Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 361 | Agosto 2011



A null vote is a lucid vote in these elections

On the eve of the elections, as he prepares to leave office, President Álvaro Colom summarized his government, which he described as social democratic, in positive terms. “The changes… are almost an offence for those used to impunity, those living without fiscal reform and the drug traffickers.” But he referred to a still unresolved structural problem: child malnutrition, which affects half of the country’s children. Will the election results bring any change to these and other dramas?

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

In José Saramago’s novel An Essay on Blindness, the only person who doesn’t go bolind is a woman lucidly able to decipher Saramago’s parable on humanity. In An Essay on Lucidity, she ends up murdered after clandestinely suggesting that voters leave their ballots blank in national elections because the political system can’t bear the lucidity of such a challenge.

In Guatemala, the most intelligent, responsible and lucid action by society would be to annul their ballots in the presidential elections, a better solution than leaving them blank, which opens them to fraudulent manipulation.

A null vote against
Otto Pérez Molina

If retired General Otto Pérez Molina is elected, it would likely mean the return of militarist authoritarianism. As he himself announced, “My government will rule with a hard hand. I’m going to fight organized crime and all the violence with the army… Military strategies will be created to eradicate violence at the root and guarantee the security of all Guatemalans.” He even talked about using task forces, a military tactic the army used against the guerrilla forces in the eighties and nineties. Doing the same against organized crime, specifically drug trafficking, could lead us into an all-out brutal war like the situation in Mexico. Or it could take us back to indiscriminate military repression like the one the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) documented in 1999, in its report “Guatemala, Memory of Silence,” a document Pérez Molina considered wrong.

The big problem is that 55% of Guatemala’s population is under the age of 23. Have they heard of the CEH report on the internal armed conflict? Has that report been incorporated into the national education curriculum from primary school to university?

Otto Pérez Molina rejects it because he thinks it “doesn’t say the truth about what happened in the country, because the army didn’t participate,” adding that he was “the army’s main critic. The army abstained from explaining what Plan Victory 82 was.” He also says that “the massacres were concentrated in the EGP [Guerrilla Army of the Poor] area, where that guerrilla force involved even children and women in its actions and in the battlefield.”

At the very least, however, the massacre in the village of Dos Erres wasn’t in the EGP’s area of influence, but rather in the Petén and some of the special operations forces (known as kaibiles) that were responsible for it have recently been sentenced to 30 years in prison for each of the 200 victims they murdered. It is also difficult to understand how the smashing of babies against walls and trees and the cutting of fetuses out of their mothers’ wombs could be excused on the grounds that they had been involved in the field of battle. Although the CEH report should be used to “socially” disqualify Otto Pérez Molina’s candidacy, some believe it would be fair to vote for him because he was one of the signatories to the peace accords. But isn’t this a fallacy, knowing what his program consists of?

A null vote against Sandra Torres

Voting for Sandra Torres, if she’s allowed to run, would imply accepting that you can play with the law. In her case she is making a mockery of the constitutional prohibition on close relatives of an incumbent President running for that office (article 186, paragraph c), trying to wriggle out of the problem presented by her marriage to the President by divorcing him just a few months before the presidential elections. This is simply a case of the ends justifying the means. She has even gone as far as saying, “I’m divorcing the President, but marrying the people.”

It is true that Sandra Torres is the only candidate for the Presidency who thinks of the poor and while her husband was in office implemented social programs to favor them, but her refusal to allow audits of these programs has been highly suspect. Was it to hide something, such as using the programs to create an illicit fund for her electoral campaign, as many people assume? An unscrupulous person would provide no guarantee of the development of democratic institutions that Guatemala so urgently needs and would therefore not guarantee the future of the poor either.

A null vote against
the other candidates

Unfortunately, the other candidates either don’t measure up or have no possibility of being elected. Some may have thought a short time ago that Dr. Eduardo Suger was honest, but his work record at the University of San Carlos contains several blots, such as missing classes to remain playing on the sports fields. His campaign style is also increasingly identifying him with militarism, which is something we don’t want to see reproduced in Guatemala.

As for Manuel Baldizón, his turncoat attitude in Congress—elected under the National Unity of Hope (UNE) flag and subsequently founder of the Renewed Democratic Freedom party (LIDER)—does not give a good impression of him as a possible President: if he can abandon his own party, how hard would it be for him to abandon his electoral promises?

Meanwhile, Harold Caballeros’ registration as a candidate risks being rejected because the Constitution doesn’t allow religious leaders—priests and pastors—to run for the presidency. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal believes this applies to Caballeros, although he stopped being a pastor several years ago, handing his wife the leadership of the El Shaddai Church that he founded. The case hasn’t been decided yet in either the Supreme Court or the Constitutional Court.

I would like to be able to say that Rigoberta Menchú and her alliance of leftwing groups and indigenous politicians would be an attractive option. In El Salvador, the contest between strong parties on the Right and Left has provided the electorate with different political options representing different ways of viewing the world and society, which is profoundly democratic. This isn’t the case in Guatemala, where the most that leftwing candidates have pulled since the 1996 Peace Accords has been 15% of the votes in the 2000 elections.

A null vote is a lucid vote

For all these reasons, it would be important to send the Guatemalan political class a lucid message through ballots anulled for all presidential candidates, so they stop playing games with the people. At the same time, such null ballots would send society a no less lucid message, inviting its members to aspire to State power if they have a vocation for it and the right qualities for the task, if they aspire to serve the majorities and not just serve power greedily and narcissistically. Lucidity amounts to casting a null vote in the presidential elections and a responsible vote for any national and departmental candidates for Congress and municipal government who deserve one’s trust. And if none are trustworthy, then voters should continue casting a null vote.

Naturally, this option for lucidity—which feels like an option for conscience—would have real weight if it were taken by at least half a million voters. If only taken by a few thousand it would be diluted among the total results.

“Yes” or “no” to Sandra?

The electoral outlook has changed radically in the past two months. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal official in charge of candidate registration declared Sandra Torres Casanova’s presidential candidacy illegal even though she divorced Colom to shed her ineligibility as a presidential candidate. The official argued that this amounted to “defrauding the law,” using a trick to get around the Constitutional impediment. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal then ratified that decision in a majority ruling.

Torres appealed the two rulings in the Supreme Court and meanwhile she and the whole UNE-GANA coalition continued their campaign. On June 29, the same day as the hearing, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by 12 votes to 1, validating the electoral authorities’ rulings, leaving Torres with one last option of petitioning the Court of Constitutionality for protection as a way of appealing the Supreme Court sentence.
It would have been much healthier for the UNE-GANA coalition to have put up a presidential candidate whose right to run was not tainted by any possible illegality. Torres could have run for Congress and waited for 2015 to run for President on a record of interest in Guatemala’s poor majorities of Guatemala after working for them from Congress. But had she played things that way, she wouldn’t have been able to count on government support, which is one of the things that honest voters find unattractive about her candidacy.

The opinion polls

With one exception, the opinion polls have shown growing support for Pérez Molina’s candidacy and a drop in support for Sandra Torres. At the end of May, a presidential opinion poll commissioned by Prensa Libre gave Pérez Molina 36.9% against Sandra Torres’ 17.6%. At the end of June, the same poll showed Pérez Molina with 42.5% and Sandra Torres with 15.1%, and a couple of weeks later, a Vox Latina poll had Pérez Molina at 40.1% and Sandra Torres at 15.2%. Another Prensa Libre opinion poll, conducted at the end of July showed Pérez Molina back down to 37.6% and Sandra Torres back up to 17.2%.

A Vox Latina poll shows that without Sandra Torres in the race, Pérez Molina would win the presidential elections in the first round with 60% of the votes. It would be the first one-round victory since Arévalo and Arbenz during the revolutionary decade (1945-54).

Failed state or failing society?

This is the seventh time elections have been held since the Constitution was rewritten and approved in 1985 to shift from over 30 years of authoritarian military governments—conceived as “national security” governments—to civilian ones. The first three civilian governments were still partially under army guardianship, as the internal armed conflict hadn’t ended, although peace talks had already started.

The third civilian government was born constitutionally although not electorally, of the failed Fujimori-style self-coup attempted by then-President Jorge Serrano. The Peace Accords were signed in 1996 at the end of the first year of the fourth civilian presidency, during the term of Alvaro Arzú. Those accords, which were converted into the Framework Law in 2006 during the sixth civilian presidency, that of Oscar Berger, were a real national government program. But unfortunately they have been far from implemented due to failures in achieving constitutional reforms to make Guatemala a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual State or a real agrarian development plan and provision of employment in the provinces to help reduce migration. Now President Colom, the seventh civilian President, is pushing back these reforms by increasing the ceiling for the armed forces in the national budget instead of continuing to increase the percentages dedicated to health and education.

The biggest failure:
Lack of a fiscal reform

The most important failure has been the inability of all civilian governments to hammer out a fiscal pact that includes both better collection of current taxes and the application of progressive principles to tax the big fortunes and most profitable companies, such as the sugar producers, based on an administration removed from suspected corruption and inefficiency. Doing so would increase the tax burden. Unless taxes exceed 12% of the GDP, there’s no chance of having a strong State capable of investing in expanding and improving the quality of education and health. The 2% of the social classes that accumulate the most income have obstinately and persistently rejected the solidarity-based duty to give the State a higher percentage of what they have earned thanks not only to investing their intelligence and implementing their best administrative and technological ideas, but also thanks to the physical and no less intelligent work of the hired hands, workers and employees in their businesses, the peasants and compatriots who work independently or in the informal economy, and the migrants and their remittances.

In an important article titled “Failed State or failing society,” published in July in El Periódico, Edelberto Torres Rivas commented on these official figures: “In 2005 the remuneration of salaried workers amounted to 31.9% of the GDP and business profits to 39.1%. In all countries that relationship increased historically in favor of workers. In 2009, the share received by workers fell to 30.6%, while private profits increased to 40.7%. Salaries dropped by 1.6%.” He provided these figures to illustrate his view that it isn’t that the Guatemalan State has failed but that society is failing.

The long and long-lived
shadow of violence

The backdrop to this year’s elections is the tremendous violence that’s overwhelming society and successfully evading state control. It is said that it claims the lives of more people every day than the war did in its time, 57% of them between the ages of 17 and 30. It has become the most cited aspect of the social malaise affecting the country. But this violence isn’t a new phenomenon and, as in other Central American countries, it is closely linked to poverty.

The violence in Guatemala has secular roots. The Conquest of almost 500 years ago was violent and imprinted violence on the collective attitudes of cultures that coexisted without fusing. The colonial era itself was thus also violent. Historian Severo Martínez Peláez documented over 300 indigenous rebellions in Guatemala up to the Patzicía one of 1944, triggered by the unbearable living conditions the Spanish imposed on indigenous peoples and Creoles.

There have only been two successful legal “agrarian reforms” in Guatemala. The first granted land and slaves to colonists to create the big colonial estates known as latifundia, while the second tricked illiterate indigenous people, putting lands the Crown had guaranteed them up for sale in an official journal inaccessible to them. In the end all those lands were bought up by coffee growers.

The Conservative governments and then the reformers of the Republican era also imposed violence on the society. The third and final volume of Francisco Pérez de Antón’s historical novel El sueño de los justos [The sleep of the just], clearly shows the violence used b y General Justo Rufino Barrios (1871-1885) to impose his “Liberal” dictatorship. The subsequent dictatorships of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920) and General Jorge Ubico (1930-1944) were also violent. Until 1945 it was legal to impose forced labor on indigenous people in farms and public works and obligatory for them to be officially registered in order to travel safely through the country.

The third “agrarian reform,” legislated by means of decree 900 during President Arbenz’s government to favor the mainly indigenous peasants, was violently reversed by a coup d’état that marked the start of 33 years of authoritarian military governments and death squads inspired by “national security.” Following the ten revolutionary years there was an extreme rightwing party “of organized violence,” as Mario Sandoval Alarcón described his own National Liberation Movement (MLN).

If we are currently horrified by a Norwegian rightwing fanatic killing 60 young people to wipe out the seeds of the Norwegian Labor Party, we would do well to remember the multiple murders of young secondary and university students by death squads and diverse police organizations in Guatemala in the seventies and eighties. We should also remember that the Zetas drug cartel is also made up of former Guatemalan kaibiles, along with Mexican soldiers and police officers.

The roots of violence run deep and are also stained with racism, because what makes the oppression and enormous inequality in Guatemala culturally seen as justifiable by some is their division of human beings into superior and inferior.

The link between
violence and poverty

There’s also the violence of poverty, which causes 49% of Guatemalan children to be malnourished. The violence implied in the lack of dignified work pushes people into migration, facing the terrifying threat of “the Beast,” the train on which so many migrants pile up and from which not a few fall and end up crippled, attacks by the Mexican police and drug traffickers and the risks of the Arizona desert.

Yet another form of violence is land economics, which forces many people to live on 20 square meters roofed with corrugated sheet metal in urban squatter settlements, or in unhealthy shacks on a good number of small farms of the piedmont and coast. It is precisely the overcrowded settlements of the cities and the shacks of Guatemala’s backwaters that provide breeding grounds for youth gang members: young people without fathers who see their mothers leave home in the early morning to work ten or twelve hours in the informal economy and watch them come home again tired and irritable.

It is violence to continue accumulating urban land to sell it with growing added value for malls, apartment blocks or exclusive residential areas, while those same lands could be socially habilitated for thousands of impoverished families in decent multi-family housing.

It is violence that Guatemala has a Gini coefficient—an indicator of inequality—that places our country among the four or five most unequal in the world. This violence wasn’t generated recently, and Pérez Molina’s “hard hand” strategy won’t serve to respond to all of the national misfortunes.

The complex path
towards a solution

Unless you want to revive the war in Guatemala, you can’t focus the whole anti-violence plan in the army. It would be quite enough for the armed forces to be deployed effectively and efficiently along the country’s borders and coasts and in its airspace to try to stop the infiltration of organized crime and its different forms of trafficking, including drugs, arms, children, women, money and multiple forms of contraband. That would just be a case of updating the task of defending the country’s borders, traditionally and constitutionally conferred mainly on the army.

The violence needs to be fought against with a reformed National Civil Police with decent salaries, top quality police academies and an inescapable cleansing of corrupt elements. It also needs to be fought against with a cleansed judicial body that truly fights corruption and provides justice quickly and equitably and with a Public Ministry cleansed and prepared for the hard task facing it. Both the rapid investigation of the murder of Facundo Cabral and civil society’s shocked reaction to it demonstrate the needed foundations for confronting the results of violence.

The violence needs to be fought with well-trained criminal and defense lawyers who are impervious to corruption. Also required are juvenile rehabilitation institutions free of the sadism that has characterized them, thus providing a possibility for the youths to get academic and technical grades that provide access to well-paid jobs.

It has to be combated with penitentiaries where the corruption of prison governors and guards is combated, where those awaiting trial or those already sentenced don’t live in inhuman conditions, and where mafia cells or cells dependent on organized crime aren’t allowed to flourish. There’s also a need for penitentiaries that don’t reproduce or worsen the overcrowding found in marginalized urban settlements. Jails and penitentiaries cannot continue being breeding grounds for crime or workout gyms for sadistic guards.

A large budget for a strong state

Fighting violence requires a specific state budget that is much larger than the current one, administered with greater effectiveness and efficiency and based on a much larger tax burden. It needs a competent and ethically strengthened State that fights to reform and update the procedural and criminal codes and prosecutes organized mafia forces that recruit in the jails.

None of this can be administered or even planned without a budget increase that really responds to the gravity of the problems rather than just a slogan to win elections, exploiting the unease of a population that fears falling victim to the violence. The illegal drug economy moves over three times the national budget in Guatemala and cannot be countered with mere scraps.

There can be no effective fight against violence without increasing the health budget, particularly for pregnant women. Unless the budget for child care up to the age of five is increased, the rate of child malnutrition will not be reduced. Nor will it be reduced without a redistribution of the budget from middle and upper class families so they can contribute to these state tasks. And there will be no reduction in the number of children and adolescents dropping out of the public education system unless the education budget is increased to at least 7% of the GDP and a competent, honest and responsible body of teachers is trained or unless there is a rise in solidarity levels between high quality private schools and state schools.

And finally, the migration flow that has turned Guatemala a net exporter of people will neither drop or stop without increased investments in business creation and well-paid jobs and a radical transformation in family wage scales.

The importance of fully human solutions is also revealed by the following: 70% of people surveyed favor “social cleansing,” which is an even more primitive and brutal way of doing away with criminals that is than the death penalty. It’s true that in the opinion polls people point to violence as their main problem, but that happens because they are asked about violence as an isolated problem, whereas they aren’t asked about poverty in the same way. It is fragmented into poverty, employment, wages, high prices, the economy… What would happen if they broke the question about violence up in the same way and asked about murders, kidnappings, extortion or “rent,” threats, assaults, fears about the fate of relatives or friends, fires, sabotage…?

In the world’s most violent region

In July President Colom hosted a meeting of the heads of State of Central America’s countries plus Belize and Panama. Also present were the Presidents of Colombia and Mexico, while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended for four hours. The subject was the fight against drug trafficking and the violence it produces.

Central America has been considered the most violent region in the world, with the exception of areas with wars of government repression (Afghanistan; the Great Lakes in Congo, Ruanda and Burundi; Darfur in Sudan; Iraq, Libya, Syria...). Honduras has the record with an annual 58 murders or homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by El Salvador with 52 and Guatemala with 48. The rate in Nicaragua is just 12 per 100,000, probably because the problems of poverty have been taken much more into account since the 1979 revolution and also because of different cultural attitudes between rich and poor.

The meeting created three mechanisms: a fund in which the contributing countries and organizations will select the security projects they want to support with their resources; the selection of projects through dialogue between the contributing countries and the Central American countries; and a mechanism for the projects’ good governance and resource administration.

“The poor can’t fund security”

There’s no clarity in the reports on the role the Central American Integration System will play. Some say it will be in charge of coordinating the whole project, while others say the governments will receive the money directly to avoid greater bureaucracy.

The World Bank offered US$1.5 billion and the IDB another $500 million. The United States will contribute $40 million on top of the $260 million it previously committed. Clinton, however, made it clear that her government expects the businesspeople and privileged classes of Central America to “pay their part of the taxes and become integral partners in this effort, which must be of society as a whole. Security cannot be funded by the poor.”

The European Union’s economics commissioner reaffirmed this perspective when he said that it requires “a fiscal reform in the Central American countries to put greater financial resources extracted from the national budgets at the disposition of security and justice.”

The most important thing is not so much the financial amounts for this effort, but the idea that only a united Central American region will be able to tackle the common problems of violence and poverty we’re experiencing in the corridor through which drugs are trafficked to the United States.

Lack of political imagination

Only a federation of Central American States could deal over the long term with the problems of security and the distribution of wealth plaguing us. If we worked as a regional unit, we would have around 35 million inhabitants, making us the fifth largest population group in Latin America after Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, and we’d multiply the effectiveness of our policies. But Washington feeds us a militarist approach to fighting the violence produced by organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, that our countries’ power circles enthusiastically welcome. The danger is that aid against violence will materialize only in more and more arms, as has happened with Plan Colombia.

Few are yet proposing the long-term reduction of violence that would occur if drugs were available in the market and stopped being clandestine merchandise, skyrocketing their price more with every border crossed. A kilogram of cocaine is worth $250 in Colombia, $2,500 in Panama, $25,000 at the Guatemala-Mexico border and $250,000 in Tijuana, without mentioning the flow of laundered money that oils the US economy, among others. Wouldn’t the violence by drug cartels be likely to fall if their merchandise turned them into legal traders of goods on which they would even have to pay taxes?

Obviously if drugs were legalized a larger budget would have to be allocated for the psychic and physical ailments caused by their use, just as resources are currently assigned to counter the risk of driving cars under the influence of alcohol. And the loss of income due to the drop in prices of the drugs would probably cause a violent death throes.

As soon as a radical measure like this is conceived we see a lack of political imagination and the enormous interests of the arms industry, that famous “industrial-military complex” denounced by retired General Eisenhower in 1961 just before he left the US presidency. Over two thirds of the arms used by drug traffickers in Mexico and Central American have been bought in the southern United States from dealers who don’t ask what they’re going to be used for or whom they’re going to be used against. 

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

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