A Mountain to Climb in Guatemala

Álvaro Colom, the centre left candidate of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE — National Unity of Hope) party, won the first round of Guatemala’s presidential elections on Sunday. However, instead of raising hopes that this result might herald the first progressive president since Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown in a US backed coup in 1954, it has instead shown how difficult it is for the left to make advances in this Central American republic.

Colom won almost a million votes (28%) to defeat the principal rightwing candidate, military general Otto Pérez Molina, who took 750,000 votes (23%). The obvious concern amongst Colom’s supporters is that those who voted for other rightwing parties in this first round will now transfer their votes to Pérez Molina in the run-off election due to take place on 4 November.

This is exactly what happened in Guatemala’s previous presidential election in 2003. Álvaro Colom also stood in that election as the left candidate, and advanced to the run-off election where he challenged the rightist, Óscar Berger. The united forces of the right then defeated Colom 54 to 46 per cent to hand the presidency to Berger.

On Sunday, twelve rightwing parties competed for the presidency against just four parties considered to be on the left. Apart from Colom’s UNE, the other left parties were eclipsed by the multitude of small parties led by rightwing caudillos who, according to Guatemalan political commentator Alexander Sequén Mónchez, coerced or bought votes.

Contrasting his country to México to the north, where the appeal of Manuel López Obrador’s combative and uncompromising leftist program forced the right to steal the 2006 elections there with fraud, and to El Salvador to the south, where the Marxist FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) is the second political force and dominates politics in the cities, Sequén Mónchez says the left in Guatemala lacks tradition and organisation.

Even the capital, La Ciudad de Guatemala, is controlled by the right, contrary to the trend of capital cities in Latin America being won by the radical left recently. In fact, former rightist president Álvaro Arzú, who has been the capital’s mayor for the last four years, was easily reelected on 9 September, and in the presidential election, Pérez Molina gained more votes in the city than Colom and all the other left parties put together.

‘The left has been excluded from participation in politics through repression and violence,’ says writer Carolina Escobar Sarti, ‘but also, the left has not been as clear with radical, progressive policies as the left in México, nor has it organised in the street or in the barrios with an everyday, on the ground presence as the FMLN has done in El Salvador.’

The experience of the presidential campaign seems to bear out this assessment. More than 50 candidates and campaign workers have been assassinated, including 15 members of Colom’s UNE, and also seven supporters of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchú, who was the first indigenous Mayan in Guatemala’s history to stand as a presidential candidate.

The indigenous have long been excluded, despite comprising more than 58 per cent of the population, through military repression and the racist denial of their culture and languages that has left politics in Guatemala in the hands of a tiny elite. Although this is now changing slightly, there are still few opportunities for the indigenous — or the left — to participate in the country’s formal ‘liberal’ democracy.

There are no elections for governors, senators, or state representatives as Guatemala has neither an upper house nor state legislatures, and governors are appointed by the president. Representatives in the national Congress rely heavily on traditional patronage or violence to secure their positions, and the assassinations of leftist and indigenous activists serve to deter opposition.

In this election campaign, Álvaro Colom has had to travel in a helicopter to avoid being attacked, and he was accompanied at all times by a doctor with extensive experience in bullet wounds, while his campaign manager, José Carlos Marroquín, was fortunate to survive a grenade attack on his car.

Aside from this intimidation and violence, the left in this election ‘has not succeeded in positioning their proposals and vision at the centre of the political debate,’ reiterates Sarti, ‘the themes have been a free trade agreement with the US, and security ‘hard fist’ policies that reprise the repression of the military dictatorships. There has been no debate about Guatemala’s great social concerns.’

‘The election has shown the conservative side of Guatemalan society,’ concurs an editorial in the newspaper El Periódico de Guatemala, ‘the parties on the right have dominated while the principal parties on the left have not even presented programs with socialist policies, much less Chávista policies,’ it stated, referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution. ‘The political left is almost nonexistent in Guatemala, eclipsed by decades of continuous governments of the right.’

Colom has campaigned on a moderate, social democratic platform that emphasises a continuation of the economic liberalism policies of the current conservative president, while claiming to be able to distribute the ‘benefits’ of these policies more equitably. While this is sufficient to be considered ‘leftist’ in Guatemala’s political context, it has clearly failed to attract mass support from the majority of Guatemalans who continue to live in desperate poverty under these policies.

Rigoberta Menchú’s presidential campaign has had similar failings. Her candidacy has been important in cutting through the racism and elitist, exclusionary attitudes of the traditional political class, but she has not used the small space she has opened to confront the country’s central problems of poverty, exclusion and indigenous rights.

‘Despite the support of Bolivian President Evo Morales, that country’s first indigenous leader, Rigoberta doesn’t want to be seen as a leftist. She has chosen to be independent, repudiating the support of the left parties,’ writes Guatemalan sociologist Gonzálo Sichar Moreno. ‘The space she has is the fruit of much struggle, but political debate continues to be restricted and elitist.’

Menchú also did not propose to alter the country’s economic policies, and as a result, a clear rift could be seen between Guatemala’s peasant worker organizations, which reject free trade, and the ‘Mayan intellectuals’ in Menchú’s party. ‘It was decided not to support Menchú’s political movement,’ said Rafael González, an indigenous leader, ‘as indigenous people, we do not identify with its politics.’

This has left Colom, despite his moderation, as the repository of the hopes of the left in this election. That he still has a mountain to climb is shown by the fact that the far right former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, despite an international arrest warrant issued against him for massacres committed during his repressive rule, was elected to Congress at the same time as Colom won the first presidential round.

Guatemala’s ‘strong rightist tradition and history of military repression, violence and impunity continues to be an obstacle to change,’ writes Sichar Moreno, ‘the situation of the left is probably worse than when it was illegal under the dictators. There is a need for a mass, progressive political coalition to end the right’s domination.’

There is still a chance, and some signs of hope, that the right can be defeated in the final presidential round. Although Pérez Molina took the capital, Colom’s party defeated the right in 17 states — Pérez Molina won in 5 states — and the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza is now the largest party in the Congress after almost doubling its share of seats to 48.

Despite his moderate social democratic policies, should Álvaro Colom become president, the victory will be as momentous for Guatemala as the elections of Rafael Correa in Ecuador or Evo Morales in Bolivia, and will be further confirmation that Latin America’s left turn continues.


9 September 2007 results:

Álvaro Colom (UNE – left) 917,000 (28.2%)

Otto Pérez Molina (Partido Patriota – right) 767,000 (23.5%)

Alejandro Giammettei (Gana – government party) 562,000 (17.2%)

Rigobertu Menchú (Encuentro – left) 100,000 (3.2%)

In total, left parties obtained 1,107,000 votes.

Rightwing parties obtained 1,909,000 votes.


La Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) 48 diputados

Gran Alianza Nacional (Gana) 35

Partido Patriota (PP) 32

Encuentro (Rigoberta Menchú’s party) 4

In total, of the 158 seats in Congress, left parties obtained 53, but rightwing parties obtained 105.

In the capital, La Ciudad de Guatemala, Pérez Molina took 227,000 votes to the left’s 205,000.

Paul Haste is a union organizer from London who is currently living in Bogotá to improve his Spanish. He can be reached at: paul.jisv@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. John Reed said on September 17th, 2007 at 3:25pm #

    If the Mayans want a serious candidate, pick someone other the the shameless fraud Menchu. We all know from the NYT piece from several years ago that much of her “story” in the film “When the Mountains Tremble,” is PHONY. Get a real candidate — not a fraud.

  2. Paul said on September 18th, 2007 at 4:29pm #

    Considering that the New York Times shamelessly lied and printed fraudulent stories to support Bush’s war against the Iraq, I don’t think it reflects well on anyone who relies on that newspaper to back up their argument.

    As for Menchú, whatever dispute there was about some details of her experience living under American sponsored military dictatorships, there is no doubt that she lost her mother, father, two brothers, a sister in law and three nephews and nieces at the hands of extreme right wing death squads.

    That Menchú refused to be a passive victim, and instead dedicated her life to resisting the dictators imposed on her country by the US, should at least be worthy of our respect.