While I was having dinner with colleagues in Guatemala back in July, we inevitably talked about the upcoming presidential elections. Our Guatemalan colleagues insisted the election was fixed: Manuel Baldizón, millionaire businessman of the right-wing Democratic Liberty party, would be the next president.
“But why?” we naive Americans asked.
Renewed for a presidential bid because he was the runner-up in the previous election and has now been properly molded and manipulated by the power elites to serve as president. But what about Baldizón’s vice-presidential candidate’s indictment for corruption? Will that not have a negative impact on his campaign? It does not matter, my colleagues responded – the election was fixed.
This sentiment was not a new one to me. Friends and colleagues voiced similar pessimism during the 2011 elections, where Baldizón came in second. In 2011, Otto Pérez Molina, never convicted but widely known to have orchestrated several massacres of indigenous peoples back in the 1980s, was elected president. Pérez Molina had been the runner-up in the 2007 election but was beaten by Álvaro Colom, who was the runner-up in the 2003 election to Óscar Berger, who was the runner-up in the 1999 election to Alfonso Portillo. Guess who was the runner-up in the 1995 election?
Conspiracy theories aside, what rests at the heart of this sentiment are ongoing feelings of political and social disenfranchisement. The first democratic election in Guatemala occurred in 1944, yet ten years later, the second democratically “elected” president (Jacobo Árbenz) was overthrown in a CIA covert operation, and the U.S.-backed dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas, was “selected” to be president. The following decades saw a series of coups and military dictatorships, as well as a bloody civil war deemed genocide by the United Nations. The 1996 Peace Accords reinstated democratic processes but many espoused ideals remained on paper only. This history of Guatemala consistently silencing the Guatemalan people, both literally and figuratively, continues to be reflected in the sentiments like those held by my Guatemalan colleagues.
But, one might argue, all that has changed now. August saw a series of national protests and the consequences of a corruptive scandal resulting in the resignation of President Pérez Molina. Emboldened by the protests, a record number of voters turned out for the Sept. 6 elections and broke the cycle. Baldizón is now out of the race, and the current front-runner is Jimmy Morales, a television comedian with no political experience, whose early campaigning efforts consisted of a series of jokes. Many critics claim that votes were not necessarily for Morales but against the status quo that has defined Guatemalan politics for the past several decades.
Runoff elections between Morales and Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of ex-President Álvaro Colom, are set for Oct. 25.
But, does Morales really represent a new voice for the people? His slogan states that he is “neither corrupt nor a thief,” but these are not the only issues at stake. Morales acknowledges his inexperience and says that he may not have all the answers, but he knows of whom to ask questions. He has already named various ex-military leaders as his advisors. These ex-military leaders, like Morales, all deny that the genocide occurred during the time of the civil war. This poses a problem for the ongoing trial of ex-President Efraín Ríos Montt, who was found guilty of overseeing the genocidal killings of the 1980s. The conviction of Ríos Montt was a first step toward reconciliation of a dark time in Guatemalan history although the conviction was overturned on a technicality. While a Morales presidency may mean less explicit acts of corruption, it will most likely continue to silence the quest for justice, and it could even lead to a resurgence of military dictatorial ideals which were already revitalized to a certain extent by Pérez Molina.
Many of us at the University of Dallas have close personal and professional ties to Guatemala. The safety of our loved ones is always a concern, given the high rates of violence and instability throughout the nation. I do not believe that those concerns will be alleviated if Morales wins the election in October, and they may indeed be augmented. I hope I’m wrong.