Guatemala on the cusp

Rios Montt

The Guatemalan army is a force to be reckoned with, or, if you are smart, to be given a wide berth. It has fought a 36-year war of counter-insurgency preserving the US-backed right wing Republican Front of Guatemala (FRG) against left wing rebel forces. In 1996 a UN negotiated peace accord was finally signed ending the 36-year war. But this did not mean the end of the FRG or of Guatemala’s most prominent statesman ‘the general’. José Efraín Ríos Montt, a protestant minister became president after the 1982 coup and still wields power. Montt is currently facing an indictment for genocide and has failed in his election bid for presidency, 2004-2008. He may have lost the election but he’s not out of the picture.

When he came into power Montt doubled the size of the army and initiated a scorched earth policy sending the army and it’s right wing death squad buddies in to eradicate the enemy. These were by far the bloodiest years of the long civil war. Of the 200,000 dead about one half died during his term (83% of them indigenous Mayans). The death toll on the government side was less than 1 in 10. Mayans Guatemalans now represent only 60% of the population.

Driving through Western Guatemala from the Mexican border signs indicate the location of former Mayan villages. The people responsible preferred not to waste bullets in massacres of the indigenous. Wholesale slaughter was meted out using fire, bricks and machetes. Placks on the sides of the roads mark a selection of more than 400 razed villages.

Montt has been indicted on many charges in many countries but still enjoys immunity in Guatemala . An FRG-friendly court laid down a decision negating the effect of a constitutional law banning re-the candidacy of leaders who have previously taken power through a coup. Montt’s name finally appeared on the ballot in late 2003, a matter described even by the Bush regime as ‘problematic’.

Montt was eliminated in the first round of the election. An extraordinary turnout of first time indigenous voters voted mainly for their own preservation. Many more however, largely non-Spanish speakers, voted for the man whose army brings them fertilizer for their crops. Montt’s opponents Berger and Colom made it to the run-off elections in December 2003. Óscar Berger squeezed through to replace the FRG’s Portillo in January 2004. The relationship between Portillo and Montt was reminiscent of Bush and Cheney.

The signs still attached to the buildings round here read: “With Berger we all win!” How true might this be? How will things be for the four-year term of this ex-mayor of Guatemala City? Berger is a rich farmer whose interests are closely aligned with his backers the Guatemala elite and their CACIF lobby group (the Coordinating Committee of Commercial, Agricultural, Industrial, and Financial Associations). He has his work cut out for him!

According to the BBC Berger’s stated priorities are to fight crime, corruption and poverty, and to implement the peace accord that ended Guatemala’s vicious 36-year civil war in 1996. His first few weeks in power were busy indeed. Along with stimulus tax cuts for his buddies his policies were similar to Mexican President Fox’s first term, liberal social policies, neo-liberal economics.

Berger offered a government position to Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winning indigenous activist who fled the country for Mexico after receiving multiple death threats in 2001. Menchu accepted and now in charge of monitoring government progress on the accords. Also offered a position was political activist Helen Mack, sister of murdered anthropologist Myrna Mack.

With the oligarchy back in the driving seat of Guatemalan politics how will Berger’s new business-oriented government face the challenge of reconciling the interests of its agriculture and industry backers with the needs of a nation of 9 million poor (2 million not)? The Bush government is firmly convinced that Berger is a gun-totin’ neoliberal like his protégé Fox. US based corporations are counting on Berger’s compliance on trade agreements designed to offer their firms a preferential tax environment and access to local markets not available to their European and Asian counterparts. Already Citibank brokers government loans and Walmart distributes Guatemalan beer. The US recently “decertified” Guatemala due to its inability to counter drug trafficking but Bush is bullish on Berger.

Geoff Thale, a senior Central America associate for the Washington Office on Latin America was quoted in the Miami Herald on December 30th. 2003 as saying: “There’s no question [Washington officials are] happy about this [election],” He believes Berger’s economic policy is “very similar to that of the Bush administration: pro free-trade and pro-business.” In a gesture of goodwill Bush sent his brother, the infamous Jeb, to Berger’s inauguration. Bush needs all of the friends he can get to work with him on his agenda of pushing through CAFTA (like NAFTA with a ‘C’ for Central).Neo-liberals don’t often implement social programs but Berger is implementing emergency food aid to the starving in more than 100 remote villages. His wife Wendy is taking an active role in organizing the distribution. Social programs are difficult in countries burdened with an external debt of USD165Mn. Berger may find resistance to such spending in his negotiations with the IMF but he may be emboldened by recent deals in Argentina and Nicaragua.

Maybe there is room for policy maneuver in a nation with one of the most unequal wealth distribution in the world?

The situation is in Guatemala is critical. The currency is fluctuating rapidly and the ratio of international debt to GNP is fast approaching 4% (a figure cited in weaker economies as cause for ‘concern’.) The civil sector and its military counterpart are at odds. Berger is proposing a reduction in the size of the military by approximately one third. It will be important to cushion the blow to the unemployed soldiers? Another stability consideration is the 1,000,000 members of the rural militias or PAC’s (Civil Self-Defence Patrols). The PACs were responsible for much of the killing during the civil war and remain loyal and somewhat financially dependent on Montt’s FRG. In a show of force in July 2003 many thousands of PAC members were paid $40 a piece (plus meals) and bussed to the capital to riot in support of Montt’s candidacy. With machine guns and machetes in the streets FRG luminaries mixed comfortably with their paid muscle. The police did little to stem the chaos. The resultant disruption caused the death of a journalist from a heart attack. Another was dragged to safety at the last minute: doused in gasoline he faced being burned alive. Journalists shipped their family out of the country for the period or resorted to bodyguards.

Montt’s pre-election show of strength may have been a tactical reminder but his failed bid for the presidency means he is about to lose his immunity from prosecution. The question remains as to what will Berger will choose to do with the powerful Septuagenarian? During his election campaign Berger refused to commit himself on whether he thought the former dictator should stand trial in Guatemala. Considering the volatility of the situation caution might be the better part of valor however compliance with the ’96 peace accord requires action.

Continuous International pressure will help to embolden the young government to honor its side of the peace agreement. Payback to the Guatemalan oligarchy is to be expected. Berger is also likely to provide support for Bush on CAFTA and other Latin American accords regardless of their long term impact on the Guatemalan poor. It may be some time before Guatemala can bury the 200,000 war victims and re-house the more than one million displaced. Stability could result in lasting peace but International support will be crucial in the next few years.

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