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General Analyses
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The Results are In! Guatemalans Vote "NO" for Molina's "Heavy Hand"; Colom Elected President
Alexandra Durbin, NISGUA
11/16/2007

In the wake ofGuatemala's runoff elections on November 4, 2007, the general sense among the social movement is one of relief at the defeat of a former army officer implicated in both wartime and peacetime crimes. A win by Otto Perez Molina would have been tantamount to a go-ahead for continued impunity.

The final tally conveyed that businessman Alvaro Colom Caballeros garnered 52.8% of the vote to Perez Molina's 47.2%. The opposition's respect for the election results seems to be a small step forward for the rule of law in Guatemala, given that a powerful former army general rapidly conceded his loss at the ballot box. A particularly heartening sign for Guatemalan democracy is that the traditionally disenfranchised rural and indigenous populations carried the day, as their votes earned Colom his victory.

However, the portrayal of Colom and his National Unity of Hope (UNE) party as a harbinger of social transformation in Guatemala is exaggerated. Due to its progressive discourse and its connection to the International Socialist Organization, the party was perceived among many voters and depicted in many press outlets as a center-left option. But the truth is that UNE resists a clear classification, as it comprises a mishmash of interests including significant links to big business and suspected clandestine groups. Both Perez Molina's Patriot Party (PP) and Colom's UNE party are believed to be infiltrated by mafias.

Colom's past includes running textile businesses, supporting the refugees' return from Mexico, working with the official Land Fund, and training as a Maya spiritual guide. The new vice president is respected physician Rafael Espada whose cardiology practice in Houston caters to the Guatemalan elite while providing health care free of charge to poor patients.  While Colom and Espada were elected on a platform promising improvements for Guatemala's poor majority, many civil society and grassroots organizations in Guatemala are not holding their breath.  The post-election mood among local activists is one of victory for the lesser of two evils: under Colom the dire human rights situation might not improve significantly, but under Perez Molina it almost certainly would have worsened.

Perez Molina prevailed in Guatemala City, where his tough-on-crime platform won over many urban voters disgusted with the high level of insecurity, and where the general population knows little of the brutal civil war in which Perez Molina commanded troops. In the countryside, however, citizens voted overwhelmingly - in some areas 70 to 80 percent - against him, with many publicly referencing the war and expressing their fear that he would reinstate repression. He had, after all, announced his intention to reactivate the civil patrols that were part of the military structure responsible for over 90% of wartime human rights violations. Analysts estimate that a third of the population rejected Perez Molina outright for being part of the military.

As voting day neared, news leaked out about Perez Molina's role in the civil war and in more recent human rights crimes. Newspaper ads by citizens' groups and leaflets dropped onto city streets reminded voters of his suspected involvement in the brutal 1998 murder of beloved Bishop Gerardi days after the church leader released a report of war testimonies. In an October 31 interview with the U.S.-based media show Democracy Now!, author Francisco Goldman noted Molina's links to the Gerardi murder and to illegal security structures; youth in towns such as Santiago Atitlan downloaded, translated, and handed out copies of the interview transcript to citizens and voters.

Another blow to Perez Molina was his refusal to participate in a series of televised debates - a decision likely precipitated by his fear of addressing expected questions about his involvement in the Gerardi murder and other abuses. This move increased Colom's media visibility, while depicting Perez Molina as arrogant and unable to articulate his own platform.

In addition, Perez Molina's energetic dismissal of agrarian reform lost him support in rural areas. His running-mate, industrialist Ricardo Castillo Sinibaldi, managed to further alienate indigenous voters by expressing racist attitudes, including a rejection of Mayan languages.

Meanwhile, Colom appealed to rural voters by focusing his campaign speeches on poverty, hunger, and landlessness and promising to solicit Maya elders' opinions on government matters. His approach translated into victory in 20 of the 22 departments.

Also, Colom's latest campaign slogan affirming that "Violence is met with intelligence" rang true with voters who recognize that Guatemala's high level of insecurity is directly related to unemployment and exclusion. Perez Molina's simplistic mano dura ("heavy-handed") stance to crime paled beside Colom's more nuanced approach. Female voters in particular were turned off by the authoritarian undertones of the PP message.

Approximately 47% of the population went to the polls for this runoff round. Election day transpired calmly, although violence marred the months leading up to it. A PP secretary and a former operative with the High Presidential Guard (EMP) were killed in early October; suspicion arose that the double murder was related to internal party squabbles. The UNE lost 18 of its candidates to murder over the course of campaign season (May-November). When a key strategist left the UNE, he received threatening phone calls that he attributes to organized crime elements within the party. And two journalists from elPeriodico received death threats when they uncovered alleged links between the PP and drug-trafficking.

In the days leading up to the elections, polls published in Guatemala's major newspapers showed Perez Molina in the lead. The surveys' predictions were off by over 10 percentage points. (The one exception is elPeriodico, whose polls consistently tapped Colom as the winner.) Some have attributed this discrepancy to last-minute changes of opinion and flaws in a polling process that was slanted to urban voters. Other analysts suspect that the polls were intentionally biased in an underhanded, last-ditch attempt to drum up additional support for the PP by artificially inflating its popularity.

Relief at Perez Molina's defeat is muted by a recognition of the serious challenges facing the next administration. If Colom's promises of improving social welfare were not simply used to win votes but are actually genuine, their implementation is sure to clash with the interests of the oligarchy, the military, and clandestine structures, including the very individuals and groups that backed Colom's campaign.

Even if Colom does set out to tackle poverty, violence, and racism, he will have to contend with well-entrenched systems of privilege and impunity that resist reform. Colom's vague proposals, the weak image that he projects, and his penchant for making questionable alliances do not bode well for the formidable tasks that he will face during his term in office.

Moreover, his negotiation skills will be put to the test as he interacts with a legislature split into 11 parties that includes figures such as General Efrain Rios Montt who presided over a particularly violent period of the genocidal war. And Perez Molina himself has pledged to stay in the public light; his backers could constitute a formidable opposition force.

In the end, Colom will be forced to conduct a balancing act between competing interests. Will he ensure that the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is able to uncover clandestine structures of violence and repression, or will he stand aside as shady parallel powers manipulate the State? Will he undertake tax reform to finance sorely needed social programs, or will he yield to the big-business interests that jealously guard their wealth? Will he respect the rights of communities to oppose mega-development projects on their lands, or will he give in to international pressures to further advance the "free trade" agenda in the hemisphere?  In determining public policy, will Colom fulfill his campaign promises to the indigenous and poor majority, or will his corporate cronies dominate decision-making as usual?

NISGUA will stay vigilant and keep our base informed, as opposition forces both nationally and internationally will certainly challenge Colom if and when he attempts to institute his progressive campaign promises. As always, NISGUA will push for U.S. policies - both corporate-led and State-led - that will give Guatemalans within and outside the government the necessary democratic spaces to instigate positive change.

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