Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 308 | Marzo 2007



Rigoberta Menchú Bursts onto the Electoral Stage

“I want to open the way for a new direction in Guatemala,” said Rigoberta Menchú on accepting the presidential candidacy and introducing her new social movement. Which political stage will she choose to dance on and what special interests are the numerous other political parties hiding?

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

A strong jolt has rocked Guatemala’s electoral stage in the lead-up to the presidential, congressional and local elections, to be held on one of the first two Sundays in September. Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and current Goodwill Ambassador for the Peace Accords, appointed by the Berger government, announced the formation of the “Winaq” social movement, which could become a political party and support her presidential candidacy. In Quiché and in other Mayan languages winaq means “persons” or “people.”

A difficult dialogue

It has proved as difficult as expected for Winaq to negotiate a political-electoral alliance with MAIZ, the broad leftist movement centered on the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and including many other parties of the independent Left and/or the Gathering for Guatemala (EG), a movement led by Representative Nineth Montenegro that is on the verge of becoming a recognized political party.

On February 21, the national media announced that Menchú had declined an alliance with URNG and decided to run for the EG. Two women who experienced personal tragedies during the armed conflict, Menchú and Montenegro united their respective movements—WINAQ and the EG—at the expense of another female leader, Alba Estela Maldonado, a former URNG secretary general and current legislator for that party.

Governed by “a little Indian woman”?

When the news of Rigoberta Menchú’s candidacy was first announced, the immediate reactions on the radio were profoundly racist. As one ladina woman exclaimed: “Me, governed by some Indian woman? Never!” Press editorials treated Menchú with at least apparent respect but, with the tone of a school teacher or wise grandparent, advised her not to get involved because her prestige would suffer and her aura as Nobel laureate would be tarnished if she entered the lions’ den of Guatemalan politics.

To a fanfare of racism and advice, the electoral stage set suddenly changed, bringing gloomy, threatening clouds for some and auroral colors for others.

Representatives or mediators?

Political science teaches that political parties represent the conflicting interests of different groups in national societies and are intermediaries between the state and those social groups, whether organized or not. The minimum wage is one example. This economic issue, so important for the urban and rural populations, is discussed in an acrimonious three-sided dialogue between representatives from private sector business associations, union representatives for urban workers and rural laborers, and government representatives acting as mediators. The first two groups are both part of civil society, while the latter represents political society and often consists of members of a single political party, or of an alliance of several parties plus certain unaffiliated or “independent” officials.

This design means that while government members themselves identify with concrete social interests, they are obliged to mediate from government between conflicting social interests. At times they become intransigent defenders of their own interests, as in the case of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government in Great Britain or of Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration in the United States, which fought to bring in neoliberal capitalism, favoring large transnational companies. The same is also happening today with George W. Bush’s administration, which has introduced unilateral neoconservatism expressed in the unscrupulous, borderless war against terrorism. Francois Mitterrand’s first government similarly tried a path of business nationalization, which was already unviable within the European community. Meanwhile, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President three consecutive times in the US because of the way he fought the consequences of the 1929 Great Depression, mediating all the conflicting interests, and a fourth time because of an exceptional consensus during World War II. Along the same lines, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile mediated conflicting interests in that country in such a balanced way that he ended ended his six-year term with a 70% approval rating.

Unreplaceable political parties

Up to now no institution has been found to replace political parties in the socio-political democracy-building sphere. We all talk of their decline, loss of prestige and lack of credibility, especially due to the corruption corroding them in Brazil, Venezuela, France, Japan, South Africa and India... They have also been losing their original identities, as has been happening to British and German social democracy at the hands of Tony Blair’s “third way” and Gerhard Schroeder, although this is somewhat different in practice from the theories of sociologist Anthony Giddens.

There are no substitutes for or successors to political parties in political society. The traditional parties that built democracy in Venezuela—the social democratic Democratic Action(AD) and the social Christian COPEI—became mired in corruption, internal cannibalism and fruitless conflicts after a few decades of undeniable advances. But with the AD and COPEI both sunk in an abyss from which they find it hard to escape, Hugo Chávez’ Bolivarian Revolution not only can’t reject the idea of organizing a political party, it actually wants to unify the various parties and movements in the alliance that brought him to power and saw him reelected eight years later into a single party representing his proclaimed 21st- century socialism.

Political parties “belonging”
to individual fiefdoms

In Guatemala no one can run for President or Vice President without the backing of a political party. Nor can anyone be an independent candidate for Congress; all names must appear on a political party’s national or departmental slate, which the voter either chooses or not. There’s no selecting names from different slates, no personal discernment possible among the names that appear there. Only in elections for mayors or municipal councils may candidates choose to run not under a political party but rather a “civic committee” that more directly represents social issues.

Sometimes candidacies are put forward by alliances of political groups, only one of which need have legal status as a party. President Berger and Vice President Stein were elected by the Grand National Alliance (GANA) of four political groups, where legal party status was provided by the Solidarity Party, led by businessman Ricardo Castillo Sinibaldi. This happened after Oscar Berger won the primary for the National Action Party (PAN) then had to resign his candidacy because the PAN’s national directorate didn’t want to accept his conditions for running. This indicates that political parties in Guatemala are “owned” by those who take over the party’s general secretariat and dominate its national directorate or executive council. The parties’ identity is politically feudalized to certain individuals.

Parties devoid of ideology

Many other political parties around the world are also fiefdoms of individuals. In Russia, Yeltsin and then Putin completely dominated the parties that launched their candidacies. In France, Mitterrand reigned over the Socialists for decades and Chirac has done the same with the Conservatives. Lula has been leading, and dominating, the Brazilian Workers’ Party since 1980. The Nehru family, led first by Javajarlal, then his daughter Indira, then his grandson and even the grandson’s wife, dominated the Congress Party in India for practically half a century. It’s even worse when there aren’t clear ideological profiles or identifiable national projects behind the personalities dominating the parties, which is precisely the case in Guatemala.

The parties on the stage

There is a multitude of political parties in Guatemala. The Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) is the oldest, still viable party under the undisputed leadership of retired Army General Efraín Ríos Montt, who left his post 18 years ago. The PAN was set up by former President Alvaro Arzú 17 years ago and more recently passed from the hands of Leonel López Rodas to those of Rubén Darío Morales. Then there’s the Unionist Party (PU), the refuge of Alvaro Arzú’s most ardent followers after they split from the PAN.

Another group of parties are all about seven years old: The National Unity of Hope (UNE), led by Alvaro Colom Caballeros; the Patriotic Party (PP), led by retired General Otto Pérez Molina; GANA, the current governing party, which began as an alliance of Ricardo Castillo Sinibaldi’s PS, Otto Pérez Molina’s PP, Jorge Briz’s Reforming Party and the G 17 group of Oscar Berger’s followers. After obtaining its own legal recognition as a party, GANA has been gradually shedding its constituent parts, as first the PP, then the PR and finally the PS broke away.

Three groups on the left

Finally, there is a collection of smaller leftist parties. The URNG exists as a result of the Peace Accords. Leftwing caudillismo led to the creation of the ANN, headed by Jorge Ismael Soto, better known in URNG ranks by his nom de guerre Pablo Monsanto. And there is the EG, whose undisputable leader is Nineth Montenegro.

What ideologies and interests do these parties represent? While it’s difficult to get behind the scenes, the URNG was originally a Marxist-Leninist leftist party but has now turned socialist, interested in representing the poor, the dispossessed, workers and peasants and, to a some extent, the indigenous population.

The same could be said of the ANN if it weren’t for that party’s turnover of leaders, which mirrors the PAN. First came Alvaro Colom, when it was united with the URNG, followed by Nineth Montenegro and finally Jorge Soto, who left the URNG after failing to be reelected as secretary general. The EG is also a leftist party, although the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) still hasn’t officially recognized it and it has no history beyond that of its leader, Nineth Montenegro.

These parties were at their most united in 1999, and won 15% of the electorate in the first round of voting, getting nine congressional seats.

“Old money” parties

Masks pop up on stage when we try to identify the other parties. GANA, or what remains of it, G 17 and the PU are business parties. Although they don’t say so openly, they defend the interests of “old money” and “old-property “—what we used to call the oligarchy. They differ only in the personal rivalry between Oscar Berger and Alvaro Arzú.

Naturally, it’s an oligarchy whose economic interests are now very diversified. Pantaleón, S.A., in which the Herrera family is the major stockholder, is a large sugar cane growing and processing company . It has now expanded into other parts of Central America and could soon diversify into ethanol production with Brazilian support. The Francisco Marroquín University and two of the best hospitals in the country have been located on its urban properties for over thirty years.

The Castillo family, which is now internally split, traditionally concentrated on the beer and soda business and is currently a heavy investor in Banco Industrial. It has an interest in the print media through Siglo XXI and cooperates with Multiinversiones, S.A. in huge luxury malls like “La Pradera” alongside the rich neighborhoods in Condado Concepción, on the highway to El Salvador.

The Gutiérrez family, which founded the Pollo Campero chicken restaurants, is also divided by internal rifts. Their holdings are diversified within the Multiinversiones S.A. group, but they also own large chicken farms and have the majority shares in Banco Reformador, which just bought Banco SCI. They also cooperate with the beer producers in important commercial and real estate businesses.

Then there are the interests of the oligarchic Novella family, shareholder in “Cementos Progreso,” whose business is as vibrant as that of the beer producers because Guatemalan highways are as thirsty for pavement as Guatemalan throats are for brew.

Another interesting group covers the coffee families, diversified in Banco Agromercantil and in nontraditional agroexport products, such as flowers and fruits. Diversifyng doesn’t necessarily mean that these capitalists “from times gone by” have changed into “modern” groups. In fact any such change is blocked by their cultural link to the land and large farms, and their opposition to modern agrarian reform. The PAN also represented those interests, although this party’s takeover by rather obscure forces that might include what are known in Guatemala as “hidden powers” makes classifying it as part of this group harder these days.

The FRG is still under
Ríos Montt´s dark shadow

The FRG is still stained with the blood, disappearances and tears caused by its elderly leader Ríos Montt, who Spain’s Supreme Court has named as a human rights violator and perpetrator of genocide, along with other comrades-in-arms and civilians, some associated with him and some not.

Despite the pro-poor tone of former President Alfonso Portillo’s campaign rhetoric and presidential speeches, the corruption-mired businesses of “new money” and “emerging property” lurk behind the FRG’s mask, as demonstrated during Portillo’s term (2000-2004). Vice President Francisco Reyes’ position at the crucial moment of supporting or abandoning the fiscal pact clearly demonstrated the FRG’s real tendency as the rhetoric fell away and the pact was ripped apart. Unfortunately for Guatemala, former generals and colonels were also prospering behind Portillo’s demagogy and Reyes’ skills. These same men used the national Customs Office to make deals during the war and times of armed violence, possibly also getting involved in drugs at a later date.

Drug trafficking has helped develop the most important emerging wealth in Latin America, including Guatemala. Vice President Stein continuously warns of the drug cartels’ probable infiltration of the various candidacies in the upcoming elections. And it’s evident that illegal arms dealers and perpetrators of other forms of prohibited trafficking have infiltrated right alongside the drug money.

Social responsibility and drug traffIcking in the PP and PS

The PP operates along the same lines as the FRG, although it appears to defend even murkier interests. Some sources who know Guatemala inside and out say that this party is also riddled with drug trafficking interests. Its current “iron hand” rhetoric appears to foreshadow what could be a return to crude militarism, which a large part of the population, fed up with the lack of safety on the streets, at home and in public institutions, would now support.

Otto Pérez Molina mixes rhetoric about social welfare for the poor with a hard line on security, mixing a cocktail that interests, attracts and inebriates. He is being joined by Castillo Sinibaldi’s PS, for whom “solidarity” refers to “socially responsible” businesspeople. Castillo Sinibaldi represents business initiative and the big investments behind the construction of various luxurious recreation parks for workers (IRTRAs) in several Guatemalan locations. This “social responsibility” is perfectly compatible with making work more “flexible”: temporary contracts, no social security, no pensions and no collective union protection.

The enigma of UNE and its
front-running candidate

UNE, apparently dominated by Alvaro Colom Caballeros, is a great unknown. Colom is the nephew of the great mayor of Guatemala City, Manuel Colom Argueta, who was murdered in 1979 during the Lucas García government. Alvaro Colom has been a presidential candidate twice before. In 1999, he ran for the ANN, when it also included the URNG, winning 12% of the votes. How much this result was due to the Left’s relative unity and how much to Colom’s personal prestige, especially among the highlands indigenous peoples, is unknown. The reason the Left was more united at that time was that part of it was still participating in the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), which stood in for the URNG in the 1995 elections as the latter was still involved in the war. The FDNG won 3% of the vote in 1999 and the Left as a whole 15%.

Alvaro Colom ran for President again in 2003, thjs time for the new party he had founded, the National Unity of Hope (UNE). His opponent was Oscar Berger, who headed up the GANA alliance. Colom lost again, but is now the front runner with just under 36%. He’s followed by Otto Pérez Molina with just over 15%.

The interests behind the UNE are a mystery. Several of its members, including a representative from Alta Verapaz, have been killed. The latest theory is that the “shaggy hand” of the drug cartels is behind those crimes. One of the cartels is based in Cobán, the state capital of Alta Verapaz. In any case, under its rather impenetrable mask, UNE can represent certain professional interests and those of emerging wealth at the same time.

In 2003, Alvaro Colom won in almost all the indigenous highlands. His roots run deep in this area because he led the National Peace Fund (FONAPAZ) with recognized competency and honesty during Alvaro Arzú’s presidency. However, Rigoberta Menchú could snatch idigenous votes away from him, while the negative influence Colom’s wife is said to have over him could also undermine his candidacy.

Neither black nor white

Nothing is entirely black or white behind the masks that conceal the real interests of the parties and their candidates. Eduardo Stein’s presence as Berger’s Vice President has changed the dominant pro-private business tendencies of the government’s ancestral alliance and provided a certain platform within the government for the interests of the countryside and the indigenous peoples.

What will the probable candidacy of the great cardiologist Rafael Espada mean for the UNE? The still limited Guatemalan middle classes distribute their votes among several parties in a not easily detectable way, depending on their interest in social advancement or their commitment to the values of solidarity.

How to penetrate
the hidden interests

The easy and superficial response to the difficulties in defining what interests the political parties represent is that it doesn’t matter. When they get to government, according to this view, they have a debt to all Guatemalans and have to become political mediators through their plans and projects.

A more complex and difficult response would require deciphering the different masks, which are as impenetrable as those of the animals, ancestral heroes or colonial characters that cover the faces of dancers honoring religious promises during patron saint festivals in Guatemalan indigenous municipalities.

Alvaro Arzú was part of two modern political parties, but in his youth belonged to the ultra-right and ultra-nationalist National Liberation Movement (MLN). Alvaro Colom and Nineth Montenegro were also part of two different parties or alliances. The only one who has stood his party ground is Efraín Ríos Montt.

Meanwhile, other rightist or centrist parties with long traditions, like Mario Sandoval Alarcón’s MLN, the Méndez brothers’ Revolutionary Party , the UCN of the assassinated Jorge Carpio Nicolle or the Christian Democracy of the deceased René de León Schlotter, have either disappeared or are in danger of extinction.

Guatemalan party leaders sometimes turn into chameleons and last a little longer than their party. What remains are the economic interests concealed behind them that try to reinforce or consolidate state power.

In El Salvador there are no masks

The case of nearby El Salvador is different. For twenty years it has had a different model, involving no masks at all. The dancers on the electoral stage are chosen with full awareness of what they represent. Business interests are clearly represented by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA); the interests of the military officers and their civilian allies—whose “old” capital emerged about 45 years ago—are represented by the National Conciliation Party (PCN); the center left of the reforming middle classes has been represented since the war by what is now known as the Democratic Convergence (CD); and the Left, despite its divisions, is represented by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, a party with an iron leadership but various internal tendencies. In El Salvador the interests are so clear that if any party demogogically tries to don a mask, it will easily be seen through.

In the last twenty years, ARENA has elected four presidents: Cristiani, Calderón, Flores and Saca. But it has never won with a large enough parliamentary majority over the FSLN to allow it to govern without taking into account the interests represented by its main opppsition. The PCN bench has leaned toward ARENA at crucial times on crucial issues, while the CD has mantained a certain independence and its votes on a given issue are less predictable. The same Salvadoran electorate has voted for the FMLN on the municipal level enough times that more than half of the Salvadoran population has been governed by the FMLN during one term or another.

Comparing the former guerrillas
of Guatemala and El Salvador

Which are the key differences between Guatemala and El Salvador? In the former the Left was marginalized to areas far from the capital during the two waves of guerrilla war. It was based in the Las Minas mountain range in the northeast; the jungle and mountain border zones with Mexico in Huehuetenango, Quiché and Alta Verapaz; and in the volcano highlands and the Petén jungle. This marginalization, in a country five times larger than El Salvador, turned the war into a matter of easily-muffled rumors.

In El Salvador, the army found it impossible to contain the guerrilla forces in isolated zones. The northern and eastern borders with Honduras were just a few hours’ walk away. Downtown San Vicente touched the oustskirts of the capital and the guerrilla presence around the Guazapa, El Boquerón and Picacho volcanoes was even greater. The western zones, where there were fewer guerrilla forces, were also easily reached from the other fronts. In Guatemala there was nothing comparable to the 1989 Urban Offensive. The most similar event would have been the 1962 university rebellion in the capital had the guerrilla forces been formed at the time.

The differences of country size and of guerrilla organization created conditions for a military draw in El Salvador, while in Guatemala the guerrilla force was defeated at the end of the 1960s and again in the early 1980s, although it recovered enough both times not to be extinguished. Once the peace was signed, the consequences were very different for the political strength of the two guerrilla forces.

In Guatemala, the army’s enormous unpopularity due to the magnitude of the massacres and the possibility that the guerrilla forces would continue harassing it from sustainable enclaves, probably without victory but for an indefinite time, created international pressure for talks. These resulted in the Peace Accords designed as an ambitious national project.

In El Salvador, the military draw and a similar lack of army popularity, catalyzed by the assassination of the six Jesuits at the Central American University in 1989, accelerated the Peace Accords, but they never became a national project as advanced as Guatemala’s. The guerrillas’ political strength was much less deteriorated in this tiny country than in Guatemala. In both countries the revolutionary guerrilla forces militarized many of their organized grassroots, but doing so separated the grassroots groups more in Guatemala than in El Salvador.

The Romero factor
and the indigenous factor

All of this is just a working hypothesis, too simple for the historical complexity of very different processes that appear similar on the surface. We haven’t even mentioned Monsignor Romero, who galvanized the Salvadoran capital with his Christian eloquence, while the Guatemalan capital remained religiously trapped under Cardenal Casariego, who had tight links to the military.

We also haven’t included the ethnic factor in the hypothesis. In El Salvador, a country with once-substantial indigenous roots,
the 1932 massacre (2007 is the 75th anniversary) made the indigenous peoples invisible. In Guatemala, the war mobilized the extensive indigenous population at first, above all in 1980 due to the euphoria of the Sandinista triumph. But within two years, the massacres led by Ríos Montt and others left it defenseless against the hailstorm of political requirements, above all from the military, which tried to divide it.

Onto this stage bursts Rigoberta

Democracy is still under construction in Guatemala. In hopes of consolidating their control of the state or aspiring to a piece of it, the parties—other than the small leftist ones—dance on the political stage in masks that mysteriously hide the interests for which they are really fighting. On this stage, the ideology of the biggest parties is almost identical—it is the ideology of wealth. This explains why democratization and fulfilment of the Peace Accords are advancing so slowly, why political ideas lack consistency and why the candidates are like chameleons that blend in with the color of the vegetation sheltering them. It is onto this state that Rigoberta Menchú and her Winaq social movement are bursting, in search of alliances to become a movement as plural as Guatemala in cultures, languages and ethnic groups.
Will this turn out to be just testing the waters for the 2011 elections or is it an intensely planned attempt whose march to success will be as unpredictable as it has proved elsewhere? Will the alliance between Winaq and the EG last? What will happen if TSE doesn’t grant the EG status as a party, despite the over 15,000 certified signatures it has collected and the assemblies it has established in 13 of the country’s 22 departments. (The other 9 are mainly indigenous, so Winaq will be closer to their population.) Would Winaq then reconsider an alliance with MAIZ and the URNG? Or will it quickly come apart at the seams once success is achieved or failure suffered in the elections? These are all burning questions, although perhaps somewhat premature until we know more about what they would offer as a basis for a socio-political agreement.

The demons of racism

One thing we can foresee is the unleashing of all the demons of racism if Rigoberta Menchú’s candidacy not only consolidates, but also threatens to be successful. Many more demons will be unleashed if, as has been announced, Bolivian President Evo Morales sets up an advisory council for Menchú’s presidential candidacy, even though she would have as much right to such advice as the several governing Guatemalans who have requested and received advice from various US administrations.

Much of the strength of Rigoberta Menchú’s candidacy will come from her multiple international relations with indigenous movements in the Americas and the rest of the world, in the community of the United Nations and in many western governments, which makes sense in this already globalized world.

To have more humility
and to have a project

The fact that such a candidacy could have jelled between an indigenous movement and a ladino one is perhaps a candle lit by the flame of a new future. The horizon could be auroral, but to stop the dark clouds covering over these weak rays of sun, the alliance’s two female candidates—and all the other candidates, come to that—will have to be more humble than perceived up to now.

Has Rigoberta Menchú thought about whether her candidacy is the best and most responsible way to serve Guatemala in general and the indigenous people in particular? Does she have a national project to begin her government if elected? There’s still time to respond. The campaign leading up to the September election doesn’t officially get under way until May.

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

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