Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 267 | Octubre 2003



2003 Elections: More Violence than Proposals

This year’s election campaigns are discouraging, not only because of the violence—including that inherent in Efraín Ríos Montt’s unconstitutional candidacy— but also because of the candidates’ lack of serious programs and proposals.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Guatemala’s election campaigns are among the longest in the
world. Discounting the fact that politicians are permanently campaigning in practice, the formal campaign period lasts over four months and involves exorbitant expenditures completely out of line with the country’s size and population, not to mention a dearth of ideas with respect to programs and proposals. The lack of substantive programs and debates and the focus on images makes it very difficult to participate responsibly or cast an educated vote, although religious and other civil society organizations have been speaking up, more than in the past, about the importance of responsible participation.

This year’s campaign is also turning out to be one of the most violent, with over 20 political activists murdered thus far, in total impunity. This violence has deep, troubling roots, which we must once again uncover.

An offensive candidacy

The greatest violence—to memory and dignity if not to life—in this campaign is that implied against the victims of the internal armed conflict and their survivors by retired General Efraín Ríos Montt’s presidential candidacy. Our point here is not so much to attack a candidate for his personal failings but rather to place his candidacy in the perspective of the recovery of our memory in Guatemala.

When the Historical Clarification Commission was created by the Peace Accords, it was prohibited from attributing to specific people the “human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people.” By placing the atrocities committed within clearly delimited timeframes, however, the commission found an ingenious if necessarily limited way to get around that prohibition against individualizing the people at the top who were ultimately responsible for crimes against humanity. In this way, it broke through the anonymity of those who might otherwise have remained hidden behind the events of 36 long years of armed conflict.

Paragraph 126 of the commission’s report, titled Memory of Silence, one of the strongest paragraphs in the conclusion, states, “The State of Guatemala holds undeniable responsibility for human rights violations and infringements of international humanitarian law. The Chiefs of Staff for National Defense were, within the Army, the highest authority responsible for these violations. Nevertheless, regardless of who occupied positions within this body, political responsibility rests with the successive governments. For this reason, the President of the Republic, as the commander in chief of the Army and minister of defense, should be subject to the same criteria of responsibility, given that national objectives were prepared at the highest government level in accord with the National Security Doctrine.”

In the years of Ríos Montt

Ríos Montt was Guatemala’s head of state—not through elections but rather through participation in the coup d’état of March 23, 1982 —between that date and August 8, 1983. In its investigation of four regions, the Historical Clarification Commission established that “agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations... committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people” from 1981 to 1983. It also established that “human rights violations caused by state repression were repeated, and that, although varying in intensity, they were prolonged and continuous, being especially severe from 1978 to 1984.” Among these violations and acts of violence, the Commission highlighted “the multiple scorched-earth operations” and “the destruction of collectively worked fields and harvests, which was a specific objective of the military plan, Firmness 83-1.”
“Extreme cruelty” and “impenetrable impunity”
The commission confirmed 626 massacres attributable to state forces in the four regions it studied alone, although obviously not all took place in the 17 months of Ríos Montt’s government. These massacres involved “multiple acts of savagery” before, during and after the victims’ deaths, which “were not only actions of extreme cruelty against the victims, but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions.”
On the number of people displaced by the conflict, the commission reported that estimates “vary from 500,000 to 1.5 million people in the most intense period from 1981 to 1983, including those who were displaced internally and those obliged to seek refuge abroad.”
In considering the responsibility of top officials in these horrendous crimes, the commission concluded that “the excuse that lower-ranking Army commanders were acting with a wide margin of autonomy and decentralization without orders from superiors, as a way of explaining the ‘excesses’ and ‘errors’ committed, is an unsubstantiated argument... The notorious fact that no high commander, officer or person in the mid-level command of the Army or state security forces was tried or convicted for violation of human rights during all these years reinforces the evidence that the majority of these violations were the result of an institutional policy, thereby ensuring impenetrable impunity.”

Ríos Montt: “Rivers of blood”

Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution prohibits anyone from running for President who has led a coup or served as head of state of a de facto regime. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court—packed with Ríos Montt’s supporters—issued a decision ordering the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to register his candidacy, thus violating the Constitution. Even more serious than this legal issue, however, is the fact that someone with his hands stained by so much blood is a candidate for President. The fact that Ríos Montt has staunch supporters in Guatemala is another terrible fact, which can be explained in part by the fact that more than a few of these supporters are implicated in the same crimes against humanity—by participating in Civil Self-Defense Patrols, for example—that he inspired, ordered or at least tolerated.

And as terrible as this is, it is even worse to see that most of the 12 other presidential candidates have merely criticized Ríos Montt’s candidacy as unconstitutional, while describing it as a good thing politically because it will allow them to defeat him at the ballot box and thus put an end to his myth.

Only Alvaro Colóm, the candidate for the National Union of Hope, running second in the polls so far, has spoken out consistently on this, describing a vote for Ríos Montt as “an offense against God.” Clearer still were the Achís Mayan peasant farmers of Rabinal, who threw stones at Ríos Montt on June 14 when he provoked them by butting in with a political rally while they were in the midst of re-burying hundreds of victims of the massacres.

The Mayan women of Ixcán have also spoken out on this. On September 24, during Ríos Montt’s rally in Playa Grande, they approached the stage where he was speaking with a big banner that read “Ríos de Sangre,” a play on his name that translates to “Rivers of Blood.” The banner continued, “No to Genocide in Ixcán!” The women carried a second banner with the same words followed by “The dead don’t forget,” surrounded by numerous crosses.

Roots of this violence

Obviously, the violence marking this year’s election campaign hasn’t appeared out of the blue. Its roots run deep in certain sectors of Guatemalan society, among those who have yet to settle their bloody debt either with their own consciences or with their compatriots. These roots are intertwined with the culture of fear crystallized among us as a result of the terror; with the interests of the hidden powers who live off criminal capital and/or hope to re-militarize the country; and with the public officials in certain institutions who, out of insensitivity, corruption or affinity, support the candidate the Ixcán women call “Ríos de Sangre.” The roots
of this violence also run deep in a political class that remained silent when the atrocities reported in the commission’s report were happening and now seems not to see it as a priority to ensure that they never happen again, to use the title—Guatemala, never again!—that Monsignor Gerardi chose for the other truth report, the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI) report, before he was assassinated for it.

Moralizing sermons

The general’s campaign is full of moralizing sermons today. But 21 years ago, as Jennifer Schirmer reported in her work on the Guatemalan military, he spoke Sunday after Sunday about the need to “surgically remove the evil in Guatemala” and to “drain the human sea in which the guerilla fish swim” and showed no compunction in recognizing that 150,000 people had been killed as the result of army offensives.
While that figure is an unpardonable sea of human lives wiped out, the reality of many of those deaths is not only unpardonable but incomprehensible. Clinical-sounding metaphors of surgery and draining cannot obscure what the Historical Clarification Commission described as the “extreme cruelty... used by the state to cause social disintegration.” This included, for example, “the killing of defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts.”

Criteria for voting

In their August 26 “Statement on the current election process in Guatemala,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference took this position: “To support any form of political violence or give our votes to citizens
who promote violence, encourage authoritarianism and dictatorships, or encourage repression, corruption and drug trafficking is not licit and should be avoided as immoral.”
The Archbishop of Los Altos spoke even more clearly in a July 13 “Pastoral message of justice and solidarity” from the region
of Totonicapán. “To participate in a conscientious, responsible, mature, just and suitable way,” he said, “the voter must know the [candidates running for public office]..., their democratic practice, their capacity for dialogue, and whether or not their hands are stained with the blood and the lives of their own brothers and sisters.”

A disappointing lack

With respect to the parties’ platforms, the various presidential candidates have participated, always individually, in forums like the one organized by the Managers’ Association of Guatemala. With the exception of Rodrigo Asturias, the candidate of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), they talk about their programs and other proposals only in general terms, without any prioritization. This has been deeply disappointing and discouraging. Some of them have also spoken with exuberant demagogy, like the National Advancement Party candidate who promised to resolve the problem of gangs by sending the police and army out into the streets at 2:00 in the afternoon of January 14, just hours after the new President takes office, for huge round-ups in the neighborhoods where youth gangs are known to operate.

The great paradox of this campaign is that the most serious proposal we have heard—indeed, virtually the only serious one—came not from any of the candidates but rather from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in its 2003 National Human Development Report released on September 3. Setting aside a five-year tradition of using the annual report to analyze either the national situation in general or a particular topic of importance to the country—such as rural development, exclusion, development financing or women in development—this year’s report offered not only an analysis but also a proposal.

On September 30, the daily newspaper Prensa Libre reported that a Common National Agenda, established with the collaboration of 20 political parties, would be made public on October 13. The document was based on the UNDP’s “Human Development Agenda,” and facilitated through its program to encourage multi-party dialogue and the Dutch Institute for Multi-Party Democracy. All but two of the political parties registered with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal have been participating since July 2002 in discussions to reach consensus for this agenda, which bears the signatures of each party’s general secretary and presidential candidate.

Two optimistic scenarios and a pessimistic one

This course of events is open to various interpretations, which can be viewed as possible political scenarios for Guatemala in the upcoming presidential and legislative term, from 2004-2007.

The most optimistic scenario would be a true consensus among the political class that would allow the Peace Accords and any other political program to be put into practice in the near future only through a broad-reaching national alliance established through a national unity government or, at least, a governability pact that could include constructive opposition to the elected rulers. This is the opinion of Eduardo Stein, who is running as the vice-presidential candidate for the Grand National Alliance (GANA).

The second, less optimistic, scenario is that this agreement won’t lead to a national unity government or even a governability pact but rather to a minimal legislative agenda. Such an agenda would be shaped by a needs prioritization and the conviction that the goals of putting Guatemala on the track towards establishing a rule of law; ensuring public safety; creating a more flexible economy with increased growth, more jobs and better use of social spending; and achieving greater human development cannot be achieved in only one administration but rather should form a national program to be implemented over several terms.

The third scenario, clearly pessimistic, is that the parties’ consensus on a Common National Agenda will have the same effect—which is to say, none—as the ethical agreement signed by the presidential candidates at the start of this campaign. There is a well-founded concern that short-term party interests, the personal interests of those heading the executive and legislative branches and their cabals, and above all, the traditional interests of the oligarchy and the powerful corrupt interests of criminal capital, will each contribute in its own way to undermining any consensus. On top of this, we must remember that US trade interests (which are still unsatisfied, as the recent WTO meeting in Cancún demonstrated) can crush any hope of equitable growth for the Guatemalan people if the Central American Free Trade Agreement is signed in the current draconian conditions (see more on this in the two articles on CAFTA in this issue).

What the polls say

With the elections drawing near, the polls are giving Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance coalition between 37% and 47% of the vote, according to Vox Latina and Demoscopía S.A. respectively. Alvaro Colom (UNE) is in second place (between 14% and 18%). And Efraín Ríos Montt (FRG) is now running third (11.4% and 13%). Discounting those who won’t vote, Demoscopía predicts that Berger will win on the first round, a result that seems unlikely based on the mood in the streets.

With respect to the legislative elections, we are likely to end up with a deeply divided Congress. Alliances between benches could result in a majority bloc voting in opposition to the executive, whoever wins, which would make it very hard to govern. We may even end up with a Congress in which it will be possible to obtain the two-thirds majority required to approve constitutional reforms, subject to referendum, or even to elect a Constitutive Assembly. These latter possibilities could form part of the most pessimistic scenario. On the other hand, a Congress without a single strong bench that can steamroll over the others could represent an opportunity for good government.

Ten of the twelve presidential candidates—excluding Berger and Ríos Montt—have signed a statement (which reads more like a tantrum) demanding that their names and symbols not be used in future surveys. They argue that, by using them, the media would be contributing to electoral fraud. These candidates, who do not make the results of their own surveys public, fear that showing Berger as the first-place candidate with a large lead over the rest will create an avalanche effect among public opinion that will shift even more votes to him.

This is a risk of any survey. The other side of the coin is the public’s right to reliable information on voting trends. On the eve
of the elections, however, the campaign is too murky, too uncertain for any survey, or anything else for that matter, to be reliable.

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