The dilemmas of the popular movement

Every election is a democratic possibility and hope for real change in Guatemala cannot be lost. However, bad omens abound and are not without well-founded reasons and motives.

By Frank Ulloa

On Sunday 20, Guatemala must choose its rulers once again, but is this really a choice or a new trap in the country’s recent history?

Changing rulers so that nothing changes seems to have been an infallible recipe. For many decades, Guatemala has been governed by a civil-military elite, linked to the large transnational corporations that have appropriated the country’s enormous resources. According to the World Bank, Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America, but has the second highest incidence of poverty and the lowest human development index on the continent, after Haiti and Honduras.

This power is not being challenged and they will try to put a new democratic face on the new government so that finally the change will not lead to real transformations. Undoubtedly, the electoral system allows for the appearance of a new change and has been used for this in recent decades, but it seems to be an exhausted resource and any hope for change through elections will only increase hopelessness.

Abstention has won

So much so that abstention was the winner in the last election in June. With a figure of over 40 per cent, the abstention expressed the rejection of an electoral system that was not very credible, which had excluded three presidential candidates with real chances of winning as an expression of the popular sectors. The options of indigenous peoples were also excluded by judicial decisions or by the electoral system. It is no coincidence that voters abstained by the hundreds of thousands in all regions.

The institutional crisis that does not seem to be coming to an end

Since the “return to democracy”, there has been a succession of elections and candidacies, some with more credibility than others, but in the end, it is the de facto powers that are reborn like weeds. After each episode, the true face of a castrated democracy appears, limited by powerful economic, religious and military interests, now joined by the power of drug trafficking, which permeates and penetrates everything. The institutional crisis could not be more serious. Fascist groups have become entrenched in the structure of the state and have caused the executive branch, Congress, the judicial system and the Attorney General’s Office to lose all credibility, when they manage to use the institutions to eliminate their adversaries, under the motto “everything for my friends, the law for my enemies”. How to face these challenges with a minority popular force? In this context, is an alternative that renews democracy and promotes a strong and independent justice system possible? Can changes in labour legislation and guarantees of trade union freedom be expected?

In the shadows

If historical experience is anything to go by, we can ask ourselves: will the hidden powers allow for real change this time? Semilla and its candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, have two options: either to make a pact with sectors of the political and business elites to give them guarantees of stability and achieve a minimum of governability, or to do so with the rural population, indigenous peoples, trade unions and human rights organisations. However, the lack of a proposal to renew rights increases mutual distrust and makes the latter possibility remote, and the idea of a new political constitution to reorganise the old oppressive state is more likely. In addition, the new government will need the political capacity to face new demands of the popular and trade union movement that are still pending: confronting growing unemployment, corruption, environmental depredation and the violation of labour and trade union rights, the needs of popular housing and so many others that still have no solution in sight. From a trade union perspective, one can only expect limited dialogue, more repression in companies, less room for negotiation and greater violation of labour rights.

Gerardo Iglesias

A democratic possibility or a new frustration

Semilla will be a minority political force, with little possibility of influencing the judicial system, the legislature and the powers that be. The road ahead for the movement and its candidate is not an easy one. Congress will be largely controlled by the traditional parties, including the outgoing president’s Vamos party and Sandra Torres’ UNE. Even if Semilla wins at the polls this Sunday, as predicted by the polls, he will face all kinds of obstacles, including from the military, because the possibility of a coup is increasingly becoming a possibility in the face of an institutional crisis that will continue for the next few years. For other political forces such as CODECA, which represents the majority indigenous population, neither Torres nor Arévalo appears to be an alternative to the great needs of the Guatemalan population. There is also reasoned opposition from Telma Cabrera’s Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MPL), the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA) and Jordán Rodas, former Human Rights Ombudsman, whose project is oriented towards the creation of a National Constituent Assembly to give way to a Plurinational State and the nationalisation of electricity.

The limits of victory

If he wins, Arevalo will have to govern with a failed institutionality. On Sunday 20, abstentionism could be repeated. According to polls, Arevalo will get more than 60 percent of the vote, because Sandra Torres has a large number of unmotivated voters. Everything seems to indicate that in this context it is not possible to open the doors to democracy and confront the authoritarian onslaught. The elites seem to be able to sleep easy. If Arevalo wins, any government plan he might have would face opposition from most of the benches in Congress, which eliminates any kind of profundity of change. Arévalo can either give a democratic face to an outdated and failed political system or fail again. The power of the intransigent right wing, the fascist businessmen, the military, the judicial bureaucracy, as well as criminal structures, are in question, but they have not been defeated and continue in the political game. They have a great capacity to mimic the labyrinths of the democratic institutionality of the failed constitution. Indigenous peoples will have to remain in resistant. There is no hope for real change. Guatemalan democracy suffers from the slow erosion of political, economic, social and cultural rights. Still, I would like to think that the seed of democracy will finally sprout and its fruits will be shared in a new multi-ethnic society.