The Difficulties of Consolidation. Guatemala's Internal Conflicts Are Stumbling Blocks on the Way to Democracy - International Reports
The Difficulties of Consolidation. Guatemala's Internal Conflicts Are Stumbling Blocks on the Way to Democracy
When the tropical storm ‘Stan’ devastated Central America and Guatemala in October 2005, people at home and abroad showed great solidarity with the suffering population. Only a few months later, however, precious little remains; Guatemalan society has returned to normality, and you would look in vain for any sign of solidarity and responsibility on the part of the political sphere or the state, to say nothing of the wealthy citizens of the country.In this Central American country with its population of 13 million, the rift between rich and poor gapes wider than anywhere else in the world. Because of this, as well as because of the weakness of the democratic institutions, the disastrous level of public education, and the persistence of the factors that caused the 36-year civil war, crime and corruption form the key evils of Guatemala. With presidential and congressional elections scheduled for 2007, the country is last in line among the democracies of Latin America.56.2 percent of the Guatemalan population live in poverty and 16 percent in extreme poverty. On the human development index of the World Bank, Guatemala ranks 117th on a scale of 177, with only Haiti occupying a lower rank among the American states. 56 percent of the arable land belongs to two percent of the farms, while 48 percent of the farms share three percent of the land among themselves. Most of the land and the means of production belong to a small but extremely powerful upper crust. While staple foods such as maize, beans, and rice are cheap, wage levels in the country are extremely low, and vegetables, milk, and meat are often more expensive than in Europe.Another characteristic of Guatemala is the contrast between the indigenous Maya, who are strongly marginalized although they represent the majority of the population, and the mestizos and/or ladinos of Spanish extraction.With an average of seven to nine years of schooling, the Guatemalan education level is low. The country’s illiteracy rate is the second highest in Latin America, topped only by Haiti. Every year, 35,000 Guatemalans celebrate their 35th birthday without being able to read or write. More than 40 percent of the population are aged 15 and under, and 15 percent of the women aged 15 to 19 have their own children.Democracy is regarded with scepticism by all Guatemalans. After its reintroduction 1986, it failed to meet the people’s expectations. Governmental institutions are weak because the parties and persons that back them up are weak. Apart from the Democracia Cristiana Guatemalteca, which was founded fifty years ago and is now led by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, political parties lack continuity, programmatical substance, and the strength to integrate. Instead, they are often used by politicians as springboards to realize their personal ambitions. Party funding is similarly problematical. To throw some light into the darkness, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) was recently instituted as a party-funding watchdog.Headed by Oscar Berger, a member of the entre-preneurial class, Guatemala’s current government has so far given no clear indications of any perspective for a ‘national project’.At the same time, a ray of hope comes from the new electoral and party legislation which endeavours to promote the institutionalization of the political parties and put an end to their vacillations. Demonstrating a minimum membership is the most difficult hurdle which the parties will have to jump before March 2006. According to the press, the only parties that now appear able to do so are the Democracia Cristiana, the FRG, the PAN, the PSN, and the DIA. To secure their roots among the population, the parties must rely on civic commitment which, however, is hardly likely to prosper if the current practice of parties being bought outright by large donors should continue.One step forward on the way towards democratic consolidation was taken when the strength of the armed forces was reduced from around 50,000 to 15,000 troops, as provided in the peace treaty of 1996. On the other hand, the Guatemalan armed forces, weighed down as they are by the burden inherited from the bloody civil war, in which at least 100,000 people died and a million were driven from their homes, yet have to find and endorse their role in a democracy. While it is certain now that the military is no longer above the law, as it used to be, neither the government nor the political parties nor civil society itself have so far succeeded in reformulating its mission in a positive way. Under Oscar Berger, some modest progress has also been achieved in the field of journalism. Whereas the press was characterized as ,unfree‘ by Freedom House before 2005, it is today rated as ,partially free‘. Even so, violence and intimidation are commonly used against obnoxious journalists, who are also seriously threatened by paramilitary groups, drug dealers, and corrupt policemen. Another cause for concern is the fact that most print media are owned by a handful of rich financiers, so that genuine freedom of opinion appears largely out of the question.The judiciary also benefits from certain improvements. The Berger government is anxious to strengthen the country’s institutions and suppress corruption sustainably. One case in point is the ongoing process for the extradition of Mr Portillo, Guatemala’s former president who now lives in Mexico, and who is charged with embezzlement of public funds. Reports about regress come from the front against drug trafficking and violent crime. Public security deteriorated massively under Mr Berger and the incidence of violent crime soared, leading to an atmosphere of constant danger and general suspicion.Car thefts, drug smuggling, and bus raids are common, and everyday life in the Central American country is marked by kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder. The maras, youth gangs which by now constitute the main threat against the population of numerous cities in various Central American countries, deserve special mention in this context. In Guatemala City, for instance, two hostile factions, the Mara salvatrucha and the Mara 18, terrorize the quarters of the city. A disgusting ritual observed by many maras are initiation rites which require the murder of an innocent person by a novice wishing to be adopted by the gang. Rituals of this kind as well as the structure of the gangs themselves probably result from migration, alcoholism, and the misery of the civil war. Uprooted young people adopt these gangs as ersatz families, many of which are supposed to be backed up by string-pullers from organized crime and the drug mafia.Guatemala’s problems are both complex and grave, and it is even possible that power may be taken over by populists of the Hugo Chávez ilk unless speedy steps are taken to build stable and efficient public institutions with a clear political vision. At all events, the soil appears ready to receive the populist seed, particularly as the fundamental needs of the population were not satisfied even after the end of the civil war.Against this background, the problems which international cooperation must solve appear clearly outlined. The point is to strengthen those institutions that show a recognizable trend towards democracy. Another point is to promote an educational policy, based on the principle of universal equality, which aims to integrate the indigenous majority of the population. For the conflicts of the past can be overcome only if justice is established in society.