Amidst violence, Guatemala heads for Sept. elections

On September 11, there are elections in Guatemala to choose a successor to President Alvaro Colom (who, according to the constitution, cannot succeed himself), national legislators and local officials. Guatemala, with a population of about 13 million, is the second most violent country in the Western Hemisphere (after Colombia) and the election campaign is shaping up to be violent also. Moreover, it is not clear to what degree poor and working class Guatemalans, or the 40 percent of the Guatemalans who are indigenous Mayas, can hope for a positive outcome.

President Colom, of the social democratic UNE (National Union for Hope) party has been under siege as Mexican drug cartels, most especially the feared ZETAs, have been moving in on Guatemala. Like the other Central American countries, Guatemala is on the main route for cocaine shipments moving from Colombia to Mexico and thence to the United States. So the ZETAs appear to have decided to take over the smuggling operations on Guatemalan territory. On May 15 2011 they massacred 27 Guatemalans agricultural workers, probably as part of that takeover scheme.

Guatemalan politics are beyond bizarre. On May 10, 2009, Rodrigo Rosenberg, a conservative lawyer, arranged for his own assassination in an effort to frame President Colom and his wife for the murder. Rosenberg recorded a video in which he stated that if he were killed, the Coloms and their advisors would be the guilty parties. He then calmly hired some hit men to kill him. An international investigation revealed the plot and exonerated Colom.

But far worse than that weird conspiracy is the long-term effect of the decades of butchery which followed the 1954 overthrow of left-wing president Jacobo Arbenz by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Guatemalan reactionaries. This led to a 40-year civil war between a series of extremist right-wing governments and left-wing guerillas in which at least 200,000 civilians were massacred by the army and right-wing death squads. The worst happened during the brief dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983) in which the army’s decimation of Mayan indigenous communities reached genocidal proportions. Thousands of progressive Guatemalans, both indigenous and “Ladinos” as Spanish speaking people of mixed ethnic background are called in Guatemala, were tortured, murdered, “disappeared” or driven into exile by utterly undemocratic regimes supported by several U.S. administrations.

Negotiations in 1996 put an end to the civil war and created the outward form of elections. But the society is still suffused with violence and with impunity: Ninety percent or more of murders in Guatemala go unsolved, and right-wing death squad activity still exists. One of the latest is the assassination on July 9 of Facundo Cabral, a noted left-wing Argentine folk singer (two suspects have been arrested).

For the September 11 elections, as President Colom cannot succeed himself, his UNE party had to search for a candidate. They came up with none other than Colom’s wife, Sandra Torres, said to be popular in Guatemala because of social welfare projects she has led. The trouble is that the Guatemalan constitution bars close relatives, including spouses, of sitting presidents from running for the position. Colom and Torres tried to get around this by getting a divorce, but it would appear that the Supreme Court is not buying this, and most likely Torres will be disqualified. As the time period for filing for election is now past, it would appear that the UNE, the largest party of the center and “moderate” left, might not have a candidate.

Further to the left is the “Broad Front” (Frente Amplio) consisting of the Winaq Party, the New Republic Alliance and the National Revolutionary Union of Guatemala (URNG-MAIZ) which is the political descendent of the guerillas who laid down their arms in 1996. The Frente Amplio has chosen indigenous rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum as their presidential candidate, with labor lawyer Anibal Garcia for vice president.

Menchu has announced a progressive program designed to put a stop to corruption and impunity, to improve health and education services for the poor, to protect the environment and to protect migrant workers. But it is possible that Menchu’s candidacy will also be disallowed on technicalities by election authorities. Menchu ran in the last presidential elections, in 2007, and got a very small portion of the vote. Guatemalan mass media are already cranking up a racist red baiting campaign against her.

If neither Sandra Torres nor Rigoberta Menchu qualifies for the ballot, Guatemalan voters could be faced with an array of candidates who range from the far right to outright fascists, without even any centrist candidate to vote for.

According to most polls, General Otto Perez Molina of the Patriotic Party is leading and could get an actual majority on September 11 (if nobody does, there is a runoff on November 6). He is a right-wing military man with a history of suspected violations of human rights, who was defeated by Colom in the presidential runoff election of 2007. But there are candidates even scarier than the general.

Though the election procedures in a country like Guatemala are neither fair nor democratic, and are especially rigged against rural indigenous communities, the right is also strengthened by public fears of violent crime. Promises of a “mano dura” (“hard hand”) play well in such a context. And the killing goes on, with candidates for lower level office already beginning to kill each other.

At writing, the election authorities are finalizing the list of candidates for president and other offices.

Photo: Nobel Peace prizewinner Rigoberta Menchu Tum, center, in a protest by indigenous farmers in Guatemala City, March 31, 2009. (Moises Castillo/AP)



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.