Guatemalan elections: back to the future?

The Sept. 9 election to replace Guatemalan President Oscar Berger featured more body bags than tangible ideas to improve the country. Now facing a Nov. 4 runoff election, voters are left with the tired choice between a military strongman and an oligarch.

The pre-election violence left over 50 candidates (or their family members) and political activists murdered. “There are ambushes with automatic weapons, explosives, killing of entire groups at once,” Francisco Garcia, and election monitor, told Reuters in July. “It shows there are mafia groups interested in gaining state power.” It is widely believed drug traffickers are responsible for the violence and that they bankrolled candidates from the local to national level.

Former businessman Alvaro Colom and ex-general Otto Pérez Molina came out on top with 28 percent and 24 percent of the vote respectively. Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu finished a disappointing, but not unexpected, sixth place with just 3 percent of the vote.

Pérez Molina has quite a resume. The ex-general is a School of the Americas graduate and was the former Chief of G-2, Guatemala’s feared military intelligence unit. The self-proclaimed “general of peace” (he was involved in the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords) was also formerly on the CIA payroll.

Molina’s campaign symbol is a fist, or “strong hand.” He wants to get tough with the “thugs” and drug gangs largely blamed for Guatemala’s increased violence and crime rates. Remarkably, he even told Reuters that he wanted to use the military to police the streets. “Until we can get out of this security crisis and strengthen the police, we have to use the army,” said Pérez Molina.

According to Reuters, a UN report revealed that soldiers under Pérez Molina’s command in the 1980’s were responsible for massacres in the Western Province of El Quiche. It has also been alleged that he was involved in the assassination of a judge in 1994.

The other choice for Guatemalans is two-time presidential candidate Alvaro Colom, who in the past has referred to himself as “the godfather of the factories.” Colom has adopted softer rhetoric than his counterpart, instead promising to attack crime and violence through education, healthcare and social spending. Between the two, he may seem the more attractive. But, he most likely will represent the “self-interested dominant sectors in Guatemalan politics” and “the old oligarchic business elites backed by international capital,” much like Berger. According to The Carter Center, Colom received illegal campaign contributions in the 2003 election, while he also refused, not surprisingly, to be financially transparent within his campaign.

In the end, Guatemalans will have to battle against the “invisible foot” of the market crushing down on them or the “iron fist” of the military—or maybe both. Meanwhile, what we can hope for is local level organizing to continue and eventually blossom into large scale social movements. It may be Guatemala’s only hope to break out of the cycle of racism, violence and impunity perpetuated by the state and the international business community.

Cyril Mychalejko for Upside Down World, Sept. 14

See our last post on Guatemala and Central America.