Sunday, March 27, 2011

Politics as usual?

For the past several days, the media (and to a degree, public conversation) has been focused on the initiation of divorce proceedings by first lady Sandra Torres de Colom and her husband, president Álvaro Colom.

A bit of backstory: the Guatemalan constitution prohibits relatives of presidents (to 4 degrees of consanguinity and 2 degrees of affinity -- for all of you who thought those kinships charts you might have viewed in introductory anthropology would never come in handy, well, they might after all!) from running for that office. Sandra Torres de Colom (perhaps soon not to be "de Colom") had vocally expressed interest in running for president.  She has also, during her husband's presidency, helped establish some social programs such as Mi Familia Progresa, that distributes funds to poor families. I am not here passing judgement on the merits of these programs; it seems that what she's done is what First Ladies often do: work on family issues, "women's" issues, and so forth.  Also indisputed is that these programs - and Sra. Torres de Colom -- have come under attack, and that some of the attacks have undoubtedly been influenced by deep-rooted machismo. So have her expressed presidential ambitions been attacked, and also, in some cases, on very machista criteria (she doesn't really have any qualifications, she's just "accompanying" her husband in his programs).

Sandra Torres de Colom (still de Colom until the ink is dry on the divorce decree) made it clear months back that she wanted to be the UNE candidate for president (remember that the election campaign has still not officially started, placards and slogans painted all over the countryside notwithstanding).  She took her case to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)  which determined that she could be a candidate in 2015.  

However, apparently not content to wait, the Coloms decided to initiate divorce proceedings. There was a public declaration earlier this week, followed by paid radio advertisements in which Sra. Torres declared that her adversaries had subjected her to personal calumnies designed to attack the social programs she had championed -- attacks in the face of which she had remained silent, that her love for the president was strong and had never been subject to any problems but that her love for the country was even more than that, and that she was making a personal and familial sacrifice.  The basic line of argument was repeated in the press conferences.  

Yet, the Coloms have also stated, on various occasions, that the divorce is designed to overcome the legal barriers to Sandra Torres de Colom's presidential bid.  And that's what has gotten a lot of people across the political spectrum upset.  Friends and associates, some of whom are on the left, broadly speaking (I don't ask people about their party affiliations if any, but judging from what I know about my acquaintances' past and current involvements, I'd define most of them as "progressive"), view this as a cynical maneuver.  The general feeling is that Colom, no matter what his pretensions, is a politician just like any other. The Coloms don't want to give up power, and this is a way to retain some hold on it.  Friends who are feminists, broadly speaking, are not in love with Sandra Torres de Colom as a candidate, although they agree that some of the programs she has championed (such as Mi Familia Progresa, that distributes funds to needy mothers) have benefited people in their communities -- although many would point out that a one-time Q300 or Q600 payment (the size of the payment varies with the number of dependent children) isn't the same as providing sustainable economic development opportunities.  

All sorts of folks have weighed in on the divorce. Bishop Ramazzani (whom I met when he visited the Boston area to commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of Msgr. Gerardi) has opined on it. Radio commentators have mostly been critical, seeing this as an opportunistic ploy to get around the constitution.  Today's paper had an editorial from a legal scholar (I think; can't get the web page to load right now to check his credentials).  

Not sure what the long-term impact of this will be on the current elections, or on electoral politics in general. It does not seem to have increased people's confidence in their elected leaders or in the legal system -- again, I am judging from a small sample of mostly indigenous folks in Quiché.  And most folks I know around here are pretty cynical about politics and politicians in general. They don't love their local elected officials; they feel that mayors just listen to folks with money and politicians in general only demonstrate interest in rural communities when it comes time to getting votes. We have noticed that the bulldozers are out on the "highway" to Tapesquillo -- perhaps, given that this is an election year locally, the mayor has decided to But I haven't yet come across anyone who thinks this is splendid and marks a solidification of democratic institutions.  

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