Category Archives: Guatemala

Nicaragua and Guatemala 2011

Nicaragua held a general election on November 6 while Guatemala held a presidential runoff on the same day. I had covered the first round of the Guatemalan elections, held on September 11, in this post.


The President of Nicaragua and the unicameral National Assembly were up for reelection. The President is elected to a five-year term, technically not renewable immediately. A candidate must win 40% of the vote in the first round or 35% if he/she is 5% ahead of the closest rival. The National Assembly has 90 elected members: 20 through party-list PR in a national constituency and 70 through party-list PR in the country’s departments and autonomous regions. The last President and the runner-up in the presidential election also serve.

Nicaragua is a poor Central American country (in fact one of the poorest), with a troubled past but a future which is perhaps not so bleak. Its crime rate is in fact pretty low by the admittedly low standards of the region (it is still below Mexico’s crime rate and is the second lowest in Central America). Nicaragua became, during the 1980s, the stereotype for Central American civil wars fought between a left-wing group and some sort of shady right-wing group bankrolled by the Americans. Nicaragua has a troubled relationship with the US which dates back to the bizarre and fascinating American adventurer William Walker in the 1850s, and then the American occupation of the country between 1909 and 1933. In 1937, an American-installed civilian President was toppled by an American-trained military officer (the head of the powerful American-trained National Guard) named Anastasio Somoza. Somoza, like all other Latin American dictators of the time, drew his support from the landowning elite, the military and the United States. Somoza was shot in 1956 and despite Eisenhower’s valiant efforts to save his life, he succumbed. But his rule (or that of the Somoza clan’s various tools) didn’t: his son Luis took over in 1956 and when he died in 1967 it was Luis’ son Antonio Somoza Debayle who took over. By all standards, Somoza was a pretty venal, corrupt, ruthless and self-seeking guy.

The opposition to Somoza’s regime took the name of Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1961. The FSLN’s name refers to left-wing Liberal rebel Augusto Sandino who, in the 1920s, had become a figure of nationalist popular resistance to the American occupier and the various American puppets before being shot in 1934. Just like Batista had fled Havana overnight, so did Somoza in 1979, allowing the FSLN to take over in a junta with other opposition forces. At the outset, the FSLN followed a rather moderate line: a mixed economy, an independent foreign policy, cautious agrarian reform (the fact that Somoza owned 20% of the land helped) and social reform (literacy, health, education). The FSLN, which after 1981 ruled alone and grew somewhat more authoritarian and took control of the country’s media and institutions, was originally helped by both Cuba, Europe and the Carter administration. But after Reagan’s election in 1980, the US took a hard line against the ‘Marxist’ Sandinistas and bankrolled the Contras, which were by any standards a bunch of crypto-fascist criminals. The FSLN-Contra civil war ruined the country’s economy. In 1990, however, the FSLN’s incumbent President Daniel Ortega was surprisingly defeated in free elections by the right’s Violeta Chamorro. Ortega was subsequently defeated by the right in all other presidential elections until 2006. In power, the right improved the country’s economy somewhat but had a harder time dealing with continued violence and especially corruption: Arnoldo Alemán, the Liberal who ruled between 1997 and 2002, was woefully incompetent and also a crook.

Ortega was elected President in 2006 with 39% and a 10% margin separating him from his closest Liberal rival. Though Ortega’s FSLN lacked a majority in the National Assembly, he allied with Alemán’s Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) in return for getting the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court to pardon Alemán. While Ortega has struck a very left-wing line as President, allying himself closely with Chávez whose cash has funded generous social programs which have succeeded in alleviating poverty but also some surprisingly pro-business, market liberal policies. Indeed, Ortega is, unlike Chávez, on pretty good terms with the IMF, and this has helped the local economy: the country’s 4% was the second fastest growth in Central America after Panama. In 2008, controversial local elections were allegedly marked by widespread fraud and intimidation and led to the suspension of a European aid package. Domestically, however, Ortega has lost some his revolutionary feel and he has lost the support of some liberal intellectuals who had backed the FSLN in the 1980s. In fact, Ortega has transformed himself into some born-again Christian socialist, who has notably implemented a very strict ban on abortions in the country.

There was little question about Ortega’s reelection chances once the Supreme Court, conveniently cleared of dissident voices, overruled the constitution’s immediate reelection ban by allowing Ortega to run again. The FSLN has taken back control over most of the country’s media and institutions, it is on good terms with businesses (who had, as recently as 2006, backed the opposition) and thus has lots of cash to spend in contrast to the opposition which is basically broke. The main opposition contender was 80-year old radio journalist Fabio Gadea. Discredited former President Arnoldo Alemán of the PLC, which has been a close ally of the FSLN, also ran. The results were:

Daniel Ortega (FSLN) 62.66%
Fabio Gadea (PLI) 31.13%
Arnoldo Alemán (PLC) 5.76%
2 others under 0.5%

There were some reported irregularities, some cases of intimidation and frustrated foreign observers but so far there has not been the outcry over the results as there was in the 2008 locals. Ortega is helped by the FSLN’s control of institutions, the media and its stashes of cash. But he is also popular with low-income voters on his own terms, who have seen their living standards improve pretty significantly with the FSLN’s generous social spending programs since 2006.

In legislative elections, the FSLN won about 60.6% against 31% for the PLI and 6.5% for the PLC. This gives the FSLN a three-fifths majority, which gives it the power to change the constitution which it had written back in 1987.


A presidential runoff was held in Guatemala on November 6. In the first round in September, the conservative former military officer Otto Pérez Molina (who had lost the 2007 election) came out on top with 36.1% against 23.3% for Manuel Baldizón, a populist hotel tycoon and wealthy businessman who had emerged as the “left-wing candidate” in an election without a real left-wing candidate after the governing left-wing President Álvaro Colom was unable to have his wife run to succeed him. In a country with a huge crime rate and a very big drug cartel problem, crime was the top issue. Pérez Molina ran a very hard-line law and order campaign with promises to crack down on crime using the military. Baldizón said he wants televised executions. Pérez Molina, who narrowly lost the 2007 runoff to President Colom, was the favourite.

Otto Pérez Molina (PP) 53.74%
Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) 46.26%

Unsurprisingly, the retired general and former head of military intelligence Otto Pérez Molina won by a fairly comfortable margin. Baldizón did pretty well, which reflects the guy’s pretty big appeal to traditional left-wing voters: the 2011 map with Baldizón winning the east and the north is pretty similar to the 2007 map where Colom won in generally the same areas and lost in Guatemala City.

A former socialist revolutionary in Nicaragua and a right-wing military officer in Guatemala. It could be as if we were in the 1980s. Is Pérez Molina’s election a step backwards for Guatemala? Probably not. His party does not have a majority and Pérez Molina does not entirely fit the mold of “1980s war criminal who killed thousands and now repents”. Though accused of war crimes, none have been proven and he played a big part in peace talks in 1996. But fears remain. The militaristic mano dura which Pérez Molina promises could be a step backwards to authoritarian military regimes and the military is not a saint either: elements are suspected of ties to cartels and crime. The level of violence in Guatemala, which is astronomical, and institutional corruption is probably the biggest threat to democracy in Guatemala and Central America right now. Needless to say, Guatemala’s future is bleaker than Nicaragua’s.

Tomorrow: Details about Premier Brad Wall’s landslide victory in Saskatchewan (Canada).

Guatemala 2011

Presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in Guatemala on September 11, 2011 with a presidential runoff scheduled for November 6. The President of Guatemala is elected for a four year term and is not eligible for reelection, and neither are his relatives. He serves with a Vice-President. The unicameral Congress has 158 deputies, of which 31 are elected through a national list and the rest in single-member districts of roughly 80,000 people. Also up were the country’s seat in the Central American Parliament and the control of the country’s 333 municipalities.

Guatemala is a poor and troubled country, marked by a long history of flagrant social and ethnic inequalities, poverty, military rule and political violence. Today, over half of Guatemalans live under the poverty line. As in the past, the dominant political and economic elites are almost exclusively well-off white landowners or businessmen. Whites or mestizos, descendants of European (Spanish) colonizers, make up roughly 60% of the country’s populations. 40% of the country’s population are natives, mostly Maya. The country’s large native population has traditionally been victims of discrimination and violence, and are largely absent from the country’s political and economic elites. For a long time, Guatemala was the perfect example of the ‘banana republic’: the American-owned United Fruits Company (UFCO) owned tons of land in the country, most of which was not cultivated. The UFCO and Washington usually controlled the government of Guatemala, which oftentimes were led by right-wing military officers who were quite pliant. In 1954, the CIA and UFCO had the left-wing reformist president, Jacobo Arbenz, removed from power and replaced by a series of pro-American and anti-communist military rulers. Military rule lasted until 1986, and a civil war between the military and vicious paramilitaries against left-wing guerrillas lasted from 1960 till 1996. Today, Guatemala is wracked by violence and a Mexican-influence drug cartel war. Guatemala’s homicide rate, 42/100,000 is the fourth-highest in the world (in comparison, the Mexican homicide rate is 18 and the American homicide rate is 5).

The left, which had been largely shut out of power in Guatemala since 1954, took power in 2007 with the election of Álvaro Colom to the presidency against right-wing retired general Otto Pérez Molina. Colom defeated Pérez Molina with 52.8% against 47.2% even though most polls had showed the retired general in the lead. Since Álvaro Colom was not allowed to seek reelection, he and his party (the National Unity for Hope, UNE) supported his wife, Sandra Torres. Since relatives of the incumbent cannot seek election, the two filed for divorce in order for Torres to run. Her candidacy, however, was refused by the courts. This means that the incumbent left-wing government has no presidential candidate.

The front-runner was Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party (PP) and the 2007 runner-up. Pérez Molina is a retired military general and former head of military intelligence. Pérez Molina is perceived by critics as being an authoritarian hardliner, and some accuse him of torture and human rights abuses in the 90s though no cases of torture or abuse have ever been proven. Pérez Molina ran, like in 2007, as a hardline law-and-order (‘iron fist’) candidate, advocating the use of military force against drug cartels. He also promised more social spending, though that is probably a pledge which in practice would be much tempered because of his close association with big business and the Guatemalan economic elites.

In the absence of a left-wing candidate, it was Manuel Baldizón who emerged as the main runner-up. Baldizón is a very wealthy businessman and hotel tycoon, who is also right-wing. In 2006, he joined Colom’s UNE but in 2008 he led a large group of UNE dissidents to form a centrist party, LIDER. But his campaign has taken a very populist and slightly insane tone. He promises more social spending, social programs and fighting poverty. On the other hand, he is also very hardline on crime: he supports the use of the death penalty, in fact would like to see executions televised. In the insane repertoire, he said that if elected the national football team would somehow qualify for the World Cup (it has never qualified). It is likely he took up much of the fledgling left-wing vote, likely through the influence of his stashes and stashes of money.

Other candidates included 72-year old right-wing academic Eduardo Suger, Mario Estrada, Harold Caballeros and Nobel laureate and Mayan rights activist Rigoberta Menchú (perhaps the closest to a left-wing candidate).

With 98% reporting:

Otto Pérez Molina (PP) 36.06%
Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) 23.28%
Eduardo Suger (CREO) 16.26%
Mario Estrada (UCN) 8.62%
Harold Caballeros (VIVA-EG) 6.09%
Rigoberta Menchú (WINAQ-URNG-MAIZ-ANN) 3.28%
Others 6.41%

Otto Pérez Molina was widely expected to win, and he did, but he only took 36% and failed to win an absolute majority which is needed to win outright by the first round. This could reflect unease about his military past, but more likely it is the result of the success of right-populist businessman Manuel Baldizón who will face Pérez Molina in the November runoff. Yet, despite Pérez Molina’s poor showing, he remains the favourite. Votes cast for Eduardo Suger, who placed third, are said to be likely to be cast for Pérez Molina in November. His tough stance on crime is popular with voters in a country where criminality, drug wars and gang violence is the most important political issue even ahead of poverty and the economy.

Manuel Baldizón pretty obviously took the left-wing vote: in the south, he performed best in departments where Colom’s UNE had done well in 2007. In the legislative election, LIDER (the third force in the incumbent Congress) won only 8.87% against 22.63% for the governing centre-left UNE-GANA. The PP won the most votes with 26.67% (it won 15.9% in 2007) but will probably fall quite short of an overall majority though it won’t change that Congress is the preserve of the rather conservative economic elites of the country.