Laughing All the Way to Tyranny

Guatemala’s election last week was full of surprises; three days before the vote the sitting president was forced out of office by enormous public demonstrations: he then followed his vice president to prison, accused of a vast though rather mundane customs corruption scheme. The election’s expected winner, conservative Manuel Baldizon, inexplicably finished in third place after leading throughout the summer. The wife of the country’s last leftist president (who had already ‘divorced’ her husband to run in the previous election in a transparent attempt to bypass the country’s nepotism laws) barely squeaked into the upcoming second round of the election. And the winner of the first round of the election was a TV comedian who had been seen as a bit-player almost until Election Day.

Jimmy Morales and his party have been widely described, in Guatemala and abroad, as non-political outsiders who capitalized on public mobilization and disgust with the corruption and nepotism of the country’s political class. But as sociologist Virgilio Alvarez Aragon writes in Plaza Publica, they do not represent a break with either the country’s corrupt political past, nor with the extraordinarily violent military regimes which ruled the country for decades.

It has become quite clear that what the supposed non-politician Jimmy Morales really represents is an electoral bid by a group of military men who took the failed 2011 candidate for mayor of Mixco, and presented him as a political outsider so that they, as his advisors, could take control of the apparatus of government.

Citing a study by the Asies think-tank, Haroldo Xetemul has already pointed out that the party backing Morales is by no means new to politics. Though his party has never won any elections, the military officers who founded it are men who were middle management in the most sinister regimes of this country’s recent history. One standout in his list of deputies is Lieutenant Colonel Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, elected on the party’s national list. During the government of Lucas Garcia, he was the director of the military base at Coban in Alta Verapaz, where in recent years, the skeletons of 535 people have been uncovered. People who were tortured and murdered there, very probably in the years when Ovalle Maldonado ran the base.

Javier Hernandez Ovalle, who was elected to congress from the capital district, was previously a deputy for the [conservative]GANA party. His term as a legislator was an obscure one and he is now set to do the same as a member of a party that calls itself a party of non-politicians. Arias Rodriguez, elected from Chimaltenango, had longtime business links with the municipality of the state capital there, for which reason he should have been ruled ineligible for elective office. Flor Chajon, elected from municipal lists, was head of the Social Welfare Fund and a leader in the government of [right-wing former military officer] President Otto Perez, and remained active in the Patriotic Party until very recently. The party’s deputies, in other words, are old hands in the field of politics, though none distinguished themselves as efficient public servants, let alone as open defenders of transparency and the scrupulous management of public funds.

There is no such thing, in other words, as a non-political party or candidate. There is, however, a group of little-known former military officers who were closely linked to the [military]governments of Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejia Victores, and of politicians from the middling levels of the Patriotic Party. The party’s presidential candidate not only claims to have no plan for governing, since “nobody actually does what they say they’ll do anyway,” but he has actually announced that it will be his “advisors” who get things done once they take over various ministries. After all, Morales told journalists on the night after the election, he doesn’t consider himself “the most prepared to govern Guatemala.” Nevertheless, he added, God had blessed him with victory.

Presuming (without granting) that his motives are pure, if Mr. Morales wins the final round of the election on Oct. 27, we will nevertheless end up with a government in which every member of the cabinet pulls in his own direction and improvises in response to whatever issue comes along. In which case, just as in the past four years, the markedly authoritarian and militaristic governing style favored by the party’s principal figures will end up imposing an even more arrogant and authoritarian regime than the one which just succumbed to popular protest.

History has already clearly shown us that military men do not come up with the best solutions on questions of security and the like. Extorsions have not abated, and the militarization of highway transport and import customs have certainly not produced any positive results. To the contrary, in the case of customs, it has instead given us the Mafia known as La Linea.

On another note, everyone now knows that on the southern coast, the rural vote in favor of the comedian was driven by former members of the civil defense militias who were promised that he would be awarding them higher pay for their services. However, neither the candidate nor his party have come up with a clear program for fighting hunger and poverty in this region.

We can expect worse things to come from the group of military men from the Perez Molina circle; they have made intolerance and a Manichean world view their public discourse; they see Reds and Soviets everywhere, and consider anything that with a vague scent of social justice or the struggle for equality to be the work of terrorists. The open public support for the comedian by the imprisoned Byron Lima [officer convicted of assassinating a leftist Catholic bishop]demonstrates the true moral and political character of the people who, advancing behind a supposed non-politician, hope to seize the state.

Morales, as Carol Zardetto has written, is a figurehead for this group. Rather than leadership, what he offers is submission to these interests. So if plenty of people let themselves get carried away in the first round by his supposed novelty and candidness, now that the curtains have been drawn back, what we need to do is clearly evaluate the qualities and mindset of the candidate and the group that surrounds him.

It would be sad indeed if the broad swathes of society which actively and peacefully mobilized to demand the resignation of Pres. Perez Molina and Baldetti were to end up voting in people who not only support another kind of iron fisted rule, but who don’t even show any skill at the exercise of power.

And we can only hope that the country’s big capitalist interests do not, by financing his campaign, once again end up taking control of the key ministries. If that happens, as it did under the previous governments of Perez-Baldetti and Berger, they will do little but look after their own narrow interests, contributing no economic vision and no policies that favor the broader economic development of the country.

Virgilio Álvarez Aragón Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard