A country that for 36 years saw a revolutionary movement, with a political-military strategy, elects as president a former general of the counter insurgency
[Translation of an article from Brasil de Fato of São Paulo for November 9. See original here.]
By Silvia Álvarez
In contrast with the neighboring countries of El Salvador and Nicaragua, which saw insurgent civil wars that solidified into electoral triumphs, the left in Guatemala seems not to have made the transition into a political party. On Sunday, the 6th, thousands of Guatemalan citizens went to the polls to elect as president the candidate of the extreme right, Otto Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (PP). In an electoral dispute whose ideological coloration was dominated by the right, the principal theme of the campaigns was security despite the fact that the country is suffering from other serious problems like poverty and unemployment, aggravated by the tropical storms that devastated the country in the past month.
This year, the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE) of Guatemala brought to light data that expose the fragile democracy attained with the 1996 peace accords, which marked the end of the civil war. According to the INE, 27 percent of the adult population is illiterate, the rates of childhood malnutrition are at 49 percent and only 37 percent of school-aged youths are registered in secondary schools. Add to this picture the high rate of unemployment, which results in 59 percent of the economically active population working in the informal sector.
Meanwhile, the topic of security found fertile ground in a population traumatized by 36 years of war and frightened by organized crime and delinquency. Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with 41.4 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to reports released recently by the United Nations.
An iron fist
Otto Pérez Molina, former head of army intelligence, offered himself as the “iron fist” candidate, while his opponent in the runoff, businessman Manuel Baldizón of the Partido Líder (Libertad Democrática Renovada – Renewed Democratic Liberty), also rightist, supported the death penalty. These were the Guatemaltan electors’ choices. Both candidates were accused by human rights NGOs of using drug trafficking money for their million-quetzal campaigns.
Carlos Barrientos, director of the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC), an indigenous and campesino organization that in the 1980s was linked with the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP), charges that this fear of violence that the people feel could be contrived. “We find that many cases of violence are provoked by the same people who would make a campaign based on security, as is the case with the Partido Patriota, which offers as a candidate not only an ex-military officer, but an ex-military officer who participated in the internal armed conflict and who bears responsibility for the massacre that took place,” he asserted.
The campesino leader cites as an example the fact that in the first phase of the campaign there were many suspicious assassinations of bus drivers, creating alarm in society. “One of the ruling party candidates for deputy accused the PP directly of staging this. The PP denied it vehemently but, curiously, the number of assassinations decreased after this denunciation.”
This is the first time that a military officer has come to power since 1985, when the series of five dictatorial military governments came to an end. But why did 36 years of accumulated revolutionary organizing not result finally in electoral victory? Why did the Frente Amplio, a coalition of leftist parties, the principal of them the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), which became a political party in 1999, never receive more than 15 percent of the vote?
Carlos Barrientos explains that this defeat results from the ideological domination of the right, which has advanced greatly since the peace accords. “Those years, which we call a ‘time of peace,’ were also years of neoliberal offensive and striving for consensus through various means: education, the church, the communications media,” the CUC leader states. “This explains a strange situation: communities that arose against mining projects, for example, vote heavily for candidates on the right. We can verify this in the election results from those municipalities,” he offers.
On the other hand, the leader points out, revolutionary organizations abandoned the strategy of working with the base as a way of opposing the ideological domination of the right. “In the war years, when there was no internet or cell phones, people in the communities were better informed because there was a whole organizational structure that took on the responsibility of seeing that information was delivered. Since all that was demobilized with the peace accords, that structure was not maintained with the same functions but with others. And the space was occupied by the rightist media, with all the ideological baggage they bring,” he explains.
Simona Yagenova, researcher at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (Flacso), agrees that the demobilization of clandestine structures was a “colossal mistake” by the revolutionary movement. “We did not know how to measure the cost of this. The people who spent 20 years in the mountains, once demobilized, went to school, to build families, to return to their communities – which they had every right to do,” she says. “What was not foreseen sufficiently was a strategy for constructing a URNG political party. It was thought that the comrades in the mountains would automatically move on to the electoral struggle, which did not happen. And that led to a split between one form, the popular movement, and another, the party. The intention of converting this movement into a party never worked.”
The researcher also calls attention to the international context in which the peace accords were signed. She believes that it was a time of advances for neoliberalism and the revolutionary movement, at that point very beaten down by the repressive forces of the state, which had killed more that 200,000 people, no longer had the military forces to defeat the counterinsurgent army. “We had an unfavorable balance of forces at that time. On the one hand, the state and the transnationals saw in the peace accords an opportunity for capitalizing and for deepening the neoliberal model. On the other hand, we wanted a more democratic, social state that would go through a transition based on a profound popular content, which was very difficult, in that context.”
Another explanation for the elecoral defeat of the left, according to Carlos Barrientos’ analysis, is the lack of a candidate of great standing. “Rigoberta Menchú, the Frente Amplio candidate, has a lot of recognition at the international level, but very little at a domestic level. She came to form part of the leadership of the CUC but ceased being a fighter to turn into a personality, breaking away from the struggle and her roots. This explains why she got such a low vote,” he explains. Rigoberta became famous internationally when she won the Nobel peace prize in 1992. In these elections she got only 3.25 percent of the vote.
A rebellious people
Despite the discouraging scenario, Simona Yagenova is optimistic about the future of the left in Guatemala. “Despite it all, the Guatemalan people are enormously rebellious and manage to recover from every defeat,” she says. “Now we are in a new cycle of struggles in which we ask ourselves, ‘We can no longer make war, the peace accords failed, the political party is not working; what are we going to do?’ We are at that point. And we are recovering lost concepts, like the class struggle, the need to remake the state, to create a new instrument of struggle.”
According to the researcher, there were 172 protests in the country in the first four months of 2011. “We need a driving force and a strategy, otherwise all the struggles that occur in the country will in effect change nothing.”
Carlos Barrientos agrees on the need for a new political instrument. “The next government will be of the right, like the current one, and will change nothing in relation to the problem of land, transnational mining and petroleum companies, the construction of megaprojects, their links with free trade agreements and the neoliberal focus,” he analyzes. “And it is therefore necessary to think about a different political instrument. And to think about a project that goes beyond deciding who will be the next candidate. It is necessary to take up again what was being demanded in the process of armed struggle.”