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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 258 | Enero 2003



Word Games and Election Games

In his third and final report on the state of the nation, President Alfonso Portillo employed his habitual rhetoric to twist and distort reality. So began 2003, an election year, even as the constantly increasing sense of insecurity and the serious threat posed by the “hidden powers” darken the country’s horizon.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

President Alfonso Portillo completed his third year in office on January 14. That day, he appeared before Congress to sum up his third and final report on the state of the nation and his government’s achievements. Once again, Portillo demonstrated his mastery of words and his capacity to embellish reality. The only problem is that God alone creates reality with words; politicians must be measured by their capacity to change reality in accord with their language, to do what they have promised. And the reality in Guatemala at the start of 2003 is far from that portrayed by the President’s brilliant rhetoric. God’s words make Him the poet of the world. President Portillo’s words reveal time and again that he is a charlatan in the third-rate carnival this country has degenerated into during his presidency, though the framework established by the peace accords should have made it fly “higher than the condor and the eagle,” as the national anthem says of the quetzal.

Limited by the
constraints of the state?

In the opening of his speech, Portillo magically converted the distance between words and reality into a “sharp conflict between the program contained in my inaugural address and the limitations and inadequacies of the state and our political culture, which is still deeply marked by the logic of war.” Any politician—especially one like Portillo who was a congressional representative before becoming President—is more than familiar with the state’s limitations and inadequacies. This makes it dishonest to use them as a justification for the gap between the promised program and the real achievements. To the contrary, they should have been taken into account from the very start in preparing the program, so that the government could develop a coherent strategy for designing the means and selecting the people who will implement it, and ensure that its objectives were realistic and its goals reasonable. But this was not done. No wonder, then, that the Vox Latina survey conducted between December 27 and January 5 revealed that over 68% of those polled could not name a single official in Portillo’s government as “the best,” over 21% chose “none” outright, while the minister of education was named by 3%, health by 1.5% and finance by 1% of those polled. Incompetence is the mother of all corruption, and the ruling Guatemalan Republic Front (FRG) and quite a few people within the President’s groups of personal friends—the pool from which he selected most of the country’s top officials—are stunningly incompetent.

Stuck in the logic of war?

Guatemala’s political culture—still marked by “the logic of war,” according to the President—should have been precisely the most important reason to speed up the pace of implementing the peace accords. The lack of progress on the accords, however, has left much of civil society, the international community and especially the Consultative Group deeply disappointed and even extremely annoyed.

It was possible to put together the delicate puzzle of the peace accords, which represented Guatemala’s first real, viable, ambitious, inclusive project of a nation, precisely because the logic of war was overcome through arduous talks and negotiations to make way for the logic of peace. In both his speech to Congress and the 300-page report accompanying it, Portillo boasts of having elevated the peace accords to the level of state commitments. This only proves, however, that words alone do not make reality. He bears a heavy responsibility for having frustrated the hopes that revolved around the peace accords. One indicator of the scant importance his government has given this important issue is that in the course of three years, it replaced the Secretary of Peace three times. It is no wonder that 55.5% of those polled in the Vox Latina survey named President Portillo as the worst among the five civilian Presidents elected during this period of transition from military dictatorships to democracy since 1985. In fact, for the second consecutive year he even came out behind Jorge Serrano, who was thoroughly discredited by his failed Fujimori-style attempt to strike a coup against his own government.

Peace is not among this government’s main concerns

The fourth and final chapter of the President’s 300-page report lays out future challenges for the government and the country. Stepping up the pace of the peace accord implementation would be one way to comprehensively address this set of challenges, but the report suggests no such framework. Implementation of the accords does not even appear among the political challenges defined in the report. The explanation for this serious structural fault lies perhaps in Portillo’s effort to shift the blame for part of his government’s failings onto the shoulders of society. The President recognizes that the government should be “the most active agent in the process” of fulfilling the peace accords, but argues that “this does not relieve society of the commitment to work constructively towards overcoming almost four decades of armed conflict.”
Portillo appears to be suggesting here that all sectors of Guatemalan society have been passive and failed to push for the peace accords. At the same time, however, he recognizes that in the February 2002 Consultative Group meeting in Washington, representatives of major civil society organizations spoke out in no uncertain terms against the delays and setbacks in the peace process, and made proposals to get it going again. The President chalked this point up to his own credit, for having encouraged a dialogue “to deal with national problems.” To some extent he is right; the government was not obliged to agree to the groups’ participation at that event. But Portillo doesn’t mention that his government was put up against the wall by groups’ powerful testimonies. And he doesn’t remind people that he had pledged to move ahead on many issues where there has in fact been no real progress. His rhetorical skills are at work in these omissions, trying to twist and distort reality.

A rosary of pretexts

Portillo urges the country to overcome “the logic of war.” There is no doubt that the road to peace and reconciliation is long and never-ending, but this is precisely why it is so important to enthusiastically and competently launch the program contained in the peace accords to establish its foundations. The President claims that “the delays in fulfilling the peace accords reflect the lack of social consensus, culture and civil and political institutionality. They also reflect the lack of social and political actors who can continue to make the peace agenda as a whole relevant, and the limited awareness and collective commitment, especially on the part of the real powers in the country, to ensure their implementation.”
Should we talk about lack of social consensus or about an aspiration shared by most Guatemalans? In a poll by Borge and Associates in May 1999, a few days after the referendum on the constitutional reforms to implement the peace accords was voted down, some 84% of those surveyed responded yes to the question of whether the next government—which turned out to be Portillo’s—should continue the peace process. Only 6.4% answered no. Even conceding that the “peace process” may not exactly equal the “peace accords” in everyone’s mind, mainly because of the Arzú government’s failure to adequately educate people about the accords, it seems that there is a rather solid social consensus precisely where the President sees a deficient.

An abundance of civil-political culture

Guatemalan society is not lacking in civil and political culture. Perhaps not all of society is imbued with it, but there have been good examples here of such a culture in the social democratic movements led by Manuel Colom Argueta and Alberto Fuentes Mohr, whose lives were cut short by assassins; in initiatives like the National Consensus Forum and the Guatemala Forum; in the academic and civic action of innumerable university faculties and students led by rectors like Martínez Durán, Cuevas del Cid, Valdeavellano Pinot and Osorio Paz; in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Guerra Roldán and Medrano Valenzuela, which gave us enviably clean elections; in the Constitutional Court led by Epaminondas Quintana, which protected the transition to democracy by declaring Serrano’s attempted coup illegitimate; in the pastoral work of the Catholic bishops, especially since the 1976 earthquake; in the tireless work of Rigoberta Menchú and other Mayan groups and individuals all around the country; in the unshakable determination of Helen Mack and many other human rights groups; in the work of Arnoldo Moscoso’s Commission to Strengthen Justice; and especially in the anonymous acts of all the people who continue to turn out to vote despite the ongoing frustration of their expectations, and who continue to press for greater participation in public life.

The President’s allies

The President also attributes the lack of progress on the peace accords to “the lack of social and political actors who can continue to make the peace agenda as a whole relevant.” At another point in his speech, however, he says, “Guatemala is not the same as it was just two decades ago” because “civil society now guarantees structural change.” In short, even within this speech the words are inconsistent, which is one reason they are so easily carried away by the wind.

Apart from this, if you want to find actors, it helps to look for them. Even cynics can find competent peace enthusiasts if they try. If the peace agenda were truly a part of his government’s program, Portillo would have stepped outside the tranquility of the presidential residence and the expensive restaurants he frequents to dive into the midst of the Guatemalan people, without making a fuss or creating photo ops, without repeating campaign promises or making studied use of social psychology, without assaulting the press and the business sector, without a quick tongue but with an attentive ear, to formulate a strategy to consolidate the peace process. This would have meant working without ties to the ‘patria del criollo,’ in Severo Martínez’s famous phrase about the descendents of the Spanish who have traditionally ruled the country. Portillo proudly boasts of having broken that tradition, but his political vocation is nothing like Lula’s in Brazil. Instead, he has cast his lot with the “nation of the army,” the “nation of drug traffickers, thieving bankers and organized crime.” There is populism and then there is populism.

Free from the real powers?

The President speaks of “limited awareness and collective commitment, especially on the part of the country’s real powers,” to ensure implementation of the peace accords. When a political leader discovers limited public awareness of a priority problem, the strategy for addressing the problem should focus in part on creating and building this awareness. The budget spent publicizing the government’s projects would perhaps have been better spent on a campaign to raise awareness among the population about the importance of the peace accords and the measures required to fulfill them. Furthermore, the state and politics have either been liberated from the real powers that had “captured” them—which is what the President claims as his government’s greatest achievement—or they haven’t. If they have, the state should be able to make an even firmer commitment to fulfilling the accords, whether or not any such commitment exists on the part of the “real powers” because, in the President’s formulation, “the state is no longer held captive by the country’s real powers.” In other words, according to Portillo, the “powers that be” no longer are.

The President wants to have it both ways. He is trying to blame the real powers, which he sees as the country’s traditional wealthy aristocracy, for their lack of commitment to the peace accords, yet claim as the great achievement of his presidency that the state is now free from these powers and thus capable of making better and greater commitments. In reality, the main factor explaining the lack of progress on the peace accords is that although Portillo’s government has made a break with the “real powers,” it has put itself instead in the hands of the country’s “hidden powers.”

The government’s achievements

There is no reason to deny or cover up the achievements made in fulfilling the peace accords during Portillo’s term. The tax burden—the total taxes collected as a percentage of the GDP—has come closer to the figure agreed upon in the peace accords, which is an important albeit not popular achievement. The tax burden at the end of 2002 came to 10.6% of the GDP, up from 9.4% in 1999, the last year of the National Advancement Party (PAN) government, but still short of the 12% goal established in the peace accords. Unfortunately, it has been carried out with lies (in the case of the sales tax increase) and constant changes that don’t help establish clear rules of the game for investment. Another of the government’s important achievements was congressional approval of a law governing the Bank of Guatemala, another governing banks and financial groups, and two other important financial and monetary laws.

Portillo also emphasized macroeconomic stability as an important achievement, one that allowed the government to keep “the impact of the international economic climate from devastating the country.” The fiscal deficit came to 1.2% of the GDP, the exchange rate has ranged from 7.5 to 8 quetzals to the dollar, and the interest rate on credit continues to decline, from nearly 21% in 1999 to 16% in 2002. Portillo also added the inflation rate to these indicators, though he did not mention that the goal of keeping it between 4% and 6% was not achieved, as the rate ended up at 6.33%. He recognized that macroeconomic stability is not enough to encourage the country’s economic growth, which was less than 2% in 2002. This translates into negative economic growth when compared to the population growth rate of 2.6%.

Another of the government’s achievements was approval of the law on Urban and Rural Development Councils, the Decentralization Law and reforms to the municipal code, all part of an effort to put into effect the agreement to increase citizen participation contained in the accord on strengthening civilian power.

The shadow of insecurity

On the other side of the ledger, threats and attacks against human rights organizations and advocates are again increasing. Judges, especially those working on cases against impunity or against “damaging state contracts,” are experiencing the same thing, together with witnesses in such cases. In December 2002 the witness who testified that he saw Sargeant Obdulio Villanueva, one of the people convicted for Bishop Juan Gerardi’s assassination, leaving prison the day of the murder was himself killed.

At the end of December, retired General Julio Balconi’s car was ambushed by two other cars; one of his daughters was killed and he was seriously wounded. Balconi had signed the peace accords and dismantled the military court. During his term as defense minister, an operation was launched against the “Moreno” band involved in customs corruption. That was also the time of the disastrous investment of Army Bank funds in the Russian stock market, which endangered the pension funds of retired military officers. These are all strong motives for a settling of accounts.

On January 9, former Congress president José Fernando Lobo Dubón (Christian Democrat) was shot down, probably by organized crime. Three days later, Judge Héctor Rodríguez was assassinated; he was handling some of the cases involving “damaging state contracts” and had already received several death threats.

The hidden powers continue to operate, and what little investigation is underway is slow and inadequate. Investigations are moving very slowly on a case of five retired military officers suspected of drug trafficking, which made the news partly because the US government cancelled some of their visas. The Human Rights Ombudsperson has asked for the formation of a commission with United Nations participation to investigate the hidden powers. Corruption and lack of transparency are frequently mentioned by all of the government’s interlocutors, especially the US and European Union governments, and are the subject of investigative reporting by the country’s media.

A hyperinflated army

The role of the army—an army destabilized by the constant shuffling of its top officials and tele-directed by several groups of retired military officers who form part of the infamous hidden powers—has not been limited. Quite the contrary, it is increasing. One notable example is that the army has been charged with distributing government-subsidized fertilizer while another example is the three-year stellar ascension of Ríos Montt’s son from colonel to the highest-ranking division general.

The notorious Presidential General Staff will be maintained throughout virtually all of Portillo’s presidency. The promise is that it will be replaced in November 2003 by the SAAS, a civilian organization still in formation that will be responsible for ensuring the security of the President, Vice-President and their families. But Portillo has already broken so many promises that it remains to be seen whether he will keep this one. Budget transfers to the army and the Presidential General Staff increased in 2002. The latter’s initial budget was approximately US$7.4 million but ended up $16.4 million, for a 122.7% increase as a result of transfers, often taken from the public works budget. The army’s initial budget was $125 million and ended up at $155 million, for a 23.9% increase.

No land study or indigenous rights

So little progress has been made on the national cadastral study, a more effective measure for dealing with the agrarian crisis than an old-style land reform, that the President’s lengthy report could only mention workshops to raise awareness and provide information on the proposed real estate registry legislation.

Nothing has been done to imbue an appreciation of the country’s multi-cultural nature into the national consciousness, and relatively little to incorporate multi-lingualism into education programs and the administration of justice.

Portillo deals somewhat courageously in his speech with the basic problem of the gap between the reestablishment of democracy and the lack of sustained economic growth. “The Guatemalan period of democracy has not coincided with a period of sustained economic growth and shared prosperity,” he began, then listed the “lost decade” of the 1980s and the weak growth of the 1990s and first few years of this century. He reminded us that the problem of insufficient growth does not affect Guatemala alone, but is a problem all over Latin America. For this reason, he maintains that “one of the main challenges” facing Guatemala will be “how to link the strengthening of democracy with vigorous economic growth, and how to translate this growth into poverty reduction and better opportunities for all.” In his report, he proposes the challenge of “achieving 6% annual growth rates, which will require investment rates significantly greater than the historical ones.” Although Portillo doesn’t mention it, this challenge was included in the peace accords.

Mistrust is pervasive

The main problem here is that the vast majority of the population does not share the President’s understanding of what it means to strengthen democracy, according to the most recent surveys. Trust in elected representatives is basic to strengthening democracy, and Portillo was elected in 1999 with nearly 70% of the votes. But the polling company Vox Latina, which predicted his victory, certified his precipitous fall in the first year of his government. By May 2000, only a few months into his first year in office, 57% of those polled said they would not vote for him again, a figure that increased to 80% by October, 88% by July 2001 and 93% by January 2002.

Now, when General Efraín Ríos Montt stubbornly appears to be the FRG’s candidate for the presidential elections, only 2.6% of those surveyed say they would vote for him if the elections were held today. When asked their party preference, only 3.6% said they would vote for the FRG, while 87% said they doubt the FRG will win the elections again. In addition, a full 90% said they do not trust Portillo, Vice President Paco Reyes or Congress president Ríos Montt.

In his speech to Congress, Portillo said his government has dealt with the agrarian problem, aggravated by the coffee crisis, by creating an Agrarian Affairs Department to propose a rural development policy, arguing that the mechanisms established to this end in the peace accords would have been ineffective. He spoke of his achievements in food security and the sale of subsidized fertilizers. He later added to his government’s list of social achievements over his three years in office a 47.6% minimum wage raise for rural workers and a 43.6% raise for urban workers, the education reform, the reform to the Penal Code establishing discrimination as a crime, and several other points. But he failed to mention that the vast majority of Mayan organizations are deeply dissatisfied with the tenor of the anti-discrimination law.
What does the population say? Some 74% of those recently polled affirmed that health services have not improved under his government, 69% that education has not improved, 64% that aid to the poor has decreased, and 57% that road construction work has decreased. The credibility gap is so large that the question arises of whether the surveys are being manipulated or, if they are really as good at reading public opinion as is suggested by their consistency over time, do they anticipate a major defeat of the FRG or perhaps an abstention rate so large it would alter the very terms of the question?

FRG supports Ríos Montt’s candidacy

To win the elections, the FRG is trusting in its domination of the country’s institutions, especially the new Supreme Electoral Tribunal and Constitutional Court, which were shaped in the party’s image in 2002. The FRG is gambling that a decision by either of these bodies to let Ríos Montt run for president would have a strong impact on the electorate. (Ríos Montt has been barred from running on constitutional grounds because of his role in a coup d’état in the early 1980s.) Legalization of his candidacy, they believe, could significantly increase both his own personal legitimacy and the general perception of the scale of his power, and the end result would be an upset at the polls in his favor. The President and FRG are also counting on what they believe will be the sure votes of people who have benefited from the fertilizer subsidy, the jobs created in highway and road repair, the jobs to be created among peasant farmers left unemployed by the coffee crisis, and the distribution of milk among the poor. Little do they care that these are merely immediate aid measures and do nothing to strategically address the structural problems Portillo has recognized by noting Guatemala’s “first place in terms of injustice and inequality in the distribution of income in Latin America” and “the inequality of opportunities to acquire knowledge.”
In his third and final report on the state of the nation, President Alfonso Portillo employed his habitual rhetoric to twist and distort reality. So began 2003, an election year, even as the constantly increasing sense of insecurity and the serious threat posed by the “hidden powers” darken the country’s horizon.

The FRG supports the former PAC

The FRG is also banking on the plan to compensate former Civil Self-Defense Patrol (PAC) members, who it has been mobilizing since the middle of last year. In her study of the Guatemalan Army in the early 1980s, Harvard University’s Jennifer Schirmer reported that “between 1983 and 1984, 1.3 million indigenous men between 15 and 60 years of age—approximately 16.9% of the total population—were Civil Patrol members.” She noted that later, “the number of patrol members decreased to some 600,000 in 1986 and 202,517 in the early 1990s.”
In the 1999 elections, 2,350,000 votes were cast in the first round. If the FRG can win the vote of some 600-700,000 former patrol members by compensating them for their hours of unpaid work during the armed conflict, it would have a very large campaign base. In addition, since Schirmer reports that some 60,000 of these patrol members were trained to handle arms, they could potentially exercise a terrible form of pressure over many other people. This violent potential could, however, become a Pandora’s box for the FRG.

Furthermore, the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans has promised to mobilize its members in favor of Ríos Montt’s candidacy, which could give him another 200,000 votes. In this context, the legislative decree at the end of 2002 authorizing the state to put bonds on the market valued at $700,000 is full of electoral portent. These bonds have been called “peace bonds” and although Congress was given no details on what the income would be used for, several officials have said that it will be used in part to compensate former civil patrol members. These officials have belied even the president of the Bank of Guatemala, who expressed his hope that a good share of the money obtained through the sale of the bonds would be used to “arm the economy” and not for state expenses in an election year.

Portillo opens Ríos Montt’s campaign

Whatever the purpose of the bonds, there is no doubt that Portillo’s government will do whatever it can to ensure that the FRG wins the 2003 elections. Portillo, who has been charged with profiting from drug trafficking, has reason to fear being left out in the cold in a year’s time, suffering the same fate as Nicaragua’s former President Arnoldo Alemán. At the end of his speech to Congress the President said, “I commit myself before you, honorable Congress, and before the people of Guatemala, to remain impartial during the election campaign.”
Half an hour later, his words were blowing in the wind. Portillo went straight from Congress to the Plaza de la Constitución where he participated in a huge event—estimates range from 12,000 to 20,000 people—that effectively marked the start of the election campaign for the FRG and its likely candidate, General Ríos Montt. The general himself opened the event, with a kiss on Portillo’s cheek. He said that “as general secretary [of the FRG] I would like to clarify that this event is not being held to promote the government or any particular candidates; it is to recognize the work done by the central and municipal governments.” The press reported that at that point, the song “My dad will vote for Ríos Montt, my mom will vote for Ríos Montt” could be heard in the background, and participants at the event wore hats and carried banners and signs sporting the name of the FRG and its leader.

The President’s promises of impartiality in the election campaign thus took a hard blow immediately after his speech. Speaking of Ríos Montt, Portillo said, “Without his courage, firmness, solidarity and conviction, we would have been unable to make the transcendental changes we have made in the country. No one has overshadowed his leadership.” And he added, trying to cover his back, “I know you’ve made sacrifices. People are going to charge that we’ve used state resources. They’re always inventing things.” In fact, several complaints have been lodged with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal against the FRG for having used state resources in a party meeting and engaging in campaign activity before the tribunal officially launches the campaign in May.

The FRG is unlikely to be moved by these complaints, however. Those who travel in the western part of the country are already accustomed to seeing the letters “FRG” painted on buildings, trees and rocks along the highways. The FRG is acting like the early bird determined to get the worm, even if in this case it must break the law to do so. In its defense, the FRG claims that the PAN was the first to cross the line by using its primary election in November to launch its campaign.

The devil of corruption

In his speech to Congress, the President spoke about the corruption issue like a cat carefully making its way across hot coals. He said that in 2002, “the issue of corruption became widely visible.”
The whole of the previous year had been marked by one scandal after another. Over $125 million was lost by the Bank of Guatemala in its intervention in the Twin Banks, owned by Portillo’s friend Francisco Alvarado. Then there was the scandal at the National Mortgage Loan Fund, whose former president José Armando Llort Quiteño is now hiding out in El Salvador after having overdrawn over $6 million on his own behalf; the scandal in the Ministry of Government during the Byron Barrientos administration, where nearly $12 million disappeared. Barrientos remains in Congress, where he returned as a representative and now files one appeal after another in an attempt to stave off prosecution.

Portillo said that “no other government has been as frequently called on this issue” of corruption as his. And he added that “no other government has been so open to trying to overcome an evil with deep historical, structural and even cultural roots, which touches the whole of society and for this reason can only be overcome through concerted efforts by society and the state.”
In a word game similar to the one he used when defending himself from charges of not making progress on the peace accords, the President is trying to get Guatemalan society to accept some of the responsibility for corruption by suggesting that all of society is corrupt. This is a true insult to the many people and groups in Guatemala that work honestly, and the many who have investigated the corruption in his government and the state during his term.

It is not that corruption suddenly “became visible,” as if it were a kind of apparition, but rather that the investigations, reports and denunciations made by many people and institutions, including the media, have made it visible. When a government names so many causes—historical, structural and even cultural—to explain a damaging and frustrating phenomenon that diverts a poor country’s scarce resources from production, social services and necessary administration to the rapid, illicit enrichment of purported public servants, we might at least expect the government to design a short-term strategy to identify and pull out the structural roots, since the historical ones can only serve to provide lessons, while the cultural ones require a long-term strategy.

If everyone is corrupt, no one is

The President offered little along such lines, however. When he mentioned the establishment of the National Commission for Transparency and Against Corruption, he noted that it was established “with international accompaniment” and that its Coordinating Council members were sworn in last December. This is true, but not the whole truth. The President does not mention anywhere that his government was shaken to the core last October by public statements made by Otto Reich, then the US State Department official responsible for Latin American affairs; public statements by Dan Fisk, another State Department official, during his visit to Guatemala; and a letter from Guatemala’s ambassador to Brussels leaked to the press in which he warned the government that the European Union was threatening to halt its economic aid to support implementation of the peace accords unless the corruption in the Guatemalan government were effectively addressed.

The two US officials also spoke about the corruption, especially related to drug trafficking, implicating people with connections at top government levels El Periódico published an investigation indicating that the “top government levels” means the President himself. Even more troubling, however, is the President’s description in his speech of the new commission’s main function, “to promote a national effort to fight corruption and encourage transparency in all social sectors.”
This word game is aimed at blurring the focus: instead of the government being the target of efforts to encourage transparency and fight corruption, it should be “all social sectors.” The pretended depth of the focus undermines its efficacy. When we are all guilty, in the end no one is guilty and everything remains the same.

The fight against government corruption, which 29.6% of those recently surveyed consider “the worst evil” in this government, becomes diluted in the enormity of the task of investigating and fighting corruption “in all social sectors.” Portillo argues in the 300-page report that the government “recognizes the problem [of corruption] and this has been used against it as a political weapon by powerful opposition groups.” This appears to be a sore point for the President.

Security and its disguises

Something similar happens on the security issue, one of the main campaign promises by Portillo and other FRG candidates, Ríos Montt foremost among them. In his comments on this issue, the President was perhaps inspired by the great progress the UN Development Program has made in changing the focus from development measured only by economic growth to “human development.” In a similar vein, Portillo recognizes that security is “one of the main concerns of Guatemalan society” and talks of placing “a renewed focus” on security in accord with “the concept of human security.”
As the President said in his speech, “Human security includes public safety, but is not limited to that. There can be no public safety without job security, commercial security, social security, food security, financial or economic security.” The President also explained that “the lack of security does not stem from a single cause, and thus there is no single solution: it is the reflection of impunity, corruption, social inequality and extreme poverty, all generalized in our society.”
No one can deny the truth of this focus and the way these factors are linked around the issue of public safety. The point, however, is that this does not exempt the government from strategically prioritizing its efforts in order to act effectively. There is an extremely troubling connection between corruption—especially among those responsible for public security—and security. The Anti-Drug Operations Department (DOAN), for example, has been riddled with corruption for a long time. Last February, one of its units went so far as to surround a town in an area where drugs are frequently transported, keeping it under siege for several days, in which several deaths resulted. Some 1,500 kilos of cocaine had been stolen from the storerooms where they were being held for incineration. But the DOAN was not dismantled until after Otto Reich spoke out publicly on the issue, some eight months later.

Portillo also argues that security cannot be achieved through “more police and more jails.” This is obvious, but better police, however, and more humane, safe jails, with an emphasis on rehabilitation, would help. The President’s report mentions the presentation to Congress of a bill on the country’s penitentiary system, drafted with civil society consensus, as one of his government’s achievements. This is also true, although the bill has not yet been approved. Furthermore, with respect to the police, women’s associations involved in the fight against kidnapping and disappearances have charged that the process of building a more professional police force has suffered a serious setback under this government.

Pavoncito is not Guatemala

Meanwhile, on December 23 of last year, a violent riot broke out in the Pavoncito prison, where people are held while awaiting trial. (The name is a diminutive form of Pavón, one of the prisons where people already sentenced serve their terms.) The riot and the way it was handled raised further concerns about a system still shaking from a mass escape in June 2001, when over 70 extremely dangerous prisoners broke out of a “maximum security” prison; some 20 of them are still at large.
During the riot, 14 prisoners were killed, the building was badly damaged and prison files were destroyed. It took the prison guards and police several days to reestablish order before the new warden could enter, accompanied by unarmed guards, to redo the prisoners’ files. And it took the Public Ministry several weeks to begin the investigation. No one has yet been charged with the killings.

There is a temptation to title an analysis of the country’s current situation, “Pavoncito is Guatemala.” But to do so would be a serious mistake. It would be to forget, for example, the enormous joy and deeply peaceful feelings among the 700,000 people who turned out for the canonization of Brother Pedro. Still, these “Pavoncitos” are also characteristic of the country today and can be explained by the systemic corruption undermining the Guatemalan state during this government.

The country’s pro-justice organizations have charged that reform of the penitentiary system is not being taken seriously because the prisons are being used by the hidden powers in the big business of corruption, drug trafficking and all the other forms of illicit trafficking in this country. The President’s report notes that several classes of prison guards have graduated. It cannot speak, however, of the selection of wardens above suspicion, or the necessary revision of salaries and benefits to give prison workers at least some incentive to resist bribery. Nor can the President mention any action taken to address these problems, like the previous government’s efforts to dismantle the “Moreno network.”

The FTAA and the
fight against poverty

The President also addresses the issue of the fight against poverty, exclusion and discrimination when mentioning the unresolved agrarian problem as one of the causes of poverty. He addresses it when he talks about “dealing with one of the worst manifestations of poverty, which is food insecurity” and achieving “food sovereignty.” He addresses it when he talks about the coffee crisis and proposes to create, through the new Department of Agrarian Affairs, “a rural development policy that transcends traditional land reform proposals to include education, training, technical support, credit, marketing support and productive freedom for the rural population.” He addresses it when he expresses his confidence in the Rural Development Roundtable, one of the forums the UNDP organized in Guatemala. He also addresses it when he talks about the “inequality of opportunities to acquire knowledge” and the need for educational reform to respond to this problem.

Under Portillo’s leadership, Guatemala is, however, at the point of beginning fast-track negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, along with the other four Central American countries. There is nothing in the President’s speech or report to indicate that his government is aware of the dangers contained in this treaty. This is another point on which there is a huge difference between Portillo and Lula, his homologue in Brazil.

With this agreement, Central America may well end up being the “guinea pig” of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), setting the limits within which Latin America will have to negotiate that larger treaty. President Fox of Mexico has recently faced big protests by peasant farmers as the time grows near for the liberalizing of all trade in agricultural products, including basic grains, according to NAFTA, signed nearly a decade ago.

The objective of food security, which President Portillo discusses in his speech and his report, is likely to go out the window if the terms of the Central American free trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA) follow the pattern set by NAFTA and become legal instruments that stand above our Constitutions, while for the United States they are simply treaties that can be revised by Congress at its pleasure. Virtually no one in the country is dealing with this issue in depth. Furthermore, the United States is using it as a means to pressure the government, insisting that it will not sign a free trade agreement with Guatemala unless Guatemala wages a serious battle against corruption and impunity.

Outside pressure shaped by
ethical and political concerns

For both ethical and political reasons, it is critical for the US to keep pressuring the Guatemalan government to seriously undertake the fight against corruption and impunity and fulfill the peace accords, especially those aimed at protecting human rights activists, establishing a more independent and competent judicial system, and putting the army in its place. It is apparent, however, that the US is mainly motivated at this point by its interest in cutting off the flow of funds to terrorism, which also come from corruption.

It is important that we take advantage of this opportunity in Guatemala, while insisting on the principle that the President raises in his speech, that the “democratic world’s defense measures should be implemented in the framework of the multilateral organizations.” And as we take advantage of it, we must keep in mind that the correlation of forces in the country—which depends on building a broad social and political alliance against corruption and impunity and in favor of a strategy to fulfill the peace accords with the support of allies in US civil society—can allow us to keep these issues alive once the passing political concerns of the United States have shifted focus.

The pressure exerted by the European Union, perhaps more deeply rooted in values and less tinged by militarism, can be linked to free trade proposals that address the serious problem of the enormous European agricultural subsidies, a policy Europe shares with the United States. What we can no longer continue to do is consider this question through the old theoretical framework of “sovereignty,” when the sovereignty of nations is increasingly integrated into multiple regional and global relations.

A return to the past’s
authoritarian nightmare?

It is important to recognize the truth that lies in President Portillo’s goal of “building a state not tied to the ‘patria del criollo,’ in other words, not tied to its recent past whose exclusionary nature led the country into a 36-year fratricidal conflict and left us with a culture of intolerance, shameful ethnic discrimination and virtually no national sense of solidarity.”
As Portillo said, we must “give society back, irreversibly, what for a long time was considered the exclusive reserve of an insensitive, authoritarian and repressive plutocracy,” that is, the state. But if these words are to become more than mere words, we must also ensure that the state does not remain tied to the nation of the army or of drug traffickers and organized crime. And we must ensure that it is not the prisoner of useless diatribe as large parts of the country’s productive capital are squandered.

These are not word games. President Portillo recently explained to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo that indiscriminate opposition by the media and big business had led him to seek the army’s support to consolidate his power. This recalls the fish that eats its own tail, a vicious circle that bodes very ill for Guatemala. It could well happen if General Ríos Montt becomes President and plunges us again into the authoritarian nightmare of a past capable of going to any extreme to achieve its ends.

If the elections were held today?

If the November 2003 elections were held today, no one would win a clear majority in the first round. According to recent polls, 45% of the voters would cast their ballots for Oscar Berger, the PAN candidate defeated in 1999. Some 9.7% would vote for Alvaro Colom, the New Nation Alliance candidate that same year who led a coalition that included the URNG and is now building a new alliance. Another 2.6% would vote for Ríos Montt, and 1.2% for Rodolfo Páiz Andrade, of the wealthy Páiz family. Some 5.1% said they would vote for other candidates, 6% for no one and, most important of all, 30.3% either don’t know or do not want to say.
The stage may end up more crowded, since there will probably be eight or ten presidential candidates in the upcoming election unless they form coalitions. There’s still a long way to go in this election year and virtually everything is up in the air. For the moment we’re content to elect a soccer player—Carlos “the Fish” Ruiz, who led the US soccer league in goals and plays for Galaxy, the league champion—as “person of the year.” In second place, according to Prensa Libre, is human rights activist Helen Mack, while El Periódico puts her at the top of the list.

What we still don’t know is whether the course and result of the 2003 elections will encourage the quetzal to fly “higher than the condor and the eagle,” or that national bird will remain hidden in its green kingdom awaiting better times.

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