After elections, Guatemala turns right

Guatemala held presidential and parliamentary elections Sept. 12 and, as expected, the far right was the biggest winner.

A Nov. 6 presidential runoff scheduled between General Otto Perez Molina, of the Patriot Party (PP) and Manuel Baldizon of the Renewed Democratic Freedom Party (LIDER). Both are right-wingers. Perez Molina received 36 percent of the vote, while Baldizon received 23 percent.

Perez Molina, who held high military rank, including head of military intelligence, during periods when the Guatemalan armed forces and right-wing militias were carrying out genocidal attacks against the half or more of the country’s approximately 13 million people who are indigenous Mayans, campaigned on the slogan of “mano dura”  (hard hand) against the country’s terrifying crime problem. Baldizon, a businessman, stressed using the death penalty for kidnapping and other crimes.

The largest center-left party, incumbent President Alvaro Colom’s UNE (National Unity of Hope), fielded no presidential candidate. They had tried to run Colom’s popular wife, Sandra Torres, as Colom himself is prohibited by the constitution from running for a second term. But the same constitution forbids the close relatives of sitting presidents from running for the presidency. To get around this, Ms. Torres formally divorced Colom earlier in the year. But the courts did not buy this maneuver, and she was excluded from the ballot.

The only other left-wing candidate for the presidency, Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum, ran under the banner of the Broad Front including the Winaq, Alliance for a New Nation and National Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala parties, the last being the party set up by the guerillas when the civil war ended in the 1990s. Menchu got only 3.3 percent of the presidential vote.

In the parliamentary vote for the unicameral legislature, the picture was slightly different. Candidates of Perez Molina’s PP got 26.2 percent of the vote, and those run by Baldizon’s LIDER party only about 9 percent. Candidates of President Colom’s UNE took 22.6 percent, while the candidates of the Broad Front got 3.2 percent.  How this will play out in terms of congressional seats remains to be seen, but it is also an advance for the right. Of the 158 seats, 29 are chosen by proportional representation, and at writing were yet to be apportioned.

How could this happen in a poor country where people like Perez Molina have wrought so much carnage over the years, with a death toll of at least 200,000 people in the wars that began with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s overthrow of leftist president Jacobo Arbenz in 1948? 

Most public opinion polls name the people’s fear for their personal safety, which, in Guatemala as well as the United States and elsewhere, makes a “tough on crime, law and order” campaign attractive to many. Guatemala’s crime rate was very high to begin with, and its rate of convictions was ridiculously low.

Now added to this mix is the infiltration of Guatemalan society at many levels by drug cartels based in Mexico, especially the ultra-violent Zetas. Guatemala happens to be on the direct line of importation of drugs from Colombia and to Mexico and then north to the United States. So the drug barons have been building their bases throughout the country, in the process buying up estates and other properties from which to base their operations, and also politicians.

Drug money has so flooded Guatemala that many commentators wonder if perhaps it did not fuel some of the candidacies in the election. Certainly a number of parties ended up spending far more money on the elections than the law allowed, and campaign financing is so lacking in transparency that one cannot exclude the possibility that some of this money came from the cartels.

The run up to the election saw significant violence, with 36 candidates for lower office murdered.

Rigoberta Menchu was quoted in the press as saying that the elections produced “many anomalies; in many places votes were bought, in many places things were given away, some people were subjected to extortion.” This, says Menchu, demonstrates that Guatemala is a failed system… We have to transform the state, we have to prosecute illicit businesses, we have to say ‘no’ to corruption. Menchu says she will not recognize any winners of the election until electoral authorities investigate reports of corrupt campaign financing and other anomalies.

At any rate, the winner of the presidency will be decided Nov. 6, but the Guatemalan workers, peasants, poor people and youth may have already lost. If history is any indication, “mano dura” policies will soon degenerate into attacks on the political opposition.




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.