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POLITICS-GUATEMALA: New President Pledges ‘Privileges for the Poor’

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 18 2008 (IPS) - Social Democrat Álvaro Colom, winner of the presidential elections in Nov. 2007, took office this week amidst great challenges and great expectations. Guatemalans are anxious for better security and economic improvement, analysts say.

“Today is the beginning of privileges for the poor, for those without opportunity. We intend to overcome intolerance, inequality, discrimination and lack of solidarity,” Colom said in his inaugural speech after the swearing- in ceremony in the capital’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Theatre.

“I thank God because for the first time in 50 years, there is a change toward a social democratic government in Guatemala, with a social focus,” the president said, and he promised to strive for “harmony among indigenous peoples.” Guatemala’s 23 ethno-linguistic communities “are waiting for development and an end to discrimination,” he said.

Eleven heads of state attended the ceremony, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, along with 10 foreign ministers and some 1,500 representatives of over 70 countries, including Prince Felipe of Asturias, the heir to the Spanish crown.

“Expectations are high, because it’s the first social democratic government,” Raquel Zelaya, head of the non-governmental Social Research and Studies Association (ASIES), told IPS. “He had strong voter support among rural and indigenous people.”

Colom, of the National Union of Hope (UNE), won a majority in 19 out of the 22 departments (provinces) in the country, giving rise to hope that his government would improve economic conditions for the population, particularly in the rural areas, Iduvina Hernández, head of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in a Democracy (SEDEM), told IPS.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, the poverty rate in Guatemala is 51 percent, but unofficial estimates put the figure closer to 80 percent. Indigenous people, who officially make up 41 percent – but are estimated by non-governmental organisations to represent 65 percent of the Guatemalan population of 13 million – are disproportionately impoverished.

On top of poverty, there is insecurity because of violent “maras” (juvenile gangs) and organised crime, which has penetrated state institutions.

From Jan. to Nov. 2007, a total of 3,114 people were violently murdered, including 364 women. Most of the killers used firearms and many of the victims had been tortured, according to a report by the non-governmental Mutual Support Group (GAM). Guatemala is reportedly one of the most violent countries in the Americas.

Fighting crime was, in fact, the major campaign issue leading up to the elections. Colom’s call to tackle violence “intelligently” was more effective than the tough approach to crime (“mano duro”) advocated by his rightwing patriotic party opponent, retired General Otto Pérez Molina.

Colom, the seventh president since democracy was restored, won the second round of the election with 52.82 percent of the vote, while Pérez Molina received 47.18 percent.

“The system has collapsed and is inefficient,” Colom said last week when he unveiled his cabinet. He said his government would give top priority to security problems, and would vigorously promote rural development, beginning with the new government’s 100-day action plan.

Eight out of ten poor people live in rural areas. Agriculture provides 75 percent of jobs, but only makes up 23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

From 1991 to 1997, Colom was deputy Finance Minister, and afterwards he was head of the National Peace Fund (FONAPAZ), the agency responsible for managing international aid and designing projects to reduce tensions in the areas affected by internal armed conflict.

The 1960-1996 civil war between state security forces and leftwing insurgents in Guatemala left over 200,000 dead, most of them indigenous people. Fifty thousand people were forcibly ‘disappeared’ by death squads and paramilitary groups.

In political analyst Pedro Trujillo’s view, security should be one of the priority issues for the president’s four-year mandate, along with combating corruption, reorganising the government, reforming the state, and guaranteeing the rule of law, in order to attract investments.

“If the president doesn’t overhaul the whole security system, he’ll just be lashing out blindly, like his predecessor (former President Oscar Berger), creating the conditions for organised crime to flourish, and opening the door to human rights abuses and violations,” Hernández said.

In order to reinforce the justice system and combat impunity, on Aug. 1 urgent approval was given to a measure creating the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), which emerged from an agreement signed in 2006 between the Berger administration and the United Nations. CICIG is supported by about 30 countries.

According to the statistics, the perpetrators of 98 percent of all murders remain unpunished, which illustrates the weakness of the country’s institutions.

CICIG, which began its formal sessions on Friday, is to investigate illegal security organisations operating in parallel to the state, and will be made up of investigators, forensic scientists, prosecutors, and lawyers specialised in human rights, criminal and international law, from Guatemala, Latin America, the U.S., and Europe.

Andrew Hudson, a lawyer for Human Rights First, told IPS that CICIG has the potential to make a clean break with the culture of impunity in the country, as well as to strengthen the justice system, and dismantle and eradicate illegal security organisations inside and outside state institutions.

A survey published on Jan. 7 by the newspaper El Periódico showed that Guatemalans are optimistic about the new government – 46.9 percent of interviewees said they expected the situation in the country to improve, 28.8 percent expected it to remain the same, and 17 percent expected the situation to get worse.

According to Trujillo, the country “has higher hopes than ever, perhaps more than for any other government of the democratic era,” which is a heavy responsibility for Colom, because if he doesn’t meet the expectations, “the level of disenchantment will be very great.”

“You go out on to the street without knowing if you’ll ever get back. I’m hoping that security will improve,” Irma Trigueros, a company cleaner, told IPS.

Victoriano Zacarías, general secretary of the National Workers Confederation (CNT) of Guatemala, said that the country needs drastic changes “on the issues of security, poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.” He complained that some electoral campaign financers for UNE have been appointed as cabinet ministers, and are “taking their slice of the pie.”

There is only one woman, and one indigenous person, among Colom’s 13 cabinet ministers.

Ernestina González, a domestic employee, told IPS she expects that Colom “will be more of the same, because all governments seek to enrich themselves, while everything gets more expensive for the poor.”

Inflation in 2007 was 8.75 percent in Guatemala, 2.96 points higher than in 2006. GDP grew by 5.6 percent, according to a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

To mitigate the effects of inflation, the outgoing administration decreed an increase in the minimum wage of 5.8 percent in the non-agricultural private sector, and 5.4 percent in the agricultural private sector, effective Jan. 1, 2008.

The new minimum wage for non-agricultural workers is 1,718 quetzals (224.50 dollars) a month, and 1,672 quetzals (218.50 dollars) a month for agricultural labourers.

However, this is not an increase in real terms, but a “readjustment” that falls short of the mark, because these wages are not enough to cover the cost of the basic basket of food and goods a family needs, Zacarías said.

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