Can the People Bypass the Elections?


Technically, Guatemala is at internal peace and is holding free and fair elections – as free and fair as family sponsorship and a certain consensus among the ruling elite will permit. There are other ways, not yet including violence, to move on to the future

 

 

Former general Otto P̩rez Molina scored a goal and raised a fist exultantly. Pablo Monsanto Рonce comandante of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), a Marxist guerrilla movement that fought the military dictatorships (1) Рran on to the pitch to congratulate him. Rigoberta Mench̼, the 1992 Nobel peace prize winner, pushed her way through the crowd to hug Luis Fernando Montenegro, once head of the powerful association of business leaders, the Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations of Guatemala (Cacif). Television cameras recorded it all: the candidates in the Guatemalan presidential elections had just scored in a football match against the press sponsored by the Rotary Club.

 

The press corps welcomed the match, and beat the candidates by five goals to three. On 14 July Prensa Libre called it “a lesson in civics” because most of the players had been sworn enemies until the 1996 peace accords which ended a 40-year conflict, the longest and bloodiest on the continent, with more than 200,000 people missing or dead. But the press also recommended that extra efforts be made to “overcome differences in criteria”, which they described as a Guatemalan “tendency to polarise”. On 15 July the paper dared to hope for a country in which “candidates forgot their rivalries and played in the same team”.

 

But there were few real differences in the election programmes. The media is in private hands and the elections reflect what Tribuna called the “reign of the right”: “political parties, universities, opinion-makers, the radio and the national press have all turned to the right,” the paper noted with satisfaction before concluding that this consensus of the elite was enough to make Guatemala “a politically conservative country” (2).

 

So guests were free to enjoy a champagne celebration marking the first anniversary of the Central America-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) in the Marriott Hotel. Businessman Oscar Berger, elected president of Guatemala in 2003, whose 15-member government had 13 ministers from the business sector, thanked “all the company directors present for their efforts in improving the living conditions of Guatemalans”. But according to Roberto Malgar, head of Acadamete Soluciones: “It makes no difference which candidate is elected president. They all know what they have to do: apply the Vision Plan (see “Rightwing Agenda”), and I am sure they will.” No one doubts it.

 

In the first round, on 9 September, Guatemala‘s six million registered voters (from a population of 12 million) had 14 candidates to choose from (3). The number was more the result of power struggles within the oligarchy than a wide range of platforms. Journalist Andrés Cabanas explained: “In 2003 the threat of Alfonso Portillo (4) being re-elected resulted in a broad alliance in the private sector. But now the country’s leading families are unable to reach an agreement. Each wants to defend its own interests and ensure it gets a piece of the cake – even if it means forging temporary alliances in congress.” There have been 64 changes in parliamentary alliances over the past three years, so partisan loyalty is something Guatemalan politicians have learnt to put into perspective.

 

  Backed by the nation’s families

 

The four parties that led in pre-election opinion polls – National Unity for Hope (UNE), the Patriotic Party (PP), the Grand National Alliance (GANA) and Meeting for Guatemala (EG) – were all funded to some extent by the nation’s leading families. The Gutiérrez-Bosch family hedged its bets and financed all four. In the event, UNE and the PP came top in the first round and will compete in the run-off on 4 November.

 

The “differences in criteria” no longer seem so significant, although political violence led to the deaths of more than 50 candidates and militants in the first six months of the year. Whether candidates called themselves social democrats like Alvaro Colom (UNE), promoted a selective law and order policy like Otto Pérez Molina (PP), used populist-libertarian rhetoric (“no bosses or managers”) like radio station boss Rodolfo Castañeda of the National Advancement Party (PAN), or advocated fundamentalist evangelism like Harold Cabelleros (5) of Vision with Values (Viva), all agreed to present their programmes to Cacif. Only the most servile obtained Cacif’s backing, but competition was fierce.

 

The Guatemalan right is not oblivious to the lure of modernism – far from it. It is quite capable of integrating a culturally progressive rhetoric if that silences protests against the rampant exploitation caused by the class structure. There is even a consensus on the need to open up political space to victims of discrimination: women and the indigenous Maya.

 

Rigoberta Menchú allowed herself to be drawn into the fray on that ticket. She was ideally placed, because of her 1992 Nobel peace prize for work on indigenous rights and because she was already in Berger’s government in 2004. Despite being quick to explain that she was “neither left nor right”, she allowed former Cacif chairman Fernando Montenegro to run as her vice-presidential candidate. Andrés Cabanas likes to recall the day Rigoberta (as she is known) raised the issue of agrarian reform and was quickly put in her place by Montenegro, who informed her that he was in charge of the economic aspects of the campaign. So much for women and the Maya.

 

For business leaders the transition to peace was successful and, in the context of globalisation, provided a favourable climate for businesses, which had suffered during the war. But not all Guatemalans are business people.

 

Abelardo Matías, a Maya, showed me a photograph taken in 1996. It showed a camp in a jungle clearing “somewhere in the mountains” that belonged to the Revolutionary Organisation of Armed People (Orpa). A group of uniformed men was standing on the trampled earth looking at a makeshift notice board decorated with a few Christmas baubles. A large pink sheet of paper proclaimed: “29 December 1996: the end of a historic year for revolutionary Guatemalans. After years of armed struggle, we have achieved peace.”

 

  `We knew it would be difficult’

 

Matías had gone “up to the mountains” at the age of 13. He remembers the announcement of the peace accords very well. “We had doubts – that’s why nobody’s smiling on the photograph. We knew it would be difficult. And now, 10 years on, nothing has changed.” So the struggle continues.

 

After the peace accords were signed, the alliance of four guerrilla movements was transformed into a political party, not invited to the football match, but nevertheless on the campaign trail. In a small town called Nueva Alba in La Reforma commune (in the San Marcos department), Hector Nuila, head of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party (URNG), told his audience that “the time has come to make our dreams happen so that our past struggle was not in vain”.

 

The Guatemalan oligarchy did not support the URNG so the party’s campaign budget was 30 times smaller than that of the mainstream parties (6). The URNG could not afford TV advertising or a bus to transport activists, still less a helicopter to ferry candidates from village to village – instead they spent hours travelling over impossible tracks. “That’s the good road,” they were told when they arrived; “the other one is worse.” In Nueva Alba there were 40 families who had fled to Mexico, but returned after the peace accords to eke out a living from plots of land they were able to buy on credit. They attended the meeting, held in the school playground, and listened impassively. But when Nuila mentioned “the rich who live in their big houses and own land they’ve never even seen and cling to their privileges” there was a burst of applause.

 

Rich versus poor, there’s nothing new in that. And yet the issue has never been so topical. “Guatemala is not a poor country,” explained Orlando Blanco from the Collective of Social Organisations (Cos), “but it’s a country of poor people, one of the most inegalitarian in the world.” Indeed 4% of the population accounts for 50% of consumption, and Guatemala has a Gini coefficient (7) of 59.9 – the highest on the continent. In the past few years, rich Guatemalans have attained a worldwide second place in private plane ownership (after Brazil but ahead of the US), yet 58% of the population is classed as poor, and 23% extremely poor, a figure that rises to more than 60% in San Marcos. “Poverty and inequality in Guatemala are due first and foremost to land concentration,” explained Jorge Murga, a researcher in economic and social sciences at Guatemala‘s San Carlos University. Even today just 2% of the population owns nearly 70% of the agricultural land.

 

Back in Nueva Alba, Nuila passed the microphone to URNG presidential candidate and journalist Miguel Angel Sandoval, former founder of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). “We’ve had enough of being afraid to raise the issue of agricultural reform. It’s our number one priority.” His audience was responsive. Sandoval continued: “The minimum wage doesn’t even cover half of people’s basic needs, and the fincas [large farms] don’t even pay that. It’s called exploitation and we’ve had enough. It is time for the left to rise up.” According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 25% of the population suffered from malnutrition in 2004 – 10% more than before the peace accords.

 

Mushrooming national debt

 

The URNG opposed the government’s privatisation plans and promised to re-nationalise if the electricity, telecommunications and motorway companies were sold off. But the URNG was most daring when it came to taxation. It demanded tax increases and required companies to pay tax.

 

The ruling oligarchy preferred to open banks and lend money to the state. The national debt mushroomed from nearly 6bn quetzal in 1997 to more than 20bn quetzal ($2.73bn) in 2006, a boon to the growing financial sector. Businesses had nothing to complain about: waivers, negotiated tax breaks or evasion, Guatemala is a fiscal paradise. The state budget was based on indirect taxation, which accounted for 75% of fiscal revenue – 20% of which financed the country’s debt. But for public health, assistance for subsistence farmers, or education, the government had only one imperative: budget restrictions.

 

“The URNG is the party of the poor,” said one young woman listening to Sandoval. If so, the revolutionary parties should be running the country, but that is not the case. The first reason is fear. For many people, to vote URNG is to dredge up the violent past, and nobody wants that. Up in Rancho Bojón, another small jungle town in La Reforma commune, former guerrilla comandante Nery said: “When the peace accords were signed my family didn’t want me to come home; they were afraid there would be reprisals. It wasn’t their fault, so I waited until they felt confident enough.” That took three years.

 

The URNG’s failure was due to external factors and to dissent within the party. The power struggles and rigid hierarchy of the days of armed struggle have been the stumbling block of the left. The consequence was a pitiful 2.6% in the 2003 presidential elections for Orpa founder Rodrigo Asturias, son of Miguel Angel Asturias who won the 1967 Nobel prize for literature. “That was when we hit rock bottom,” explained Sandoval, who split from the URNG in 1996. “Something had to be done, and that’s why we called for the union that became the Broad Movement for the Left (Maiz). The URNG is the party registered with the electoral tribunal, but we are running on a URNG-Maiz ticket.”

 

It was a difficult process but ultimately many different organisations joined Maiz, including feminist intellectuals for whom “modernisation” meant university lecturer Walda Barrios as vice-president, less for her leftwing fervour than because she was a woman. But experience has shown that when leftwing demands put class struggle in second place they no longer constitute a threat to the ruling party. This can be a godsend for them by creating the illusion that all the parties have the same concerns.

 

`Change the world without taking power’

 

A number of social movements also joined Maiz, which was launched when they were undergoing a profound transformation. Roberto Madriz is the spokesman for the Struggle for the Defence of Public Services and National Resources (FNL), set up in April 2005 from an alliance of a dozen regional and national organisations to resist the “neoliberal bulldozer” by uniting their strengths and overcoming sectional struggles. According to Madriz, “social movements studiously avoided politics for years in the belief that elections do nothing to change the real power structure”. This is a similar line to that held by the Zapatistas in the Chiapas region of neighbouring Mexico: “Change the world without taking power.”

 

He continued: “The present context in Latin America is favourable after the election victories of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. We realised that it was a mistake to leave the field open to the right.” So in early 2007 the FNL, with its membership of tens of thousands, decided to join the electoral process via Maiz. For the first time there was a structured political and strategic link between the URNG and an organised social movement. And these movements were not alone in saying that the time had come to take power.

 

In Santa Fé de Ocaña, representatives from 12 communities in the western region of San Juan Sacatepéquez, on the hills above the capital Ciudad Guatemala, met in a school playground next to a rough football pitch. The slogans on the walls (“No to the mines” and “Cement works are filth”) were left over from a recent popular referendum victory. The agenda was how to win the municipal elections. “They lied to us,” someone explained. “Some people came to make a topographical study without any authorisation, but in fact it was a mining project for a cement factory.”

 

That is increasingly common in Guatemala, and comes at a heavy price. “It takes seven centuries for the earth to become fertile again.” The earth is Madre tierra, keystone of the Mayan cosmos, and the Maya, whose patience sometimes seems to border on apathy, are prepared to fight to defend it. “We organised a referendum and we won. But what will happen if a new mayor is elected and tries to force the project through?” Hence the idea that germinated – in just three months – in regions where the consultas were held. “We have to have power if we want to stop this threat altogether.” And the starting point was the town halls.

 

Fortunato Solis is a former head of the assembly of 48 indigenous cantons of Totonicapán, which succeeded in paralysing the country by blocking the vital Quatro Caminos highway for several days in protest against a mine. He stood as an independent candidate for the municipal elections. “I want to give formal political powers to all the indigenous community structures; it’s the only way to set up a strong and legitimate local power base.” The indigenous structures may be informal but they are very powerful and Solis is categorical: “The Mayan cosmic vision is very far removed from capitalistic exploitation of nature. We can only be leftwing.”

 

So even if URNG-Maiz is not actually present in Totonicapán, as often as not local communities present candidates in its name. “Once you know what the people of Totonicapán are capable of, you understand that something truly historic is happening,” said Madriz. Sandoval likes to describe the left in Guatemala as a sleeping giant on the point of awakening. As long as the giant doesn’t fall asleep again. But if it that giant does awaken, a question (still taboo) will arise. Can the oligarchy respond to the people’s desire for political sovereignty other than by plunging the country into violence? ________________________________________________________

 

(1) On 25 January 1982 the FAR joined up with three other armed opposition movements: the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organisation of Armed People (ORPA) and the Guatemalan Labour Party (PGT), to form Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity.

 

(2) Tribuna, a Prensa Libre weekly publication, Guatamala City, 10 June 2007.

 

(3) On the same day Guatemalans elected their president and vice-president and also 158 representatives to Congress and the mayors of 332 communes.

 

(4) In 1999, as elected leader of the Guatemalan Republican Front (the party of the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt), Portillo had the bad idea of promoting emerging sectors of the economy, connected to the military.

 

(5) He was finally removed from the electoral race following a late registration and a probably agreement with the PP.

 

(6) According to official figures (greatly underestimated), 60m quetzales for PP and 47m for UNE (10 quetzales = $1.3).

 

(7) A measure of inequality: a Gini index of zero represents perfect equality (everyone has the same income) while 100 represents perfect inequality (one person holds all the national revenue

 

 

 

Translated by Krystyna Horko

 

 

 

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