By Zavi Engles
As Guatemalan elections continue, some citizens and critics have noted a surprising turn of events, as the current leading candidate is a controversial ex-military man who has been accused of human rights abuses during the long-running Guatemalan civil war (which lasted until 1996). The former heard of military intelligence, Otto Pérez Molina, is poised to be the next President, despite numerous allegations that he condoned and participated in acts of torture, including against indigenous communities. Many voters cite his stance on greater security spending as the primary reason for their support, as Guatemalans continue to suffer from increasing narco-trafficking related violence.
Some critics have posited that Molina’s popularity may also be bolstered by the fact that Guatemala is home to a relatively young population. 70 percent of Guatemalans are under the age of thirty, meaning that the horrific acts committed by the military during the civil war are no longer a significant aspect of the collective Guatemalan memory in the way they once were. Molina won the first round of elections with 37 percent of the votes. Though Molina is the leading candidate, he did not garner the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff that will now occur in November. His tenuous victory signals that many voters are perhaps concerned about his controversial military background as well as his conservative, hard-line approach to the problems central to Guatemalans today. In July, human rights advocates filed an official report to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other indigenous groups have also made official statements accusing Molina of human rights abuses.
Both Molina and the runner-up candidate, Manuel Baldizon, are running on similar platforms as both promise to increase security spending. However, Baldizon’s business-oriented background as well as some outlandish public statements, including such as personally seeing to Guatemala’s qualification in the World Cup have made some voters reluctant to support him. Molina has also been campaigning aggressively on the issue of the Guatemalan drug trade and the corresponding, increasing violence. This issue is paramount to the current elections as the homicide rate in 2010 was 41 per 100,000 as compared to 5.4 per 100,000 in the United States. Molina’s plans include equipping the military with more advanced technology and having them patrol the streets on a regular basis. Molina’s slogan perhaps best exemplifies his approach as he promises to rule with a “mano dura, cabeza, y corazon” (English translation: firm hand, head, and heart).
For many, his message of “mano dura” or firm hand when it comes to tackling violence is a sign of hope that the rampant violence can finally be contained by a more aggressive governmental policy.
However, none of the candidates were able to garner the 50 percent of votes needed to win outright, which shows that many Guatemalans still have doubts about electing a former military head to represent their interests. As one Guatemalan citizen puts it, “there is no one that is stealing our hearts…unfortunately it has come down to who is the least bad.” At this point, Guatemala’s future is still uncertain in regards to who will be the next President and, if Molina wins, what changes he will implement on the political stage.
Update 11/7/11 – Molina has won the Guatemalan election