Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bread and circuses, tragicomedy or civic feast?

As the election date draws nearer, the airwaves and every other imaginable public or commercial space are full of electoral propaganda of one sort or another -- endless campaign ads from the very-well-financed traditional parties, so many of them that it seems to be an unintended interruption when there is finally a song or a few minutes of news sandwiched in between insipid songs and empty rhetoric.  When the airwaves are not blaring paid advertisements for political parties, which sometimes seem to be saying the same thing (better days ahead, jobs, security) and sometimes seem to be attacking each other's empty promises by making equally vague and empty ones, they are full of public service announcements from NGOs and other outfits explaining the voting process or exhorting everyone to join in a festival of national pride and citizenship: "Vamos por Guate".  And I should know -- at our radio station, we have been doing much of the same. There is barely a rock, drainage ditch, or utility pole in Quiché that has not been painted with the symbols and colors of several political parties. Most of the parties are holding rallies, walks and caravans to blare their messages, gather the faithful (or the paid supporters), and so on weekends the streets, plaza and sections of highways are clogged.

There is a level of absurdity -- but by this observation I don't mean to diminish the seriousness of the process. That is, Guatemalans' lives will be affected by who is elected, and the policies he or she implements.  For example, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (its Spanish acronym is TSE) demanded that the Partido Patriota should stop its campaign because it had violated the campaign finance laws. However, they acknowledged that their demand carried little weight as the fines are so minuscule as to offer no deterrent whatsoever. i think the figure from today's paper was that the party had been fined in the neighborhood of $14,000 U.S. Hardly an obstacle for a party that is financed by some of the wealthiest people in the country.  So the TSE can issue warnings, demands, and citations, and there are no consequences whatsoever, and business goes on as usual. The culture of impunity is well ingrained and permeates many aspects of life beyond the electoral system, but this is where it seems to be thrown into sharp relief on an almost daily basis.

At the same time, the elections have been characterized by high levels of violence -- however, hard for the electoral violence to really stand out in a country where there are dozens of murders a day. But a mayoral candidate in one town tried to have two of his opponents killed (and succeeded in one case).  

Many people think that the outcome of the elections -- at least a the level of the presidency -- are basically determined by negotiations and contentions among factions of the national elite. And that the elite has determined that at this moment in time, it is expedient or useful to have a military person in charge of the country. Hence the support (from the elite) for Otto Pérez Molina. Another variant of this analysis (and this is one that I've heard from folks in rural Maya communities) is that Guatemalan politics for the last 500 years (or the last 190 if you want to count down from independence in 1821) has been for the benefit of the wealthy and the poor and/or the Maya (the two categories are nearly coterminous; and when someone in a 100% Maya rural settlement talks about "the rich" and "the poor", it doesn't seem necessary to layer on the ethnic labels) have rarely if ever been taken into account, except when their votes are needed to legitimate the established order.  

Some seem resigned to what seems to be the near-certainty of a Pérez Molina presidency, while others question the inevitability of the outcome , and/or are making some 11th-hour efforts to prevent it from happening. In the past few days I've received several communications laying out Pérez Molina's record before, during, and after the war, in hopes that it will turn some people away from voting for him.

In our trips to fairly remote rural villages over the past few days, people have told us about vote buying and outright intimidation by both the Patriota and the party in power, the UNE. Apparently the Patriota held a session with some of their Maya "supporters" from rural villages to teach the women how to mark their ballots (the Xs or other markings have to stay within the box; if you go outside the lines the vote may be invalid); when some of the women failed to mark the ballots correctly, they said that the Patriota officials yelled at them,  called them  stupid donkeys and other demeaning terms. In other places people have said that the Patriota has threatened to break all hell loose if they do not win the mayoralty.  UNE elected officials are handing out roofing tiles or sheets of corrugated aluminum.  

So, it's hard to know how to think, act, feel. Well, I know how to act: I am doing what I can to support people at the local level whom I think can make a difference. But on another level, the whole thing seems ridiculous, tragic, a farce. I wrote earlier to a friend that one doesn't know whether to cry, laugh, scream, or demonstrate. Or all of the above.

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