A Government Strong with the Weak and Weak with the Strong
With its limited capacity to root out the organized crime mafias
that are embedded in the state institutions and local powers;
its inability to get private enterprise to budge on a fiscal reform;
and its opening to foreign investors to exploit our natural resources
and strip the communities of their territories,
Álvaro Colom’s government is strong with the weak
and weak with the strong.
Since 2008, when the National Unity of Hope (UNE) government took office with Álvaro Colom at the helm, we’ve witnessed both the structural roots that reproduce ongoing phenomena in national life and more fleeting expressions that are exacerbated by the interests in dispute at a given moment.
Insecurity is the main concern The main concern for Guatemalans is still crime and insecurity (running at just over 46% in a recent poll). This is a generalized problem closely linked to organized crime activity and impunity and the weakening of the State institutions responsible for protecting citizens’ security.
The bitter dispute within the nominating commission for the ministerial-rank attorney general post has also been manifested in the naming of the head of Penal Public Defense and the election of the comptroller of accounts, and will undoubtedly be repeated in the election of the Court of Constitutionality in 2011.
Fortunately, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) managed to stop processes that would have implied consolidating an “impunity pact” among these bodies and prevent the involution of advances that would have occurred had the man originally named as attorney general, Conrado Reyes Sagastume, been allowed to remain in the post.
Following this incident, the fight against impunity has continued slowly but actively; without being forced into submission. Civil society is playing an important role in this fight, particularly the organizations in the Convergence for Human Rights, which up to now have managed to contain part of the machinery of impunity and to open certain possibilities of fighting the powers of organized crime. This will be maintained, particularly if CICIG continues acting in accordance with its initial lines.
Exacerbated criminalityCriminality and criminal activity have been exacerbated in different parts of the country, particularly the capital city and neighboring municipalities. These activities aim to generate terror and fear, inhibit social participation and expand the spaces occupied by illegal bodies and organized crime, which cross-cut and are imbedded in the economic and political sectors to the point of dominating and subdoing them.
The government of Álvaro Colom has not exercised the guidance and control needed to respond to this problem. Five ministers of government have already been named, several of whom were prosecuted for complicity in criminal acts. The economic, political and media opposition use this governmental vacuum as the main source to delegitimize the UNE government and the main fulcrum for positioning themselves.
The opposition is trying to capitalize on the generalized perception and public opinion of broad sectors of the population that are demanding policies and mechanisms to produce more hard-line state actions. A favorable opinion toward applying capital punishment is becoming more widespread, together with support for extrajudicial executions, the repression and criminalizing of social struggles, privatizing of security, and lynching, among others. The “hard line” discourse is catching on and an appreciation of authoritarian images is being rekindled, as seen in Guatemala City Mayor Álvaro Arzú’s homage to the dictator Ubico; the reappearance of the slogan “God, Homeland and Freedom” and the repressive proposals put forward by the Patriotic Party, the Democratic Freedom Renewed (LIDER) and other conservative civic movements.
These manifestations aim to generate acceptance of the idea that security must prevail even at the cost of democracy,
the false expectation that authoritarianism guarantees better economic growth alternatives for the population. Lamentably, these ideas are being supported by that “silent majority” that counts at the ballot box, as has happened in other Latin American countries, according to observers of the validity of democratic participation.
At bottom, there is a struggle among different powers, some hidden in the State institutionality, others concealed in the structures of private initiative, and still others navigating freely in sectors that are either socially decomposed or are finding no economic alternatives. It is a struggle now highly infiltrated by the organized crime and drug trafficking mafias that are influencing and invading ever more institutional bodies and social and local actors, disputing the use of violence with the State. According to US military intelligence reports, these mafias now cover 75% of Guatemalan territory.
Fighting crime with crimeCICIG has charged that criminal networks have been appearing that have been managed from within public bodies in previous governments and are concealed and funded by and at the service of private initiative. Connections with the security structures and the counterinsurgency police are being revealed.
The result is a symbiosis of the public and private spheres to fight crime with crime. There is thus a line of continuity with the military governments and army intelligence cadres who have managed the security agencies’ secret offices over time.
Given the insecurity and this evidence of the role played by the public institutions, there is a need to contribute to the fight against impunity starting with the small-scale, day-to-day events that occur in nearby settings, right up to movements and initiatives of greater scope that have to do with approval of a legislative agenda to fight impunity that was proposed by different commissions generated in the Peace Accords, by civil society and, most recently, by CICIG. There’s also a need to work on creating conditions that guarantee basic individual and collective rights, strengthen the democratic institutions and dismantle the influence of the structures of the past, leaving no citizen or collective outside of this struggle.
If during this post-war stage the power of organized crime is definitively enthroned in the financial movements, the main political spheres and the social sectors, then the achievements we’ve obtained with such great effort in fulfilling the Peace Accords will be frustrated. The Accords’ strategic aims—democratization of power, development with social justice and the rights of different peoples—will be lost in the abyss.
Economic problems Economic problems and poverty and their consequences comprise the second main concern for Guatemalans, being mentioned by 36% of the population in the opinion poll. To a great extent, people are referring to unemployment and the deterioration of consumption, particularly in urban sectors. Despite everything, poverty would not appear to be a generalized social concern, but rather largely reflects how neoliberalism has permeated society and individuals.
and their consequences
It is evident that money of different origins is in circulation. Drug money, for example, is staining many sectors of the population, while remittances sent home by emigrants continue to extend foreign currency horizontally, despite having dropped by 10% in the last two years. Also circulating is the economic injection from the “My family progresses” program, which introduced consumption to thousands of families, and certain productive activities are recovering economically, and other sources may well be circulating as well. But all are generating imbalances and inflation and do not indicate that the economy is getting stronger.
As expressed in the data contained in the Human Development Report, we aren’t making progress in overcoming poverty and extreme poverty. The model doesn’t even allow the State to exercise its mission of sustainably distributing wealth, which would only be possible following a profound and progressive fiscal reform.
It never rains but it poursThe economic problems have been intensified by the climatic changes the Central American region is experiencing. In Guatemala, the eruption of the Pacaya volcano and the arrival of tropical storms Agatha and Alex, followed by persistent heavy rains, have caused disasters with great human, material and financial costs that have aggravated the chronic poverty and expanded it to other sectors of society. Food prices, for example, have experienced 5% inflation. These disasters have revealed how vulnerable Guatemala is to climate change, both in the city and in rural areas, resulting in our country being classified as one of the most vulnerable on the planet.
The rehabilitation and reconstruction of the damage caused by the disasters requires additional funds, which aren’t flowing in the amounts needed either from international contributions or from national public funds, let alone private initiative. None other than the Vice President recognized that the government doesn’t have the resources to rehabilitate what will be destroyed by the end-of-winter storms, which are traditionally the most copious.
With congressional approval, the government redirected a US$39 million Inter-American Development Bank loan
to the emergency and to the first actions to rehabilitate infrastructures. In July, President Colom declared that 7 billion quetzals (some $860 million) would be needed for the reconstruction effort.
It will be difficult for Congress to approve this amount of funding in a pre-electoral period, despite the government’s concession in approving 4.5 billion quetzals in treasury bonds, which are normally acquired by and benefit private banks. These bonds will increase the public debt—which is already around 20% of the gross domestic product—without resolving the demand for resources for the reconstruction, as disasters are increasing month after month.
Comprehensive rural developmentThe economic problems and poverty are closely linked to the problem of rural development, as documented by different national and international organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme, the Presidency’s Secretariat for Food and Nutritional Security, the National Statistics Institute and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food. This issue has been strongly positioned in the Comprehensive Rural Development System bill (Bill 4084), inspired by the Peace Accords. Great hopes have been invested in this initiative for the medium term. It received a unanimously favorable opinion from Congress’ Agriculture, Livestock and Fishing Commission in 2009. Its argument is forceful and it enjoys broad social backing, as expressed in hundreds of hearings conducted in the Congress. However, this is no guarantee of its immediate approval.
There is also closed corporative opposition from different business bodies linked to the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), which have the capacity to lobby and pressure Congress. There is resistance to addressing the agrarian issue which, as established in the Peace Accords, is an essential though not unique factor to be able to access rural development. Delaying tactics have been employed to stop the initiative being discussed, which could lead to a prolonged stalemate.
Despite how moderate it is in relation to the agrarian issue, this legal tool is a key element in expanding the population’s access to other economic dynamics, one way to democratize wealth. Despite the mobilizations of peasant organizations and their allies, however, neither its approval nor its regulatory and financial mechanisms are foreseeable during this government.
This initiative has dominated the peasant movement agenda in recent years. Were it to be approved in 2010 and come into force in 2011 it could sustainably neutralize some of the problems linked to rural poverty. It would also strengthen the capacity of economic, social and political actors to influence rural and agrarian development policies, currently monopolized by the Chamber of Agriculture, acting as an economic and political counterweight that would open up concrete possibilities for democratizing access to wealth.
Other needed billsOther bills that are less well-known or debated by society as a whole, but which have important organized social support, include the Housing and Land Organization Bill (Bill 38/69), which is also in line with the Peace Accords and counterpoises the Housing and Human Settlements Law passed in 1996 and other initiatives that support the interests of finance companies and the Chamber of Construction by focusing on the market and business rather than the right to housing, which is currently denied to half of the population—a total of 1.2 million families.
Arenas for debate and sometimes denunciation are generated in Congress, but the population has limited expectations that things can be resolved in its favor given the correlation of forces in public opinion and in Congress itself. This doesn’t, however, rule out the passage of partial reforms that favor the struggle of certain sectors, as happened with the municipal code, passed in the first half of the year, which includes reforms favoring women’s participation in the municipal structures.
The variants managed by the executive branch to promote the fiscal reform decree, which concentrated certain expectations for expanding social policies, access to land and compensation, didn’t bear fruit. Practically speaking, the failure resulted from the closed opposition and the government’s weakness. This was the context that resulted in the resignation of Finance Minister Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, one of the most valuable ministers in the UNE government, whose purpose in accepting the post at the beginning of the Colom government was precisely to promote this fiscal reform.
Civil society and certain institutions have also produced initiatives and made efforts to reform key laws that address highly conflictive issues such as the current Mining Law (1997), which is very damaging to national interests and those of indigenous peoples, which most parliamentarians don’t care very much about.
There’s no political subjectAll of this continues to indicate that the political decision-making power wielded by businesspeople and big capital on strategic issues is an underlying theme that reaches beyond all political moments. It also points to the limited autonomy of the State branches with respect to these structures.
to lead the struggle
There is an evident absence of any political subject to advance these processes, accumulate social force and give direction to the struggle. There’s a vacuum, a lack of referents. The discourse and strategies are fragmented, while peasant leadership isn’t renewing and is now confined and diversified, if not divided, with respect to the electoral panorama. Some peasant organizations and social collectives may have greater clarity in their leadership and a real organized social or territorial grass roots, but they are moving very slowly and seemingly lack the necessary energy to progress in uniting the indigenous movement and peasant movements.
Doors wide open to plunderThe Guatemalan people are starting to express themselves in a more organized and coordinated way in defense of their territories and natural resources, with community consultations on natural resources. The presence of transnational companies in their territories is generating community mobilization.
The position of the Colom government and UNE on this issue provides clearer evidence of their alignment with a development model linked to exploitation of the territories by setting up globalized enterprises, in which the country’s businesspeople, who also finance UNE, are probably thinking of acting as local partners and shareholders.
This is a government that’s throwing the doors wide open to the mining companies in the southern coast and the hydroelectric companies in the north of Huehuetenango and Quiché, without consulting the communities and their authorities. It is prolonging the Perenco company’s contract for petroleum exploitation in the Laguna del Tigre national park without clearly presenting the economic, legal and environmental basis of the contract. It is also pressuring and militarily threatening the communities with eviction from the coveted territories. The Colom government is strong with the weak and weak with the strong.
It is privileging the re-concentration of large extensions of land for monocropping, reversing the successes achieved in the Peace Accords with regard to the rural communities’ access to land and legal security. In the first half of 2010 the auctioning of 37 farms in the Polochic Valley (Panzós, El Estor, La Tinta) was publicly announced. With funding from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, they were acquired by the Chabil Utzaj S.A. sugar refinery, owned by the Widman family, for cultivating sugar cane and generating biodiesel. The failure of the project and the investment, which was served up on a silver platter by international finance organizations and the national institutions, left the workers to their fate after they had been promised a working paradise.
This government has left the banks and big companies to negotiate a solution to a problem that directly affects the collective rights of Q’eqchi’ communities: labor and agrarian rights, and the right to food, compensation, free movement and organization. By looking the other way, it appears as a repressive apparatus in cahoots with business. Only in exceptional cases, after long negotiations, does it turn up to authorize the “right of permanence” to certain communities on the buffer zone of the Sierra de las Minas protected area.
In defense of natural resourcesWith respect to the organization of the indigenous communities, which are increasingly better informed to vindicate their agrarian, hydric, forestry, mining, cultural, ecotourism and food resources, important processes are starting to be linked together that could promote another view of development in Guatemala. The community organizational structure, linked to broader territories, certain social sectors and national institutions, is starting to form a basic part of a fundamental strategy to stop the new plundering being prepared in the country before our very eyes.
This struggle and confrontation, which are already very strong in parts of the country, could have major consequences because the companies aren’t containing their economic interests and no political power can or wants to curb them. While the repression against leaders and activists who oppose the abuse by transnationals such as Unión Fenosa, a Spanish electricity company, has increased, especially in San Marcos, national civil society organizations and specialized bodies have been buttressing their lobbying efforts, intensifying the pressure on the government and seeking international allies to put the brakes on the outrages and plunder.
The presence in Guatemala of James Anaya, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, is legitimizing, favoring and expanding the arenas for such struggles. Anaya is an Arizona indigenous lawyer with experience in strategic lawsuits related to indigenous territories and communities. His presence encouraged people to mobilize and systematize their claims in defense of indigenous territories. The report he presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights legitimizes the struggle of indigenous peoples and is forcing the government to apply preventive measures on the operations of the Marlin Mine, which are creating better conditions for the populations to mobilize in defense of the natural resources in their territories. All of this casts doubt on—although it doesn’t stop—the big projects being prepared for the generation and sale of electricity, mining exploitation and oil exploration.
Pre-electoral political struggleThe open pre-electoral struggle is being expressed in a pitched battle between the most traditional rightwing sector
and its opinion-making media on the one side and the government, which is exploiting its social programs to expand
its electoral base, on the other. The main objective of the traditional economic groups appears to be to make the candidacy of Colom’s wife Sandra Torres and her group of operators unviable by arguing that they are sliding toward the currents of the Latin American Left. This could continue to be the dominant trend, with serious consequences for the exercising of responsibilities among those responsible for public functions. According to the latest opinion polls, 46% supported the Colom government and 53% rejected it during the first half of 2010, with similar percentages reported for over a year now.
In this context, the Left is making efforts aimed at electoral coordination. In July the Supreme Electoral Tribunal formalized the registration of the New Nation Alternative, which is forging an alliance with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). The New Republic Movement and Winaq’ are also trying to form a party, with the idea of making alliances with similar groups in better conditions.
These steps, however, neither transcend the national sphere nor, according to their own leaders, open up the possibility of creating an electoral alternative. But this limitation doesn’t mean that they don’t provide positive institutional arenas for supporting increasingly urgent social demands: housing, compensation, electricity costs, the defense of natural resources, comprehensive rural development, women’s agenda, etc. At least according to their own declarations, these leftwing political groupings aim to organize a front with broad social participation.
The pre-electoral political struggle and its characteristics are interfering with other dynamics, especially local ones. They
are starting to drag down and divide organizations and leaderships, distracting them from the development processes in which they are involved. They distort the national reality and distance certain local actors from efforts to build their own local power.
The official programs aimed at generating social cohesion are actually a disrupting factor in many communities, as their benefits are not applied as unconditional rights, but rather as very politically conditioned transfers. In addition, they weaken the regular budgets of strategic ministries.
What to do at this pointAs a socially committed organization, politically autonomous from both the government and the political groups, we’re facing a difficult national moment that we have to get through without stopping and without being dragged back by the dominant currents. Our mission of fighting for local development with a national perspective has to end up strengthened, especially in the territories to which we are committed, where the population is trying to create conditions for a better future life.
The electoral context is invading all the arenas in which we are immersed. Our political system activates these mechanisms every four years to implement the alternating of governments. It isn’t a mechanism for transforming power, or revolutionizing it, but rather sustaining it, reproducing it and making it function.
The challenge is to reveal these characteristics, unmask their maneuvers and not allow the dominant vision of power to interject itself into the conscience of the oppressed to the point of being internalized. The challenge is to gradually create the right conditions to transform it in a formative and informative effort that runs against the current.
Bolivia’s experience?Guatemala has its customary experiences of indigenous peoples and communities and experiences from revolutionary fronts. And more recently, the Peace Accords have demonstrated the possibility of implementing a real and participatory democracy. The experience of Bolivia, a country with similar characteristics to Guatemala, is a concrete example of the construction of an autonomous power with its own identity.
We must take advantage of this juncture to show other arguments, experiences, models and political practices initiated from the local level. We must take advantage of it to promote leaderships with a democratic and ethical profile, able to formulate proposals to solve problems; promote indigenous leaderships with strong community support; and promote women’s participation in decision-making and power arenas, helping to create the concrete conditions to make their participation viable.
We’re aware of the absence of convincing alternatives in the leftist camp, but this doesn’t justify pragmatism, let alone opportunism. We mustn’t be guided by the principle of “the lesser evil” because falling into that trap ultimately feeds negative strategies. We must maintain our autonomy from the political formations, even if we have points of convergence and in some cases common histories.
We’re not going to overplay the importance of elections. Rather we are building alternatives: working at all moments, accumulating strength, forming leaderships, and generating proposals that would change the correlation of forces towards another vision of power and development.
The Guillermo Toriello Foundation was created at the end of the civil war for the economic, social and political reinsertion of former URNG combatants and for the development of communities uprooted by the war.