Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 279 | Octubre 2004



Devoured by Short-Term Thinking

After nine months in office, the government has yet to produce any coherent short- or long-term plans that go beyond just putting out fires or that will prevent new ones.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

After nine months in office, President Oscar Berger and his team have dealt with few of Guatemala’s structural problems, the kinds that must be addressed with long-term vision and planning. When they have touched on such issues, they have done so in a tentative, groping way, without setting clear priorities or communicating with the public so we could either adopt the proposed measures or question and improve them through a true national dialogue.

Reining in the military

The most important structural problem that Berger’s government has addressed in its first nine months has been the militarization of society. The Guatemalan army was established during the Liberal Reform in the latter part of the 19th century. The Liberal coffee growers were the first national bourgeoisie interested in playing a part in the global capitalist market, and they established and used the army to defeat the Conservatives, who were tied to an old and unproductive plantation-style economy.

The army expropriated land from the Catholic Church and expelled several archbishops and religious orders from the country in an attempt by the coffee growers to break Conservatism’s ideological backbone. They also used the army to overcome indigenous resistance and throw their communal lands onto the market. This was the second large-scale “agrarian reform” involving indigenous lands; the first was the Conquest itself.

While some army officers played a positive role in the country’s modernization and democratization following the 1944 October Revolution, the counterrevolutionary coup ten years later augured in another period of military repression, in which fervent anti-communism and the National Security Doctrine reinforced the army’s role as defender of capital in the hands of a very small elite. Not content with serving as the capitalists’ armed wing, top army officials soon decided to become independent capitalists in their own right, so they could join the dominant economic classes. That was the period in which the Military Social Security Institute and the Army Bank were founded, but their effort failed, so, under cover of the war, many top officials chose to participate in global criminal capital through contraband and trafficking in drugs and other illegal items.

In the war, the army forged an ideology: it considered itself the “mother of the nation,” to which it supposedly gave birth in the name of freedom. At the same time, in the rather twisted Freudian formulation of its leading ideologue, General Alejandro Gramajo, it was the “father of that mother.” According to that ideology, the massacres, torture and forced disappearances were simply harsh but necessary punishments for the country’s children who strayed from the path and got messed up with communism.

A smaller army:
The first of many needed steps

Berger’s government is the first to try to deal with the root of the problem of militarism, which has been a huge obstacle to building democracy in Guatemala. The army is now down to 15,500 troops, a third of what it was at the height of the war, and this is a very important achievement. Another important step has been to reduce the number of military zones inside the country to five. Only those who experienced the army’s repressive, divisive power and had to live with it for years can fully appreciate the meaning of this move.

For those in Guatemala who believe in the possibility of transforming the army, the biggest challenge is to free it from the influence of retired officers—some of whom still belong to illegal criminal networks—so it can be re-established on a sound institutional footing and become capable of moral regeneration. For others, the problem is twofold. First, army members who committed serious war crimes that are not prescribed by the National Reconciliation Law—including most of the over 600 massacres documented by the Historical Clarification Committee—must be brought to court.

The second pending problem has to do with the debate over modernizing the army, an extremely costly project of dubious value in a world where we have no regional enemies to justify such force, and where democracy requires civilian security institutions instead of repressive ones. Armies don’t make sense in such a world; they are really nothing more than expensive toys, little tin soldiers serving the interests of the powerful, or of the only superpower. In any case, the United States appears unwilling to finance the modernization of the Guatemalan army, and if they don’t, who will? Other powers? Or will we turn to the enormously dangerous black market for weapons?

Important achievements in
the fight against corruption

Berger’s government has tried to promote the fight against corruption, though a large part of this fight falls to state institutions outside the executive branch, including the Supreme Court, courts in general and the Public Prosecutor General’s Office. The executive branch, however, is responsible for the National Civil Police and for the Government Ministry, which commands and directs the police.

The fight against corruption also involves fighting against the hidden powers, which are trying to direct the state in an illegitimate way by creating and consolidating a state within the state. The arrests of former Comptroller Oscar Dubón Palma, former Government Minister Byron Barrientos and former Tax Administration Superintendent Marco Tulio Abadío Molina speak well of this chapter in the fight. The same is true of the charges filed against the presumed authors or instigators of the public disturbances of July 2003—dubbed “Black Thursday” and the “Friday of Mourning” by the media—to press for registration of General Efraín Ríos Montt’s presidential candidacy. Among those accused is Ríos Montt himself. Other important steps include the arrest of banker Francisco Alvarado MacDonald, who was protected from investigation during most of the term of his friend, former President Alfonso Portillo. Portillo is himself under investigation for possible money laundering, while former Vice President Francisco Reyes and former Finance Minister Eduardo Weymann have also been arrested. Several generals and officers of the Military Social Security Institute are also under investigation for allegedly diverting millions in state funds.

Justice or vengeance?

Some people feel that the fight against corruption risks being undermined by a streak of vengeance. And if vengeance is indeed a part of it, its exercise would suggest that the traditional economic powers wield a great deal of influence over the courts. Is there any truth to this charge? Both Weymann and Reyes once held high posts in CACIF, the business umbrella organization, and many of their actions in the FRG government harmed the interests of their old associates. This would explain, for example, why the judge responsible for Weymann’s case set bail at the exorbitant sum of nearly US$5 million, while MacDonald is out on bail for only $1 million, even though his “twin banks” defrauded their clients and the state itself of well over $100 million.

A much more serious problem is that some government officials believe that the fight against corruption is unwinnable. They fear that the corruption and influence of the hidden powers that wormed their way into government under Portillo are already so firmly entrenched there that it will be impossible to dislodge them. Obviously, this is another structural problem intimately linked to militarism.

Cleansing a bloody, debased history

To recover the rule of law, it is crucial for the state to recognize that it cannot launch a new government from scratch every four years, but rather that it’s linked to history by a chain of memory, though history is not the same thing as our historical memory of it.

The Guatemalan state’s history is not a dignified one. It is full of dictators and has been bloodied by its armed forces, debased by kidnappings, forced disappearances and the prisons where political prisoners have been tortured while serving “sentences” illegally imposed on them without due process. The state is still being discredited by violent police actions carried out with no concern for legal norms.

In this context, the state’s recognition of its responsibility in crimes such as the murders of anthropologist Myrna Mack, police officer José Miguel Mérida, who investigated her case, or indigenous novelist Luis de Lión represents a step forward in accepting its full history and the historical memory recovered by the Catholic Church’s REMHI project and the Historical Clarification Commission. Many other memorable crimes remain on the agenda: the murders of democratic political leaders Adolfo Mijangos, Manuel Colom Argueta and Alberto Fuentes Mohr, labor lawyer Mario López Larrave, labor leader Mario Mujía Córdoba (Güigüi), two entire directorates of the Guatemalan Labor Party, Father Hermógenes López and Bishop Juan Gerardi. Also pending is full acceptance of the Historical Clarification Commission’s recommendations, which is a state obligation following the Guatemalan government’s signing of the agreement to create the commission.

Allocating more in the new budget to the Commission to Compensate Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict than the US$4 million (not $40 million, as mistakenly reported in envío’s August issue) granted in 2004 would be a significant gesture, especially since President Berger granted over $8.3 million in compensation to ex- Civil Patrol members, many of whom committed those crimes.

“Let’s go, Guatemala!”

In the second half of 2004, the Berger government launched the “2004-2005 Economic and Social Reactivation Program,” giving it the suggestive name ““Let’s Go Guatemala! United for a Better Country.” The name Vamos Guatemala recalls the poem, “Vamos Patria a Caminar!” by the great Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo, murdered in the 1960s during the brutal campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), the country’s first guerrilla movement. The program seeks to “promote economic reactivation and social harmony through programs with a rapid, widespread impact,” to thus move “from stagnation to growth and the growth of well-being.” The program assumes greater security in all senses, a better institutional environment and better public management, including decentralization, the promotion of civic participation in local development and a stable macroeconomic framework. It is framed within a policy of alliances between the public and private sectors and a commitment to environmental sustainability.

The program has three major components. The first is solidarity, to be able to take the most urgent steps required to reduce poverty. The second is economic growth through the promotion of housing, infrastructure, tourism, finances and the forestry sector. And the third is increasing the country’s capacity to compete through increased productivity, technological innovation, export promotion, the simplification of administrative procedures and the promotion of domestic and foreign investments in production. The program aims to be dynamic and build on itself through new projects that will grow out of the alliances. The President’s office has pledged to establishing the necessary mechanisms to follow up on this.

The numbers speak

The “Let’s Go Guatemala!” program has a $972 million public investments budget. The “Guate in Solidarity” component has a $670 million budget, 69% of the total. The “Guate Grows” component has $262 million, or 27% of the total, and is expected to be matched by unspecified private investments that will depend on the alliances established. Finally, the “Guate Competes” has a $40 million budget, or 4% of the total.

Most of the efforts in the solidarity component will be concentrated in roughly a third of the country’s 331 municipalities, including 41 classified as extremely poor and 70 as very poor. Some $360 million, just over half the budget in this component, will be invested in education aimed at ensuring a complete primary education for everyone, providing bilingual education for indigenous students, encouraging education for girls and improving the first grade. Substantial investments will be made in reorganizing the state to prioritize the most vulnerable, poorest municipalities ($76.5 million), in health ($76 million) and in nutrition ($24 million), with smaller investments in rural electrification, housing, access to land, productive infrastructure, forestry and other relevant areas.

The biggest item in the economic growth component is road infrastructure, with a $202 million budget. Investments will also be made in tourism, recreation, culture and forestry. In the competitiveness component, the biggest investments are aimed at remodeling the airports, increasing the efficiency of their operations and improving customs procedures ($18 million) and at promoting micro-, small- and medium-scale businesses ($15 million). Only $5 million, or 0.06% of the total, is earmarked for scientific and technical development and innovation.

Considering the total amount of public investment in the program, the part assigned to the agrarian question is inevitably very small. It includes only $20.5 million to increase access to land, through support for leasing or purchasing farms. That amounts to just 2% of the program’s total public spending. Even more troubling is that only $5 million, 0.06% of the total, has been assigned to projects related to the pending catastral study. Given the high level of agrarian conflicts in the country—which just recently took a toll of ten lives in evictions with clumsy and unnecessary violence—the budget aimed at trying to solve these conflicts seems woefully inadequate.

“It’s not populism”:
Berger’s conflict with the Bishops

The growth component is the one that’s been the most controversial. One of its subcomponents, public concessions, is not detailed in the program or assigned a budget. This rubric covers mining concessions and, more specifically, permission to operate open pit gold and silver mines in San Marcos. At the heart of the matter is the question of whether this concession—and others like it, such as EXMIBAL’s resumption of nickel mining on the shores of Lake Izabal—are compatible with the purported goal of environmental sustainability.

Environmental organizations and the Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference insist they are not. On a recent trip to New York, President Berger commented that the bishops are letting themselves be carried away by populist attitudes on this issue. The president of the Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Quezada Toruño, impatiently replied that concern for the environment and the option for the poor is not populism. A law that dates back to the 1970s governs mining concessions in Guatemala and, in addition to lacking environmental protections, it grants the state very limited benefits.

No budget is assigned to the “national renewable energy investment plan,” which is bound to stir up conflicting ideas over whether to invest in large or small hydroelectric power facilities, with their enormously different impacts on the environment. Nor is a budget assigned to several large projects specified in the program such as the Port of Champerico, the Metropolitan Ring Highway, the Northern Highway, the Pacific Corridor and the Guatemala-El Rancho Highway. The program says only that investments will depend on “public-private alliances.”

It seems extremely unlikely that the “Let’s Go Guatemala!” program can undertake so many ambitious projects, defined in the document as “mega-projects,” in one year. Once again, the government’s program lacks viable, credible prioritization. Another question is whether it will be possible to achieve a 6% annual growth rate from 2004 to 2005 through this program, a rate that, according to the Peace Accords, we need to sustain over several years.

Forests, lakes, dams,
cars, construction...

Oscar Berger’s government has not yet seriously addressed other important structural problems in Guatemala. The first, most crucial one is the country’s ecological vulnerability. Well-organized emergency centers and reconstruction committees
are clearly not enough given all the natural disasters—earthquakes, eruptions, droughts, hurricanes, floods—that regularly afflict the country.

The main point in a preventive environmental policy is the preservation of forests. This requires strictly regulating forestry and creating a corps of forest rangers trained in modern forest security techniques who are both treated and paid as professionals. Equally important is a sound policy of land recovery and the decontamination and periodic dredging of lakes and rivers. All industries, especially those that produce toxic and other contaminants, must be subject to laws that require environmentally sound disposal practices. Naturally, the investments required to make this viable technologically will have to be ensured.

Hydroelectric dams should be built with turbine technologies that allow more water to be stored in less space and under less pressure. During excessive rains, spillovers should be regulated to prevent flooding of houses and crops. Laws prohibiting toxic gas emissions should be passed for all motor vehicles in the country and this should includeinspection, control and repair systems for cars that don’t pass the test. Anti-seismic construction regulations should err on the side of safety, and the government must insist that builders comply with them. This is an area permeable to corruption—promoted by private enterprise in conjunction with the state—when building permits are granted in response to bribes, and there is no strict supervision over the quality and strength of materials.

The environmental sector offers a chance for mega-projects that are truly in the country’s best interests. Thirty years ago, Costa Rica had the worst environmental situation in Central America because of deforestation, as demonstrated in aerial maps of the time. Now it is the most reforested country in Central America, which obviously contributes to its agricultural production and thriving tourist industry.

Marginalized settlements:
A true mega-project

No government plans or political campaigns have adequately addressed the structural obstacle to the country’s demographic development and human geography posed by marginali urban squatter settlements. Several decades ago, the shortage and poor quality of land, along with the demographic explosion encouraged by health improvements coupled with limited access to education, began to encourage migration from rural to urban areas. The low level of industrialization in our cities meant that the masses of new arrivals could not find sufficient work in the formal economy to be able to rent, buy or build decent homes. Marginalized settlements thus began to proliferate, starting with those built in the ravines around the fringes of the capital. The war then displaced huge numbers of people, accelerating migration even more.

We are now faced with a dramatic problem. The settlements are built in areas susceptible to environmental disasters, such as earthquakes, floods and landslides. Life there is a constant risk. Overcrowding prevents people from developing a healthy, free sense of individuality. The lack of space, the heat, the stink of human waste, the constant contact, the lack of decent accessible education and health services all forge a crucible of indignity and violence that often turns criminal. And the bad reputation earned by or imposed on the inhabitants of these neighborhoods reinforces the tendencies caused by such living conditions. It is a vicious cycle of lack and rage.

All of this has been aggravated since gangs began to proliferate, a phenomenon encouraged by the links between migration to the cities and migration to the United States. The heart of the problem lies in the urban areas. It’s not that land is unavailable for housing in our cities; it is still relatively abundant, especially in the capital. But the city creates segregation mechanisms, such as the way land acquires a kind of “added value” based on how close it is to the homes of the wealthy and white.

Over a million people

If the state took article 105 of the Constitution seriously, it would have to support “the planning and construction of housing developments” with “adequate houses that meet health standards.” And if it did this intelligently, it could help create jobs for the people in those neighborhoods for a long time to come.

These would be true “mega-projects,” providing housing and urban services for well over a million people. Working in alliance with private enterprise, the state could promote these local job opportunities that, along with good neighborhood health and education services and recreation facilities such as sports courts, could offer positive options to young people in these areas, and thus help improve public safety and the well-being of the whole nation.

We must take the
agrarian problem seriously

Addressing the agrarian problem is another pending task. One of the many necessary conditions for successful industrialization and increased export competitiveness among the “Asian tigers,” especially South Korea and Taiwan, was an agrarian reform that did away with the landowning oligarchy’s power and the mentality underlying it. That made it possible to develop a modern mentality interested in both domestic market growth—that is, increased purchasing power for the bulk of the population—and the foreign trade boom.

In Guatemala, this land reform was attempted by the Arbenz government but frustrated by the 1954 counterrevolution. What we Guatemalans often fail to recognize is that this counterrevolution
also frustrated the development of a new mentality, open to innovation, unafraid of competition from other countries or economic powers. During the Cold War the United States opted to conspire against communism with a retrograde sector of Guatemala—including the archbishop of the time—rather than act as Japan would a few years later with the “Asian tigers,” transferring technology to encourage their development and avoid migration to its already densely populated country.

In any event, it is now crucial to take seriously the Peace Accords’ agreement on socioeconomic issues and the agrarian situation and send Congress a bill to conduct a catastral survey, after first making the needed political alliances and mobilizing peasant organizations to ensure its approval. According to article 38 of this agreement, we are seven years behind schedule. And clearly, the country’s best interests would not be served by a survey that consecrates the current agrarian situation, but rather one that reforms it.

The dialogue between the government, represented by the Vice President’s office, and the Agrarian Platform, CNOC, CONIC and other peasant organizations should be aimed at establishing the basis for carrying out these measures, if it doesn’t want to end up being devoured by short-term thinking.

Tax reform is not “fiscal terrorism”

Nothing in the “Let’s Go Guatemala!” program effectively addresses the problem of financing the state itself. The fact that the Fiscal Pact was prepared and signed under the discredited Alfonso Portillo government should not be an obstacle to its implementation, since the pact is a huge step towards a state autonomous from individual interests, especially those of Guatemala’s traditional economic powers. Those interests have made it impossible to shrink the enormous gap between rich and poor in what is now one of the three most inequitable countries in the world.

All of the Fiscal Pact’s dimensions must be fully implemented. In this comprehensive framework, and only in this framework, we must also implement a stable, long-term tax reform that will provide security for investment capital and ensure that taxes account for at least 12% of the GDP. Without this, the state will simply not have enough resources for social spending that serves the common good.

Those who oppose the Fiscal Pact’s tax component, arguing that taxes scare off investors and accusing the state of theft—a charge they themselves confirm by creating the mechanisms for corruption in public spending—have the mindset of Guatemala’s traditional economic powers. Such thinking must be challenged by a bold, brave and honest government, one that fights forcefully and skillfully against corruption within the state as well as corruption in the form of tax evasion, which betrays not only the evaders’ status as citizens but also the rest of the citizenry.
Fighting tax evasion means that legal proceedings should be undertaken when it is uncovered, and sentences should be imposed in line with the seriousness of the crime. It also means firmly rejecting the notion that these penal measures are a form of “fiscal terrorism,” as they are sometimes demagogically labeled.

CAFTA and subsidies: A basic issue

In the 2003 campaign, it was regrettable
to see no serious analysis of free trade agreements or at the very least pressure on Alfonso Portillo’s government to postpone the negotiation and signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement until a thorough structural review could be made. The government of a developing country should go into these international talks with one basic fact in mind: the international trade factor that is most responsible for aggravating poverty in our countries is the subsidies supporting both agricultural production and exports in countries with strong economies, such as the United States, the European Union and Japan. This is particularly important to bear in mind in Guatemala, which has now replaced Nicaragua in 121st place—last in Central America—on the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index.

A treaty that claims to promote “free trade” but whose highly skilled and powerful US negotiators do not allow any in-depth discussion of subsidies is condemned from the outset to increase poverty in our countries because it threatens the survival of most small ranchers and growers of basic grains. What is there to negotiate, if this point can’t be touched? What we can do is refuse to sign this and wait for the World Trade Organization negotiations—where Guatemala can participate as a member of the Group of 20—to establish trade standards that gradually reduce and eventually eliminate subsidies.

On August 1, at the WTO meeting in Geneva, a binding agreement was signed that cuts export subsidies by 20% during its first year for all countries except the 50 poorest ones. This multilateral norm, which stands above any bilateral treaty, clearly holds for regional free trade agreements, which should be modified accordingly before being ratified. What ended in an impasse in Cancún in September 2003 was resolved, at least in part, in Geneva nearly a year later.

Free trade or protectionism?

Berger’s government has other reasons to reflect further on this structural component of foreign policy. First, free trade agreements are misnamed. They are not about free trade so much as protecting multinational investment.

They are also about protecting intellectual property, which favors those who own the most advanced technology and can use it to rediscover the riches of biodiversity—let’s remember that southeastern Mexico and Central America contain the world’s largest biodiversity reserves after the Amazon—then patent their biochemical derivatives.

What would Japan have done if, at the time of its industrial development, it had to abide by intellectual property legislation like that being imposed on Central America by the United States? Japan based its successful industrial development process on copying then improving on western inventions.

Should poor countries submit to intellectual property legislation that prevents us from escaping poverty—for example by using far cheaper generic drugs, which are an important way to improve the collective health of the people? I don’t even want to think about the economic disaster that awaits certain markets in the Guatemalan highlands should this protection of intellectual property be rigorously applied.

Violence crouches amidst poverty

Over the long term, no government, including Oscar Berger’s, can seriously address the problem of violence and public safety without seeing it in its full complexity. Such a vision must be related to a poverty reduction strategy that includes, above all, children’s enrollment and continued attendance in school and their acquisition of preventive health habits; as well as to strict control over militarism; the fight against corruption; the urbanization or relocation of marginalized settlements; the resolution of the agrarian problem and implementation of the Fiscal Pact.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to respond rapidly to the needs of the moment, to mitigate the traumas caused by the war, grinding poverty, the breakdown of the family and alcoholism. The issue of violence and public safety is, however, one of the country’s most structural problems and one of those that must be addressed over the long term, with clear awareness of its multiple origins.

It is a cultural problem. Beginning with the Conquest and running through the colonial period, the Liberal Reform, the “Liberation” of the 1954 counterrevolution and the long internal armed conflict, violence has become a habit among us. It is encrusted in our culture. No short-term action will make a real difference if it is not linked in a great chain to actions that address the causes of violence. The final report issued by the UN Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA) before leaving the country warned that violence crouches amidst poverty and if we don’t fight poverty, we won’t end violence.

Property or life?

Violent evictions on August 31 in Nueva Linda, in the municiplaity of Retalhuleu, in which shots were fired by both armed peasant farmers and special police forces and the latter committed extra-judicial executions according to the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson, left nine people dead. This violence is rooted in another old problem: the prioritizing of private property above people’s unmet basic needs. In response to the Supreme Court’s eviction order, Vice President Eduardo Stein openly raised the dilemma of whether the right to private property supercedes the right to life.

The government would do well to learn more about the full picture of violence and the best way to achieve reconciliation by consulting academic departments that have been studying it for several years, such as those involved in the University of San Carlos’ master’s program in social psychology. It seems unlikely that a team of people from the Government Ministry—some of whom reportedly come from groups such as the National Liberation Movement, a now-defunct association once involved in organizing death squads—can address the public security issue with the complexity and transparency required.

Here too, consolidating the rule of law is critical. The efforts should begin with cleansing the police, ensuring the efficiency of civilian intelligence agencies—which should use and analyze but not rely on military intelligence—and heeding the civilian security council appointed by the President.

Do more than put out fires

If we could take all of this into account, we could transform the state. We could make it autonomous from the real powers that currently govern it: the traditional economic and military powers, the newly emerging economic powers and the powers of criminal capital with global connections. The Guatemalan state has been strong when it comes to repression but weak in serving the common good and intervening in the economy to enhance social well-being.

It has been an authoritarian state, promoting neither a market economy nor a welfare state. An innovative state should find its support in civil society and all its organizations, even knowing that consensus is difficult. It is from all of Guatemala’s multicultural and multi-social voices that proposals and protests will emerge that will lead to a true national dialogue.

The most important thing is to de-privatize the Guatemalan state, to make it act as a true servant of the common good. None of this will be possible without a policy of transparent communication from the government to the people that, with a bold and flexible willingness to talk, lets us know what we can expect without feeding impossible hopes. Guatemala needs a long-term plan, with clearly defined priorities, noting what can be done in the short and medium term. And all of this must be set in a clear framework, with all pieces of the puzzle put together in such a way that it serves as both a model and a road leading to achievable goals.

Nine months of gestation. But in these nine months, the government still given birth to a plan that consistently and coherently meshes the short and the long term, combining firefighting actions with a fire prevention program. A state budget that is aimed solely or mainly at covering government operations will be no more than the budget of a government of firefighters. A budget that seeks to prevent fires will have to plan and allot considerable sums to public investment. If not, we will all end up devoured by short-term thinking.

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

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