By Constatin Schoeh Von Norman

Guatemala was the smallest country on President Bush’s recent Latin America tour. It was worth the stop, however. For good reasons: the Central American country has gained international weight and recognition after benefiting from widespread Latin American mistrust against Venezuelan representation in the United Nation Security Council. More importantly, Guatemala will go to the polls to elect a new executive and legislative branch in September. The core topic, however, is likely to be domestic security, as crime has been on the rise for years. It will be difficult for a female candidate with little experience in security issues to gain the confidence of a majority.

Alliances and new candidates emerge

The official campaigning for September’s elections is not supposed to begin before May 2 nd. Different political wings start to negotiate about coalitions and are already promoting new contenders.

Encuentro por Guatemala – bringing forth a new candidate

Rigoberta Menchú, the indigenous presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, stepped up her campaign this week when she was officially presented to party members of the center-left Encuentro por Guatemala (EG), for which she is running in September’s elections. She enjoys international recognition but is rather marginal at home, since she does not have any particular political experience and is not knowledgeable about economic and security issues. She gained attention when she won a case against five right wing politicians1 enacting a Guatemalan law against racial discrimination. Her political affiliation is with Winaq, an indigenous movement which has its base in the Mayan indigenous population most of whom live in poor rural areas. They comprise at least 40% of the most populous country in Central America (13.4 million inhabitants).2

The Latin American extreme left supports Rigoberta Menchú, especially Bolivian President, Evo Morales. His Movement towards Socialism (MAS) is sending a foreign delegation to prevent “foreign intervention” in the elections.3 In particular, Evo Morales has made connections with their common base in the indigenous population which has admittedly been neglected by most establishment parties and is gaining constant strength among the rising number of young indigenous voters. It remains to be seen whether a more radical elective alliance will transform EG`s agenda from center left to far left. This has not been the case so far but the influence of foreign leftist movements might change the campaign towards a more radical approach. So far Menchú’s primary tasks are poverty alleviation, more security and combating corruption. How EG aims to shape the state’s economic profile, market oriented or socialist “Bolivarian”, is still to be determined.

Gran Alianza Nacional, last elections winner

The current president, Oscar Rafael Berger Promo, has enjoyed the support of the center-right coalition Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA). If the conservatives can avoid too many split offs, they are likely to win the election albeit the current domestic security crisis. Berger is close to a strong entrepreneurial class and has excellent connections to the sugar producing landowners.

Sugar is about to become Guatemala’s major agrarian expor t and might alleviate some problems resulting from the heavy focus on coffee and banana production. The world market prices for the latter export goods have not been particularly high during the recent decade which is a major reason for rural poverty. Berger’s current administration is facing strong opposition in parliament but has somewhat successfully managed to engage the war-torn country (civil war during the 1980s) in a reconciliation process. Also he succeeded in keeping taxes comparably low. Berger is barred from seeking another term. GANA’s current top candidate, Alejandro Giamattei, is only in third position for the coming elections. If he will make it into the runoffs he might get support from Patriotic Party followers though.

The Patriotic Party

Menchú is not the only one to already be on the campaign trail. The candidate for the right-of-center Partido Patriota (PP), former general Otto Pérez Molina, visited a number of towns around Guatemala City over the last week to sell his uncompromising message on national security. Pérez, who has denounced death squads operating within the state apparatus, said he had a strategic plan to purge and refine the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC), which would require increasing the budget for the PNC by Quetzal 200m (US$26m).4 It was Pérez’s PP which decided to call the current interior minister, Carlos Vielmann, to face an impeachment hearing in congress for his mishandling of the recent murder of three Salvadorian deputies and their four Guatemalan killers from the PNC.5 Mr. Perez Molina’s candidacy is further proof of center-right in-house competition. According to an opinion poll, conducted for the newspaper Prensa Libre, he is in second position in the current polls (10%).

Strong support for economist Alvaro Colom

The candidate, currently leading the polls is Alvaro Colom (20%). He is an economist by profession and finished second in the last elections behind the GANA candidate Berger. He has been leading the polls consistently. His candidacy is backed by the left leaning National Hope Unity Party (UNE).

CAFTA as a chance instead of a threat

There is hardly a Central American election which is not at least partly focused on CAFTA. Guatemalans have already tuned in.

Menchú’s electoral platform (EG) has vowed to renegotiate CAFTA in case she wins the election. In contrast to other left alliances, her program does not aim to decline the free trade agreement; but extensive negotiations on agrarian issues are well suited to water it down significantly. In particular, maize seems to be a target of domestic protection – as it is in many Central American countries. EG’s line of reasoning is based on the outstanding importance of maize in the Mayan culture. Mayan mythology considers man to be made from maize. Maize also happens to be the most important crop of Menchú’s largely impoverished indigenous followers who have good reason to fear US-agrarian competition on Guatemala’s market.

Independent economists would argue, however, that CAFTA can actually be more of a benefit than a threat for Guatemala. The Guatemalan finance minister, Hugo Eduardo Beteta, has indicated that the US and other foreign investors are interested in using Guatemala as a base to transport ethanol to North America.6 The heavy US tariff amounting to $0.54 per gallon on sugar-based ethanol from Brazil makes Central America and the Caribbean, which benefit from preferential trade quotas and some tariff-free ethanol trade under CAFTA and the Caribbean Basin Initiative, an attractive alternative.7 Guatemala has recently renovated its largest port, Santo Tomas de Castillo and is ready for expanding its trade.8 CAFTA can definitely boost Guatemala’s sugar exports and further promote an alternative product to low priced maize or coffee. Extensive imports of alternative energy from CAFTA partners can help diversify US energy dependency away from Venezuela towards economic partners like Guatemala. Latinnews summed it up by quoting the consultant David Rothkopf: “Latin America and the Caribbean have the potential to be the Persian Gulf of biofuels without the instability”.

Criminality as core election topic

Guatemalan stability seems to be seriously threatened by organized crime and inefficient, corrupt and underpaid police forces. Recent scandals and the visible increase in daily violence will make this domestic topic the core of the coming election campaign; of more importance than economic justice or indigenous rights. The center right parties tend to have an edge over socialists on this topic because they have successfully conveyed the impression of distancing themselves from corrupt police officials and therefore a center bloc might be able to regain a bit of often gutted trust among the voters, in particular in the urban centers. Menchú, who has virtually a zero track record on fighting organized crime or restructuring police forces, will have a hard time becoming a credible alternative on this issue.

The recent killing of three conservative Salvadorian politicians has increased foreign pressure from Tony Saca, the Salvadorian President. The assassins were police officers and quickly got caught. They were killed in jail shortly after. Some have suspected imprisoned gang members taking revenge; others make a good argument that there is a conspiracy to cover up the principals of the initial crime.9

The scandals lead to a vote against the aforementioned minister Vielmann. His resignation has yet to be accepted by President Berger. The rise in crime is not just a recent trend. Guatemala has experienced an increase in violent crime since 1996. Gang crime, in particular, is almost out of control. The police forces are accused of responding with arbitrary executions of Marrero gang members (limpieza social).

According to a recent study conducted by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Políticos (INCEP)10 Guatemala is rapidly moving up in the charts of Latin American fatal crimes: there were 5338 people killed as a result of violent incidents in 2005. That amounts to 37 victims per 100.000 inhabitants. Costa Rica in comparison has about 8 and Nicaragua 13 fatal incidents per year per 100.000 inhabitants. The clear leader is El Salvador with the scary number of 57, but Guatemala is catching up. According to INCEP President, José Dávila, the current number represents more casualties than occurred during the civil war. However, it can be said, that the current administration has made efforts to purge the national police and get regional support in training new recruits. Berger and Bachelet agreed that Chile’s carabineros would provide assistance in restructuring Guatemala’s Policía Nacional Civil. Berger said that Chile was the perfect role model because its insecurity and violence indicators are negligible.11 This focus on the successful Chilean example demonstrates that the current government is heading in a positive direction on this issue.

The outcome is difficult to predict

Bachelet’s cooperation with the center right government and Chile’s crucial role in promoting Guatemala’s seat on the UN SC show once more that the left is not monolithic in Latin America. It is by and large more comparable to the diversified European left which ranges from social democrats to socialists. The differences within different wings are clearly larger than usually expected. The different factions in EG are far from having synchronized goals: Menchú had to urge followers from her indigenous party, Winaq, and EG supporters to avoid infighting during a meeting on March 17th.

So far the outcome of the elections is far from certain. Colom is clearly leading the polls but might loose some votes to Menchú. It is almost typical features for Guatemalan elections, to have the second candidate of the previous elections have a good shot in the next ones. That support Colom’s claim.

Pérez Molina is quite well positioned on the topic of domestic security. If the majority of voters seek a strong hand, he might have a chance to overtake his opponents.

Giametti is far behind so far but will have stronger backing from the current administration as elections are coming closer. A lot will depend on how the current administration is perceived right before the elections. If Berger is able to strike a victory by successfully investigating the current murders, that might well benefit GANA’s candidate.

Menchú will strengthen her position and might benefit from foreign financial support and professional Bolivian advice so as to exploit the frustration of indigenous voters . So far she is way behind in all the polls (2%-4%). It is unlikely she will close the gap with the other candidates.

The elections are difficult to predict so far. Colom has excellent chances, though. The United States threw significant weight behind Guatemala’s candidacy for a UN seat on the Security Council in order to prevent a radical Venezuela from having a larger international stage. It is therefore important to help a pro-market, moderate candidate win the upcoming elections.

Notes

1 Including the grandson of Ríos Montt.

2 The German Foreign office’s country reports, available online on March 22nd at www.auswaertiges-amt.de/www/de/laenderinfos/laender/laender_ausgabe_html?type_id=14&land_id=53 .

3 Kate Joynes, Global Insight, All Eyes on Guatemala as Leftist Bolivian President Backs Indigenous Candidate March 21 st, 2007.

4 Latin American Weekly Report, Menchú wades into public security debate, March 22 nd, 2007.

5 Ibid.

6 Latinnews Daily , Washington Watch, March 22 nd, 2007.

7 Latinnews Daily , Washington Watch, March 22 nd, 2007.

8 Latinnews Daily , Washington Watch, March 22 nd, 2007.

9 See News Stories, The Ameritas Report, Vol. 3 -Issue 6 – February 22, 2007, El Salvador envoys slain in Guatemala, from El Nuevo Diario, available online at http://www.elnuevodiario.com.ni/2007/02/21/internacionales/41936.

10 INCEP: Geopolítica de América y Perspectivas de Centroamérica; available online on March 19 th at http://www.incep.org/images/content/geopolitica.pdf.

11 Latin American Weekly Report, Menchú wades into public security debate, March 22 nd, 2007.

 

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