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Date: Sat, 9 Dec 1995 07:21:23 GMT
Reply-To: Rich Winkel <rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu>
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>
From: Rich Winkel <rich@pencil.math.missouri.edu>
Organization: PACH
Subject: Guatemala: A Test for Democratization
To: Multiple recipients of list ACTIV-L <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.missouri.edu>

/** reg.guatemala: 246.0 **/
** Topic: Guatemala: A Test for Democratizatio **
** Written 12:25 PM Dec 7, 1995 by resourcectr in cdp:reg.guatemala **
DEMOCRACY BACKGROUNDER: A Forum for the Study of U.S. Government Democratization Programs and Other Democratization Issues.

Guatemala: A Test for Democratization

The Democracy Backgrounder, Vol.1 no.4, November 1995

It could be taken as a propitious sign for politics in Central America that the question increasingly asked about elections is not whether they were free but whether the people voted. In recent years, the previously prevalent concerns about military coups and fraudulent elections have been replaced by concerns about the high abstention rates. Despite an intensive civic education and get-out-the-vote campaign, only 46.5 percent of the registered voters cast ballots in Guatemala's recent presidential election on November 12, 1995.

The 1995 election was Guatemala's seventh time its citizens went to the polls since 1984 when the Guatemalan army acceded to international and domestic pressures to turn over the government to civilians. None of the elections has been tainted by charges of widespread fraud, and the military has not intervened in the electoral process in the past twelve years. The peaceful transfer of power from the ruling Christian Democratic Party to the opposition party MAS headed by Jorge Serrano in 1990 and the quick resolution of the autogolpe by Serrano in 1993 were indications that Guatemala was successfully making the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.

The recent elections were the first time voters could choose among candidates representing the entire political spectrum from right to left. Nineteen parties presented presidential candidates, most of them to the right of center but one clearly identified with the popular sectors. Instead of calling for abstention as it has in the past, the URNG guerrilla coalition actually encouraged Guatemalans to vote, thereby conferring the electoral process with a new credibility. No longer were elections condemned by the left as a strategy to bolster an illegitimate government.

Despite such hopeful signs, democracy is still in the transitional stage in Guatemala. Although the trappings of a democratic government are largely all in place, little else is. The military remains the real power in the country, and the civilian government has been unable to establish a legal system that guarantees that laws and rights are respected. Gross violations of human rights continue to be widespread. Reflecting the failure of government to improve their socioeconomic conditions and to end political corruption, a large segment of Guatemalan society has opted not to participate in the political process.

The Results

With respect to the consolidation of the democratic process in Guatemala, the November 12 elections had mixed results. Efforts by nongovernmental groups, concerned about declining voter participation and the large number of unregistered voters, helped increase voter registration by five percent, raising the total of registered voters to more than 70 percent of the eligible population. The fair showing of the New Guatemala Democratic Front, which captured 8 percent of the vote, placed fourth in presidential vote, and won at least five (and as high as seven seats) in the 80-member Congress, proved auspicious for future electoral campaigns by the democratic left. The respectable showing by the Democratic Front was also a good sign for the peace negotiations. A less favorable showing would have made it easier for the military and government to shrug off demands by the URNG guerrilla coalition for substantive talks.

But the results were not entirely positive. Although higher than predicted, the turnout was still low and will likely be still lower in the second round run-off election scheduled for January 7, 1996. Voters will be forced to choose between two rightwing candidates, one of whom represents a party known for its authoritarian and antidemocratic positions.

Alvaro Arzu, head of the National Advancement Party (PAN), won 37 percent of the vote. Arzu represents the modernizing business class and briefly served as foreign relations minister during the Serrano government. PAN, which takes rightwing positions on issues such as Belize and the privatization of state enterprises, is commonly regarded as being the political project of the newly emerging financial and business elite. Although the allotment of congressional seats has not yet been announced, it is believed that PAN will hold as many as 42 seats, in which case it will have an absolute majority.

Following PAN in the voting totals was the Guatemalan National Front (FRG), the party of Efrain Rios Montt, a former military dictator prohibited from running because of his leading role in a coup d'etat in 1982. The FRG's presidential candidate, Alfonso Portillo won an unexpectedly high 22 percent of the vote. Portillo, a lawyer and former congressional leader of the Christian Democratic Party, left the Christian Democrats to join Rios Montt's more popular party. Despite Portillo's poorer showing, it is possible that the FRG could win in the second round if it is able to gain the support of other parties and if the popular sympathies for the authoritarian style of Rios Montt are transferred to Portillo. In the 1990 elections front runner Jorge Carpio was beaten in the second round by Jorge Serrano, who was supported by a coalition of parties. If elected, it is possible that Portillo could break with Rios Montt and choose a more centrist political path.

The Electoral Road

Guatemala's popular organizations and political left have recognized that the country's unjust social and economic structures cannot be changed through armed struggle. Given the current political climate internationally, regionally, and domestically the only plausible path to reform is within the framework of electoral politics.

In that the popular and armed left are the political sectors most concerned with the plight of the country's large majority of poor people, the prospects for success within a democratic system are theoretically good. The challenge, then, is to organize this majority behind political candidates that progressive coalitions put forward.

In making the transition from armed and popular movements to a political force, the left faces numerous obstacles, many of which became apparent in the November 12 elections but others of which concern the larger political context in Guatemala. Unquestionably the most serious impediment is the pervasive repression in Guatemala. Not only does political violence authorized and generally carried out by the military make it difficult for the left to organize publicly, but it has also eliminated many of the country's most capable leaders. Guatemala is a frightening country in which suspicion, intimidation, and fear pervade all aspects of social, political, and economic life. In recent years, the shocking rise in street crime has heightened these tensions and added to the uncertainty about the origins of violence in Guatemalan society.

The left's lack of credibility and respect makes it especially difficult for it to make the transition from its base in the armed and popular movements to electoral politics. In the uncertain and desperate circumstances that characterize life in Guatemala, continuing guerrilla warfare is widely seen as compounding the anarchy and violence of daily life. In the wake of the scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign waged by the army in the early 1980s, the URNG guerrilla armies have been unable either to reestablish a strong social base in Guatemala or to establish itself as a substantial military force. After having so adamantly called for popular boycotts of elections, the recent proclamations by the URNG declaring its support of the electoral system and a suspension of military actions were appropriate but probably had little impact on voter turnout or preference.

The low turnout for the general elections was not unexpected. Concerned about the increasing rates of abstention, the U.S. government mounted an extensive voter education campaign that involved community meetings, television and radio ads, and educational literature. Parallel to and generally indistinguishable from the U.S.-government sponsored effort was the intensive campaign directed by Rigoberta Menchu to increase citizen participation in the elections, especially among indians and women. According to Menchu: "In Guatemala we have worked hard to draw attention to human rights, the struggle against impunity, the struggle against repression, the struggle against militarization. That is to say, human rights more in the sense of the defense of life, but nobody has undertaken the work to defend political rights, civic rights."1

Late into the campaign, the country's popular movements and middle-class progressives came together to organize a left-of- center electoral alternative. However, the party's late start, internal fractures, poor financing, lack of experience, and inability to lay out a platform that significantly distinguished it from other parties prevented it from fully capitalizing on public dissatisfaction with the traditional parties and politics. Clearly the lack of a charismatic, well-known leader also hindered the Democratic Front. Nonetheless, the New Guatemala Democratic Front won a respectable and surprising portion of the vote. The left now has five years to organize a national political party and define a program that can win the confidence and capture the imagination of the Guatemalan public.

Voter education is certainly needed in Central America, but the left and the organized popular sectors would be wrong to attempt to combat abstentionism with programs that focus primarily on civics lessons. In Guatemala where more than half the population (and 80 percent of indigenous women) are illiterate and where four of every five people do not have their basic needs met civic education programs will do little to foster increased voter participation. If voters perceive it to be in their self- interest, they will increase their participation, even if it means walking several hours or more to the polling station at the township seat.

In 1985 Guatemalans did go overwhelmingly to the polls in the hope that Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo would bring an end to military control, a beginning of the rule of law, and a change in the country's unjust economic structures. It is true that Guatemala's fledgling democratic system is threatened by the apathy and cynicism with which most of its citizens regard electoral politics. But Guatemalan popular groups, associated NGOs, and the left in general would be wrong to fall into the trap of promoting the values of political democracy without at the same time doing the necessary political education that helps potential voters better understand the national and international context. This need for popular education together with the need to forge new political parties that are closely connected with popular movements are not challenges that face Guatemalans alone. Throughout the world progressives are struggling to find ways to make certain that democratic systems do indeed represent the interests of the majority.

Economic Development

The rising nonparticipation of large sectors of the electorate in the elections in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America cannot be attributed solely to the lack of voter education or even to charges that politicians are dishonest and corrupt. Increasingly, citizens are coming to the conclusion that political parties can or will do nothing to improve their daily lives. "We've tried army officers, evangelicals, and Catholics, and they've all robbed us blind," commented one nonvoting Guatemalan. "Why should I give someone else the chance to rob me."2

A political party that attempts to represent the majority of a country's citizens needs to formulate an economic platform that details the causes of impoverishment and present solutions. One of the attractions of revolutionary movements in Central America was their goal not only to overturn repressive governments but to replace them with ones that were committed to altering unjust economic structures. The Christian Democrats also attracted large followings because of their support for economic cooperatives as a solution to the exploitation of the poor. Since the late 1980s neoliberal politicians gained the favor of many voters because they offered concrete economic reform programs.

Despite the increasingly obvious failings of neoliberalism, it remains the only coherent economic development strategy that is being offered to voters. Even as bad as current economic circumstances are, voters are understandably cautious about favoring candidates who criticize economic policies without presenting a concrete economic development alternative. In the case of Guatemala, the Democratic Front failed to provide a credible economic model that would address the country's profound structural problems. The fact that the party's candidate was a former government banking official also made it difficult for the Democratic Front to contend that it was really offering a new option.

This problem of the absence of a cohesive alternative development mode is not one that is unique to Guatemala. The collapse of the socialist bloc and erosion of social democratic systems have resulted in a political/economic determinism that leaves free- market democracies as the only viable model of organizing a nation's political and economic affairs within the framework of an integrated global capitalist market. Moreover, the dominance of international trade and finance make it increasingly difficult for nations to chart national development strategies that deviate from the prescribed path.

If political parties have nothing different to offer voters and if economic policies are dictated largely by international forces, then the declining participation of citizens in the electoral process has a certain logic. Those who do not stand to gain from the patronage and spoils offered by political parties may decide that there is little reason to vote. For many Central Americans, things are already so bad that it is hard to be persuaded that a vote cast one way or the other will make any difference.

The U.S. Role

While the United States can rightly take credit for being the major force for creating and maintaining the structures of liberal democracy in Guatemala, it should also recognize that it is largely responsible for the political and economic conditions that make any true consolidation of democracy unlikely. Its role in toppling the reform government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and in supporting brutal authoritarian rule for three decades have shaped political life in Guatemala and made it so difficult to establish a rule of law in the country. Despite having suspended military aid, the U.S. government in the 1980s and 1990s has continued to lend support to the military in numerous ways, including CIA collaboration, antinarcotics partnerships, joint civic action programs, and the refusal to halt commercial military sales.

The U.S. government has played a central role in supporting the institutionalization of democracy in Guatemala since 1984. Concerned that rising rates of voter abstention would undermine the stability of the country's new democratic government, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and the U.S.- government's National Endowment for Democracy (NED) put special emphasis on voter education programs in 1995, hoping to revive citizen interest and participation. These programs, however, will do little to strengthen democracy in Guatemala unless they are accompanied by changes in U.S. foreign policy that focus on the need for demilitarization and for economic reforms that support broad development.

As Guatemala's major trading and investment partner, its chief source of aid, and the dominant influence within the world's multilateral financial institutions, the United States could do much more to put a halt to human rights abuses and to demilitarize Guatemalan society. The granting of aid and special trading privileges and the approval of multilateral loans should be conditioned on the radical downsizing of the Guatemalan armed forces and its complete ouster from government. The United States should support proposals put forward by the Civil Sectors Assembly and UN Independent Human Rights Observer, including a constitutional amendment that would limit the Guatemalan military to an external defense role, dismantling of the military- controlled Civil Defense Patrols, and an end to the military role in domestic intelligence.3

The U.S. insistence that Guatemala follow the neoliberal model and Washington's failure to disassociate itself totally from the Guatemalan armed forces do more to undermine the country's democracy than rising abstention rates. The use of U.S. taxes to fund voter education programs and other democratization programs do not address the fundamental obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in Guatemala. If such programs are to continue, they should be accompanied by reforms in U.S. foreign policy that help create the political and economic conditions for democracy.


1. Interview with Sally Burch, Agencia Latinoamericana de Informacion, September 26, 1995.

2. Cerigua Weekly Briefs, November 16, 1995.

3. See "Guatemala: United States Policy and the Guatemala Peace Process," WOLA Policy Brief, March 10, 1995.

4. These were Convergencia Civico-Politica de Mujeres, Dolores Bedoya de Molina Foundation, Asociacion para el Desarrollo Sostenible de Centroamerica, Fundacion Myrna Mack, Fundacion para la Paz y Desarrollo (FUNDAPAZD), Servicios Juridicos y Sociales, Central de Estudios Cooperativos, and Cooperativa de Periodistas Departamentales.

Editor: Tom Barry
Research Assistants: Donna Woodwell, Emily Fortney

The DEMOCRACY BACKGROUNDER is a monthly publication produced by the Interhemispheric Resource Center, a private nonprofit research and policy institute located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Founded in 1979, the Resource Center produces books, and policy reports about U.S. foreign relations with the Third World, as well as sponsoring popular education materials.

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