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Signs of Hope in Guatemala


Public optimism is usually best held at bay during the early period of a new presidency, as sweet words and empty promises flow quickly to assure and distract the constituency. In the seven days that Oscar Berger has held the Guatemalan presidency, however, his outline for the next four years in Guatemala have been impressive, taking what appear to be genuine steps towards demilitarization and renewed respect for the social sector.

Berger’s most significant action since taking office on January 14, 2004 has been his position on the military. The new president has proposed to reduce the armed forces by 10,000 soldiers, nearly one-third of the current 31,000, and to combine the air force and navy under one central command center. Berger has also announced that he will cut military spending to Q1.268 billion ($158.5 million), limiting the budget of the armed forces to 0.66% of the GDP as called for under the peace accords. (1) Additionally, Berger has offered to modify the Escuela Politecnica military training institution to allow for public attendance. (2)

Berger has also reached out to the Guatemalan social sector in an attempt to repair damage done over the last four years by the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). Most symbolically, Berger offered a government position to Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winning indigenous activist who fled the country for Mexico after receiving multiple death threats in 2001. Menchu accepted the role of “goodwill ambassador to the peace accords,” and will be in charge of monitoring government progress on the accords. (3)

The office of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) has also been offered a helping hand after enduring FRG persecution. The PDH was threatened and attacked for their criticism of heavy-handed FRG tactics in the 2003 election campaign, and FRG officials were linked to the vandalization of the PDH headquarters in September. Now the annual budget, which has been fixed at Q40 million ($5 million) for eight years, may be increased to as much as Q106 million ($13.25 million). (4)

The conservative Berger is even taking steps towards budget reform to support increased social spending. The new president has announced a plan to renegotiate the foreign debt, transferring payments to a Citibank loan and freeing an additional Q3 billion ($375 million) per year to invest in health, education and security. (5) Berger also expressed the desire to restart the largely ignored Fiscal Pact, an agreement on the financial management of the country drawn up between the government, the business sector, and grassroots social organizations in 2000. (6)

The past week has also seen advances in three major cases against FRG human rights abuses. On January 18, Elvia Domitila Morales de López and Vilma Vidalina Orellana Ruano were arrested for a October 2003 attack on Rigoberta Menchu inside the building of the Constitutional Court. A third person, Carlos Humberto Rivas García, fled his pending arrest. (7)

On January 19, four people linked to government security agencies were identified as having violently attacked a journalist and his family in June 2003. (8) And a court case opened against General Rios Montt on January 20, the first since he l! ost his diplomatic immunity on January 14. The General is accused of the murder of a journalist, due to the his role in orchestrating the July 2003 “Black Thursday” riots in which the reporter was killed. (9)

Such a series of positive actions on the part of the Guatemalan government is unheard of in recent years, comparable only to the announcement of the democratic transition in 1985 and the signing of the peace accords in 1996. But, as in these other examples, the benevolence of the government is far outweighed by the personal opportunism of the elite which it represents.

The Guatemalan military and economic elite have been locked in a power struggle since even before the democratic transition of 1985. While the economic elite prevailed during the 1980s and 1990s, largely by strengthening themselves through the neoliberal economic transition, the military regained the presidency through Alfonso Portillo and the FRG in 1999. During their four years in power the FRG successfully attacked the economic elite, forcing open monopolies in order to invest savings left over from the period of military dictatorships. The FRG regularly used a strong hand across the country, and the deterioration of social investmen! t and respect for human rights in Guatemala helped Oscar Berger triumph over the FRG and Rios Montt’s presidential bid.

The oligarchy has returned to the presidency with Oscar Berger, and the president’s early dedication to demilitarization and the social sector should not distract from the right-wing reality of his power base. The main function of the current government will be to repair of the financially-damaged oligarchy, along side implementing the CAFTA, FTAA and PPP free trade agreements, regardless of their impact on the Guatemalan poor. As with the previous oligarchical administration (Alvaro Arzu, 1996-1999), support for the peace accords may be limited to adhering to financial reforms, the legacy of IMF inclusion in the negotiation process.

But it would be unfair to say that Berger’s contributions to Guatemala will be concentrated entirely among the very rich. In contrast to the FRG, who would benefit from military participation in an increasingly violent post-conflict society, Berger and the economic elite can only advance through a peaceful and stable Guatemala capable of attracting foreign investment. As such, the oligarchy has often supported the grassroots political and social sectors since the end of the armed conflict, most obviously through their alliance against Jorge Serrano’s 1993 self-coup.

Real progress such as land reform, a more even distribution of wealth, or full compliance with the peace accords should not be expected. But there is no doubt that Berger means to create an improved climate, and through four years of peaceful governance the historically excluded Guatemalans, the Maya, the campesinos, women, the landless, war victims and returned refugees, can push slowly on to make a better Guatemala as they have for decades, step by painful step.

SIMON HELWEG-LARSEN is a human rights worker and author living in Central America. He can be reached at


(1) “Gasto militar sera reducido, dice Otto Perez.” Prensa Libre, January 19, 2004.

(2) “Oscar Berger pide austeridad.” Prensa Libre, January 21, 2004.

(3) “Nobel Laureate to Join Guatemala Gov’t.” Associated Press, January 17, 2004.

(4) “Ofrece mejorar fondos a PDH.” Prensa Libre, January 20, 2004.

(5) “Oscar Berger busca renegociar la deuda externa.” Prensa Libre, January 14, 2004.

(6) “Oscar Berger pide austeridad.” Prensa Libre, January 21, 2004.
(7) “Capturan a agresoras de Rigoberta Menchu.” Prensa Libre, January 19, 2004.

(8) “Identificados agresores de José Rubén Zamora.” Prensa Libre, January 20, 2004.

(9) “Piden captura de Ríos Montt por muerte de periodista.” Prensa Libre, January 21, 2004.

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