrupt, then no one’s guilty.” Or it may take the form of protests and riots designed to create a climate of chaos, since it is not hard to find causes to justify protest. In a tense moment in March, for example, truck drivers blocked traffic for a full day, spilling fuel on streets and highways and threatening to set it alight until they were non-violently controlled by the police with the help of the army.

Anguish over prices

Another cause for concern and even anguish is the relentless rise in the price of basic goods. The price of fuel has also shot through the roof because of the high cost of oil on the international market, and people are worried about rising energy bills. Water is scarce in many public sources of supply and the water sold in bottles or from cistern trucks is ibecoming ncreasingly expensive. People’s desperation is matched by the fear of policy makers in charge of maintaining macroeconomic stability, who are now calculating that this year’s inflation rate will be significantly higher than expected.

The anxiety is also and perhaps ultimately due to the fact that more than two months after President Berger took office, he has still not presented to the Guatemalan people either a clear government program or the steps for implementing one or any kind of timeline for its implementation. Nor did he do so during his campaign, leaving many people to fear that he didn’t even begin designing such a program until after winning the elections.

Austerity, peace accords, fiscal pact, CAFTA...

Has the new government done nothing, then, in these two and a half months? To the contrary, it has done a great deal. In addition to launching the fight against corruption, which raises hopes that Berger’s administration will be filled with honest officials, it has taken many other promising steps.

1. President Berger personally promised to reduce the size of the Guatemalan army from 30,000 to 14,000 members.

2. The government has ordered joint police-army operations in the Guatemala City neighborhoods that have the worst reputation for drug trafficking and violence, especially gang violence. Berger himself was present during several of these operations. The most successful so far was the one that defused the danger of fire in the transport protests.

3. On February 25, the fifth anniversary of the presentation of the Historical Clarification Commission’s report and the National Day of Dignity for the Victims of the Violence, the President announced that implementation of the Peace Accords was being resumed. A key part of this project is the government’s efforts to put the Fiscal Pact into effect, beginning with the establishment of a technical commission made up of four economists responsible for developing proposals.

4. The new President has promised to be as austere as possible in public administration, by making budget cuts wherever possible—and without touching social or infrastructure spending—to deal with the enormous $1.35 billion budget deficit he inherited. Among other steps, the government announced it would reduce and regroup Guatemala’s embassies abroad to save money.

5. The government also announced that it will try to ensure that Guatemala enjoys the best terms obtained by the other Central American governments, especially Costa Rica, in the final text of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

6. In conjunction with other countries in the region, Guatemala has begun to streamline the transit of people across regional borders and establish uniform customs regulations and procedures to simplify and speed up the movement of merchandise as well. Thus far, this step towards Central American unity has only been put into practice in one of the border crossing points between Guatemala and El Salvador.

7. In another gesture of austerity, which also suggests the government’s interest in creating a policy to address the problem of youth gangs that is not based solely on violent repression, Berger offered to assign the Santo Tomás presidential retreat, located on the coast, to a project to rehabilitate young gang members.

8. The government launched a three-month plan to repair potholes in the nation’s highways and is carrying it out with remarkable speed and efficiency. It also announced that it was negotiating with Japanese companies to design the capital’s new airport in an area near the coast. The plan is to build this mega-project in stages over the course of the next few decades.

9. The government organized a “pencil marathon” to collect school materials that the cash-strapped Education Ministry was unable to provide students. It also reviewed the list of 13,000 teachers who were irresponsibly hired on temporary contracts, without sure posts, in the final days of ex-President Portillo’s government, and reached an agreement with Microsoft to provide public schools with digital technology.

10. Perhaps most significantly, the government has begun to accept the state’s responsibility in several cases of serious human rights violations. It recognized the responsibility of army intelligence forces in the killing of Luis Ixbalanké de Lión, a Kakchikel novelist, and signed a reparations agreement with his family. It also recognized the state’s responsibility in the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, and announced that it will accept the verdict of the Inter-American Human Rights Court against the State of Guatemala for denial of justice in the nation’s courts. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that retired Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio was responsible for ordering Mack’s assassination and sentenced him to 30 years in prison with no possibility of parole. Valencia is now a fugitive, however, and the question is, who helped him escape?
11. In addition to the executive team detailed in envío’s January-February issue, the President has also named Rosalina Tuyuc, founder and president of the National Confederation of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), to head the National Commission for Compensation to the Victims of the Armed Conflict. Significantly, Berger did not mention the controversial issue of payment to former Civil Patrol members when making that announcement. Guatemalan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú was asked to join the government as Good Will Ambassador for the Peace Accords, which she accepted.

These are all very positive actions. The problem is that the new government has not yet set them in the framework of a coherent program, or at least has not explained to the public how they fit into such a program. Rather it seems that, as Berger himself noted two weeks after taking office, the government has merely been putting on band-aids.

True public security

It would appear, for example, that the government has yet to design a public security policy with a strategy to address the underlying problems. Guatemala needs special educational programs for street children and for adolescents and young people who have been left to rot in urban slums, an environment that quickly dehumanizes them and leaves gangs as the only places where they can find a sense of identity, belonging and self-respect. The country needs to create jobs for people from 15 to 24 years old. Why not give them work making their neighborhoods truly livable, or building inexpensive housing in new neighborhoods where empty urban lots are available?

It is also essential to plan urban transport lines to ensure that such new neighborhoods are not cut off from the city. Only with education, jobs, housing, transportation, environmental health and recreation programs will the police presence be effective. And the police itself must be transformed into a new kind of force, made up of officers who are decently paid and respect human rights. Without such programs, there will be no public security. Is the government working on them?

Helen Mack, Myrna’s sister and now a prominent human rights activist in her own right, was invited to serve as a national security adviser. She reportedly responded that she would serve, but only if elected by civil society through a consultation rather than being named by the President.

True demilitarization

The country’s demilitarization is another major issue. The President has announced that the army will be reduced, but will the cuts take place at all levels, among officers as well as troops? Over what period? How will compensation be paid to those retired at a time when the state has a budget deficit? And what about the army that remains, with its 14,000 members: will it have a democratic vocation and a new doctrine, educated to be firm rather than cruel?
How will the army’s absolute respect for its own norms be guaranteed, so that promotions are not rigged by the hidden powers, retired officers or, worse still, people involved in mafias? How will the enormous power of military intelligence be regulated and subjected to a truly effective, efficient civilian intelligence agency? Can we hope that the reduction in the army will be the first step towards its progressive elimination, as in Costa Rica, Austria and Singapore? Would this be too much to hope for in a small country like ours, which is neither a threat to any other country nor is credibly threatened?

Urgent re-education of teachers

In the field of education, the concerns are strategic. What place will be given to the continuing education of teachers? There
is little point to filling the schools with computers without also undertaking a huge project to help teachers develop a new understanding of their profession and a new approach to their work. In The Information Age, Manuel Castells discusses the two kinds of workers in today’s world. Some workers are personally and collectively indispensable, because they are “self-programming”: they can continually update their training in step with the development of knowledge as it becomes ever more innovative and complex. And some are personally dispensable, although collectively necessary, because they are “generic” workers unable to keep up on the highways of this accelerating knowledge.

Is the new government starting to implement or at least design the revolution that will transform education in our country from an encyclopedic model to a process-oriented model, and from a “banking” model, in Paulo Freire’s terms, to a consciousness-raising model? Will it launch or at least begin to plan a program to retrain “generic” teachers into “self-programming” education professionals, capable of learning and educating along the lines Castells proposes, in a “process by which people—that is labor—acquire the capability to constantly redefine the necessary skills for a given task and to access the sources for learning these skills.” No matter how many pencils and notebooks we put in students’ hands or how many computers and software programs we provide for them and their teachers—both of which are extremely important—we won’t begin to find “the missing link between education and development,” as the late Jesuit economist and educator Xabier Gorostiaga said, unless we can transform education.

Changing classrooms from what they are today—factories of repetition, competition, authoritarianism and the indiscriminate reception of anti-values—into laboratories of curiosity, freedom, democracy, solidarity, discernment and the choice of values, is the great challenge. Clearly, it is cheaper to hire “generic” teachers than “self-programming” educators.

Increasing the education budget without also implementing a thorough educational reform may simply create a bottomless pit that wastes scarce resources. To ensure that the increasing investment in education is productive, shouldn’t it be accompanied by an educational reform that begins with the arduous task of transforming teachers into educators, from domesticators of knowledge into fellow travelers on the road to wisdom?


The country’s multicultural nature presents another pending challenge, one facet of which is related to the enormous agrarian problem. On that score, the government appears to be making some progress in developing a program. On March 30, just before the ninth anniversary of the Peace Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, several thousand people marched in the capital in a demonstration called by indigenous peasant organizations. The President and Vice President along with the president of Congress received the commissions representing the demonstrators. President Berger promised to build roads to serve rural communities and in particular to finish the 400-km-long Northern Highway that runs from Melchor de Mencos (in the Petén) to Barillas (in Huehuetenango). He also promised to send Congress a bill to conduct a national cadastral study to help resolve the numerous conflicts over municipal borders and ensure secure property ownership.

In addition, the President promised to form national roundtables, headed up by Vice President Eduardo Stein, to ensure public consultation and participation in the effort to find real solutions to the agrarian problem and other problems affecting the country’s indigenous peoples. It remains to be seen whether these roundtables will also allow for an in-depth discussion of the government’s actions regarding CAFTA, the negotiations around the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Plan Puebla-Panama.

The Fiscal Pact

All of these programs—those that already exist, those that must be established and those that grow out of the talks—revolve around the Fiscal Pact, the most important piece of any social pact. On his first day in office, President Berger announced that he had inherited a budget deficit of as much as $1.35 billion. In January, the Constitutional Court declared the tax on commercial and agricultural businesses unconstitutional, which cost the treasury over $120 million. The outgoing Congress also passed budget regulations in January that prevent the executive branch from prioritizing spending in the various government ministries. The Peace Accords, which the new government plans to put into effect, state that “fiscal policy (income and spending) is the main tool used to ensure that the state can meet its constitutional obligations, in particular, those related to social development, which is essential in the search for the common good.”

In 2000, an enormous effort was made to draft and sign the Fiscal Pact, but Portillo’s government frittered this effort away. It would be inefficiently absurd for the technical commission recently named by President Berger to start from scratch, without basing its work on the results and the spirit of the 2000 Fiscal Pact. Developing proposals that are not rooted in the principles of that pact would mean again putting band-aids on problems rather than building a fiscal program that decidedly addresses state income and spending, particularly social spending priorities; tax administration; penal code reforms creating sanctions to discourage tax evasion and fraud; elimination of tax exemptions; and improved technical and social auditing of the whole system.

Portillo’s demagogy was matched by private enterprise and the media when their spokespeople criticized the 2000 Fiscal Pact as “fiscal terrorism.” The debate over a progressive or uniform tax system and the nature and amount of social spending still divides Guatemala into two camps: those who prioritize the poor and the fight against poverty, and those merely interested in an elitist economic growth that benefits a small minority and increases inequality and polarization.

An exhausting anxiety

Another pending task for President Berger is to explain to Guatemalans how he plans to fulfill his main campaign promise, to create jobs.

The government’s policy of economic and financial transparency must be accompanied by a serious, effective public communication policy. It would be inappropriate for the government to use national radio and TV stations as Portillo’s and Arzú’s governments did. Nor would it be appropriate for the government to depend on its own radio or television news shows to communicate with the public, which would seem too much like propaganda. Instead, it should explore the possibilities of holding regular, well-organized press conferences, with the participation of the President, Vice President and Cabinet ministers.

In times of such huge, pressing needs and high expectations, the government cannot remain stuck in an impasse that only creates anxiety and exhausts its political capital. Some bold minds have dared to propose that without a strong, solid party behind it or a large bench in Congress, the government would do better by looking beyond the alliances it established to form GANA and bring some of the many strong and capable people now serving as commissioners into key roles in the ministries. This advice became even stronger after the fiasco surrounding the vote on the Election Reform and Political Parties Law, where the Patriot Party stood apart from the others that made up the alliance. Berger should also rely more heavily on civil society, on the people who elected him and to whom he owes his greatest debt.

Depending on civil society

In politics, a bold move is often the most astute one. What does it mean to depend on civil society? It means, for example, looking at grassroots demonstrations based on just causes to find directions for formulating policies, and talking with people, as Berger did in the march called by the indigenous organizations. It means relying on the support of the pro-justice movement, listening to the human rights organizations and paying close attention to the Municipal Development Committees. It means forums and debates that don’t run on interminably but rather lead to legislative proposals. It means opening up spaces in power for the imagination.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj., is envío's correspondent in Guatemala.

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