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Another one bites the dust

21 January 2008

In case anyone is keeping score, since George W. Bush was “elected” in 2000, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Suriname, Uruguary, and Venezuela have all elected leftist or social-democratic leaders. Add Guatemala to the list.

Alvaro Colom, a social-democrat, was elected on the UNE ticket, seems to offer a program similar to that offered by Mexico’s not-elected (by 0.05 percent) Andres Manuel López Obradór: expanded social spending and integration with Latin America, and attacking crime by going after the root causes — poverty and corruption — rather than the approach favored by both Colom and AMLO’s main rivals — the hard hand.

Colom is an intriguing figure. His uncle was the martyred mayor of Guatamala City, Manuel Colom, who was one of a spate of left-leaning democrats murdered after Guatelemala supposedly returned to Democracy. The new president’s background as a business executive and social services administrator (the big scandal in the election involved supposedly diverted funds from his campaign going to social services — even if true better than the other way around) is about what you’d expect for the president of a small country. One other interesting piece of trivia: those a “ladino” (a Guatemalan of non-indigenous ancestry) he is a Mayan priest.

Other than bananas (and workers) Guatemala doesn’t have much in the way of resources — no oil to make the election caputure the attention of the U.S. It has already signed on to CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement) which hopes to repeat the mistakes of NAFTA over a wider area.

Under the Spanish, Guatemala was a “vice-viceroyalty” of Nueva España, and until the 1820s, its history is Mexican history. Chiapas was once part of Guatemala and is a slightly better-off version of conditions in Guatemala. The Revolution never having reached Guatemala, it’s indigenous population has never had the advantages of legal equality.

Though, both in Mexico and Guatemala, Mayans have been treated as less than human, and often denied their civil rights, Mexican Mayans could at least get an education, vote and a wider economic and social sphere than their relations across the border. In 1954, Jacabo Arbenz, a rare democratically elected president, was overthrown in a bloody coup. His “crime” was attempting to nationalize the banana industry, and reform agriculture, modeled on Lazaro Cardenás’ nationalizations in 1930s Mexico. Unfortunately, the foreign entity controlling Guatemalan bananas was the United Fruit Company. One of the directors of United Fruit was Alan Dulles, the director of the CIA.

Arbenz was painted as a “Communist” (much as Venezuela’s elected left-wing leader, Hugo Chavez, is) and overthrown in a not-very-covert — though very bloody — coup. Guatemala remained under military dictatorships until the 1980s, democracy sacrificed for bananas . The bat-shit crazy Guatemalan dictator of the 80s, Efríam Rios Montt, was …well… bananas.

With no legitimate route to change, Guatemala had been in the middle of an on-and-off civil war since Arbenz was tossed out. Rios Montt launched a “scorched earth” campaign against his own people — or rather, the Mayans. Allegedly putting down Communists, Rios Montt was of the theory that he should “kill em all and let the Lord sort ’em out.” Like Colom, Rios Montt was also a minister… though in his case, it was a California-based Fundamentalist Christian sect that won his allegiance.

A Mexican brokered peace agreement ended the “official” civil war in 1996. While largely a forgotten step-child of Mexico, foreign reaction to Guatemalan events influences Mexican actions. After the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup, Mexico foreign policy turned conservative and did not seek to challenge the United States. The “socialist” PRI began repressing leftist challenges where before Mexican leaders coopted them, or made space for them within the system.

Rios Montt and the odious right-wing dictatorships that were only slightly better sent waves of Guatemalan refugees into Mexico… When the United States began withdrawing its support for the Guatemalan dictators, Mexico began making space within the system for indigenous groups and paying more attention to indigenous affairs. In many ways the latest in a long string of Mayan uprisings (the Zapatista movement) was a indirect result of the Guatemalan situation. The Mexican Army would not have been in a confrontation with the Mayans had it not been for the refugees, nor would there have been a push to identify Mayan dissent with the left if it hadn’t been for the U.S.-backed regimes in Guatemala.

And, while you are already starting to hear rumbles on the right that Guatemala may be “going left” (well, it is… but “going commie” has lost its cachet and now countries “fall under the sphere of influence of Hugo Chavez”) I’d expect Mexico is going to recognize that the U.S. is losing its hegonomy in the region, or — at least — is starting to recognize that social democrats are not a threat.

( A bit off topic, but I don’t know how to insert a footnote when writing directly on “wordpress”: Paraguay is also likely to join the left-list — and, there too, it is likely to elect a clergyman as president. Though Fernando Lugo Méndez is more what you expect a Latin American clergyman/leader to be: he is — or was — a Roman Catholic bishop).

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