Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 218 | Septiembre 1999



Seeking New Ground In the General’s Shadow

Despite the peace process, civilian authority in Guatemala remains hemmed in, with surprisingly little strategic information in its grasp. The shaggy, hidden hand of the retired army officers still rules, even if it no longer governs. And now the shadow of retired general Efraín Ríos Montt and his followers hovers over the President's office.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The consequences would be unpredictable should Alfonso Portillo, the candidate of Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), win the November 7 presidential elections. And he has a real chance of doing so, since he is one of only two strong contenders among the ten presidential candidates. The other is Oscar Berger, of current President Alvaro Arzu's National Advancement Party (PAN).

In May, the Costa Rican polling institute Borge and Associates began conducting a series of ten monthly public opinion polls on the elections, sponsored by three newspapers, Prensa Libre, El Periódico and Nuestro Diario, all of which are owned by the same publishing company. Four have already been done, and their results merit analysis.

Portraits of the candidates

Berger, nicknamed “El Conejo” (the rabbit) since childhood, is a lawyer who served as the capital's mayor for eight years. Four years ago, he received far more votes in the capital than Arzú himself. Unlike Arzú, Berger has good relations with the media and appears much more at ease in crowds. Although he began the campaign ahead of Portillo in the polls, he dropped significantly before beginning a solid recovery. He still lags behind his main opponent, but by only 2.9 percentage points. Given the margin of error in the surveys, this could mean that the two are effectively tied, though it could also mean that the gap between them is even greater.

At 53, Oscar Berger is the same age as President Arzú, Secretary of State Eduardo Stein, Secretary of the Presidency Gustavo Porras and former President Serrano. This august line-up attests to the political potential of the generation of '76, as they are called, for the year they all turned 30. Businessman Miguel Fernández also belongs to this generation; he is the main sponsor of Vision Guatemala, a series of attempts to visualize the country through the year 2020. He is also one of Berger's closest advisers, and his name was being tossed about as the PAN's vice- presidential candidate. All of these politicians studied either with the Marists in primary school at the Guatemala Lyceum (Arzú, Serrano and Stein) and/or with the Jesuits in secondary school at the Javier Lyceum (Berger, Porras, Fernández and Stein).

Alfonso Portillo is younger than Berger and harder to classify. His first steps in politics seem to have been on the left, which led him into exile in Mexico in the early 1980s. Back in Guatemala in the 1990s, he joined the Guatemalan Christian Democrats (DCG) and was elected to represent that party in Congress. There, however, he made yet another about-face to join the FRG. After the Constitutional Court ruled against the candidacies of General Ríos Montt and his wife Teresa Sosa for having participated in a coup, Portillo was named as the FRG's presidential candidate in 1995. He lost against Arzú in the second round by only 30,000 votes in the capital.

Portillo is an economist by profession, eloquent, quick and clear when it comes to making proposals. His youth and tone of voice have earned him the nickname “Pollo Ronco,” or “hoarse chicken.” He has been accused of receiving thousands of dollars for his 1995 campaign from Alfredo Moreno, currently being held without bail on the charge of running a contraband ring. Portillo has steadily risen in the polls, gaining over 12 percentage points in four months to establish his current 2.9% lead over Berger.

The lead by these two candidates leaves little room for a third force, and even suggests that a two-party structure will become more accentuated. Nonetheless, the country's other political forces haven't given up. One of the main dark horse contenders is Alvaro Colom, the nephew of Manuel Colom, who was mayor of Guatemala City until his assassination in 1979 and widely recognized as the country's most important democratic leader of the past 40 years. Alvaro is also the brother of a former URNG leader, Yolanda Colom de Payeras, but is a Social Democrat like his uncle. He was put forward by the Alliance for a New Guatemala, a leftist coalition that included the National Guatemalan Revolutionary Union (URNG), the former guerrilla movement that became a political party after the peace accords were signed, and the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), which represented the left in the 1995 elections, before the peace accords. The alliance was shaken by ongoing differences, however, and finally broke up when the FDNG pulled out. The low level of support for Colom—stuck at only 5% of the vote, according to the Borge and Associates polls—may be due in part to this instability.

Former Attorney General Acisclo Valladares, from one of Guatemala's leading families, has led the Popular Liberal Party (PLP) for some time, convinced that it has something different to offer the country and that it's worth keeping up the fight until “the time comes;” he also ran for President in 1995. As attorney general, Valladares managed to block the privatization of the state telecommunications company, TELGUA. He also represented the Guatemalan Bishops' Conference in overseeing the investigation into the murder of Monsignor Juan Gerardi last year only days after Gerardi presented the Church's important report on human rights violations during the war. Valladares' current level of support in the polls, around 2.1%, may well be near his limit.

Francisco Bianchi was the private secretary of General Ríos Montt during his 18-month government in 1982-1983, when the scorched-earth campaign in the indigenous highlands reached its peak. Like the general a member of the Church of the Word, Bianchi is one of the few candidates in this race who can be described as extreme right. At one point during Ríos Montt's government, Bianchi told The New York Times that if the indigenous people sympathized with the guerrillas they had to be killed, even if they were civilians, a statement he now denies having made. Charging that the FRG had abandoned its principles Bianchi left it to establish his own party, the Democratic Reconciliatory Action (ARDE), on the ashes of former President Jorge Serrano's Solidarity Action Movement (MAS). The party thus has a strongly evangelist following. The polls show Bianchi's voter support on the rise, which would be very useful to Portillo if the elections go to a second round.

And the abstentions?

The results of these surveys were obtained by using the simulated vote method. The pollsters went door to door and gave people ballots stamped with the names and photos of the candidates and the symbols of their parties. The people interviewed marked the ballots in secret and deposited them in ballot boxes.

As Borge and Associates acknowledge, its results cannot take the possible abstention rate into account, since the ballots are taken to voters at their homes, while on election day voters will have to leave home to find a ballot box. The percentage of blank and null votes fell from 38% to 24% over the four months of polling, raising some hopes of a high voter turn-out on election day, but it seems unlikely that the trend towards increasingly high abstention that has characterized Guatemalan elections since 1985 will be reversed.

The poll results also seem to indicate that the number of undecided voters is rapidly decreasing. Thus, with two-and- a-half months to go before the elections, only a serious shake- up in one of the two leading candidates or their parties could turn the elections to a third choice. A victory of either of these two candidates in the first round is not improbable.

Candidates blow with the wind

Perhaps one of the most important pieces of information gathered in the surveys is how people place themselves in the political spectrum from left to right. On a scale of zero to ten, with zero representing the left, ten the right and five the center, nearly one-fourth of the sample set themselves cleanly in the center (24.4%). Only 9.3% locate themselves solidly on the left, and only 8.2% on the right. Another 16.6% of those polled defined themselves as center-left and 17.4% as center-right. Nearly one-fourth (24.1%) could not or would not place themselves on the traditional scale of political positions, either replying that they did not know or choosing not to answer.

Another important survey finding is that nearly 84% of those polled believe that “the next government should continue the peace process.” This is especially significant because it was registered shortly after the proposed constitutional reforms to implement the peace accords were voted down in June.

These shifts in society, where 58.4% of those polled define themselves as either center, center-left or center-right and 84% believe it important to continue the peace process, have a great deal to do with the efforts of the two leading candidates to win the center and distance themselves from their respective party's past.

Portillo is clearly trying to formulate a centrist position. One of the main signs of this was his successful effort to win over Ramiro de León Carpio, former human rights ombudsperson and the nation's President from 1993 to 1995, to lead the list FRG candidate slate for Congress in the department of Guatemala. What this means for de León does not bear much thinking about.

The FRG's slate also includes people known as leftists their whole lives, who went into exile and have now moved towards the center. No doubt about it: the fact that this has been done without scandals or ruptures in the FRG and that General Ríos Montt has accepted it after months of give and take—he is rumored to have grumbled, “Thirty years of my life fighting against communism only to end up accepting these people”—are important triumphs by Portillo in his strategy of adapting to reality.

Criminal candidates

On the continuation of the peace process, Portillo has emphatically stated that he will comply with the recommendations of the Historical Clarification Commission. Among other initiatives, he has recommended to Pedro Arredondo, candidate for reelection as mayor of Nueva Santa Rosa, that he pay his dues to justice. Arredondo is one of the darkest figures from the years of repression under General Lucas (1978-82). One of his victims, Yolanda Aguilar, has accused him of terrible violations of her rights, as recounted in the report by the Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory (REHMI). Aguilar's testimony is one of the most shocking in the report as well as one of the most courageous, since she revealed her name. Portillo refused to appear on the same stand as Arredondo at a campaign event.

The FRG has also been forced to withdraw Lucas Tecú's bid to represent Baja Verapaz in Congress. He was one of the leaders of the massacre of 99 people, most of them from infants to young adults, in the village of Plan de Sánchez in that same department in July 1982.

In the surveys, 82% of those polled say they do not believe that military personnel and other people who committed war crimes against the civilian population should be candidates. For this reason, the presence of such people on the FRG's lists for Congress and municipal posts, beginning with General Ríos Montt himself, could well harm Portillo's candidacy. Despite a few clear stands, the candidate remains weak and vacillating on this issue. He has said, for example, that there is no conclusive proof against certain candidates, and has also begged off commenting saying that he has had a hard time finding a copy of the REHMI report.

Berger's distance from Arzú

For his part, Berger has been trying to distance himself from Arzú's government for months. He had no other reason for temporarily dropping out of the campaign in February. At the time, it was said that he was demanding clearer government actions in the investigation of Bishop Gerardi's assassination, a review of the process to privatize TELGUA, freedom to designate the members of his own campaign staff and government, including the vice president, and a strong say in the slates for Congress, municipal posts and other elected offices. It seems he won on the designation of his running mate and his Cabinet. He lost, however, on the other electoral lists, where Arzú has had the strongest voice, and he has had no success in the TELGUA affair, nor, it seems, in the Gerardi case.

Berger has already made it quite clear that he believes General Espinoza should not continue as minister of defense, after only two months in that post. Espinoza is suspected of involvement in the Gerardi case as well as in that of Mincho, a guerrilla member linked to a controversial kidnapping case, who disappeared four years ago. Berger, like Portillo, has said he will comply with the Historical Clarification Commission's recommendations.

Hidden card?

To accomplish their political maneuver of sliding to the center, both candidates are trying to form “parallel” movements within the parties that launched their candidacies, according to political analyst Edgar Gutiérrez.

In response to the rightwing positions that run deep in FRG's roots, as well as to General Ríos Montt's long shadow, Portillo has supposedly established a current that represents his own positions. Like his opponent Berger, he announced that it is necessary “to recover the state,” which means moving doctrinaire, rightwing economic neoliberalism towards the center with a good dose of state activism in the fiscal area, in social spending and especially in promoting education and health care. The words “agrarian reform” are being heard in Guatemala for the first time since 1982, when the State Department and the CIA tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the idea to Ríos Montt, as they did to D'Aubuisson in El Salvador.

Nevertheless, sketching out positions is not the same as taking them beyond electoral promises and images. Thus far at least, neither Portillo nor Berger nor any of the other candidates has a clear program, unless they're keeping it as their ace in the hole, the only card not shown to the voters in these times in which publicity images triumph over real political content. Along with the nouveau riche, a sector of old wealth—especially its shock troops in the business association CACIF—will support Portillo, making it hard for him to change this card even if he would like to.

Berger's think-team

Berger also has his parallel movement within the PAN. Apparently, apart from Secretary of State Stein, he has little interest in Arzú's Cabinet members. He chose Arabella Castro as his vice-presidential candidate, aware that she is likely to attract the votes of some women, especially in the capital and other urban areas; she can also influence many families from her current post as Minister of Education. Should he win, Berger will have his own people in the Cabinet and they will form a think-team of considerable power, able to bring together representatives of private business, academic life, the social movements and the churches.

For now, Berger is also strikingly noncommittal with the electorate about his government program, and for much the same reason. He shares Portillo's constraint of being supported by traditionally rightwing economic forces, in his case in the sugar industry and its industrial and financial tentacles, although the younger set of top executives in this sector now seems committed to a modernization process.

And Congress?

Whichever of these purported parallel movements within the two main parties wins the presidency, it will have to deal with a legislature that has many minds of its own, since probably neither of the two big parties will have an absolute majority there.

It is still too early to get a clear idea of the future Congress. In the August survey, almost 51% of those polled had not yet decided which slate they would support for Congress. Of the rest, 25.7% plan to vote for the FRG, 17.6% for the PAN, and 2.4% for the ARDE; none of the other parties has even 1%. This is bad news for the left, which in 1995 succeeded in getting several deputies elected who wielded significant weight as the swing bloc in Congress.

The newspaper Siglo XXI hired the Costa Rican firm of Unimer Research International to conduct surveys similar to those of Borge and Associates. Its first survey on the presidential race produced results similar to the one done by Borge. In contrast, the figures on the congressional race suggest a very even legislature, with 25% for the FRG, 23.3% for the PAN, 5.8% for the left, 1.4% for the ARDE, 1.2% for the PLP and 2.5% for other parties. According to this survey, 21.5% are still undecided, while 14.8% said they would not vote for anyone for Congress. Only 4.5% did not answer.

With such an evenly divided Congress, it is probable that the entering President, whether from the FRG or the PAN, will be in a weaker position than the one President Arzú has enjoyed. A balance of forces in Congress may well oblige the country's political leaders to engage in dialogue more congruent with the country's interests, which could lead to banking regulations and a fiscal agreement, and embrace long-term development with investments in education and health care. According to this scenario, however, neither Ríos Montt's hard-line followers nor Arzú's people in Congress will make life easy for whichever of the two candidates is elected, Portillo or Berger.

“Dirty campaign”

Portillo is reported to have hired a firm specializing in lobbying the US Congress for his campaign, while the publicity machine behind Berger's campaign is also quite visible. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal published a warning on the legal prohibition against using state resources for electoral propaganda, and noted its distaste for “inappropriate attitudes” that interfere with the campaign's proper development and get reflected in the media. The Tribunal was clearly if elegantly referring to the PAN's abuse of state resources and to the emphasis all parties put in their campaigns on the negative aspects of their opponents. The media itself is calling this a “dirty campaign.”
In addition to emphasizing the links between FRG candidates and human rights violations, the PAN is using an incident from Portillo's past as part of its arsenal: while in exile teaching at a university in Mexico, he was involved in a gunfight in which two students were killed. Portillo managed to avoid trial and the statute of limitations has since run out.

In the other corner, Berger has been charged with corruption in the sale of TELGUA and in the assignation of tens of millions of dollars of special funds, supposedly spent to repair the damages caused by Hurricane Mitch. Portillo, whose eloquence includes a demagogic streak, alludes to the important work of the PAN government in highways and communications only to then cap it by saying, “You can't eat bricks or asphalt.”

In August, the president of the Bishops' Conference reminded the media that people expect candidates to present their programs of government and give the population a valid way to distinguish between them, not to focus the campaign on destroying the other candidates. There is no doubt but that the Electoral Tribunal and the Catholic bishops are on the mark, since nearly half of the people polled in the Borge surveys said they want someone “open and honest” when asked about the ideal characteristics of a President.

At the height of the campaign, the dormant Gerardi investigation also seems to have been revived. The prosecutor speaks of its imminent resolution, and new testimony has been gathered against some military officials in the President's General Staff. If the government's erratic course in this case finally finds its way to port in the last few days of the campaign, this, as cynical as it may seem, would put a new card in Berger's hand.

A speculative economy

While the electoral campaign sizzles, the population is being consumed by the economic crisis. When De León Carpio left office in 1995, the country began an economic slowdown, as the recession was then called. Arzú's government tried to get the economy going by injecting fresh resources, on the assumption that this would lower the interest rate, which would in turn encourage people to take out loans and considerably increase internal investment, thus beating back the speculative economy.

Nonetheless, these extraordinary resource flows served only two ends: the government used the money to finance social spending, while the other economic actors used it to speculate. A great deal of money went into the Russian stock market and disappeared when that market came crashing down. It is said that the army's financial system—the Military Social Security Institute and the Army Bank—lost $70 million in these operations, while two large commercial banks, Bancafé and the Banco Industrial, lost $200 million. In fact, at the end of 1998, several financing institutions and agroexport credit funds suddenly went under.

Guatemala's negative record

Arzú's government complains of the excessive speculation of Guatemalan capital, but has not had the political will necessary to regulate the country's banking system. Nor has it complied with the promise to increase taxes collected as a percentage of the GDP, as the peace accords require. It has imprisoned Moreno, the alleged leader of a contraband ring, but has not touched the man suspected of being behind him, retired General Callejas and the military organization known as La Cofradía, which is profiting from information gathered over the years when military intelligence had free run of the country.

Guatemala still has one of the weakest states in Latin America: it is among the countries with the least strategic information in the hands of civilian authority, that collect the least taxes, spend the least on education and other social services, and least regulate the financial system.

The cost of living

At the end of 1998, in addition to these structural evils, the country was struck by the murky privatization of TELGUA, the tremendous blow of Hurricane Mitch and a steep fall in coffee and sugar prices. All of this has considerably widened the trade deficit and the state spending deficit as a percentage of the GDP. Furthermore, the consumer price index does not take into account the dollarized items in the middle-class basket of basic goods: imported goods and rent paid for housing. This explains the deceptively low inflation figures.

Given this panorama, it is no surprise that 47% of those interviewed in the Borge survey think that “going to vote won't change my personal situation,” compared to only 33% who think that they can benefit from voting. Worse yet, 71% feel that “I get nothing by voting,” and 65% believe that “politicians do not talk about the problems that concern me.” According to the survey, 46.2% of the Guatemalan electorate think that “with my income in the coming months, my standard of living can only worsen,” while another 33% believe that their income will provide “only enough to stay in the same place.” Otherwise, 48.4% believe that “my personal situation will remain the same whoever wins the elections,” and 24.1% believe it will get worse. Finally, 49% of the survey said that the elections would be fraudulent, compared to only 29.1% who believe they will be clean, despite all the assurances being given by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Short-sighted or exhausted?

When asked what they feel to be the country's main problem, 34.1% of those surveyed named the lack of personal security due to crime, violence and kidnapping, while 36% named the economic crisis and its resultant poverty, unemployment and lack of education, health care, drinking water and transport.

Only 6% named education as the most important challenge facing the next President. This might suggest a weak understanding of its importance to development over the medium and long term, or may simply show that the population is now overwhelmed by hunger and insecurity.

In these conditions, the August survey shows that 54.9% see the FRG's Portillo as the candidate most capable of fighting crime, compared to 19.5% who feel that Berger would be better able to do this. Portillo is also thought to be more capable of fighting impunity (37.2% to 21.8%), of fighting corruption (39.4% to 23.9%) and of fighting poverty (36.5% to 26.1%). Berger comes out ahead only in improving health and education (37.5% to 28.9%).

When asked who they think will win the upcoming presidential elections, 42.8% in the Borge and Associates survey said that think that Portillo will win and 36.3% Berger. In Unimer Research International's August survey, 40.2% think Portillo will win and 36.7% Berger.

When it comes to municipal elections, however, both surveys predict that the PAN will win in many more municipalities than the FRG.

A country of storytellers

In his January 1996 inaugural address, President Arzú promised with an emphasis unaccustomed among the country's leaders to make a frontal attack against corruption. Now, almost four years later, people doubt the honesty of the President and many of his government officials. True or not, people feel that the lack of transparency in the privatization of TELGUA is the smoking gun that leads to official corruption. They wonder why Guatemala should have failed to obtain good offers in the first round of bidding for its telecommunications company, and why the only real bidder in the second round was a company with unclear financial roots.

It is rumored that a new group of capitalists has formed around the President's family. It is also said to have its eye on gaining control of the country's communications now that the model of completely opening up the country's economy to the outside effectively blocks most industry, outside of the maquila, as a way to increase capital. It is also rumored that Arzú's vice president is behind the arrangements made over the postal company.

There are many other rumors too. Naturally, in “this country of Guatebolas”—to quote the famous remark of journalist Clemente Marroquín Rojas about the Guatemalan bent for making up stories and jokes—what is said must be proven before you can believe it to be true. But it is clear that, nearly four years through its term, Arzú's government has lost its innocence; much of the Guatemalan public no longer believes in it. Yet, despite everything, Arzú still stands higher in public opinion than the past four presidents: 37% say that his government has been very good or good.

Insensitive to wounds

President Arzú's refusal to comply with the Historical Clarification Commission’s recommendations—especially to continue cleaning up the army and to make a concerted effort to find out the “location” of the tens of thousands of people who disappeared and exhume the bodies in the numerous clandestine cemeteries so that people can bring their mourning to a close—is clearly wresting votes away from Berger, especially in the western highlands.

When an absurd verdict absolved high-ranking Brazilian police officers accused of murdering poor peasant farmers in that country's Landless Movement, President Enrique Cardoso protested, at least in his capacity “as a citizen.” But President Arzú has not said a word in response to the equally absurd verdict in the case of those who carried out the Xamán massacre in 1995, in which 11 returning refugees were killed. He has repeatedly said that to live in the past is to mortgage Guatemala's future. And this is when he is not busy saying that future investments in tourism will be threatened by a country wrapped up in its memories. Comments such as these reveal his insensitivity to the wounds still open in the memories of the Guatemalan people.

The referendum: A watershed

The voting down of the constitutional reforms in the June referendum was a tremendous blow to the government. It put in question the capacity of both the government and the governing party to mobilize people. Most important, it cast doubt on the willingness of a system that has often proven it knows perfectly well how to publicize something...when it wants to.

The referendum can be seen as a watershed between one kind of government action and another, and perhaps also between one way people perceived things and another. The economic model's great failure is what lies at the bottom of all this. When possibilities for social change are scarce, people largely vote with their stomachs; and given Portillo's demagoguery about “bricks and asphalt,” people resent even more that the economy has not improved. People know, even if they don't have all the facts, that the poor are paying more than they should and the rich less. The urban middle class, especially in the capital, the PAN's traditional followers, may be feeling that they are paying far more than they should.

Arzú's analysis is lucid

Perhaps Alvaro Arzú has not led a great government, but it is also not as bad as some have been. History will provide a clearer perspective on this. In inaugurating the Tenth Congress of the Union of Latin American Parties, Arzú said, “We live in a world of paper that is grabbing up all the wealth as it empties the coffers of those who save.” And, “Latin American countries are concerned about attracting investments.... We offer political stability, democracy and infrastructure, but cannot compete with the speculators.” And, “investors have always demanded a healthy, stable economy to invest their capital, but now they take advantage of the crisis and instability to multiply their millions.” They would leave us, the President went on, with no possibility of creating even minimal prosperity for those affected by poverty, and would pave the way for demagogues and populists. “They become fascistic prophets and endanger the democracy it cost so much to build.”
President Arzú's analysis is clear and lucid. The frustration of one part of his team can be heard in this analysis, those who wanted to lay the foundation for a more lasting accomplishment. Nonetheless, this analysis, like all explanations based on a single variable, does not get to the root causes.

The United Nation's special envoy for Guatemala has touched on another set of causes, related to the continuing dominance of military power in Guatemala. In the short term, it must be said that the discreet—or ferocious—support of some in the military did not allow President Arzú to finish what he so courageously began in the first weeks of his government. The consequence of this is that the Army, and the hidden hand of its retired high-ranking officers, continues to rule, even though it no longer governs. Perhaps Arzú should have financially cornered them until they had no way out, but his arrogance has imposed itself. If the long shadow of General Ríos Montt and his followers once again falls over the President's office—even if only from behind Portillo, without any longer being in the presidential chair—the consequences will be unpredictable for Guatemala, a country where 82% of the people do not want war criminals as candidates or even as political figures.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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