Thursday, March 17, 2011

Impunity on the electoral front

So, electioneering is in full swing even though the official campaign is not supposed to start until May. As with much in Guatemala, the laws and the constitution are one thing; politicians just basically do whatever the hell they want.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that the parties have been painting up the landscape throughout Quiché; each passing week seems to bring out more and more paint. The parties paint rocks, the sides of mountains, utility poles, trees (this is illegal, I think; hard to keep track of what is illegal and what isn't since the laws are regularly flouted). For example, on March 8 or 9 (I was really sick last week and so missed a few days of news), Sandra Torres de Colom, the wife of the current president, announced that she would enter the presidential race as a candidate for the UNE (Unidad Nacional para la Esperanza: National Unity for Hope). This notwithstanding the fact that constitution prohibits relatives of the president ineligible to run for the office.  So, she has been running campaign ads regularly (I hear the ones on the radio). In her ad she claims that she is running in response to popular demand (she has not mentioned how she will get around the constitutional exclusion). The gender politics of the ad are interesting (if not entirely surprising): her vision of hope is a country where children can go to school; where mothers can take their children to school and to the health clinic; and where men can find employment.

Now, the part about children going to school is very interesting, and I'll tell you why. Over the past few weeks, there have been a series of billboards, carrying the imprimatur of the UNE (the ruling party, remember) posted throughout the country (well, through the part of the country through which I drive), each one featuring a winsome photograph of a young Guatemalan child (I have one for you to see).
Sorry it's not a great photograph but this particular billboard is on a very steep curve on the highway between Chichicastenango and Sta. Cruz del Quiché that had a very small shoulder just below the sign; to have gotten a better angle I would have had to have stood in the middle of the road.  The sign says, "The best election is to continue helping. Julio Alvarado no longer has to work in order to eat." With the insignia of the UNE at the bottom.  By reading this sign, you would think that because of programs that the UNE has sponsored (and Sandra Torres de Colom as First Lady has been instrumental in the current administration in developing some programs that help rural families -- or so she and the party claim), this child, Julio (and it is his real name) was able to STOP working and go to school. Hip hip hooray.

There are, I think, a total of four "poster children" for this particular campaign of the UNE. However, there's a small problem with this picture -- and the other three.  

None of these children, according to their parents, were child laborers. I repeat, not a single one of the children was working and not in school. They are all enrolled in school. Whether the UNE can take credit for the existence of public schools is another matter entirely. According to a story in today's paper, the parents said that "people from the government" showed up at the households of these families and said they were taking pictures of the kids. According to the parents, they were never told what the photographs were for, the government people just took photos and left (perhaps they signed release forms, not sure about that, but they probably wouldn't pass the "informed consent" smell test).  Most of the parents have not seen the billboards but they heard about them.  

A spokesperson for the UNE who was interviewed in the paper gave a very mealy-mouthed response.  

So this is just a little taste of the low level of politics and political discourse in Guatemala.  

A radio report today noted that 10 of the 16 parties that had submitted their campaign budgets to whatever the proper ministry is already spent close to the ceiling (Q51 million) of what they are permitted by law for the entire election -- and the official campaign, as I mentioned, has not yet begun. We are in "pre-campaign" mode. I did see several men carrying UNE stencils and quarts of paint along a stretch of highway this afternoon (right after hearing this news report) -- so politics as usual....

So this all seems to function on a level of absurdity; a kind of alternate reality inhabited by politicians.   

There is a political movement -- not a political party -- that has been putting up billboards that are critical of the entire electoral process. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the radio on my drive between Antigua and Quiché and there was some live coverage: in the early morning hours, along some stretch of the Panamericana, someone had placed a billboard saying "Los políticos son una mierda." (politicians are shit).  A reporter called the phone number on the billboard and got the representative of this political movement on the phone to explain why they had put up these billboards (of course, they did not say the "m" word on the airwaves, but instead, "a word that begins with an M" or "that word"). The guy who was interviewed was great; his response was "Well, that's the truth, or at least this is what a lot of people in the country think about politicians, and we just wanted to put it out there." 

This was a few weeks ago; the representative said further that the billboards were not financed by any group but by members of the movement; that there were people in the group who had carpentry and graphic skills and they had just made them themselves. Refreshing to hear that kind of DIY approach. They had plans to put up 500 to 1000 billboards throughout the country.

Well, they finally reached the stretch of highway that I traverse, so here is a sample:

"The politicians are for shit; we're fed up."  

There was another billboard with a different slogan but it was impossible to slow down and pull over to photograph it without risking life and limb, or even to read it very closely, so this is what we have for now.

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