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Surprises follow recent elections in Guatemala

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

He was supposed to be the puppet of retired Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator whom Guatemala’s constitution won’t allow a shot at the presidency. Yet when Alfonso Portillo took the presidential oath of office Jan.14, he began charting a course out of the shadow of his political godfather, leaving many on Guatemala’s right wondering whether the former leftist is really a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Portillo, the presidential candidate of Ríos Montt’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), won a Dec. 26 runoff with 68 percent of the vote. He chose to interpret that margin as a mandate to do what he wants as president. So Portillo used his inaugural ceremony to announce he would change the law to allow the president to appoint a civilian as head of the military, and, in the meantime, appointed an unknown colonel to the job, sending 20 generals into retirement since military rules won’t allow them to serve under the lowly newcomer.

In his speech Portillo promised to respect human rights, tax the rich and comply with the 1996 peace accords that brought an end to Guatemala’s long civil war. He announced that the recommendations of two different commissions -- the Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory (REMHI) and the United Nations Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) -- “will be converted into commitments of the government and the state.” He promised a full investigation into the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera and proclaimed the date of Gerardi’s killing -- April 26 -- as a “National Day of Dignity for the Victims of the Violence.” (See NCR, Feb. 13, 1998, and March 12, 1999.)

Both reports place most of the blame for the killing and disappearance of approximately 200,000 Guatemalans during the country’s vicious civil war on the Guatemalan military and paramilitary groups. The reports blame the government for conducting and tolerating campaigns of genocide against the country’s Mayan population. The U.N. report, particularly, held the United States responsible for supporting brutal military dictators, for using the Central Intelligence Agency to aid the Guatemalan military and for training Guatemalan army officials in counterinsurgency tactics that resulted in widespread torture and death.

“To dig up the truth, recognize our errors, ask forgiveness, provide justice, dignify the memory of the victims and take measures of just reparation are opportunities that the REMHI and CEH reports present to us,” Portillo declared during his speech.

Human rights activists appointed

Putting flesh on his rhetoric, Portillo appointed several human rights activists to top government jobs. Otilia Lux de Coti, an indigenous Maya K’iche’ educator and one of three members of the CEH, was appointed minister of culture and sports. Ronalth Ochaeta, former director of the human rights office of the Catholic archdiocese of Guatemala, was named to head the presidential human rights office. And REMHI’s former director, Edgar Gutiérrez was named secretary for strategic analysis.

Gutiérrez said Portillo offered him the post a month before the inauguration. It wasn’t an easy decision, Gutiérrez said, and he didn’t finally decide until just days before the new president’s inauguration.

“I talked about it with people in the church, in civil society and the international community, and came to the conclusion that although there are a lot of risks, I was being offered a space to make change,” Gutiérrez said. “It wouldn’t be responsible just to criticize the government from the outside. Now was a chance to work inside the government to make change.”

Gutiérrez said he finally accepted the job after Portillo agreed to four conditions. “First, I got a guarantee that there would be no interference on how I run the office, and I would have a free hand to name the staff I want.” The activist said he would soon name a large staff, including some foreigners, “so that I’m not alone or isolated.”

His second demand was “direct access and permanent communication” with the president. Gutiérrez said that his office is being set up next to Portillo’s.

Third, Gutiérrez said he insisted that Portillo “commit to a demilitarization of civil power,” including naming a civilian as minister of defense.

Gutiérrez said the new president also agreed to his final condition: “If Portillo acts against principles or violates human rights while president, he promised that he would resign from office.”

Gutiérrez will be in charge of providing Portillo with the information and analysis he needs to make decisions and set policy. “It’s the most important low-profile job in the government,” said Dennis Smith, a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission worker here.

According to María Garcia, editor of the Guatemalan Catholic magazine Voces del Tiempo, Gutiérrez “is one of the best minds in the church.”

Benefit of the doubt

She said that while she doubted Gutiérrez would last long under Portillo, “we’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now. If Portillo doesn’t comply with what he has promised, then Edgar can quit.”

Garcia said she had mixed feelings about the government’s awarding official recognition to the anniversary of Gerardi’s killing. She said June 30 has been observed for several years in Catholic communities as “a day of martyrs, to remember not just the priests who were killed but also the thousands of anonymous Guatemalans who died during the violence.” Garcia said she worried that Portillo was trying to co-opt popular sentiment and predicted there will “be few fiestas on April 26 in marginal neighborhoods.”

It seemed ironic that a government that many believe responsible for Gerardi’s death would grant recognition to the anniversary of his slaying. Yet Portillo promised to resolve that incongruity soon, ordering prosecutors to pursue leads on the case wherever the evidence takes them, including inside the government.

Portillo is a 48-year-old former university professor who says Ernesto “Che” Guevara is the person he most admires. Portillo once supported Guatemalan guerrillas while living in exile in Mexico. He later returned home and as a Christian Democrat won a seat in Congress. He joined the Guatemalan Republican Front to run as its presidential candidate in 1996, a race he narrowly lost. In the intervening years, although remaining publicly loyal to Ríos Montt, he has worked hard to build a constituency of his own within party ranks.

While Portillo rules from the presidential palace, Ríos Montt now serves as president of the Guatemalan Congress, a job that gives him immunity from extradition to Spain, where a judge in December accepted charges against the general and several other Guatemalan military officers filed by Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. While that may save Ríos Montt from a Pinochet-like fate, Portillo’s promise to carry out the recommendations of the Catholic and U.N. commissions could spell trouble for him at home. “If that really happens, high-level military officers will be put in jail,” declared Smith.

The general exercises strict control over the Guatemalan Republican Front, and he and Portillo fought hard until the last moment about many of the cabinet posts. Although Portillo won several battles, so did the general, and the new ministers of labor, finance, health and foreign relations all represent sectors of Guatemalan politics that could most charitably be described as conservative and corrupt. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde cabinet.

The policy and personnel surprises in Portillo’s administration have left many Guatemalans wondering how long he will last.

“He’s a very agile politician, and if he implements even half of what he’s promised it will mean a redefinition of Guatemalan politics, and a realignment of relationships among traditional power brokers here,” Smith said.

The grumbling from the right has already begun, and hard-line Guatemalan Republican Front deputies in Congress have warned the president they will try to remove him if he steps too far out of line.

“We have an extremely complex and fluid political situation here,” observed Smith.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000