Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 173 | Diciembre 1995



The Election Scene

The reason for the lack of credibility in the Guatemalan electoral process has to do with the political surroundings. The midwife of democracy’s return has been the counter-insurgency, and the transition has been a transfusion of blood to save the state.

Gonzalo Guerrero

The eve of the November 12 general elections was darkened by the shadow of a recent massacre, severe criticisms in the third report from the United Nations Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) and the return of the ashes of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, 41 years after he was overthrown by a coup organized and sponsored by the US government. The 1954 coup against the Arbenz government brought four decades of militarization, political violence and domestic conflict, whose most recent expressions are the Xama'n massacre and MINUGUA's severe criticisms. The government that takes office on January 14, 1996, and possibly takes the nation into the next millennium, will inherit a country whose culture of intolerance and institutionalized violence have prevented it from responding to aspirations postponed for half a century.

"Freedom is Obligatory"

At 10 am on November 11, 1990, when the fog that covered the town had dissipated, the short line of voters in the plaza at Chajul, Quiché, had already disappeared. So it went with Chajul's residents' participation in Guatemala's "historic elections," as international observers termed them. For the first time in the country's political history, a popularly elected civilian government would hand over power to another civilian government in free elections. In San Juan Cotzal, Chajul's neighbor, the sum of votes for the 12 options representing the political class did not hit even 40% of the eligible voters. And in Nebaj, the largest of the three municipalities that make up the conflictive Ixil triangle, less than a third of those registered voted.

Although the electoral disinterest in northern Quiché was greater than in other zones, this abstentionist tendency was observed across the country. The "vote of hope" that had brought the Christian Democrat government of Vinicio Cerezo to power in 1986 had turned into a vote of desperation by 1990. Abstentionism had shot up from 35% during the second round of the 1985 elections to 55% five years later. Jorge Serrano Elías, a relatively unknown candidate, came to the presidency in 1990 with a record that included close collaboration with the coup regime of General Efraín Ríos Montt, participation as Cerezo's government representative in the peace process and activism in a fundamentalist evangelical church.

The most ironic aspect of those 1990 elections was that the voters who did not abstain chose a dictator in those "historic elections." In less than three years, Serrano tried to suspend the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Prosecutors' Office. The brief history of democratic "transition" was thus cut short once again, and the process that ousted Serrano and named Ramiro de León Carpio to finish his term did not convince the population. Political legitimization through votes has been used up. In the most recent legislative elections in August 1994, barely 20% of those registered found a reason to vote.

The reason for such lack of credibility in the electoral process is found in the political scene that surrounds it. The midwife of Guatemala's return to democracy has been none other than the counterinsurgency war. And the transition has been no more than a transfusion aimed at saving the state. As unionist Rodolfo Robles said, "The freedom that exists is obligatory, not the result of political will."

More Participation

By 1995, however, there were important signs of change in northern Quiché. The electoral pattern increased 42% in the Ixil triangle and the Ixcán municipality, while it only increased 16% at a national level. The arrival of returned Guatemalan refugees from Mexico and various initiatives to register the population have something to do with this growth pattern.

The delivery of 10% of the nation's budget to the municipalities, by constitutional disposition, also increased the importance of municipal elections. Other factors of hope were the initiatives to interest citizens in the elections. These initiatives ranged from the recently created Rigoberta Menchú Foundation's work in five indigenous languages and the educational efforts of the Myrna Mack Foundation, to campaigns by the private sector and the Presidency and the holding of over two dozen forums and debates among the candidates.

Another factor that tended to increase voters was the participation, in the elections for the first time in history, of a leftist political group the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG) and the approval given the elections by the URNG.

Finally, the fact that the peace agenda came into the electoral campaigns gave more content to the speeches of many of the candidates. In sum, the need to conclude the peace accords and reconcile Guatemalans are national priorities that helped break down historically polarized postures.

Despite all of these significant changes, many national sectors are still excluded. In departments with an indigenous majority, like El Quiché, Totonicapán and Alta Verapaz, only half the adult population registered to vote, while up to 90% registered in other departments around the country. The marginalization of women was also noticeable. At the national level, only 40% of those who registered were women. In Chajul, a third of the voters were women and only 2% of that total were literate. The rest would vote by "reading" the 19 symbols that represented the different political options.

Like a Soap Opera

An old and wise Guatemalan analyst, addicted to following the news, said, "García Márquez never would write a novel about Guatemala because what happens here would not be believable as fiction."
On November 12, the electorate would have to choose among 19 presidential candidates and over 7,000 candidates for municipal government, congressional representatives and representatives to the Central American parliament. The three months of electoral noise, with extremely costly publicity campaigns and fantastic offers "no more potholes, we will replace the entire pavement" turned the elections into a spectacle that resembled a soap opera.

For example, former Defense Minister General Héctor Alejandro Gramajo appeared on the scene, insisting that Guatemala "needs him" to be "strong to confront the powerful sectors that do not allow the country to advance." At his side was Alfonso Portillo, former guerrilla collaborator and candidate for Ríos Montt's party. Also present among the candidates was the former Supreme Court president who escaped justice in a corruption case and announced his candidacy after he was given immunity. The National Alliance, made up of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and the National Central Union (UCN), chose a person indicted in the assassination of the UCN founder as its candidate for Congress.

The New Guatemala Democratic Front's candidate was Jorge González, a man who has spent less than 3 of the last 20 years in Guatemala. The majority of the founders of this initially hopeful "pluralist" leftist grouping ended up marginalized by internal struggles for hegemony.

Each Case: $7,000

MINUGUA's third report, released on October 12, analyzed events between May 21 and August 21. The UN Mission concludes that "the human rights situation in Guatemala continues to be of concern and has experienced reverses in certain aspects."
The institution most noted for "defective functioning" is the Public Ministry, which MINUGUA criticized for its "considerable ignorance of basic concepts" and "the lack of a clear institutional will to prosecute those crimes involving people belonging to or linked to the army, as well as agents of the security forces."
MINUGUA analyzed 2,156 claims of human rights violations during the three month period covered by the report and accepted 424 cases to verify. Of those, 158 were violations of the right to life, 87 had to do with violations of physical integrity and security and 60 were violations of due process.

MINUGUA, which completed its first year of existence on November 21, has a monthly budget of $2 million and employs 390 people. In addition to the 110 permanent UN professionals, 125 Guatemalans work with MINUGUA as administrative employees. In direct verification tasks are 17 military, 48 police and 90 "volunteers." According to statistics provided by the Mission, one investigator handles an average of one case per month. If half the MINUGUA budget is dedicated to its principal task verification each case investigated is costing about $7,000.

Stagnated Cases

Investigation is at a standstill in cases with particular international resonance that of guerrilla Efraín Bámaca, anthropologist Myrna Mack and politician Jorge Carpio Nicolle. In the Bámaca case, in which the prosecutor resigned after a death threat, MINUGUA reports that "in nine months three prosecutors saw the case and almost no advance was made in the investigation." The Myrna Mack case is now five years old and "remains paralyzed [due to] the absolute failure of the Public Ministry to fulfill its obligations; since December 1994 it has not assigned a prosecutor to the case, or promoted penal action...becoming a denial of the right to justice." The Carpio Nicolle case is also stagnated because evidence, including an internal report prepared by the Quiché military zone, was lost after being handed over to the army High Command. "The continual harassment of a prosecutor has not merited a firm attitude from the maximum authorities of the Public Ministry," says the report with respect to this case. President de León Carpio insists that his cousin was killed by common criminals.

MINUGUA also severely criticizes the National Police, which lacks resources, training and personnel, making it even more difficult to guarantee people's safety. The number of resolved homicide cases does not exceed 5%. But the report not only points out police inefficiency; it also accuses members of this institution of participating in "illicit associations."
"Several of these groups organized to assassinate and commit other crimes," says the report," have acted with impunity for years, both facilitating and covering up crimes, as well as participating in 'social cleansing' operations."
The report notes with concern that Public Ministry officials "indicate that 90% of judicial proceedings having to do with acts of social impact are frustrated because witnesses refuse to collaborate in clarifying the cases."
On the eve of the elections, MINUGUA described a not very encouraging situation for the free exercise of citizen rights. The ever greater gap between the formal electoral process and the real daily situation is noted in the report. If the peace talks had real influence over the electoral agenda, no serious candidate would dare directly attack the key issues concerning the country: society's demilitarization, the unjust distribution of land, impunity and the desperate social and economic situation of 80% of the population.

Jacobo Arbenz Returns

The return to Guatemala of the ashes of President Jacobo Arbenz on October 19 served more to revive a controversy that grew out of the cold war context than to bury a chapter of national history. Forty one years ago the forces of "liberation," in a humiliating and denigrating action, took off Arbenz's clothes at the Guatemala national airport before putting him on a plane to forced exile that lasted until his death in Mexico in 1971. He has now returned.

Arbenz is a continental symbol of the multiple and frustrated attempts in Latin America to promote an independent development process. His return to his country was received by sectors as diverse as university students and military school cadets.

Colonel Arbenz's remains, accompanied by his widow María Vilanova de Arbenz, arrived in Guatemala in an Air Force plane on October 19. They were received by members of the Army High Command and cadets, as well as members of the association of university students and civilian sectors that sympathize with perhaps the most important figure of what was called "the decade of spring."
It was strange to see Polytechnic cadets and University of San Carlos students vying for the honor of carrying the coffin containing the former leader's ashes. At one point in the march to the National Palace, the students detoured the coffin from its path to carry it in front of the plaque commemorating student leader Oliverio Castañeda, assassinated in 1978 during the military government.

Notable absences during the ceremonies honoring Arbenz were US diplomatic representatives, the Catholic Church hierarchy and the majority of political candidates.

Arbenz: A Banner?

To many of his sympathizers, Arbenz, the "people's soldier," represents the defeat and truncated hopes of a nation and its people, the first act of a tragedy that has not yet ended after four decades. They see him as the reason for many of the advances in social and labor legislation and the implementor of important infrastructure projects designed to replace the monopoly of services in the hands of foreign businesses. Above all, they see in him the initiator of an agrarian reform that sought to strengthen production, income and domestic demand. For these Guatemalans, his defeat marked the end of ten years of democracy that began with the fall of dictator Jorge Ubico.

For others, Arbenz's arrival still has meaning not as the symbol of modernization and development, but as the communists' Trojan Horse. To them, he was the man who, behind the mask of modernization, sought to create conditions for the implementation of socialism.

A third group believes that Arbenz could be the symbol of a needed national reconciliation and epoch of tolerance that could put an end to 40 years of confrontation. Noteworthy in this group is Arnoldo Ortiz Moscoso, a former minister government who offered his home to Arbenz's widow during her visit to Guatemala. Ortiz Moscoso, who is participating in the formation of an association to be called the Foundation for Liberty, Peace and Democracy and may also carry Jacobo Arbenz's name believes that his figure "can be used as a path to reconciliation." Ortiz believes that Guatemala needs a hero. He dismisses the two traditional symbols, Tecún Umán and Pedro Alvarado, claiming that "the first lost and the second has his hands stained with blood."
The inherent problems in the heroism of Tecún Umán or the conqueror Alvarado as national symbols, however, would also be present in an eventual "resurrection" of Arbenz. Beyond the desires for reconciliation is a deeper problem. Can Arbenz be raised as a banner of reconciliation without dealing with such important and unresolved issues as land tenure, the government's role in development and popular participation in democracy?
While Arbenz is a national hero to the progressive grassroots sectors and just mentioning his name provokes fear and hatred in the extreme right, he is problematic for the modernizing right. While they consider Arbenz the most important figure in the country's modernization and development in the last 50 years, they cannot fail to recognize that he was supported in his task fundamentally by Communist leaders who were working within the democratic space opened by the anti fascist alliance of the World War II years, and he had to pay the high price of exile for his audacity.

With Rigoberta Menchú

On October 14, Rigoberta Menchú Tum's nephew was kidnapped while just blocks from the Nobel Prize winner's home in the capital. The year and a half old boy was taken from the arms of his mother by three men riding in a white car with polarized windows. "Today she has finally fallen!" one kidnapper was heard to say. Investigators believe the kidnappers thought that the child was the indigenous leader's son. Menchú holds the army responsible for anything that may happen to the small boy.

The day before the kidnapping, in an interview with envío, Rigoberta Menchú termed the recent massacre in Chisec "a short letter to the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation" to stop its work on behalf of the returned refugees and its efforts to promote grassroots participation in the elections. Below is a summary of the interview with the Nobel Peace Prize winner:
envío: Up to now, the investigation of the massacre has not looked very much at the question of the army's motives for sending a patrol to the returned communities. Why does Rigoberta Menchú think the army was there and why do you think it ended in a massacre?
Menchú: We do not believe the massacre was unforeseen. The army sees the refugees as enemies. Seeing them as enemies makes it easy to shoot at them. In addition, they hear that there is a "free territory" in Guatemala with the returned refugees. Their intent is to break the accords that had been signed around the return. We've said that this is a legal and a political case. We're interested in having the army explain, for example, why it continues to recruit minors. The methodology, discipline and training these young people receive must be questioned. Why turn such young children into a killers? This has a lot to do with the instruction and ideology they receive. I think the massacre had a message for the elections. The majority of sectors are fighting for the vote. Not only for the popular vote but also for a conscious vote, a vote that guarantees a civilian government in the future, and Guatemala's governability.

envío: Was there also a message for the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation?
Menchú: I think so. There was a clear and precise message for the Foundation. We had been working around Xama'n for two years, negotiating the farm and credits. Another element is that, when the people returned, collective work became a model of economic development. We are even in the process of seeking trade links for coffee and rubber exports. I've made some tours in the United States searching for support for the Xama'n people. I've even met with various people who were later massacred to plan the celebration of the anniversary of their return. They made a call to some nearby communities and representatives of other returned groups to go and see how rapidly Xama'n was prospering. Many institutions had confirmed the Xama'n development as an exemplary project that could be a model for other returnees to Guatemala. I therefore have no doubt that the massacre was a little note written to the Foundation.

envío: How would you qualify the work of President Ramiro de León Carpio in human rights terms?
Menchú: I think the spaces that have been opened are real ones. Of course, neither the President nor the institutions opened them, and I think the institutions have hardly changed at all. They've actually gone in reverse, in the sense that energetic, brave and coherent actions were expected from Ramiro de León Carpio, a man experienced in human rights. But it did not happen that way and he will go down in Guatemala's history as a common man, whose humanitarian seal will not be remembered.

envío: In its political activities the URNG has called on the population to vote. What is your opinion about that attitude?
Menchú: I think it would be terrible if the army, on the pretext of responding to the URNG, also called on the people to vote. This would put the peace process in doubt. Neither armed force should call for a vote, because it is a negative precedent. I think it acted that way as part of the pressures within the framework of the armed conflict, but I don't know if this was totally assumed by the URNG. I see it as very dangerous that the armed forces turn the elections into a banner and confuse the population.

envío: Among the 19 presidential candidates, which is Guatemala's best option?
Menchú: Fortunately, the vote is secret and individual. The role of a Nobel Prize winner is educational above all. We do not support any party or candidate and we carefully watch the civic committees, because they opened spaces to indigenous participation.

envío: In your tours in the country's interior, what have you observed about the preservation of Mayan culture?
Menchú: We have seen great pride in the youth to reaffirm their identity, to live their culture and reclaim their languages. This reality is far from what we feared before the 1990s, when we thought there would be total deculturalization because of war, violence, economic need and the massive influence of modern ideas. It has not been like that. There have been many changes and there is great hope.


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