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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 117 | Abril 1991


Central America

Guatemala: The Civilian Facade Collapses

Jesuit of Latin America

Guatemala witnessed three dynamic processes and one non-starter during 1990. The first dynamic process was the fight between the government and the bourgeoisie over the stabilization and structural adjustment program. The second was the dialogue begun in Oslo between the URNG and diverse sectors of civil society, which culminated in an intensification of the war. The political parties dominated a third with their inept efforts to breathe life into institutional democracy through the electoral process. The grassroots movement, however, remained stuck in its traditional forms of labor organization, as we detail in the regional section on popular movements.

The 1990 economic adjustment

The government developed its structural adjustment program erratically. It modified the exchange rate policy nine times and no one could determine either the size of the fiscal deficit or how to finance it. In the end, the government adopted a strictly monetary economic policy. In a country where production and exports are in different hands (500 producers for each exporter) and export producers run the gamut from small peasants to transnationals, fostering exports simply by providing a favorable exchange rate did not work. Rather than stimulating production, it inflated the earnings of the financial and commercial consortia that control exports. Freeing interest rates, ending fuel subsidies and cutting salaries only contracted internal demand. Inflation climbed from 18% in 1989 to 60% in 1990—the greatest annual increase in the country's history. The government did not negotiate its lowering of the ceiling on customs duties from 40% to 20%, seriously hurting the domestic textile industry.

All of these policies reflected the predominance of the financial bourgeoisie. Peasant farmers and urban salaried workers were dealt the greatest blow. The cost of inputs for peasants increased 30%. Water, electricity and transport costs increased to the point of consuming 60% of the minimum urban wage, which is the maximum for most grassroots workers.

The labor organizations, however, were paralyzed by the economic situation and did not contest the terms of the structural adjustment. They could not identify points of consensus to broaden previous alliances between the union movement and the peasants, urban informal sector and small businesspeople.

The growing unemployment (around 43% of the economically active population) makes organizing extremely difficult for the grassroots movement as a whole. With the worsening standard of living, people are turning to migration and flight toward the urban informal sector, changing the social structure of labor. The urban wageworker is increasingly a minority and often an isolated on. In one case, union activists seeking support for a public workers' strike were expelled by neighborhood residents who called their constituency "lazy." Meanwhile, peasants are increasingly forced to decapitalize.

The government of newly elected President Jorge Serrano will have to confront the general tendency of neoliberal capital to destroy the productive structures. Within Serrano's Cabinet, his finance and economy ministers, who oppose a radical "shock" adjustment program, are at odds with the Bank of Guatemala's president, who favors it. With the windows of international lending agencies closed because of the government's debt arrears, Guatemala's economy is making the country increasingly unmanageable.

URNG-civil society dialogue

The ongoing dialogue between the URNG and various sectors of civil society is an important step toward eliminating the specter of mistrust that has accumulated around the guerrillas during their years of armed clandestinity. In these encounters, the most important outcome was an accord with the political parties concerning the need for constitutional reform. The new President has also backed reform, referring, for example, to the country's multiethnicity, the social function of property and the full observance of civil liberties.

Along with his opponent, Jorge Carpio, Serrano refused to meet with the URNG during the second electoral round, probably because, sure of his triumph, he wanted to assure his own leadership role in the dialogue later on. Serrano declared that, if this constitutional reform passes, the guerrilla movement will have lost its reason to exist. In the meantime, he does not intend to recognize the URNG as a legitimate belligerent force by negotiating with it. If he attempts to push the constitutional reform outside of a broader negotiation process, without recognizing the URNG as a legitimate opponent, it is probable that the war will continue. As state-sponsored terrorist violence increases, militarism will lose even more credibility in civil society. As it is, the greatest grassroots activity has been in opposition to militarism and even the bourgeoisie has exhibited a certain degree of militancy against it. As this delegitimacy contaminates the President's image, the country becomes more ungovernable.

Political parties and elections

In 1990, elections occupied the foreground, due more to inertia than because the electoral process or even the political parties interest the majority of Guatemalans. However, the transition from military regimes to civilian governments—which began in 1984-85 with a new Constitution and elections that revived the parties and presented civilian candidates—depended largely on the parties' credibility as mediators between the traditional powers (the bourgeoisie and the army) and the rest of the population.

The results of the 1990 elections were very different from those of even eight years ago, the last election with a military candidate. At that time, 51% of the registered voters abstained or cast a null ballot. In the 1984 constituent election, 52% abstained or cast null votes. The following year, the first with civilian presidential candidates, that total fell to 41%. Now, five years later, abstention and null votes in the first round rose to 56% of those with a right to vote and in the second topped 70%.

This means that the electoral mechanism has returned to the discredited status that had plagued Guatemala since the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Five years have been enough to crumble the democratic facade that masked the authoritarian way the army rules the country. This facade was a key element of the state stability model, designed by the military to defeat grassroots and revolutionary challenges, win over the people, facilitate agreements with the bourgeoisie and recover international prestige. The price the army has paid for not having really given up state power has been the sullying of civilian government as a political-military tactic on all three grounds, above all, among the people and internationally. On this third front, too, Guatemala approaches ungovernability.

What has failed, besides the army's lack of political will to abandon its real domination? We offer the hypothesis that the political parties, including the Guatemalan Christian Democracy (DCG), in government during these last five years, have failed. Perhaps because these parties are made up of insecure urban middle classes with regional and local strongmen, they have been unable to overcome either their social identity as servants of the bourgeoisie and the army or their paternalistic relationship with the grass roots.

These two elements annul any possible mediating role between the state and the rest of civil society. They act as instruments of the bourgeoisie and the army because they lack a profound identity as a political class. With an excess of immediate interests, they lead their bases like merchants, offering political salaries, influence and special favors of all kinds to their clientele. They can neither persuade the bourgeoisie and the army to respond to the population’s general interests nor themselves receive organized demands from below—only individual ones.

This was how the DCG behaved during these five years. On various occasions, President Vinicio Cerezo made social pacts with labor organizations, only to break them several months later under bourgeois pressure. He attempted to win for himself the power of a creditor merchant in the municipalities, dispensing funds acquired from the treasuries of his German, Italian or Venezuelan cohorts to assure himself a following. A reputation for corruption inevitably accompanied his use of these funds for his party clientele. In the end, he who began proclaiming, "I prefer a coup to the facade of democracy," dodged the 1988 and 1989 coups by accepting the conditions of the military and the most hard-line bourgeoisie.

This is also how the Union of the National Center (UCN) and its candidate, Jorge Carpio, runner-up in both the 1985 and 1991 elections, played their cards. The UCN brought Manuel Ayau into Carpio's "centrist" candidacy. A member of the ultra-right National Liberation Movement (heir to the 1954 counterrevolutionary coup) and former dean of the Francisco Marroquín University, Ayau was the maximum symbol of neoliberalism. Reverence for the bourgeoisie could not be more evident.

Alvaro Arzú, who turned the civic committee with which he had twice won the mayoralty into a party, did not need to depend on the bourgeoisie. He himself was the most honorable, most entrepreneurial, most rejuvenated and efficient member of that bourgeoisie. He had demonstrated this during his two terms in the mayor's office of the capital city, at least from the viewpoint of the upper and middle classes.

It is easier to understand retired General Efraín Ríos Montt's popularity within this pattern of incapacity and lack of autonomy or true representativity. He represented an anti-system option because he disdained the political parties and depended on the "charisma" of his personality. He took his strength from the authoritarian tendency that the militarization of the country's economic and political life has imposed on social relations, sinking its roots into the last crannies of the local spaces in which the life of the population is organized.

During the "transition" from military regimes to civilian rule, the military, mistrusting the politicians, never abandoned local control. But by taking away the parties' ability to mediate with the rest of civil society, they undermined the social base for their stability model. Ríos Montt used the mechanism of authoritarian atavism to evoke an image of honesty, egalitarian toughness and economic stability. Social groups that had experienced the civilian facade as a threat to their social identity responded to this image, including both urban middle class ladinos overwhelmed by crime and indigenous people affected by discrimination.

An evangelical President

The Constitutionality Court opened the way for a Serrano victory by blocking Ríos Montt's registration as a candidate because he had already been a de facto chief of state. The court thus established itself, along with the Electoral Council, the Human Rights Prosecutor's Office and, at times, the Supreme Court, as an institution that fought to strengthen democracy. Serrano inherited Ríos Montt's moralism without his stridence. Neither was he weighed down by the bourgeois support that went to Carpio and Arzú. While Serrano's image is also authoritarian, his civilian character could make his peculiar brand of authoritarianism preferable to that of a military man. Although there was strong abstention among evangelicals, many of them supported him, and public opinion polls revealed that he had no few sympathizers among Catholics. More importantly, however, only 20% of the electorate supported him with votes, a very small base with which to make the country more governable than it was under Cerezo. Given that Serrano's party has only 8 deputies out of a total of 116, his position is even worse than Cerezo's.

A clean electoral process always bestows certain legitimacy, even if diminished by a majority of abstentions. This limited legitimacy will be seriously threatened, however, if Serrano's government fails to either improve the economic situation or make serious progress toward peace. The blow to militarism, fruit of the collapse of enthusiasm for the military's civilian facade, and even more so of the decline in the army's own credibility in Guatemalan society, could offer the new President an opportunity to launch a more solid peace process. This would be the better path since economic improvement does not seem viable in the short run, given the conditions that will surely be imposed on Guatemala for greater international financing. These conditions are worsened because the eyes of the world are turned toward Eastern Europe and the Persian Gulf and are increasingly blind to Central America. Guatemala's ungovernability, bitter harvest of decades, can only be reversed with advances in human rights through a serious negotiation toward peace.

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Introduction and Dedication

The United States: Redefining Central America and the World

The Neoliberal Model in Central America: Gospel of the New Right

The Nation-State Crisis: Ungovernability

Demilitarization: The Other Face of Democratization

Central America’s Grassroots Movement: A Partial Alternative

Guatemala: The Civilian Facade Collapses

Honduras: A Grassroots Party Emerging from Grassroots Organization

El Salvador: UN Mediation and Civil Negotiations

Nicaragua: Political Maturity and Economic Immaturity

Panama: Eternally Condemned

The Popular Alternative: The Agenda and Challenge for the 90s
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