Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 359 | Junio 2011



Guatemala’s electoral dilemma

Guatemala’s electorate faces a big dilemma in September: which of the two candidates leading in all the polls to vote for. A hard hand but no heart, or social sensibility and no scruples? The slogan of Otto Pérez Molina, a retired military man, is “A hard hand, a head and a heart” and it’s clear which is in last place. Sandra Torres, who divorced President Colom in what’s seen as “legal fraud,” is socially sensitive and is a good administrator and organizer, but her authoritarian leanings and lack of scruples are impossible to hide.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

A Cid-Gallup national poll conducted between May 11 and 15 and paid for, they say, by the government shows Otto Pérez Molina, loser in the 2007 elections, with 31% of those who intend to vote and Sandra Torres, the recently divorced wife of current President Álvaro Colom, with 24%. Three other candidates share the remaining 15% of the total sample that knows who it plans to vote for. None of the other candidates, Rigoberta Menchú among them, received any intended votes.

According to the poll, Pérez Molina’s main support is found among urban residents, people who have at least one year of university education and those who name insecurity as the greatest problem the country faces today. Torres gets most of her support from rural areas, people with low levels of schooling and those who support the government’s social programs. In 2007 the votes were spread in much the same pattern between Pérez Molina and Álvaro Colom. That year, for the first time in the history of Guatemalan civil governments (only the quarter century from 1986 to today), rural voters, many of them indigenous, decided the election in Colom’s favor by topping the weight of the capital’s votes.

A divorce of convenience

There are other polls: one by Vox Latina, another by Borge y Asociados and a third by the Prensa Libre group. The last one (May 15-22), published on June 1 in the paper of the same name, was the second “Free Poll.” The results of its question on intention to vote were: Otto Pérez Molina 36.9% and Sandra Torres 17.6%, with another 21.7% split among six parties and 23.5% who said they would either leave their ballot paper blank or spoil it. The gap between Pérez Molina and Tórres is greatest in the capital (36.4% to 12.5%).

The significance of both the Cid-Gallup poll and the second Free Poll is that they were done after the official May 2 opening of the electoral campaign and after the divorce of convenience by President Colom and Sandra Torres, a maneuver by which they are trying to dodge the constitutional prohibition of blood relatives or relatives by marriage to the first degree of an incumbent President being presidential candidates.

To date, the courts have rejected all challenges to the validity of this divorce, with the exception of a suit filed in a court in Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa, where the judge suspended the divorce’s validity while she studied the case. This suit is based on considering the divorce a “legal fraud”: intended to evade the law. Torres filed charges against the suspension.

Who is Otto Pérez Molina?

Sixty-year-old Otto Pérez Molina trained as an officer in the US counterinsurgency school known as the School of the Americas and took part in Guatemala’s domestic armed conflict. In the eighties, with the rank of major, he fought in El Quiché and probably took part in massacres, since the army’s high command strategy was to “involve” all officers in these massive dirty crimes to force them into mutual solidarity. Later he headed the Army Intelligence Department, and during President Serrano’s self-coup in 1993 was one of the officers who supported the Court of Constitutionality’s ruling that removed Serrano and Vice President Espina, voting human rights ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio in as the new President via Congress. He was De León Carpio’s chief of the Presidential High Command and took part in the peace negotiations with the URNG alongside General Balconi.

During the first part of Alvaró Arzú’s presidency Pérez Molina was the Army inspector general. Retired from this post by Arzú, he was sent to Washington to represent Guatemala on the Inter-American Defense Board. In January 2000 he requested his discharge from the army and publicly disagreed with President Portillo for “leaving the Army without the experience of its general officers.”

His political activity as such started the moment he retired from the army. In 2001 he founded the Patriotic Party (PP). which forms part of the Great National Alliance (GANA) that put Oscar Berger up as their Presidential candidate in 2003. The PP won nine legislative seats, one of them for Pérez Molina. Soon all nine PP representatives separated from GANA and formed their own bench to start preparing Pérez Molina’s launch as the PP presidential candidate in the 2007 elections, which he lost to Álvaro Colom. Now he’s running again.

And who is Sandra Torres?

Fifty-five year old Sandra Torres was First Lady up to April 2011, the month she filed for divorce from President Colom. She belongs to the shop-keeping middle class in her home town in the Petén.

She has a degree in Communications and a Masters in Public Policy and has been a businesswoman and administrator in textile assembly plants for re-export (maquilas). Ever since 2003, when Colom ran for President for the second time, it has been said that she had special administrative gifts and a steely temperament, even capable of imposing herself over her husband.

After taking office on January 14, 2008, Colom appointed her coordinator of Social Cohesion, a sort of super-minister of various social ministries (education, health, culture, etc.). During Colom’s entire presidency the public has speculated about who had more influence and power, the President or the First Lady. Most probably the truth is that in command Sandra deploys more force and Álvaro greater subtlety.

In calamitous times of global crisis and a generalized rise in food prices, the social programs dreamed up by Torres to bring relief to families in both rural and urban, indigenous and ladino villages and shanty towns of darkest Guatemala met the needs of the country’s poorest households. Programs such as My Family’s Progressing (MIFAPRO) and the Family Sack, which linked public assistance with children’s school enrollment, attempted to follow Lula’s Brazilian model with Zero Hunger and responded especially to pressing needs provoked by the global crisis, perhaps without intending to at the start. Nonetheless, these programs have been enveloped in scandal since their inception for the presumption that beneficiaries virtually had to politically commit themselves to Torres’ presidential election. They were also tainted by a suspicion they had served to create an illegal resource fund to finance her presidential campaign. The mass media have taken her corruption as a given.

The huddle in third place

Both of the candidates who are straggling far behind these two leaders in the electoral race are well known national personalities but newcomers to this contest. Seventy-two-year-old Eduardo Suger, who is running on the Commitment Renovation and Order (CREO) ticket, is a prestigious intellectual in physics and math, in both of which he has a doctorate. He directs the Suger Montano Institute of secondary and technical education and is also rector of the Galileo University. He has run for presidential office twice (2003 and 2007). The second time he finished in fourth place, with a surprising 7.45% of the vote (almost 245,000 votes). With rather conservative ideas, he’s held in high esteem for his honesty.

Manuel Baldizón, 41, leader of Renovated Democratic Liberty (LIDER), is the scion of a millionaire family from the Petén. He graduated with the rank of sub-lieutenant in the infantry reserve from the capital’s Adolfo Hall Institute, which heads a network of secondary education institutes maintained by the Army throughout the country. He’s been a legislator for two terms (2004-2008 and 2008-2012). He changed his political affiliation, leaving the National Unity for Hope (UNE) to found an independent bench (LIDER), which he later registered as a party.

Then there is lawyer Harold Caballeros, 55, the leader of Vision and Values (VIVA), who holds a degree in business administration and a doctorate in theology. In 2006 he founded the University of San Pablo and is currently its rector. His early education was in the Liceo Javier, run by Jesuits. These days he’s a Neo-Pentecostal and founded the El Shaddai Ministries, which has a 12,000-strong congregation in Guatemala of which he was pastor general for over 20 years, until his wife succeeded him as pastor in 2004. He’s also the founder and president of the Corporación de Radios Visión, on the air since 1996 with 25 stations nationally. He entered politics in 2007 and founded VIVA. Caballeros and VIVA are in a political alliance with legislative representative Nineth Montenegro, whose Encounter for Guatemala (EG) party, which partnered with Rigoberta Menchú’s WINAQ indigenous party in 2007, putting her up as candidate for the Presidency. VIVA’s alliance with Montenegro, who shone in heading up the audit of the Army budget and Sandra Torres’ social programs, could favor Caballeros.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a 52-year-old Quiché woman, won both the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and the Prince of Asturias Prize for International Cooperation. She’s now a UNESCO Good Will Ambassador and was Ambassador for the Promotion of the Peace Accords in Berger’s government (2004-2008). She has also been awarded Honorary Doctorates by various universities, among them the Central American University in Managua. She ran for President in 2007, obtaining 3.1% of the vote (slightly more than 101,000). This time she’s running for a leftwing alliance with revolutionary roots made up of WINAQ, the URNG and ANN.

Other candidates are lost in anonymity. Perhaps the most important is Adela Camacho de Torrebiarte of the National Development Action (ADN) party, who had a promising term as government minister during the last nine months of the Berger government. Her running mate is José Antonio de León Escribano, son of the famous deceased politician René de León Schlotter, a Christian Democrat who was minister of development during the first civil government (1986-91). Any government could benefit from having those two personalities as effective collaborators.

Will there be a “dark horse”?

The big dilemma for voters in these elections is the choice between Otto Pérez Molina and Sandra Torres, although one can’t rule out the possibility that 2011 might turn out like 1990, when a “dark horse”—Jorge Serrano Elías—took second place in the first round then went on to defeat Jorge Carpio Nicolle.

This time it could be Eduardo Suger. If the preferences of the capital’s electorate are repeated throughout the country, Suger would have a real possibility of causing an upset. His draw in the capital is considerably larger than in the rest of the country. The upper- and middle-classes as well as the university population would tend to prefer Suger. Whether this happens or not, the choice between Pérez Molina and Sandra Torres isn’t a very attractive set of alternatives.

A hard-handed military man?

Otto Pérez Molina has a military spirit and character. In 2007 he chose the significant motto of a “hard hand” for his campaign, wanting to project in Guatemalan minds that citizen’s security can only be obtained with something similar to military discipline and might. The complete slogan was “A hard hand, a head and a heart” but the head and heart took a distant second and third place. It’s still his slogan today, but when he talks of social programs, supposedly from the heart, you don’t hear the same passion as when he talks about the hard hand. His simplistic proposal is tempting, seductive even, but above all it’s a return to the past.

This doesn’t mean that a soldier can’t be a democrat. Colonel Arbenz was one in Guatemala’s democratic decade and there was also General Cárdenas in Mexico (1934-40), General Eisenhower in the US (1952-60)—a democrat at home but not in Iran or Guatemala—and General De Gaulle in France (1958-68), perhaps the most interesting examples. But in today’s Guatemala, with the terrible military past we’ve been saddled with, proving that a soldier can be a democrat would be an enormous burden for the ex-general’s shoulders.

Otto Pérez Molina would have to be willing to disassociate himself from the scorched earth policy and the massacres, fully documented as a strategy of the army to which he belonged for winning the armed conflict in the eighties. He would also have to ask forgiveness of the people victimized by his part in that strategy and would have to affirm whether, as President, he would be willing to force the army to return the strategic documents on the 1982-85 military campaigns and make them public.

The big problem is that 60% of the Guatemalan public is too young to have lived through the military dictatorship or the domestic armed conflict. Nor has the Report of the Peace Accords’ Historical Truth Commission and its Context Law yet been incorporated into the county’s primary and secondary education syllabus.

A good administrator
without scruples?

Sandra Torres isn’t a soldier but her authoritarian tendencies are impossible to hide. It’s true that the major media have led an intensely prejudiced campaign against her and one can’t help suspecting that it has produced some irritation in a small but notably influential part of the population: among businesspeople in the business umbrella organization CACIF and in other organizations belonging to the country’s most powerful economic sectors. The fact that a large proportion of the taxes they’ve paid to the State has been allocated to mitigate the economic and cultural misery of the most underprivileged population doesn’t please them much either.

Torres has taken care of this population. But on at least one occasion she refused to comply with the Court of Constitutionality’s order to provide Congress, specifically Representative Nineth Montenegro, the lists of people benefitting from the Social Cohesion programs for an audit.

This refusal cost Bienvenido Argueta the education minister’s post. His replacement had to obey the Court, although he did so with all the bureaucratic foot-dragging possible. One inevitably suspects that Torres wanted to hide a discrepancy between payments authorized by Social Cohesion and the funds that actually reached beneficiary households, a difference that would have been salted away for her electoral campaign.


It’s common to hear comparisons between Torres and Wendy Widman de Berger, First Lady during 2004-2008. They are highly favorable to Widman for having remained in “her position” with great sensitivity and compassion, in contrast to Torres who would have liked to go even further than what her position allowed, given her naked ambition for power. Is there crypto machismo in this comparison?

In Sandra Torres we can see a presidential candidate capable of administrating the government as an organization, although with few scruples at the moment of drawing fine distinctions in ethical attitudes and with an undeniable predisposition towards authoritarianism.

Furthermore, neither school nor hospital structures have been improved despite a policy of free attention. Although Torres’ social conscience and her real desire to develop public policies that favor the most marginalized rural and urban sectors can’t be denied, her competence for achieving structural changes still isn’t clear.

Pérez Molina’s advantages:
A pattern and the violence

Otto Pérez Molina probably owes his lead in all the polls to two factors. We’ve had four presidential elections (1995, 1999, 2003 and 2007) in which the loser of the previous election becomes the winner in the one that follows. It happened with Álvaro Arzú, Alfonso Portillo, Oscar Berger and Álvaro Colom. This alternation in democratic electoral procedures has already managed to become a pattern of behavior to which the voting population adheres out of habit.

The other factor is the avalanche of violence and insecurity that has shaken Guatemala in the last four years. In not a few areas the country is already being referred to as a narco State or failed State. Although these opinions are greatly exaggerated, the war on drug cartels declared by Calderón’s government in Mexico has undeniably pushed these cartels toward Guatemala and the entire Central American isthmus, where they find calmer waters. Furthermore, there’s a strong rumor that former kaibiles, the army’s special ops forces specializing in jungle warfare and counterinsurgency tactics, whose training base was in the Petén, have found shelter in the extremely violent Zeta cartel. If true, it’s not hard to imagine that they might be the ones directing brutal battles on Guatemalan territory, which they know well.

The cruel massacre of 27 short-term day laborers on Otto Salguero’s farm in the Petén is just one flare-up of the voracious fire that could be being organized all over Guatemala. Faced with this situation the population may well be leaning towards the military candidate who has the prestige of having defeated the guerrilla movement militarily, even though that didn’t signify its extinction, since not a few guerrilla detachments survived in fronts far from the country’s center and continued damaging the army.

The Portillo case:
There’s cash and guns

As the electoral campaign progresses, diminished efficiency in the performance of Francisco Dall’Anese, the new head of the UN’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is regrettable when compared with his predecessor Carlos Castresana. The most important case in which CICIG has acted as assistant prosecutor to the Republic’s Attorney General was the one against former President Portillo and two of his ministers, those of Defense and Finance. A first hearing before three judges in early May cleared all three of the charge of having stolen 120 million quetzals (US$15 million) of Defense Ministry funds. Two judges issued verdicts clearing them completely while the tribunal’s presiding judge disagreed, citing the solidity of the evidence incriminating them. The main defense lawyer, Telésforo Guerra, who has a history of defending people accused in corruption cases, seems to maintain a friendly relationship with the husband of one of the judges that absolved them.

What is behind this pardon? In Guatemala we talk about “cash” and “guns,” the complementary tools of bribes and threats. The two former ministers regained their freedom, although the process isn’t over and Portillo is still in prison because US justice wants him for money laundering.

The new prosecutor general, lawyer Claudia Paz, needs all CICIG’s support as a proper “lightning conductor” to be able to gain power within the Prosecutor’s Office, a difficult and complex task. Where Castresana used to apply pressure to get justice, not just in the courts but also acting decisively in the face of public opinion and circles of power, Dal’Anese acts as though he were still in civilized Costa Rica and not in the den of wolves that is our country. With this vision it’s not surprising that CICIG lost two other cases: one against Álvaro Matus the former prosecutor of crimes against life, and the other against former National Civil Police Chief (PNC) Porfirio Pérez. And now this case, the most important one against Portillo and his ministers, although CICIG did appeal the ruling.

Something smells rotten again

The most significant bloody act among recent happenings in Guatemala has been the kidnapping and murder of the prosecutor in charge of investigating a farm massacre in which the Zetas executed 27 laborers. The headless body of prosecutor Allan Stwolinsky was found in a plastic bag. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights denounced the crime.

In this bloody scenario Helen Mack is continuing her task of reforming the PNC with energetic dedication. But the National Assembly hasn’t yet passed the Organizational Law on which the reform is based. Important national personalities oppose it, preferring the re-founding of the PNC over reform. It’s highly likely that if Otto Pérez Molina wins the elections, this reform will no longer be delegated to Mack.

Once again things “smell rotten” in Guatemala and the logical differences in proposals to confront this situation often become a struggle of influences. So, while the building is burning, the firefighters argue about the best way of hauling water to put out the flames, trying to ensure that with this debate they are showered with prizes and decorations.

Juan Hernandez Pico, SJ is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The end of a cycle or another FSLN mutation?


All governments have used the police for their own interests

Guatemala’s electoral dilemma

Zelaya’s back with agreements under his hat

We’re sick to death!

The four horsemen of neoliberalismo in the vacuum left by waged work

2010-2030: The end of a World
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development