Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 283 | Febrero 2005



The Berger Government in Danger of Being Pulled Apart

Six runaway horses, driven by their own interests, are pulling the Guatemalan government in different directions. The government must acknowledge and restrain these horses, because they threaten to pull it apart.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

In 18th-century France, those who plotted to assassinate the king would be brutally tortured until they revealed the scope of the conspiracy. Then they were condemned to an agonizing death by quartering, with their four limbs tied to horses that were forced to gallop in opposite directions in the public square, quite literally pulling the victim apart.

A similar, albeit far less gruesome image comes to mind when analyzing President Berger’s government after a year in office. It is being pulled in differing directions by a number of different “horses”—groups or sectors that are all acting according to their own interests. One of these horses represents agricultural, industrial, commercial and financial business interests. Pulling in the opposite direction is the horse of peasant farmers’ interests and the organizations that represent them. Meanwhile, the steed representing the former civil defense patrol members is pulling yet another way, opposite the indomitable stallion of the divided, inept and sometimes venal Congress, with its unpredictable interests.

But this is not the end of the story, because while our historical comparison allows for only four horses, Guatemala has two more: one saddled with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and mining concessions, which represent the interests of the Bush government and transnational companies, and another with the interests of organized crime, particularly drug traffickers.

President Berger, however, did not confront or even name any of these six horses in the 189-page report he sent to Congress after his first year in power or the 5-page speech that accompanied his presentation of it on January 14. Instead, he talked about grappling with the inheritance left by the previous government: the corruption of Alfonso Portillo’s administration, the perverted administration of state institutions, the subsequent delays in honoring the Peace Accords and the resulting lack of credibility projected onto Berger’s administration. This inheritance is real enough. In an effort to deal with this problem, the current government has encouraged both the Public Ministry and the judicial branch to ensure that justice is done in the most notorious corruption cases involving officials who are either imprisoned or still on the run. The fact is, however, that the government will not be judged according to the hard circumstances it inherited, but by how it responds to the responsibilities for which it was elected.

The first horse:
Business interests

The President’s report was very flattering of the country’s business community. For example, Berger talked about “low labor productivity” as one of the causes of underemployment, but did not even refer to the low productivity of employers mentioned in the annual UNDP reports on Guatemala. The President’s report talked about the US$2.6 billion sent back to the country every year by the million migrant Guatemalans living abroad, but offered no initiatives designed to build strategic alliances between the government and private business to reduce the enormous bank commissions charged to repatriate this foreign currency. And while it recognized that “emigration has been generated by structural causes such as poverty, land tenure and difficult access to jobs,” there is no evidence of any real government agrarian reform program similar to those that liberated Taiwan and South Korea from an arrogant conservative mentality. In Guatemala, this mentality remains entrenched in an enormously inequitable land ownership system and from there influences the attitudes of the rest of the business community.

The President’s report mentions the government’s “severe curtailing of operating costs” and the “austerity” it has adopted during its first year, without affecting social spending and public investment. But it would be even better if the President had called on employers and their families to exercise similar austerity in consumption, with the aim of creating investment savings funds, or if he had appealed to the philanthropic tradition as a way to finance education, appropriation of new cutting-edge technology, research and, above all, a wage hike. According to Berger’s report, “over 30% of the population earns less than 1,300 quetzals a month,” that is, less than US$170, and “this is not enough to guarantee their basic food needs. Even earmarking half of this income to food, the families would not cover 40% of their minimum food costs.” This is particularly important given that the report—which describes Guatemala’s dramatic situation quite lucidly—also notes that “85.3% of working people [i.e. with formal jobs] do not have formal work contracts.”

While such observations about the gaps in the President’s report may appear harsh, they are justified because his “Guate Participates” governmental philosophy has been based on the principle that “the government’s leadership and work must be backed up by the sustained commitment and joint responsibility of the citizenry in general.” That principal, in turn, forms a crucial element of the government’s “Let’s Go Guatemala!” program. The President could use the same joint responsibility arguments to appeal to his colleagues in private business. After all, Berger himself describes his administration as a “government of businesspeople.” If the stallion of employers’ interests continues to yank at the government without changing its course, it will help pull the government apart.

Second horse:
Peasant farmers’ interests

Pulling in the opposite direction are the interests of peasant farmers, represented by organizations such as the Agrarian Platform, the National Indigenous and Campesino Coalition, etc. Since Berger took office, they have been pressuring the government to engage in serious talks about the situation of landless peasants and access to land, the problem of farm takeovers, a structural solution to the agrarian problem through a property registry—which would also help address the problem of urban property—and the huge issue of rural development.

The government is well aware that there are three facets to Guatemala’s agricultural problem: one is economic, given its contribution to the GDP, one is social and one is environmental. The President’s report explains the social problem in terms of the agricultural sector’s “close relationship” to the “rural areas, home to a population with high levels of poverty and extreme poverty, considered vulnerable to food insecurity,” which implies hunger and chronic malnutrition. The President has occasionally met with peasant organizations, and, as he pointed out in his report, has taken his “mobile Cabinets” to rural areas of the country. Even so, the Vice President is the one who has taken responsibility for really tackling this problem. He presides over the Rural Development Cabinet, whose goal is “the implementation of a long-term and inclusive rural development process.” The proposals of the Agrarian Platform and other peasant organizations have been presented to him and timelines have been established for the government to consider and respond to the proposals.

The peasants’ concerns include resolution of the many agrarian conflicts—there were 42 in January 2004 alone. Many of these involve farm occupations, often because the owners refuse to pay the benefits legally due to laid-off workers who in some cases have worked on those farms their entire lives. Other concerns include the need for food subsidies, money for renting land and productive projects, and the formulation of a rural development policy. Most important of all is the demand for a land registry, and every now and then, these organizations dare to put forward the idea of land reform.

The urgent needs of hunger and
the urgent need for development

The government’s concerns do not necessarily coincide with those of the peasants. The government is thinking in “comprehensive rural development” terms, in which the idea is to offer options to the rural areas “that are not just agricultural and at the same time allow for the modernization of agriculture to make it more competitive.” Behind this thinking lies a plan whose ultimate goal is to cut the number of smallholdings substantially and modernize large estates through new technology. This was made quite clear in the President’s report: “In the medium and long run, this will make the rural population less dependent on land and agriculture, laying firm foundations for the resolution of the agrarian problem.”

There is not necessarily a contradiction between industrializing rural areas (not just agroindustrialization) and modernizing large farms on the one hand, and the demand for land for peasant farmers and the diversification and modernization of smallholdings on the other. But the different perspectives being used to express the urgent need to implement these goals could generate conflict, with the government talking about the medium and long term and the peasant organizations about the short term. In essence, one side is talking about the urgent need for development and the other the urgent needs of hunger.

And deeper down, one can detect different ways of understanding the importance of land in Guatemalan culture in particular and among developing peoples in general. Might there be a desire to jump straight from the large estate-smallholding dialectic to a situation in which big agribusinesses coexist with small farms and shops without first using land reform to cut the umbilical cord of exclusionary privileges? The President’s timid references to a property registry in both his report and his speech would suggest that there is. The closest thing to the land reform proposed and agreed upon in the Peace Accords was his mention of a property registry that aims not to rubber stamp the existing situation but rather to investigate existing land problems.

The fact is that peasant interests are being relegated and at times even brutally suppressed through evictions, some of which ended up in violent and bloody armed police interventions. The force used to evict people occupying land not legally theirs is not used, however, to ensure that farmers hand over back pay or legal benefits, even though the violation of the rule of law is technically the same. The law acts inequitably against equivalent offenses, and in doing so reflects the country as a whole.

In short, if the “steed” of peasant interests is not channeled in a new direction, one that can satisfy their enormous needs and their inclusion in an efficient, long-term economic project, it could also end up pulling apart the Berger government.

The third horse: The interests
of former patrol members

Neither Berger’s report nor his speech accompanying it made any explicit mention of paying the members of the former Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PACs). But it is another facet of the agricultural problem, a crisis originally triggered by Portillo’s administration and the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG).

During his campaign, Berger had let slip certain promises of compensatory pay to the former PAC members. Unable to withstand the pressure, he thought it would increase his chances of winning in western Guatemala, but in the end he lost Huehuetenango and Quiché to Ríos Montt and all of that region’s other departments minus Quetzaltenango to Alvaro Colom.

The government then began to vacillate over whether to fulfill its promise without paying—by offering development programs instead of cash payments in areas where the former PAC members live—or suffer the consequences of not honoring its promise at all, since the Constitutional Court has ruled the payment unconstitutional. On several occasions, the former patrol members have blocked highways and borders. For some reason, the state’s forces of law and order do not clash with them as readily or harshly as they do with those other peasant farmers who occupy farms. There is no denying that most former patrol members are themselves peasants and their economic and social situation is probably as precarious as that of the others (the same cannot be said of their leaders, most of whom are high-ranking military commissioners). But independent of what they may have been promised, when they were promised it or by whom, there is no legal basis to compensate them for what they did during the war. Moreover, their actions are tarnished by the many crimes they participated in, either voluntarily or by force.

The government’s preferred—and hopefully unambiguous solution—of offering development projects to the former PAC members’ sommunities—appears to be a good one. It sidesteps recognizing certain individuals or collective groups—which shouldn’t even exist following the Peace Accords and have no right to compensation given the illegal and cruel work they carried out, resulting in pain and sufferiing for many. At the same time, it recognizes the needs of poor peasants and would also benefit many of those who suffered at the patrol members’ expense.

As with the interests above, those of the former PAC members could also help tear apart Berger’s government if they are not reined in and redirected.

Fourth horse:
The interests of congress

The “horse” representing the interests of Congress will keep acting unpredictably, as it has throughout Berger’s first year in office. Congress is divided, and the voting patterns are by no means fixed. Two and two do not always add up to four, as representatives change sides with relative frequency. What is evident is that there is currently more fragmentation among the different forces than there was a year ago, immediately after the elections.

Berger’s Great National Alliance (GANA) has 32 seats and is supported by the National Solidarity Party (PSN) with 7 seats and the Reform Movement with 4, for a total 43. Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) has 30 seats, Alvaro Colom’s National Union of Hope party has 26 and the National Advance Party (PAN) has 14. These are followed by a group of 13 independents who have broken away from other parties and 9 Patriotic Party (PP) representatives who broke away from GANA under Otto Pérez Molina. The New Nation Alliance (ANN) and Alvaro Arzú’s Unionist Party (PU) have 6 seats each. The National Welfare (BIEN), another group made up of disaffected members of other parties, has 4 seats. Bringing up the rear are the Democratic Union (3), the URNG (2) and the DCG and DIA (1 each). Given this complicated division of the 158 representatives, alliances are indispensable.

Congress’ executive board right now is made up of representatives from GANA and its allies, as well as the FRG, the PU and the PP. If the members of their respective parties voted along party lines in an alliance, they would have a comfortable 88-vote absolute majority for proposed legislation. But they would be far from the two-thirds majority (105 votes) needed to pass certain legislation. The composition of the executive board reflects the regrouping of the various forces that supported Berger’s presidential campaign, together with the limited PU forces of former President Arzú. The inclusion of the FRG demonstrates the ethically dubious pragmatic side of the governing alliance as well as its fragility.

Discouragement and indignation

During the Berger government’s first year, Congress both discouraged and outraged Guatemalans. The limited volume of legislative work and the defection of representatives from one bench to another were discouraging; and the combination its administrative and financial chaos and the parliamentarians’ attempt to award themselves a pay hike caused the indignation. In fact, they had to abandon their wage increase attempt in the face of so much public outrage.

In his inaugural speech for the 2005 legislature, new congressional president Jorge Méndez Herbruger stated that the representatives will take on a gigantic task this year. Among the legislation they plan to approve are the framework law governing the Peace Accords; ratification or rejection of CAFTA; a code of ethics for public officials; a general law on concessions (including mining); laws on water, arms and munitions, the penitentiary system, the property registry, elections and second-generation political parties and the single identity document. In addition, the Supreme Court has proposed some reforms to the justice sector.

It is unlikely that Congress will achieve this goal. While its president reminded the representatives that legislative work depends on their attending the work commissions and plenary sessions, absenting oneself from commissions and breaking the plenary quorum are among the most common political tactics employed in Congress. Another shortsighted, party-oriented tactic is to ostracize parliamentarians distinguished by their independence and integrity, as happened to Nineth Montenegro, the nemesis of army corruption and therefore Prensa Libre’s person of the year, who has been excluded from presiding over any of the commissions.

It was not for nothing that 84.5% of those surveyed in Vox Latina’s end-of-2004 opinion poll disapprove of Congress’ work, while 81.4% disapprove of the political parties’ behavior (81.4%). It will be very hard for the President to govern without an honest and effective Congress.

So, the fourth horse—the interests of Congress and, by extension, of the political parties—will also help pull the government apart if the new President proves unable to draw the parliament away from its path of incompetence, veniality and sloth.

Mixed year-end grades
for the President himself

The government, unable to restrain these horses or lead them along harmonious new paths, has been subjected to their brutal tyranny. Its is thus no surprise that the Vox Latina poll gave President Berger a rather discouraging public appraisal at the end of his first year in office.

While 58% disapprove of his administration and only 38.3% approve of it, people do, however, feel he has the potential to improve, with 63% saying he has the intelligence to solve the country’s problems. That drops to 52.4% who feel that he has the leadership to run the country and 51.5% that he has the capacity to do so. In addition, 65% think he is a hard worker, 72% that he is tolerant of those who criticize him, 56% that he has government experience, 54% that he knows about people’s problems, and 54.5% that he’s honest.

That is not the extent of the complex picture the poll paints of President Berger, as 68% also think he is not concerned about the poor and 64% that he is not close to the people, despite the fact that he travels so much within the country. Very significantly, 57% believe he’s wasting time on issues of limited importance.

The firth horse:
Transnational interests

Against this background, the Berger government has shown a notable lack of vision on the thorny issue of the ratification, rejection or renegotiation of the free trade agreement with the United States. On December 14, 2004, Central American Jesuits involved in social ministry publicly presented the Central American press with a reasoned evaluation of why ratification of CAFTA would endanger our countries’ welfare. In Guatemala, the pronouncement was published in El Periódico but it neither aroused any doubts or provoked any desire for dialogue among members of Berger’s government, many of whom were students at Jesuit schools and universities.

One of the most clearly stated topics of the President’s first annual report is the terrible food security situation. It refers to the “presence of chronic malnutrition among 49.3% of children under five,” a figure that reaches almost 70% among indigenous children. It also points out that this acute malnutrition is aggravated by the “severe hunger and precarious health situation” in certain areas of the country. According to the report, not enough food is available “to cover the whole population’s minimum needs,” reflected in “a daily deficiency of approximately 200 calories per inhabitant.” We are told that this shortage is made even worse by the difficulty of “economic access to food,” due to “the loss of buying power, lack of employment opportunities and low wages,” and that “dependency on imported grains has increased 20% over the last decade, to represent 35% of the country’s total supply.” Such dependency “means being subject to high levels of vulnerability, particularly if the international price of those products increases.” The analysis could not be more lucid.

It is so lucid, in fact, that it is difficult to understand how the Guatemalan government could accept the CAFTA agreement with the United States. This agreement will eliminate Guatemalan import tariffs on grains after a certain period, despite the US refusal to cut its own grain production and export subsidies, effectively turning the grains trade into a privileged business of profoundly unfair competition.

Wouldn’t it be much more reasonable to postpone CAFTA until the problem of agricultural subsidies has been negotiated and settled at the Doha round of the World Trade Organization (WTO)? If it ratifies CAFTA, won’t the Guatemalan government contradict its membership in the Group of 20 developing countries? After all, what the Group of 20 negotiates in the WTO framework will take precedence over bilateral treaties such as CAFTA.

At the end of 2004, when the United States rejected the generic medicines law passed by our Congress because it contradicted the guarantees offered its powerful pharmaceutical companies in CAFTA, we saw just what kind of pressure it can exert. The Guatemalan government bowed to the pressure and drew up regulations aimed at satisfying the US demands. Despite this act of respect, however, the United States made it known that it wanted the law itself revoked. This embarrassing episode confirmed the importance of the arguments put forward in the Jesuit pronouncement on CAFTA: “People’s health and lives are over and above the patent rights of transnational chemical, biogenetic or pharmaceutical companies.”

Mining concessions:
A burning issue

Finally, the case of the mining concessions shows the government’s lack of sensitivity to the communities in which the mining would take place. It has also brought President Berger into confrontation with the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Quezada Toruño, since September 2004. The insensitivity was demonstrated by his decision to allow Montana, a US mining company to conduct the consultation of local residents on the installation of a gold mine there, despite the fact that ILO agreement 169 clearly states that the state must carry out such a task. It was also seen in such dirty tricks as collecting the signatures of San Miguel Ixtahuacan and Sipacapa residents on blank sheets of paper, under the guise of registering their attendance at a lunch offered by the company, then using these lists to demonstrate their support for the project.

The whole situation started to deteriorate following these events. Peasants from Los Encuentros blocked a large cylinder needed for some kind of operation at the mine from being transported on the Pan-American Highway. After several weeks of the blockade, the government responded with force and one peasant farmer was killed. Some people have said that some of the farmers had firearms and used them against the police and the army; they claimed that former guerrilla fighters were “getting their weapons out” again.

President Berger accused Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos—where the mining concession granted to Montana is located—of having stirred up the peasants from Los Encuentros, although a dialogue between the country’s bishops and the President established a truce. Meanwhile, rumors have spread through many municipalities in the indigenous western region that the government is planning to confiscate land for mining and transfer the peasant farmers to other places, including the far-away Petén region. There is a general sense of unease, which was not helped by the disrespectful declarations of police chief Sperisen, who headed the Los Encuentros operation. He mocked the “backwardness of those people” because they believed the cylinder was going to be used to suck water out of Lake Atitlán.

The mining issue is a very delicate one. You cannot toy with land issues when peasants or indigenous communities
are involved, particularly when the legal conditions governing mining concessions are so stacked against the Guatemalan state, which receives just 1% of the benefits. The current situation also serves as an alarm bell: if the CAFTA agreement with the United States were in force today, the conflict with the mining company would end up being sent to arbitration panels chosen by the World Bank or the WTO and there would be no appeal against their resolution. Given that the president of Congress has stated that the general concessions law is about to be passed, it would probably be better to see what happens with that legislation before Congress gets down to ratifying, renegotiating or rejecting CAFTA.

The sixth horse:
The interests of the violent

The last “horse” pulling on the current government represents the interests of organized crime, particularly drug trafficking and drug-related businesses. According to Government Ministry figures, over $100 million worth of drugs were seized in 2004, just a third of what was seized during 2003, the last year of Alfonso Portillo’s government, which was making a determined effort to recover US certification for its anti-drug effort.

The backdrop to this problem is a sense of institutionalized public insecurity, also influenced by the institutionalized violence plaguing Guatemalan society. People have a very negative view of the Berger government’s efforts to improve public safety. In its survey for the end of 2004, Vox Latina found that most of those interviewed (56.8%) think the government has done nothing to fight crime and violence. Only 36% felt that it has done something, at least a little. Far worse is women’s perception of public security: 69% stated that the Berger government had done nothing to reduce violence against women and only a combined 28% believed that “something” or “a little” had been done. The number of women murdered rose from over 300 in 2003 to over 500 in 2004. Guatemala’s Network for Peace and Development, led by Raúl Molina, believes it is fair to state that “2004 was, without doubt, the most violent year since the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords.”

Violent responses to protests or human rights demands are still common in Guatemala and have a lot to do with the persistence of the mentality traditionally found among large landowners. This mentality explains the failure of all bottom-up agrarian reform attempts aimed at ending the enormous inequality in land ownership dating as far back as the Conquest. The only successful “agrarian reforms” were those implemented by the conquistadors, institutionally backed by the Spanish crown through the granting of land and “Indians” to the new Spanish settlers, and those of the Liberal republic in the late 19th century. Both were to the detriment of the indigenous peoples and involved a degree of violence that became institutionalized.

A pending human rights debt

The persistence of this mentality also has a lot to do with the excessively violent police reaction in cases such as the Nueva Linda farm and the Los Encuentros conflict, as well as many other evictions in which crops have been destroyed and shacks burnt, echoing the scorched earth policy of the worst years of state terrorism during the war. The Vox Latina survey attributed the worst performance during the government’s first year to Government Minister Carlos Vielman, who is responsible for public safety. He only elicited a positive response from 22.4% of those interviewed.

In his speech to Congress, President Berger said that his government had re-launched the Peace Accords “as a road map to the nation we yearn for.” Unfortunately, this metaphor recalls the ill-fated destiny of that other “road map,” the one designed over two years ago to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which proved to be sterile and was dumped.

The President added that “maintaining peace also demands firmness on my part.” True enough, but such firmness should be balanced, equitable and aimed at both those who disrupt the dialogue with violent protests and those who refuse to budge from positions rooted in age-old institutional violence. Both attitudes violate the rule of law.

The President’s report declares his government’s continuing support for setting up an Organized Crime Investigating Commission with UN support, despite objections from Congress. To be credible, its support should be backed by ongoing political pressure and skillful negotiations until it achieves its aim.

The government says it also supports the continuity of the UN Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA) through the opening of an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala. There has also been objection to this in Congress, as Guatemala would be the only country about which this office would produce an annual human rights report. But if it wants to be credible, the government has to recognize that Guatemala’s pending human rights debt is also globally exceptional. If it fails to do so, the sixth horse, representing the interests of the violent, will end up doing the most damage to the Berger government.

Horses of the apocalypse?

The current government is striving to turn the “Let’s Go Guatemala!” program into an inspiring, long-term plan for Guatemala’s economic reactivation, progressive fulfillment of the Peace Accords and the formation of a new nation. Its components—“Guate in Solidarity,” “Guate Grows,” “Guate Competes,” “Guate Green,” “Guate Participates,” and others that will be presented later—are consistent, coherent, solid and at the same time flexible. But unless the government does a better job of facing up to and taking on these six horses, they will grow increasingly apocalyptic and their riders will spread the power of the same age-old victors with its accompanying violence, hunger and death.

President Berger must maintain the hope he expressed at the beginning of his report and the end of his speech, but such hope should not spring from an idyllic vision of Guatemala. Rather, it should come from a vision that, while contemplating new horizons, takes into account the dialectic opposition of a cruel and violent Guatemala and a magnanimous and peaceful one, both of which are rooted in the country’s reality. The horror of polarization should not be allowed to lead to incapacity and delays in confronting the real conflicts.

This vision and the hope expressed by the President and his team could perhaps encourage Guatemala’s people to sow corn fields to harvest for their children and build houses so they can live in a country where this has been impossible for most people in the last 500 years. But the government has precious little time to turn some of this hope into reality. Everybody agrees that what it does or fails to do in 2005 will be decisive.

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

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