Electing for Hope: Good News From Guatemala

The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. on Guatemala’s presidential election day in December 2003. Another electoral observer and myself, accredited by the Organization of American States, found our way through dense fog and a 35-degree chill to a local high school in the city of Quetzaltenango to meet the polling place team. We picked up ballots for 3,000 registered voters, several formatted in Braille, the rest with party symbols and pictures of the candidates to accommodate the illiterate. Under police escort, we rode to a nearby grammar school, which has been converted into a polling place. In each classroom was a table at which the president, secretaryand a poll watcher from each party sat, while an alguacil, or welcomer, waited to receive voters and help them through the procedure.

The first voters, remembering the long lines of the first electoral round on Nov. 9, began to line up shortly after 6 a.m. They were to select from among 10 presidential and vice-presidential candidates, hundreds of congressional candidates, hopefuls for 331 mayoral and town council positions, and candidates for a Central American parliament (a body of elected officials that represents most Central American countries). All the rest had been decided the first time around. Since neither of the presidential or vice-presidential candidates had received an absolute majority, this second round was a runoff between óscar Berger, running with a coalition of three parties nicknamed GANA (Gran Alianza Nacional), and álvaro Colóm, who leads the UNE party (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza).


The two finalists had solid if unspectacular careers in both public service and private enterprise. Both repudiated the violent past and promised action on the violence of the present while endorsing the peace accords signed in 1996. General Efraín Ríos Montt did not make the cut, and his political career seems over, to the relief of 88 percent of the Guatemalans who voted (and also to the relief of most of the international community). Although he was head of the Congress and F.R.G. party (Guatemalan Republican Front), the general once took over the presidency through a military coup and earned notoriety for his role as head of the army during the flagrant human rights abuses and massacres of 25 years before.

The polling place opened 10 minutes early to accommodate the mostly elderly early risers. As the day wore on, more and more young voters appearedmany of them 18-year-olds who were voting for the first time. The majority of the electoral officials were in their 20’s, indigenous people and Ladinos (Guatemalans of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry), represented in proportion to their nearly equal numbers in the region. The polling place blended Guatemalan courtesiesbuenos días, pase adelante, su cédula [I.D. card] por favor, muchas graciaswith well-planned electoral procedures. Transparent plastic bags awaited the ballots. Party challengers were helpful as they kept an eye on procedures, occasionally checking for discrepancies between I.D.’s and the voter registration list. The voters signed the registration book and had their fingers marked with indelible ink, which would accompany them for a week or two.

At 6 p.m. the polls closed and each team set to work separating and counting the ballots. Berger was winning at our site. We observers phoned in the quick count to the O.A.S. in Guatemala City, which had assigned us to report an early sampling. Then, again escorted by police, we took the ballots back to the high school operations center, where officials of the regional electoral tribunal used computers to conduct a final and official count. The outcome nationwide was 56 percent for Berger, 48 percent for Colóm, with about 46 percent of the total electorate voting. Regions with indigenous majorities and younger voters went with Colóm, who had promised to fight for the poor and marginalized Indian majority, but in Guatemala City a large majority put Berger, its former mayor, on top.

Guatemalan citizens tend to suffer from low electoral self-esteem. Outsiders have not always helped. The C.I.A. undermined a democratically elected government in 1954. In the weeks preceding the 2003 elections, not surprisingly, civil rights leaders had to reassure voters that the secret ballot really was secret. (A rumor circulated widely that satellites could take pictures of voters and their choices.) In the words of the poet Humberto Ak’abal, who writes in the Mayan language, Quiche, fear still walked in the land. But the demeanor of voters this time was upbeat and full of hope. Valentín Paniágua, chief of the O.A.S. international observers, declared, This Guatemalan election is an example for all Latin America. The scholar and architect Adrián Recinos left the polling place and said, We’re doing better than the ancient Greeks, given the climate of tranquility, respect and joy prevailing in this election. Guatemalan political self-esteem may finally be climbing.

The next day, Dec. 29, 2003, after a concession and commitment to a loyal opposition role by álvaro Colóm, president-elect óscar Berger met with civil leaders from across the political spectrum, who assigned him to revive work toward the goals of the peace accords. Cardinal Archbishop Quesada Toruño, who had initiated dialogues between guerrillas and the army nearly a dozen years before, and Thom Koenig, the director of the U.N. mission in Guatemala, presided over the event. Berger accepted the task, going a step further by suggesting that the Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchú might serve as special ambassador for indigenous affairs and by inviting Helen Mack, a human rights lawyer, to oversee justice programs and Gustavo Porras to run the Peace Secretariat.

The economy is weak, the scars of war are deep, criminal violence is frightening. But Guatemalans are enjoying a moment of hope. A Salvadoran friend once reminded me that elections are but one movement in the symphony of democracy. Learning to negotiate, carry on dialogue, trust, organizethere is still much to do. Parties and party systems must be built. Taxes must be paid and social investment made. The electoral movement was splendid, and, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Guatemala now needs a mighty chorus of citizens to complete the work.

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