Guatemala Today

Many Shades of Gray

by | Nov 28, 2003

As the rains fade and the heat returns, Guatemalans are preparing themselves for what many believe to be the country’s most important election in recent memory. To hear it told on the street, the November presidential contest will be a clash between good and evil—though which is which seems to depend entirely upon who is doing the telling. Beneath the surface, however, a much more murky game appears, casting light and shadow on all of the candidates. During my time in Guatemala I saw the inspirational, like Pablo Ceto’s quixotic campaign for native empowerment; I saw the appalling, like the savagery of that masked mob on the day of the riots; I saw everything in between. More than anything, however, I saw a pack of Jekylls and Hydes, all struggling toward the top office. As a locally-engaged Harvard student I had incredible access, and in the end, my time spent among the politicos of this turbulent isthmian nation convinced me that there are no saviors in the winds, nor does the devil himself walk among the candidates. Indeed, I came away with the belief that the average Guatemalan stands on the verge of electing a president much like those that came before.

Three men have emerged as frontrunners in this election, and contrasting caricatures certainly do give the feeling of a major decision. The former military dictator Efraín Rios Montt, vilified in the press for the atrocities committed during his reign, leads the incumbent Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). Though in third place, he is certainly the most talked-about figure in this race, and the papers routinely slam his party for corruption, intimidation, and plotting electoral fraud. These same papers hail Oscar Berger, former mayor of Guatemala City and candidate of the Grand National Alliance (GANA) as the man who can better the lives of all Guatemalans. Indeed, with a strong lead in the polls, it is hard to find anyone on the streets of the capital who can imagine Berger losing. Finally, there is Álvaro Colom, who leads the center-left National Unity of Hope (UNE), and promotes himself as a third way. In second place, Colom is also an idealistic champion of the poor with solid policy ideas.

The truth is that despite their differences, all of the candidates are much more like Colom than they first seem, and all display both the good and the bad of leadership. Indeed, a night spent in a local tavern is all it takes to understand that terror has gripped this country, that the men at the bar fear for the safety of their families, and that a while generation remembers Rios Montt as a heavy-handed ruler who was able to put down the violent crime that now engulfs the country. So too do the rural poor remember that his government is the one that brings them fertilizer for their fields and subsidizes their pesticides. Outside the capital city, the crowds that gather in the little plazas want nothing to do with Berger. He is a creature of the oligarchy, they say, a puppet of the few who have put millions into his campaign, buying press and polls; Berger, they are certain, would do nothing for the poor.

Guatemala is neither fully a country of manicured lawns nor of hillside fields, and inherent in its diversity is the fact that this presidential election—regardless of the outcome—will again make winners and losers of different populations. To deny that the candidates all offer a mixed bag is to close one’s eyes to reality. In the end, I boarded an airplane home feeling that despite all the excitement, I was leaving a country still painted in many shades of gray.

Fall 2003Volume III, Number 1

H. Michael Rosenberg ’05 is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard College and specializes in Latin American political economy. He is a staff writer for the Harvard Political Review and recently received a DRCLAS grant to analyze the political situation in Guatemala.

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