‘A state under siege: elites, criminal networks and institutional reform in Guatemala’

In this year of the Guatemala Presidential election, it is easy to get caught up on the violence and absurdities that generally characterise these events – it is reasonable to think of violence and absurdity being the ‘maldición guatemalteca’. Ironically, this curse was well portrayed by Miguel Ángel Asturias in his seminal El Señor Presidente.

A paper, published last year, provides a very worthwhile contribution to an understanding of contemporary Guatemala. By highlighting the various forces at play, it draws out the complexities and challenges in the exercise of democracy that the people face this year. A state under siege: elites, criminal networks and institutional reform in Guatemala, by Ivan Briscoe and Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, is available on the Human Security Gateway, a searchable online database of human security-related resources.

In the run up to this year’s election many sitting Deputies, in all the various posts up for grabs, are hawking themselves to whichever parties can help them get the position they want. Considering that party loyalty counts for nothing in Guatemala it is quite straightforward to come to the conclusion that political integrity is a rare animal in the land of eternal tyranny. However, the paper does talk of an increasing political polarisation between the two parties UNE and PP, the two main protagonists in the upcoming Presidential elections. If the candidates get their way, it is reasonable to assume that the 2nd round will be between Sandra Torres de Colom (UNE) and Otto Pérez Molina (PP), each representing very different visions for the country. The interesting point is that there is the notion that politics will increasingly become an issue of party politics, which may represent an increasing maturity in the democratic form, totally lacking in Guatemala since 1954.

Whatever the positions of erstwhile candidates, the oligarchy will have a major role in any consolidation of democracy – the challenge for them, considering the two choices they will have, is to decide which side to back.

Of this economic elite, Vinicio Cerezo, who became President in 1986, stated that ‘the fundamental problem in my government was the private sector, and it continues to be so. Not business in general, but the families who represent the national oligarchy. They think they own the country, and the country exists to serve them. The political challenge for Guatemala and its leaders is to make those families learn to respect the law.’ This continues to be the case as politically, ‘the elite has assumed an unassailable position, the political party system continues extremely weak, and the country’s local departments and municipalities are increasingly coming under the thrall of organised crime’.

This speaks of real challenges facing Guatemala in this election but also in the near future. The paper talks of ‘a political system that is managed by business, internally corrupted, and inserted in a society that is disenchanted and very conservative, constitutes a gargantuan challenge for state-building and for improving public security conditions’. However, it does talk of options especially those possibly presented by international aid donors. What could be described as the elephant in the room, as far as democratic institutional building in Guatemala is concerned, is the issue of tax reform. This would entail a ‘sacrifice’ on behalf of the elite but could be traded off with the Government providing valuable security goals and safeguarding the integrity of the private sector.

The Executive Summary introduces the paper thus: ‘To a significant extent, the country is still locked into the terms of the informal political and economic settlement that lay beneath the formal peace process ending the country’s civil war in 1996. Whereas the peace accords promised rural development, a stronger and wealthier public sector, and a dismantling of the structures of counter-insurgency, the post-conflict reality fell under a different paradigm. Criminal groups, involving former military officers, acting state officials, criminal entrepreneurs and gang members, extended their influence. This paper aims to unpick these constrains on governance in Guatemala, and also points to the emerging trends that are now altering the country’s internal balance of power. In particular, the election of Colom in 2007 and the creation in the same year of the UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) are landmark events that appear to have undermined the post-conflict settlement. However, recent setbacks, including the paralysis of key policy initiatives – such as tax reform – and repeated acts of corruption in the security forces and the judicial system have raised questions over whether reform of the state is possible, and how it is to be carried out’.

It is well worth the time and effort to read this.

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