Tag Archives: Civil War

Guatemala and Nicaragua’s Elections: What’s Next?

2 Dec

Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala

Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala

Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua

Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua

Guatemala and Nicaragua are two Central American countries that have painful pasts. Guatemala had a thirty-six year civil war and Nicaragua also experienced a civil war and dictatorship. Both are currently faced with extreme poverty and violence. In early November both countries held controversial elections which resulted in controversial results.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega was running for reelection, which does not seem out of the norm, except for the fact that he was running for a third term, which is illegal according to the Nicaraguan Constitution. In late 2009, the Supreme Court decided that the Constitutional ban on reelection did not apply to Ortega. Call it a coincidence if you like, but only the judges of the Sandinista party, Ortega’s party, were told of the session. The other three judges were replaced by Sandinista replacement judges when they did not appear, because they were never told. The other judges said that they feel powerless, that the Sandinistas control everything and there is nothing they can do. Many say that the decision should have been taken to Congress because it deals with Constitutional re-form, but to no surprise Ortega said the ruling was unchangeable.

The Guatemalan elections also started out with high levels of controversy and dispute when the First Lady, Sandra Torres, ran for President in March. However, close relatives of the President are constitutionally not allowed to run for president, so days after entering the race the First Lady filed for divorce. Torres argued that the divorce was not a political move but the Guatemalan public was not convinced. In late July, the Guatemalan Supreme Court voted against the First Lady’s bid stating that “legal fraud” was committed. The First Lady argued that not allowing her to run was violating her human rights, but the Court stuck to its vote. With Torres out of the running this left Manuel Baldizón, a wealthy businessman, and Otto Perez Molina, a retired right-wing general, as the frontrunners.

In early November it was announced that President Ortega won the election in Nicaragua. It seemed perhaps voters were pleased with Ortega’s efforts to stimulate the economy, most notably his partnership with Venezuela which brings $400 million loans each year to Nicaragua. Ortega has set up social programs during his presidency and helped citizens gain legal titles to their land. Despite all of this however, before the elections even concluded there were accusations of fraud. The opposition party accused Ortega’s party of denying identification cards to citizens opposed to the government, but granting them to Honduran citizens. Supporters of Fabio Gadea, Ortega’s opponent accused Ortega’s party of stuffing ballot boxes and preventing Ortega opposers from voting. There were also several reports that polling stations were burned in the north and central provinces. The Organization of American States said that its election monitors were kept out of polling stations. When Ortega’s victory was announced crowds took to the street in protest, it was not long before protesters and Ortega supporters clashed and four people were reported dead as a result. Ortega and his supporters continue to call him the victor as civil society organizations call for investigations into the election.

Also in early November, Guatemalan voters showed that they favored the ‘mano dura’ and voted Otto Perez Molina for president. Political scientists were taken back a bit by the popularity of Perez, a retired general from a brutal and long civil war. Did Guatemalans really want a strong military leader as president only fifteen years after the three decade long war had ended? A war in which the military killed, tortured and raped the citizens; and now human rights groups fight to charge these former military leaders and bring them to justice. Perez’s role in the war has never been fully investigated, although he denies involvement in the massacres. Why would Guatemala want a former military leader whose campaign declares him the ‘iron fist’? Perhaps it is because more than sixty percent of registered voters are between the ages of 18-30, for them the brutal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans is a shadow of the past. Guatemala’s failing education system does not teach about the country’s civil war. The majority of registered voters don’t remember the brutal genocide conducted by the military, what they are concerned with is the violence which now plagues the country. They perceive their war is against crime, drug cartels that have taken over the country and control northern border towns. Violence attributed to Mexican drug cartels is on a steady rise and many police officials and politicians are on the cartel’s payroll. Perez’s solution is a forceful one similar to Mexico’s Calderon’s failing drug war. While experts say that Guatemala’s solution should be police reform, a stronger justice system and a security tax on the rich. The public is eager for a quicker solution which Perez seems to be promising.

So what lies ahead for these two countries? Nicaragua will continue to see both citizens and NGOs call for investigation into the election. Ortega’s government will most likely feign investigation but will remain in power. Ortega will probably keep his popularity among his loyal supporters. My prediction is that we will see left-leaning Ortega become more and more like his ally, Hugo Chavez, as he will most likely continue to ignore democracy as it provides his prohibitions and take sole control over Nicaragua. Guatemala will probably not see the decline in drug cartels with el ‘malo dura’. If Perez takes the violent approach to drug cartels like he’s promised, battling them with military we will most likely see the same results we are seeing with Calderon’s drug war, steady flow of violence and civilian murders as the cartels stay in the country. For someone who has studied Guatemala’s civil war extensively I sincerely hope that Guatemala does not go into another war if the military gets too powerful and corrupt once again. But, it is not certain with a President who has been accused in human rights abuses and most likely had a hand in the genocide of the civil war. It has been speculated that Guatemala will see human rights and civil liberties threatened as the government takes a forceful approach to drug violence. One thing is for certain, the political action in these countries is just beginning and the world needs to keep a careful eye on these Presidents.


Guat’s Up

4 Aug

With my Mom being in Guatemala, as I am sitting at work wishing I could be there as well, and the trial against soldiers from the civil war just ending, I felt it was only appropriate to write the blog this week about Guatemala. Guatemala holds special significance for me. First of all, it was only a couple of summers ago I was in Guatemala with my Mom and her nursing students, working at a rural clinic. Also while I was there I had the opportunity to interview human rights leaders for my senior thesis on how the Guatemalan Peace Process has affected citizen’s rights. Guatemala has a very brutal, sad past and now in the present Guatemala is still trying progress forward.

In 1952, democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz enacted the agrarian land reform law which redistributed unused lands of more than 223 acres to landless peasants. The land owners would be compensated based on the worth of the land they claimed in that year’s taxes. This law was very controversial, and in my opinion desperately needed, for several reasons. One was that the majority of Guatemala’s land was owned by United States owned companies, most of whom did not use a great portion of the land. Also, the fact that the land owners would be compensated based on what they claimed on their taxes is almost humorous due to the fact that land owners greatly understated the worth of their land on taxes.

Now, what should have come from Arbenz’s land reform law is a Robin Hood type of justice in a very unjust Guatemala, unfortunately, there was a slight glitch. The United Fruit Company, an American owned company, (which has since renamed itself Chiquita Banana as an effort to separate itself from this controversy) owned 42% of Guatemala’s arable land, only 15% of it which it used. The United Fruit Company called in a favor to former Board member Allen Dulles, who was the head of the CIA, and his brother John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State. President Eisenhower was quickly convinced by the Dulles brothers that Arbenz was a Communist threat and needed to be ousted. By 1954, 100,000 families had received land as well as aid for sowing due to Arbenz’s land reform. Unfortunately, that same year PBSUCCESS, a coup d’état backed by the US forced Arbenz to resign and marked the beginning of Guatemala’s long civil war.

The coup d’état was led by the Liberation Army and after Arbenz’s resignation the conservative military took over the government and the country. The military government received military and economic support from the United States. Anyone who opposed the military government was quickly murdered or disappeared. In 1962, the Rebel Armed Forces, FAR, was formed to fight the military government. FAR consisted of middle class Ladinos, students and left-wing political activists. They drew their principles from Che and received support from Cuba. From 1966-68 the FAR were largely wiped out and retreated.

By the 1970s FAR had regrouped, now led by Ladinos but consisting mostly of indigenous, they were based in the indigenous highlands. In the late 1970s Guatemala’s military government started the Scorched Earth campaign, a campaign aimed to depopulate the Mayan areas where the guerrillas were operating. Not only did Scorched Earth consist of tragic deforestation but it is estimated that 100,000-150,000 people were murdered from 1981-1983 due to the campaign. The Scorched Earth campaign is now considered genocide by most historians and activists. By 1984, the Scorched Earth campaign and the large-scale massacres were over, and the guerrilla groups severely weakened.

By 1983, the massacres in Guatemala were receiving international attention and the Guatemala regime was urged to return to civilian rule. In 1985, presidential elections were held and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo won. The new government wrote a new constitution, established a Constitutional Court and a Supreme Electoral Council, and a new post of Human Rights Ombudsman was created. Many social movements began to form but with it there were death threats, disappearances and murders of activists. By the late 1980s the guerrilla groups proposed negotiations for settlement but the army refused. In 1989, the National Reconciliation Commission sponsored a national dialogue which was boycotted by the government, army, and private sector.

In 1991, the negotiations of the Peace Accords started. With the creation of the Civil Society Assembly allowed previously excluded groups, like indigenous and women, to participate in the negotiations. In late December 1996, the final Peace Accord was signed marking the formal end to Guatemala’s long civil war. Rough estimates of the outcome of the war are: 180,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared, 400 villages destroyed, 100,000 refugees in Mexico, and 1 million displaced. With the last accord signed all the accords were activated for implementation. While the Peace Accords did end the war in Guatemala they also gave a lot of hope for human rights. One significant accord was one concerning indigenous rights, the accord promised new rights and recognition for the indigenous. This was significant due to the fact that the majority of the Guatemala’s population is indigenous and the fact that the indigenous were the main victims in the civil war and the genocide. Sadly, most of the accords concerning human rights were poorly implemented.

Until this week most of the crimes and human rights abuses during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war have never been accounted for. There has never been true justice for the thousands of victims. In 2004, there was a verdict against an officer and 13 soldiers for a massacre but the verdict was eventually overturned. Finally yesterday, four former soldiers were sentenced to 6,060 years for a massacre in Dos Erres where in 1982 250 people were brutally murdered. This is a huge step forward in the fight against the impunity in Guatemala. Human Rights activists across the world are hoping that this is the beginning of justice for the victims of the civil war. In June, Guatemalan authorities arrested a former general for ordering genocide and other crimes against humanity committed against indigenous communities in 1982 and 1983. There is also another trial happening against former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt for ordering the grave Scorched Earth campaign.

I am happy to finally see some justice coming from Guatemala’s very dark and brutal past; however this is just the beginning. There are thousands of people who still need to stand trial for the crimes that they committed against humanity. Even if that does happen, injustice still lingers in the streets in Guatemala. The Peace Accords which offered so many hopeful promises to its citizens have not been strongly implemented. There are rights which citizens have been given legally, but which are still not recognized. Guatemala’s indigenous are still marginalized, treated poorly and their rights are not recognized by the government. The good news is that it seems that Guatemala has taken the first step down the very long path to justice.