Publication State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - International / Transnational - America - Mexico, Middle America / Cuba Elections in Guatemala

Elections for the highest offices in the country will be held on 16 June.

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Thorben Austen,

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Thelma Cabrera, MLP
Hope for the Left: Thelma Cabrera, presidential candidate of the party "Movement for the Liberation of Peoples" (MLP), founded in 2018. @GtMlp (Facebook)

In addition to the offices of president and vice president, voters will elect members of the national congress, members of the Central American Parliament, as well as mayors and local administrations throughout the country.

In 1985, after three decades of dictatorship and in the midst of a civil war, the first democratic elections were held in the country, albeit under military control. In 1996, the government and the guerrilla organization United National Revolutionaries of Guatemala (URNG) signed a peace treaty that officially ended the 36-year civil war. Transformed into a political party in 1998, the URNG has participated in elections since 1999. In the 1999 elections, the organization won 12.36 percent of the vote; in the 2015 elections, the party got its worst result with only 2.11 percent. At an annual seminar of left-wing parties in Mexico City, the URNG analysed its situation in a self-critical presentation. Its Secretary General Gregorio Chay explained that their party had lost the ability to effectively challenge the oligarchy. This was partly due to their own mistakes and weaknesses, including the prioritization of elections. In the future, the URNG wants to intensify its grassroots work and leave behind its paternalistic ways of relating to the population[1].

Since the end of the civil war, the hope for a more peaceful, democratic Guatemala has hardly been fulfilled. According to current figures from the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa libre, 59.3 percent of the population live in poverty and 23.4 percent in extreme poverty. The country has the highest rates of chronic malnutrition among children under five in Latin America, with 46.5 percent, followed by Honduras with 22 percent. In the case of the indigenous population of Guatemala, the figures are even more dramatic: up to 80 percent of all people there are malnourished.

Many of the agreements concluded in the peace treaty between the government and the guerrillas have not been implemented or have not been implemented adequately. The neoliberal economic system began to develop fully with the 1996-2000 presidential term served by entrepreneur Alvaro Arzu, who comes from one of the richest families in the country. Along with the privatization of telephone, electricity, and water services, among others, the education and health sectors have continued to be privatized steadily to this day. This has dramatic consequences for the population: due to the permanent underfinancing and the associated poor quality of the public sector, for example, 65 percent of all children today go to private schools for a fee, and the situation in the health sector is similar.

Parallel to this there has been a surge in crime. This is mainly due to the youth gangs (maras) from El Salvador, which have firmly established themselves in the poorer districts of the large cities. As in neighbouring countries, organized crime has undermined the political system and the economy.

Conflict among the Oligarchy

With the exception of the “democratic spring”, the period under the governments of Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz that succeeded the 1944 revolution, a small white upper class has held political and economic power since the founding of the republic in 1821. This upper class consists mainly of big landowners, the military and big entrepreneurs. Some examples of the richest families in the country are the Castillo, Bosch-Gutiérrez , Arzú, Novella-Klée and Paiz families. The list of their possessions is long: banks, telephone companies, fast food chains, the country’s large supermarkets, hydroelectric power stations, etc. In addition, they own large areas of land on the Pacific coast, known as the Costa Sur, and in the east of the country.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, however, conflicts within the oligarchy have become apparent. On the one hand there is the reactionary, traditional wing, which essentially consists of big landowners who have joined forces, among others, with the coffee farm owners’ association Anacafé (Asociación Nacional del Café). On the other hand, there is a more modern wing, which includes the Gutiérrez Bosch family, owners of the fast food chain Pollo Campero, and the telephone providers Movistar and Tuenti. As for the political parties, the first-mentioned wing includes the party of the current president Jimmy Morales, Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), the parties Unión del Cambio Nacional (UCN), Fuerza, VAMOS and CREO. The political mouthpiece of the latter wing is mainly in the Movimiento Semilla party, which wanted to nominate Thelma Aldana as their presidential candidate. Aldana made a name for herself as a committed champion of the fight against corruption through her work as a prosecutor general. However, her candidacy was barred by a ruling of the Constitutional Court. This was motivated by accusations of corruption made against her, which she herself described as “made up.” The case of Mario Estrada serves to illustrate how the reactionary wing of the oligarchy wanted to use every means at their disposal to prevent her candidacy. Estrada, presidential candidate for the UCN party (Union for National Change) was arrested in April in the USA. He had fallen into the trap of US narcotics agents who had pretended to be members of the Sinaloa drug cartel. In addition to promising them “security” while transporting drugs in exchange for cash payments, he also commissioned the murder of two competitors for the presidential office, including Thelma Aldana.

The Commission Against Impunity (CICIG)

A decisive point in this dispute is the position on the “International Commission against Impunity” (CICIG) of the United Nations.

CICIG was established in Guatemala in 2007 during the Alvaro Colom administration by the Unity of National Hope Party (UNE) because the Guatemalan judiciary was unable or unwilling to effectively combat rampant corruption and impunity. At first, the population was hardly even aware of the organization’s work. However, this changed abruptly in 2015, when CICIG investigators uncovered a network called “La Línea” (The Line). This network had helped businesses import and export goods past customs, thereby depriving the state of millions of already very low tax revenues. La Línea is said to have been headed by the then President Otto Pérez Molina. From April 2015, the CICIG trial led to mass protests against corruption and ultimately to the president losing his immunity and being imprisoned. CICIG and its chief investigator, the Colombian Iván Velásquez, have since gained great respect among the population.

In view of the popularity of the UN institution, the parties of the reactionary wing of the oligarchy did not dare to take an offensive stance against CICIG either. It was only when the Commission increasingly extended its investigations to the crimes of the civil war and enforced some controversial verdicts against former military personnel that President Jimmy Morales’s party, founded by the military, and organizations such as the reactionary “Foundation against Terrorism” began to aggressively demand the end of CICIG. After the family of President James “Jimmy” Morales himself was targeted by the CICIG, he managed –after several unsuccessful attempts – to push through the end of the CICIG mandate at the beginning of January 2019. In doing so, Morales not only ignored massive protests on the part of the population, but above all the separation of powers. He ignored contrary rulings by the Constitutional Court and threatened to dissolve it.

In the run-up to the election campaign, the former guerrilla party URNG held talks with former prosecutor Thelma Aldana about the possibility of supporting or even nominating her as a candidate for the URNG. And this despite the fact that she does not hold any left-wing positions. Carlos Barrios, URNG candidate for Quetzaltenango, pointed out that Aldana supports Venezuela’s self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaidó and represents part of the Guatemalan oligarchy. “But as president she would have pushed through reforms in the justice sector, continued the work with CICIG, and at least tried to fight corruption.

Doing Everything Quite Differently: The “Movement for the Liberation of Peoples” as an Instrument for Social Movements.

For the first time, the “Movement for the Liberation of Peoples” (MLP), which was only founded last year, will take part in the elections. The party emerged from the agricultural workers’ organization CODECA (Committee for Rural Development). Emma Vicente, candidate for the Quetzaltenango department for the MLP, describes the history and aims of the organization: “the origin of CODECA was a class-conscious organization of workers from the large fincas, an autonomous organization against exploitative working conditions. The second central issue was the fight against privatization, in particular the demand for the socialization of the electricity supply.”

Besides the fight against privatization, among the core demands of the party are the demand for a plurinational state and the initiation of a process of a constitutional, plurinational National Assembly and autonomy regulations for indigenous peoples. The indigenous people, in particular the Maya, make up a significant part of the Guatemalan population (from just under a half to a clear majority, according to different counts). Despite being formally equal, they are still economically disadvantaged and clearly underrepresented in political life.

The protection of nature is also high on the MLP’s agenda. The goal is “good living” (buen vivir). Thelma Cabrera, presidential candidate for the MLP, explains this term: “‘Good living’ means taking into account the rights of nature, the Madre Tierra, as well as the rights of the human beings. We fight to preserve the environment, and defend our territories against mining companies, mega-projects and export-oriented monocultures of large plantations like sugar cane or palma africana; we want a clean environment, an agriculture that guarantees our nutrition, and healthy food that is not contaminated. We avoid the terms growth and development if they only refer to a material increase in the standard of living. The territory of Guatemala is limited and the population is growing. Guatemala is not a poor country, it has a lot of natural resources, no Guatemalan child needs to starve.”

The transformation in Bolivia is regarded as a political model. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was one of the first to congratulate Thelma Cabrera as her candidacy was made official at an MLP general assembly in March.

The MLP is affected by more repression than the other left-wing parties. In the past twelve months, nine leading members of the party have been murdered, two of them immediately after their official registration as candidates. Last year, President Jimmy Morales described CODECA, from which the MLP emerged, as “internal enemy number one”. The murders began shortly thereafter.

From the Movement: The MLP Candidates

In addition to the candidates for the offices of president and vice-president, the MLP also has candidates for Congress, on the national list and in the individual departments, as well as mayoral candidates, although not nationwide. The party has not nominated any candidates for the Central American Parliament.

All candidates are members of CODECA or activists in other social movements. Emma Vicente is the first candidate on the list for the Quetzaltenango department. Her motivation and trajectory are representative of many MLP candidates. Born in extreme poverty in the Totonicapan department, she moved to the capital with her parents. The family later bought a piece of land in the district of Sibilia in the department of Quetzaltenango. She met compañeros from CODECA for the first time during a demonstration against a mine near her. She experienced first-hand the privatizations at the end of the 1990s. “My father used to get loans for his seeds from a state bank at low interest rates. After privatization, interest rates were drastically increased and he could no longer afford the loans. Yet another example: at that time there were no mobile phones and we had no telephone, but we were able to call two of my brothers, who had emigrated to the USA years ago, relatively cheaply from an office of the state telephone company in Quetzaltenango. After the privatization the tariffs were so high that telephone calls were over for us”.

In 2011, the right-wing extremist and ex-military Otto Pérez Molina from the Patriotic Party won the elections. For CODECA, the times became even harder: “Before Molina’s government, for example, we received aid from abroad, including Germany. After Molina took office, the aid was stopped because of his intervention. At the same time, the number of murders of members of our organization and other organizations increased, and CODECA’s activities were suddenly labelled ‘terrorism’,” Vicente explains.

After the mass protests against corruption in 2015, regular elections were held in September, and the extreme right won again. The current President James Morales succeeded in profiting from the anti-corruption protests as an “anti-politician” and a “clean man”. The fact that he himself is a member of the right-wing extremist party FCN, founded by the military, probably played no role in the electoral decision of many voters.

At this point CODECA made the decision to react on its own. Thelma Cabrera explains the step towards a political party: “All proposals made by CODECA were rejected, instead we were criminalized, our members were being murdered and we were labelled as ‘terrorists’. That is why CODECA, together with other social movements, decided to take the matter into its own hands, as a political party and as an instrument of the social movements.” Her trajectory is also representative of many MLP candidates. Her parents migrated decades ago from the highlands to the coastal strip in search of work, which they found at the large fincas. Cabrera was born there and experienced the exploitative working conditions first hand. She has been active in CODECA for over twenty years, most recently as chair of the organization.

Outlook on the elections

At present it is difficult to forecast the electoral outcome, not least because of the numerous disqualifications in the run-up to the elections. In addition to Aldana’s aforementioned disqualification, the daughter of ex-dictator Rios Montt, Zury Rios of the VALOR party has also been taken out of the race. Article 186 of the Guatemalan constitution prohibits the candidacy of blood relatives of former dictators down to the fourth generation. Likewise, Mario Estrada, who is imprisoned in the USA, was expelled from the UCN party, as was Mauricio Radford from the FUERZA party.

This could benefit Sandra Torres of the Unity of National Hope Party (UNE). The party sees itself as representing the “centre-left,” yet it holds a strictly conservative view of the family, it is involved in numerous corruption scandals, and it has tended to reflect the power struggle without real content typical of Guatemalan politics. Torres herself is running for president for the fourth time and is the ex-wife of Alvaro Colom, who ruled Guatemala from 2007-2011. During his term in office, there were several small social programmes that benefitted a part of the impoverished population. However, privatization continued and numerous concessions were awarded to mining companies during his administration.

There is also the possibility of an election victory for the extreme right, in the hands of Alejandro Eduardo Giammatei of the VAMOS party, for example. Giammatei is also running for president of the republic for the fourth time, each candidacy having been for a different party. In 1999 he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of the capital for the party Unidad Nacionalista. Giammatei recently filed a lawsuit against the CICIG and sees himself and his peers “as the target of twenty black campaigns by the CICIG” (1).

However, the left could also benefit from Thelma Aldana’s disqualification. All left-wing parties are currently engaged in a vigorous election campaign, but it will not be easy for them given the fact that beside the MLP and URNG, three more left-wing parties are taking part in the election: Convergencia, Winaq, and Libre. Should a left-wing candidate actually reach the second round, the other left parties are likely to support him or her. However, it is also to be expected that the parties of the oligarchy will postpone the conflict mentioned above in order to prevent an election victory for the left.

[1] Prensa libre 31/05/2019

Thorben Austen, a nurse by profession, lives in Quetzaltenango and is active in the election campaign for the MLP in the Quetzaltenango department.