miércoles, 14 de noviembre de 2007


Phrases like “Colom defeated former Army General Perez Molina, a high-ranking officer during Guatemala’s years of bloody dictatorship and counterinsurgency warfare in the 1980´s”, “Colom promised to expand social programs [while] Perez Molina countered with pledges to bring order to Guatemala by using the military to rule with an ‘iron fist’”; others like “Center-leftist Alvaro Colom won Guatemala's presidential election, denying power to a retired general who had sought to unleash the army to fight a violent crime wave” or “voters with bad memories of military rule turned down Perez Molina's plans to send more soldiers onto the streets, boost the use of capital punishment and declare states of emergency to fight crime.” set against the backdrop of comments like “The army ruled Guatemala for decades until the mid-1980s and committed hundreds of massacres in 36 years of civil war with leftist rebels. More than 200,000 people died, most of them Mayan peasants killed in army-led massacres.” are a common example of how the left-wing international media have presented and explained the outcome of Guatemala’s recent presidential elections.
Indeed Mr. Colom won with a clear margin, but the explanations as to why this happened much differ from the far-fetched arguments reported by the international press, in what seems to me is more a case of trying to push an ideological agenda.
If we look at the facts we will first notice that this was Colom’s third run at the presidency, which means that after three campaigns he had a significant and stable number of loyal supporters backing his pledge, especially in rural Guatemala. In fact, that is one of the reasons why so many analysts, including myself, predicted long ago that he would win, since less than a year ago no other candidate seemed to be able to shorten the distance. Money follows the winner and in this case it followed Mr. Colom. Some of Guatemala’s elite economic powers tried to get comfortable with the idea of a president associated with center-left populist ideals.
The real question was who would be the one to challenge him in the runoff election, since no one wins on the first round. Guatemala is a country of contrasts, an in the political arena the conflict generally lies between gaining acceptance within the urban population as a trade off to making borderline populist promises to mostly poor peasants in rural areas. Mr. Colom had his share of the electoral market well defined and consolidated. For all practical purposes, except maybe for the FRG party which ended up with a surprising 7%, other candidates that ran along similar o more extreme lines, including Ms. Rigoberta Menchu, had virtually no chance. Was there then a candidate who could sum up the whole of the so called “center-right” urban vote and defeat Mr. Colom in this epic battle, thus saving the despaired middle class of Guatemala? At the final stage of the race it would seem that it was General Perez Molina. But something happened on the way to heaven.
To make a long story short, the natural candidate of the ruling GANA party was Mr. Eduardo Gonzalez, who had worked closely with the administration until “his” bank (Bancafe) was shut down by regulators a little over ten months prior to the election. Making the best of their improvisational skills the GANA party wound up nominating Alejandro Giamattei, best known for restoring order to one of Guatemala’s most important prisons, until then dominated by inmates, during his short term as director of the penitentiary system. Mr. Giamattei finished third among fourteen candidates with a respectable 19% of the vote. Another surprise was brought forth by the well-respected academic Eduardo Suger who carried an encouraging 7% defined as the more intellectual, reasoned vote.
Two questions will be left unanswered regarding the first round of the elections. Had Mr. Giamattei more time, would he have been able to overcome General Perez? Had either of these two candidates been depicted more accurately in the polls (they were always placed lower than their actual results), would urban voters had turned to them instead of General Perez and called upon either of them to beat Colom? A third question might be had Giamattei sneaked into the second round would he have defeated Colom? Knowing what we know now, I’m not so sure that would be a definite no.
The field was ready for the runoff battle and all bets were off. With a difference of about one hundred and fifty thousand votes, General Perez Molina was in better position to win if he was able to persuade the over-half-a-million like-minded voters of Giamattei, plus the two hundred and thirty thousand “anti-populist” votes of Suger. In the end, Colom won by about one hundred and fifty thousand votes and people started to wonder why.
The left-wing international media immediately claimed an ideological victory in the best anti-military fashion. For them it was a sweet success on their political agenda, but their argument is as tasty as the cheese the moon is made out of.
With 70% of the Guatemalan population being under 30 years of age, one can hardly argue that this election had something to do with lingering memories, or I might even call them resentments, of the civil war years. General Perez Molina and his staff made several simple but crucial mistakes, and that cost him the presidency when all he had to do was rise to the challenge and earn it.
The number one concern for Guatemalans today is crime. General Perez Molina seemed to grasp it and run with it. His “mano dura” (strong hand) slogan symbolized the idea that he would be tough on crime, even taking advantage of his military background. “Character and determination” he said, but the argument didn’t go much farther and voters soon realized it. While it was good enough to give him an initial boost to break away from the pack that was trying to catch up to Colom, it certainly wouldn’t be enough to put him over the top. The superficiality of his argument became evident in the debates in which he accepted to participate. His response to everything seemed to be “mano dura”, clearly disappointing voters.
Another tactical mistake was not adequately exploiting the reputation of his running mate, widely respected businessman Ricardo Castillo, something which Colom did very intelligently with his, Rafael Espada, an internationally renowned heart surgeon who sold the party on his “social” projection.
As the date approached polls started to show General Perez Molina slightly ahead, and then overconfidence became his worst enemy. First he chose not to participate in two important debates, “a circus” he called them. The latest was eventually held and ran in Guatemala’s largest radio network, most important cable television network, and largest newspaper. Mr. Colom was the only clown, but he put on a pretty decent show.
Two particular events headlined the news in the days to come. One was the fact that General Perez Molina had not performed, and in addition several local cable companies had chosen not to broadcast the debate blocking the channel. The other one had to do with two high-ranking congresswomen of Perez’s party, one of them chair of the anti-corruption committee, having spent the equivalent of US$2,000.00 of public funds on a two-day spree at one of Guatemala’s premiere hotels in the colonial city of Antigua.
To the urban population “mano dura” would have meant character to face a rival in a debate with strong and profound arguments. It could have also meant that discipline would have been applied after the errant behavior of their party members. But “mano dura” suddenly had become the invisible hand.
When one considers the strong backing that Giamattei received, one can not discard the fact that most of his voters had recognized in someone like him some of the few but visible accomplishments of the current administration, perhaps only surpassed in terms of public opinion by the favourable perception of the Minister of Education, María del Carmen Aceña, a woman of unquestionable integrity. During the term of this administration very few incidents had outraged public opinion as the opportunistic, corrupt and cynical conduct of public schoolteacher’s union leader Joviel Acevedo. Ms. Aceña valiantly stood up to this charlatan in her determination to carry forward with important and well needed education reforms. Middle and upper class urban voters supported her. General Perez Molina chose to side with Mr. Acevedo instead, or at least it was perceived that way after photos of them together happily conversing appeared in all newspapers. There went about a half a million votes.
Similar results were produced when congresswoman Roxana Baldeti, the joint secretary general of the party and controversial for what some considered vulgar displays throughout the campaign, also appeared on very friendly terms with one important figure of the FRG party, responsible for the most corrupt administration in the country’s democratic history.
The straw that broke the camel’s back has to do with the fact that very close to the end of the race the truly nasty campaign intensified, mostly against Colom. Massive emails were constantly invading the computers of those middle and upper class citizens who have access to the internet with messages that literally accused Colom of being the Devil himself. Although the dirty campaigning went both ways, Colom was at a disadvantage, at least in terms of being the most attacked in the sleaziest way. Pick on someone long enough and you end up making him a victim. In a way that got Alfonso Portillo of the FRG elected after constantly being hammered for having killed two Mexican citizens. The murderer became the brave man who defended his life as he would defend that of all Guatemalans, an argument that got him to the presidency.
To sum up, middle and upper class urban voters had no initial intention of voting for Colom, and they probably never did, but Otto Perez Molina and his party’s tactics never swayed them in his favour either. And that is the true reason behind Colom’s victory.
Post Scriptum: The object of this article is to explain the reasons why Alvaro Colom became elected president of Guatemala in comparison to the arguments proposed by many international news services. It is not intended to express any political preference, or to discredit any of the candidates, including Mr. Colom, of whom I have a favorable opinion, and as an ordinary Guatemalan citizen will give him the benefit of the doubt.

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