The face and the cross of Guatemala’s “spring”
The “face” of the Guatemalan “spring” is the awakening
of indignant civic consciousness against corruption,
also expressed in Manuel Baldizón’s defeat
in the first electoral round.
The “cross” is the result of the second round:
a comedian President supported by the military.
What analysis of this complexity can we offer?
What will these results offer the country?
The great challenge for the indignant civil society
will be to keep actively monitoring the new government
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
A lot of people followed with admiration what the Guatemalan people achieved in six months of civic protest in the streets. While most continue admiring it, we need to look with a critical eye at what was or wasn’t achieved in the so-called Guatemalan “spring.”
In the midst of the enthusiasm, some of us wondered what the huge demonstrations of people fed up with the corruption dominant in both the government and the country itself would end up meaning. Would this movement signify the end of an era that began with the overthrow of President Arbenz and cancelation of his democratic and modernizing program during the decade of the so-called “Guatemalan revolution” (October 1944 - July 1954), an era that had opened many hopeful paths for the peasantry, especially for agrarian reform?
That hope had been followed by a counterrevolutionary era, challenged by the internal armed conflict that started in 1960 with an uprising by a dissident sector of the Army and went on for 36 years, until peace accords were negotiated between the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the Álvaro Arzú government and signed in 1996. Again, hopes were sparked, but the price was exceedingly high: more 200,000 deaths.
In search of a new nation
The Peace Accords, viewed as the project of a new nation, were only incorporated as Law of the Republic during the presidency of Óscar Berger (2004-2008). Worse yet, they were never fully implemented, thus frustrating the hope that had been awakened.
The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), created in 2006 by agreement of the United Nations with the Berger government, was a fruit of the Peace Accords. For eight years it conducted investigations to get to the bottom of the state corruption and the larger corruption in society it sheltered. Colombian judge Ivan Velásquez took over the helm of CICIG in 2013, and Todd D. Robinson, the US Ambassador to Guatemala, provided support after his arrival in October 2014.
This year, CICIG, together with Thelma Aldana, who heads Guatemala’s Public Ministry, otherwise known as the Public Prosecutor General’s Office, conducted an investigation that uncovered an illegal clandestine operation calling itself “La Linea” (The Line). It was dedicated to defrauding the State of important quantities of customs duties by lowering these taxes in exchange for bribes from importers.
Many high-level government officials have been accused and imprisoned for that scam, both Vice President Roxana Baldetti and her private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, among them. Shortly after that another fraud was made public, this time in the Social Security institute. In that case phony and thus ineffective dialysis treatments caused the death of 18 people. Added to these scandals was the ridiculous million dollar contract negotiated by Baldetti to “purify” Lake Amatitlán…with salt water.
The citizenry’s great feat
All of this sparked citizens’ indignation. On April 25, 30,000 people, mostly from the middle classes, demonstrated in the capital against all the corruption. They demanded the resignation not only of Baldetti but also of President Otto Pérez Molina. The demonstrations didn’t stop from that day until August 25, when CICIG demanded Pérez Molina’s indictment. Moreover, they spread from the capital to the urban departments, ultimately adding peasant and indigenous organizations from the rural zones.
It was a great feat to have discovered the corruption of such high-level government officials. Maintaining people’s indignation over months of incessant demonstrations until Baldetti and Pérez Molina resigned, were indicted and jailed was even a greater one. The Constitutional Court even denied their appeals.
In the interim, Alejandro Maldonado, elected by the Congress to replace Vice President Baldetti after her resignation, took possession of the presidency. From the shortlist of three vice presidential candidates he presented, the Congress chose profoundly conservative Juan Alfonso Fuentes Soria, a dental surgeon and incompetent ex-rector of the San Carlos University.
The first-round surprises
Against the backdrop of these unimaginable events, the presidential, legislative and municipal elections were held September 6 without the needed changes to the Electoral and Political Parties Law. The indignant society’s demand to postpone elections until this law was reformed wasn’t as forceful as its demand that Baldetti and Pérez Molina resign.
The Congress, which should have reformed the law, is largely made up of corrupt congresspeople who did everything they could to tone down the reform bill sent by Supreme Electoral Tribunal and delay sending it to the Constitutional Court, a necessary step as it is a constitutional-level law.
The election results came as a surprise, even though the last polls had forecasted them. There was a 71% voter turnout, higher than normal for Guatemala. Comedian Jimmy Morales, creator, administrator and co-star of the TV program “Moralejas” (Morals of the story, but also a play on his name), took first place with more than a million votes, 23.85% of the total, against nine other candidates.
Five months earlier, nobody would have put their money on Morales, who ran as the candidate of the National Convergence Front (FCN), created by the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala, in alliance with a little-known party called Nation. Sandra Torres, ex-president Alvaro Colom’s former wife and candidate of the United National Hope (UNE) party, Colom’s creation, took second place with nearly a million votes, 19.76% of the total.
Although Torres had been moving up in the polls, she was in third place behind Manuel Baldizón, candidate of the Renovated Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party, in the final ones. The second surprise of the elections, then, and probably the more important one, was that Baldizón fell to a tight third place with 19.64% of the votes and was therefore eliminated from the runoff second round.
Null votes and abstentions, which totaled 10% of the ballots, took fourth place and Alejandro Giammatei, FUERZA’s candidate, acquitted of supposed complicity in the murder of various prisoners in 2007 when he was director of the penitentiary system, took fifth with 6.45%. Sixth place went to Zury Rios, daughter of retired general Efraín Ríos Montt, and thus heir to his sinister past, with 5.89%. Another five candidates shared the remaining 15% of the votes.
The most notable result of these elections was Baldizón’s defeat, not Morales’ triumph. It was touted as the most important consequence of the change of view implied in the angry rejection of such corrupt politics by the majority Guatemala’s population.
“It’s Baldizón’s turn in Guatemala”
Baldizón had taken second place in the 2011 elections, losing the second round to Pérez Molina. In all five presidential elections over the last 20 years, the loser of one election has always won the next one. Portillo, who lost against Arzú in 1995, won against Berger in 1999. Berger won against Colom in 2003, Colom won against Pérez Molina in 2007 and Pérez Molina won against Baldizón in 2011.
Now, then, it was Baldzón’s “turn” and he had made this statistical probability the core of his security. He even made it the central slogan of his multi-million dollar electoral campaign, a species of personal destiny proclaimed to the four winds in all corners of the country. In so doing he milked his party’s acronym for all it was worth as it is uncoincidentally the Spanish word for leader.
After crossing the Salvadoran-Guatemalan border at Chinamas, in the Salvadoran department of Ahuachapán and entering Guatemala’s municipality of Valle Nuevo in the department of Jutiapa, one began to see along both sides of the highway rocks and trees painted in red and large fences reading “LIDER. It’s Baldizón’s turn in Guatemala. It’s your turn, Jutiapa. It’s the people’s turn.” Then on ahead, in the next department: “LIDER. It’s Baldizón’s turn in Guatemala. It’s your turn, Santa Rosa. It’s the people’s turn.” And finally in the capital: “LIDER. It’s Baldizón’s turn in Guatemala. It’s your turn, Guatemala. It’s the people’s turn.” The arrogant slogan was repeated in all streets.
“It’s not your turn, Baldizón!”
His party also launched other slogans promising employment, work, education and health, a horn of plenty promised to spill out over the entire country. And in the last month before the elections, other fences from the borders to the capital and in the capital itself wore the slogan: “Vote for the great LIDER, Guatemala.”
In the indignant Saturday demonstrations between April and August, many people could be heard loudly shouting these words: “It’s not your turn! Baldizón, it’s not your turn!” And they were right. Guatemalan voters defeated his campaign presumption by 4 to 1 in the first round of the elections. It’s a valuable lesson about the infallible power of money arrogantly squandered, insulting the voting population’s capacity to decide for itself.
That being said, LIDER won the most congressional legislators (45 of 158) and a good number of the mayoral races. A week later, Baldizón resigned from his party and retired from political activity, demonstrating that he didn’t know how to lose and keep struggling after a defeat. Or perhaps his decision was a strategy to return later with renewed strength, which may be why he begged the LIDER members elected to Congress not to switch to other parties at the same time as he offered a lucrative future to legislators of other parties if they defected to his. That two-faced sleaze didn’t work, at least in the time that remains of the current Congress, and no few LIDER bench members started to form an independent bench.
The comedian’s triumph
If Jimmy Morales’ predicted win was the first electoral round’s cross, the heavier cross was his 2-1 victory against Sandra Torres on October 25 with over 2.75 million valid votes (67.44% ) to her 1.3 million 300 (32.56%).
Over 56.3% of the eligible voters turned out for that second round, some 15% fewer than for the first round. That turnout is considered normal for two-round elections.
Command of the stage
Morales’ victory is due to his command of the stage, not his program, given that in the four debate forums he participated in with Sandra Torres, he showed that he didn’t even have one. Torres, in contrast, did offer a political presentation similar to a government program. In one of these televised forums Morales tore from Torres’ hands the copy of the weekly Contrapoder she had brought and was reading from to confirm the accusations against Morales.
Jimmy Morales claims to be an economist. He mentioned this degree during the campaign without showing it or naming his alma mater. As long as he doesn’t show it, we might go on thinking he perhaps just hadn’t completed some business administration courses. Having claimed that he has it shows that he’s aware of lacking the competency for the post he was aspiring to.
Morales knew very well that his political trump card was precisely his lack of affiliation with the “political class.” Affiliated with a Pentecostal church, he would thus be seen as uncontaminated by the greed and corruption most Guatemalans associate with absolutely all politicians.
Did voters know about
his military support?
During the campaign, Morales had to low-key who his backers were, because they include some of the most bloodstained military officers who thought nothing of massacres, scorched earth, kidnapping and disappearances as key elements of their strategy to dominate the armed conflict. Many of these officers literally felt betrayed by the Peace Accords and have never stopped bemoaning that “we won the war with arms and lost the peace at the negotiating table.” One of them, retired Colonel Edgar Ovalle, now an elected legislator, was assigned to a task force that committed massacres against the populations of the Ixil Triangle in Quiché in 1983 and the next year was in the military command post in Cobán, Alta Verapáz, where massive burials have been found. According to a credible and honest source, Ovalle openly stated in a public forum that human rights are the major obstacle to the struggle against violence in Guatemala.
“Memory of Silence,” the 1999 report of the UN-supported Historical Clarification Commission, says these officers enjoyed the support of a good part of the country’s economic oligarchy. During retired General Pérez Molina’s government they ratcheted up their interminable ideological offensive. Especially during the harshest moment of that expensive campaign, they repeatedly hammered away with their argument that “we fought to save Guatemala from international communism.”
The inevitable question regarding the electoral results is what percentage of those who voted for Jimmy Morales knew and assessed his backing by these officers, and the “brand” of the party that presented him as a candidate? And in what sense did he himself assess this support?
We’ve heard well-intentioned people say “I can’t vote for Sandra because she was a guerrilla fighter.” Must we glean from that decision that the officers’ ideological offensive was successful in its subliminal message that the blood inevitably spilled in war isn’t comparable, that the military’s blood is patriotic while that of the guerrilla fighters is traitorous? Was this the “read” by an important part of the majority who elected Jimmy Morales? And if it was, does that not make these military officers and the moneyed oligarchs who defend them the intended election winners?
Above and beyond Sandra Torres’ abilities and mistakes, accusing of her of having been a guerrilla then refusing to vote for her strictly on those grounds renders the Peace Accords worthless, as they gave the guerrilla organization that signed those accords the full right to become a national political party authorized to compete in any political space.
Why did Sandra Torres lose?
Why wasn’t Sandra Torres successful? How powerful a deterrent were her supposed guerrilla connections?
Many people consulted said she’s not a good communicator, which puts her at a great disadvantage with a master of the stage such as Jimmy Morales. They say she isn’t good at empathizing with people, that she is a workaholic dedicated to making social programs a reality, a person with a great social sensibility, but dragged down by her fame for patronizing the population that would benefit from these programs.
These claims are made without analyzing each of the various programs she pushed as First Lady in charge of a sort of social action “ministry” during the Álvaro Colom government. Nonetheless, Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, Colom’s finance minister, said in his book Rendición de Cuentas (Being Accountable) that Torres demanded that portions of the national budget assigned to other categories be moved to her programs, thus throwing the budget out of whack. Fuentes Knight says he had no other choice than to resign.
In the various debate forums with Morales, Torres focused more on attacking him than on convincing the audience of the seriousness of her own government programs. “Sandra is intelligent, an incredibly hard worker, but doesn’t know how to win people over,” say people who know her well. The fact is she was perceived just as one more “politician” and thus a target of all the indignation they’ve triggered in the country. A lot of people thus leaned toward someone who appeared to come from non-political “territory, supposedly unaffiliated with corruption.
Isn’t Morales a politician?
The image with which Jimmy Morales made his debut on the political stage was precisely that of not belonging to the sector of “despicable politicians,” all of whom he—and much of the population—relegates to the category of corruption. But it’s a false image. Morales had already run for mayor of Mixco, the second largest municipality in Mexico in 2011, placing third. And he did so as a candidate of the same party that ran him as its presidential candidate, one founded by military veterans whose many “despicable” qualities include being up to their necks in Guatemalan politics, even with their own party. And the rest of the time they are competing in finance and agroindustry with the country’s great business oligarchs.
The Guatemalan “spring’s” attractive public face is that it helped expose the corruption of a President—a top-ranking military officer—and several of his collaborators related to his “intelligence” specialty in the same military institution. The cross it must bear is that while toppling a government dominated by former military specialists, ideological prejudices and investigation systems of “suspicious” people, we have elected a replacement that will be led by a President supported by unscrupulous military veterans.
We’ll have more clarity on how heavy that cross will be when Morales presents his Cabinet and names his choices for other no less important posts in the fabric of his administration. He doesn’t offer much confidence about his capacity to select competent people given that his vice presidential choice is Jafeth Cabrera Franco, who didn’t distinguish himself as rector of the University of San Carlos from 1994-1998. More encouraging is his announcement that he will ask for a certificate of honesty from CICIG for all his Candidate nominations.
Results of the congressional race
The results of the presidential election shouldn’t divert our attention from the election of Congress members in the first electoral round on September 6. Guatemala’s single house of Congress has 158 members, of whom 120 were up for reelection. Of those, 70 were reelected and 50 lost their seat. This is actually an important piece of information because the new Congress will be made up of a majority (88) of members who will be working for the first time in this branch of government. It should be stressed that “will be working” isn’t an assumption of a certain dedication to the country’s welfare, but rather an expectation of a population that wants to see no more Congresses that dawdle the time away without legislating for the common good and reforming flawed laws.
An important novelty in the composition of the new Congress is that voters didn’t vote a straight party ticket. Many chose their legislative representatives from the second- and third-placing parties in the presidential contest while rejecting their presidential candidates. Thus LIDER obtained 45 congress members and UNE 32, together close to half of the seats in Congress.
TODOS, a party formed by a coalition of dissidents from UNE along with the Greens, whose leader, Roberto ALejos, was the three-time president of Congress during the Colom government, got 19 seats. The name of this party (which means all in Spanish) alludes to the mix of “centrist” ideologies (Christian socialism, social democracy and social liberalism).
Perhaps the most surprising vote was that which allowed the survival of Pérez Molina’s Patriotic Party (PP), whose main organizer was deposed Vice President Baldetti. It got 18 seats. Similarly surprising was the fact that the FCN, whose Morales-Cabrera presidential ticket won with more than two-thirds of the valid votes, got 7 fewer seats than the PP.
Next in the order of congress members, the Encounter for Guatemala (EG) party, led by veteran human rights activist Nineth Montenegro, got 7 seats, including hers, her seventh consecutive win. The Union of National Change (UCN) party, whose center-right leader, Mario Estrada, has run three times for President, also got 7 seats. Vision with Values (VIVA), which ran Zury Rios as its presidential candidate, won 5 seats, as did the Commitment, Renovation and Order (CREO)-Unionist party coalition formed from the remains of ex-President Arzú’s political force. The National Action Party (PAN) got 3 seats and the URNG got 2 as part of a coalition, thereby saving its status as a party. FUERZA, which ran Giammatei as its presidential candidate, also obtained 2, as did CONVERGENCIA, a new party of fundamentally indigenous members, which ran for the first time.
It’s evident that with these results no party will be able to lead Congress. Alliances will be necessary. It wouldn’t be strange to see LIDER try to get a coalition with the PP, FCN, UCN, CREO-Unionista and VIVA, which if successful would total 91 seats, 12 more than a simple majority. TODOS is made up mainly of old UNE members and it remains to be seen whether they can get past the bitterness left by the separation. If they can, their combined votes would total 51.
Two reelected representatives—Baudilio Hichos (LIDER) and Gudy Rivera (PP)—are under the threat of a preliminary trial being requested by CICIG and the Public Ministry.
An advance or a setback?
The votes for mayors in Guatemala’s 334 municipalities still need to be analyzed to see which way voters leaned in those races, particularly given the unusually high crossing of party tickets in the other two elections. The great question is whether after civil society’s massive “spring-like” mobilization, the overall election results will signify the restorative return of the traditional Right or not. We still don’t know.
In seeking to answer that question, we must bear in mind that the traditional oligarchy’s economic interests and those of the emerging economy, which particularly shows up in the Military Social Security Institute, the Army Bank and the military’s businesses around the North Transversal Strip, don’t always coincide. Rather, those two sectors look at each other across trenches.
The main answer, however, will come from civil society, which today faces the challenge of strict monitoring of the State and its officials in all institutions to impede the resurgence in the country of Ali Baba and his forty thieves. In this vigilance they can count on CICIG, the Public Ministry and the healthiest part of the judiciary.
Meanwhile, the Congress that voted against Pérez Molina and saw the streets fill with indignant citizens for months will be still be responsible for approving the national budget for the uncertain 2016. It will probably condemn the new government making its debut on January 14 to administer the country in “rags.”
Juan Hérnandez Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.