Guatemala: Land of the Generals

by Rick Rockwell

Ready to wade into the political swamp of Guatemala?

One of that country’s leading generals turned politician, Otto Perez Molina is visiting Washington. At one of his sessions before D.C.’s think tank crowd, one of the city’s biggest experts on Latin America whispered to a few folks in attendance that this was an example of how Guatemala is a toxic bog. Not just a bog, but a toxic bog.

Why toxic? Some of it has to do with corruption. Some of it has to do with drugs. Some of it has to do with violence. And some of it has to do with a pattern of looking to the generals for answers.

Perez Molina is running second in the Guatemalan polls so he is a serious contender. He represents a new right-wing party called Partido Patriota (the Patriotic Party). The fact that the party is new means nothing in the Guatemalan political context where parties come and go frequently and no party has won re-election to the presidency in a generation.

Perez Molina’s key resume point is that he rallied the military to thwart President Jorge Serrano when that president tried to suspend Guatemala’s Constitution. But was Perez Molina a leader or a reactionary? Serrano had ordered censors into newspaper offices. The newspapers responded bravely by drawing public attention to Serrano’s power grab, despite the censors. The media got people into the streets to protest, and only then did the military and the oligarchy go along with dumping Serrano.

Perez Molina admits his candidacy is controversial, because during the administration of President Ramiro de Leon Carpio, Perez Molina was running Guatemala’s spy agencies. Some may recall this was during the Guatemalan civil war, which simmered for 36 years and left more than 200,000 dead in its wake, not to mention an additional 100,000 who permanently disappeared. So clearly, some believe Perez Molina must have known about the semi-official death squads, the sanctioned massacres, and the military corruption of the era.

Perez Molina denies knowing any specifics. And in a neat political trick, he is running using all the right political rhetoric. He’s calling for government transparency, a fight against impunity, and outreach even to the indigenous communities, which were the target of the genocide of the latter portion of the 20th Century.

Perez Molina is not the first to resurrect a political career from the fetid history of Guatemala’s civil war, ripe as it is with story upon story of human rights abuses. Look at Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. Rios Montt is running again for a seat in the Guatemalan Congress, which carries immunity from prosecution. Even though Rios Montt was one of Guatemala’s dictators during one of the worst periods of the war, he served for years as the top leader of Guatemala’s Congress. After he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2003, he was put on house arrest while courts wrestled with whether he should stand trial for the death of a reporter during street protests engineered by his political party preceding the electoral campaign. But eventually, charges were dropped. Even though a Spanish court is trying to bring him to justice for the wrongs of the 1980s, Rios Montt is smiling and running again.

Meanwhile, Guatemala is suffering from a wave of political violence with representatives of most of the leading parties falling victim to the crimes; more than 50 have been assassinated so far this year.

This is why Guatemalans turn to the generals. They think a strong man can bring order. Cynically, some may also believe the former generals can get rogue elements of the military to heel.

And so prospects are good for Rios Montt and Perez Molina: as the level of insecurity rises, so too do their potential electoral fortunes.

(Campaign photo of Gen. Otto Perez Molina from the Partido Patriota.)

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Laura Snedeker said...

Latin American generals and former dictators seem to retain too much influence to be locked up like they should be (Pinochet got to stay Senator and army commander, and the ARENA Party still runs El Salvador).

Which think tank(s) did Perez Molina visit? I see he was Guatemala's rep to the IADB.

Also, I wonder about John Negroponte's return to the State Department, given his history in Latin America.

Rick Rockwell said...

While he was in Washington, Perez Molina had meetings at the State Department and with members of the National Security Council at the White House. He also held sessions with the Washington Office on Latin America and the Inter-American Dialogue, along with a series of other meetings.

As for John Negroponte... he has occupied that shadowy netherworld between diplomacy and spycraft for much of his career. He was the one who ran the Contra War for the White House out of the U.S. Embassy in Honduras.

Interesting though that ballots not bullets changed the situation and brought peace in Nicaragua.

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