Guatemala’s Presidential Election

The September 9 election to replace Guatemalan President Óscar Berger featured more body bags than tangible ideas to improve the country. Now, facing a November 4 run-off election, voters are left with a choice between a military autocrat and a social democrat businessperson. 

Álvaro Colom, the moderate “center-left” candidate of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE-National Unity of Hope) party, won the first round. However, instead of raising hopes that this result might herald the first progressive president since Jacobo Árbenz, it has instead shown how difficult it is for the left to make advances in this Central American republic. 

Colom won almost a million votes (28 percent) to defeat the principal right-wing candidate, ex-General Otto Pérez Molina, who took 750,000 votes (23 percent). The obvious concern among Colom’s supporters is that those who voted for other right-wing parties in this first round will now transfer their votes to Pérez Molina in the November run-off. 

Guatemala 6 This is exactly what happened in Guatemala’s previous presidential election in 2003. Álvaro Colom also stood in that election as the “left” candidate and advanced to the run-off where he challenged the rightist, Óscar Berger. The united forces of the right then defeated Colom 54 to 46 percent to hand Berger the presidency. 

The last time Guatemala was a functioning democracy was during Árbenz’s administration, which ended prematurely as a result of the infamous CIA-orchestrated coup in June 1954. In the decades that followed, the country suffered under military dictatorships, death squads, genocide, and a 36-year civil war that left hundreds of thousands murdered, tortured, or disappeared. 

Last May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour criticized the Guatemalan government for: ongoing threats and violence directed at human rights workers; the government’s meager investment in social services (the lowest in Central America); continued discrimination and marginalization of indigenous peoples; and the continued rise of homicides—Guatemala has the highest murder rate in the western hemisphere. 

Amnesty International reports that “clandestine groups” comprised of members of “the business sector, private security companies, common criminals, gang members, and possibly ex and current members of the armed forces” are responsible for the violence and threats targeted at human rights activists. 

Outgoing President Berger, a former businessperson and wealthy landowner, has violently displaced indigenous farmers through evictions marked by house burnings and demolitions. He even unleashed the military on indigenous protesters who opposed a controversial World Bank mining project run by Canada’s Goldcorp Inc. (formerly Glamis Gold). Both actions were widely interpreted as violations of the 1996 Peace Accords. 

In the current presidential elections, it is right-wing ex-General Pérez Molina who most clearly represents a continuation of this violence and impunity, although Álvaro Colom has not proposed policies that differ markedly from President Berger’s. 

Pérez Molina has quite a resumé. He is a School of the Americas graduate and was the former chief of G-2, Guatemala’s feared military intelligence unit. The self-proclaimed “General of Peace” (he was involved in negotiating the 1996 Peace Accords) was also formerly on the CIA’s payroll. 

Molina’s campaign symbol is a fist or “strong hand.” He wants to get tough with the “thugs” and drug gangs often blamed for Guatemala’s violence and high crime rate, and he has told Reuters that he wants to use the military to police the streets. “Until we can get out of this security crisis and strengthen the police, we have to use the Army,” he said (“Candidate Wants Army on the Streets,” 07/21/07). 

According to Reuters, a UN report revealed that soldiers under Pérez Molina’s command in the 1980s were responsible for massacres in Guatemala’s western El Quiche province and it has also been alleged that he was involved in the assassination of a judge in 1994 (Allan Nairn, “CIA Death Squads,” the Nation, 4/17/95). 

The other choice is the two-time presidential candidate Colom. He has campaigned on a moderate, social democratic platform that emphasizes a continuation of the neo-liberal economic policies of the current conservative president, while claiming to be able to distribute the “benefits” of these policies more equitably. While this is sufficient to be considered “leftist” in Guatemala’s political context, it has clearly failed to attract support from the majority of the people who continue to live in desperate poverty under these policies. 

Alexander Sequén Mónchez, a Guatemalan political commentator, contrasts his country to México, where the appeal of Manuel López Obrador’s combative and uncompromising leftist program forced the right wing to steal the 2006 elections there with fraud. He also compares Guatemala to El Salvador to the south where the Marxist FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) is the second political force and dominates politics in the cities. He concludes by saying that the left in Guatemala lacks tradition and organization.  

Even the capital, La Ciudad de Guatemala, is controlled by the right, contrary to the recent trend of capital cities in Latin America being won by the left. In fact, former rightist president Álvaro Arzú, the capital’s mayor for the last four years, was easily re-elected on September 9 and in the presidential election Pérez Molina gained more votes in the city than Colom and all the other left parties put together. 

“The left has been excluded from participation in politics through repression and violence,” says writer Carolina Escobar Sarti, “but also, the left has not been as clear with radical, progressive policies as the left in México, nor has it organized in the street or in the barrios with an everyday presence as the FMLN has done in El Salvador.” 

The experience of the presidential campaign seems to bear out this assessment. More than 50 candidates and campaign workers have been assassinated, including 15 members of Colom’s UNE, as well as seven supporters of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, who was the first indigenous Mayan in Guatemala’s history to stand as a presidential candidate. Drug traffickers are believed to be responsible for the violence. There are also suspicions that they are bankrolling both national and local politicians. 

The indigenous have long been excluded—despite comprising more than 58 percent of the population— through military repression and the racist denial of their culture and languages. This has left politics in Guatemala in the hands of a tiny elite. Although this is now changing slightly, there are still few opportunities for the indigenous—or the left—to participate in the country’s formal “liberal” democracy. 

There are no elections for governors, senators, or state representatives as Guatemala has neither an upper house nor state legislatures, and governors are appointed by the president. Representatives in the national Congress rely heavily on traditional patronage or violence to secure their positions. The assassinations of leftist and indigenous activists also serve to deter opposition. 

In this election campaign, Álvaro Colom has had to travel in a helicopter to avoid being attacked and he was accompanied at all times by a doctor with extensive experience in bullet wounds, while his campaign manager, José Carlos Marroquín, was fortunate to survive a grenade attack on his car. 

Aside from this intimidation and violence, the left in this election “has not succeeded in positioning their proposals and vision at the centre of the political debate,” reiterates Sarti. “The themes have been a free trade agreement with the U.S. and security ‘hard fist’ policies that reprise the repression of the military dictatorships. There has been no debate about Guatemala’s great social concerns.” 

“The election has shown the conservative side of Guatemalan society,” concurs an editorial in the newspaper El Periódico de Guatemala. “The parties on the right have dominated while the principal parties on the left have not even presented programs with socialist policies, much less Chávista policies,” referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution.  

Rigoberta Menchú’s presidential campaign was, unfortunately, moderate and cautious, too. Her candidacy has been important in cutting through the racism and elitist, exclusionary attitudes of the traditional political class, but she failed to confront the country’s problems of poverty, exclusion, and indigenous rights. 

“Despite the support of Bolivian President Evo Morales, that country’s first indigenous leader, Rigo- berta doesn’t want to be seen as a leftist. She has chosen to be independent, repudiating the support of the left parties,” writes Guatemalan sociologist Gonzálo Sichar Moreno. “The space she has is the fruit of much struggle, but political debate continues to be restricted and elitist.” 

Menchú, like Colom, did not propose to alter the country’s economic policies and, as a result, a clear rift could be seen between Guatemala’s peasant worker organizations, which reject “free trade,” and the “Mayan intellectuals” in Menchú’s party. 

“It was decided not to support Menchú’s political movement,” said Rafael González, an indigenous leader. “As indigenous people, we do not identify with its politics.” 

Voters line up for Guatemala’s September presidential election—photo from Radio Libertad

Despite the fact that Colom, “the Godfather of the factories” as he once described himself, would likely govern on behalf of Guatemala’s oligarchic elite just as President Berger has done, there is still a possibility that if he prevails over Pérez Molina, the social movements that Guatemala desperately needs may at least find some space to organize. 

That Colom still has a mountain to climb to defeat more conservative forces is shown by the fact that the far right former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, despite an international arrest warrant issued against him for massacres committed during his repressive rule, was elected to Congress at the same time as Colom won the first presidential round. 

“Guatemala’s strong rightist tradition and history of military repression, violence, and impunity continues to be an obstacle to change,” writes Sichar Moreno. “The situation of the left is probably worse than when it was illegal under the dictators. There is a need for a mass, progressive political coalition to end the right’s domination.” 

There is still a chance that the far right can be defeated in the final round. Although Pérez Molina took the capital, Colom’s party defeated him in 17 states—Pérez Molina won in 5 states—and the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza is now the largest party in the Congress after almost doubling its share of seats to 48. 

The surest protection against the violence of neo-liberal economic policies that consign most people to poverty, and the violence of repressive security policies that institutionalize racism and impunity, will be for Guatemalans to organize social movements that could one day challenge the elite and open up the possibility of a better future—as they have done in Ecuador, Bolivia, and México.

Paul Haste is a union organizer and independent journalist reporting from Colombia. Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.Upside and a master’s candidate at William Paterson University.