The Guatemalan presidential election, set for September 2011, has heated up with the presence of unlikely contenders vying to hold that nation’s highest office. 

The most controversial of these is the current shadow president of Guatemala and “former” wife of President Alvaro Colom. The problem: the Constitution expressly prohibits close members of the president from running themselves for the presidency. 

Not to be stymied by rule of law, the populist “former” first lady filed for divorce just five months before the elections in a maneuver of dubious legality that would allow her to run for the seat.

Queried by the press, Sandra Torres “de Colom” explained that her decision was made because of the first family’s immense love for Guatemala.

What kind of love is this? The substitution of social and economic development for populist programs to purchase political patronage? A bag of food instead of sustainable jobs? Ideological rhetoric instead of education? And drug cartels instead of private sector growth? 

Sandra, true love for Guatemala looks different.

It is hard to see how an inefficient government that has allowed violence to spiral out of control while pursuing personal power is in the best interest of the Guatemalan people. When the violence, carried out by a group called the Z-200 – a drug-trafficking group affiliated to the Zetas of Mexico – manifests itself with the murder and decapitation of 27 workers in retaliation against a farm owner, it is not difficult to realize that Guatemala has been accelerating its path down the wrong track.

It is an insult to see such an elaborate and expensive political campaign, paid out of the public coffers and illegal donations from abroad, while the ordinary Guatemalan people suffer an unending spiral of violence and unemployment. I remember, as I’m sure do all Guatemalans, that only a few short years ago, I could walk through the Guatemala City without concern for personal safety.

Now, kidnapping, robbery and violence are the norm.

Despite this, the truth about Guatemala is elusive. Nobody wants to talk about how drug cartels have penetrated politics and society in Guatemala. It is the drug-trafficking industry that supports the majority of political campaigns, some social programs in the country-side, and that effectively runs the country. 

The response from the current government to this ever-increasing reality has been a “See No Evil” approach – while their popularity has been lubricated by populism.

Of course, the alternatives for the Guatemalans (as in too many countries in Latin America) are limited: vote for the former wife and shadow president (former guerrilla commander), or cast a ballot for a hard-line former general who doesn’t seem to possess the skills (or desire) of public dialogue.

This begs the obvious question: Where are we going as a region? It’s painful to watch the resurrected phantoms of a brutally violent past come again to haunt this marvelous Central American country. 

It is equally difficult to witness how the drug cartels and violent “Maras” have been extending their grip through Mexico and El Salvador. And it is hard to see how a great country like Perú is forced to chose between a dictatorial past and an authoritarian future. The choice between the terrible legacy of Fujimori and the Chávez-style regime of Humala. 

It is also a shame how the new king of Ecuador, Mr. Rafael Correa, has with relative ease used the electoral processes against the people of that Andean country in his attempt to control the media and the judiciary, all while silencing the democratic forces crying out to be heard. 

Finally, in Nicaragua, an unconstitutional president violates the law at will to run again.

Latin America seems to have only two options: to fall into the hands of the populists who believe that, with ideology and propaganda, they can solve the very real problems of the people; or working together in real representative democracies to solve the crushing challenges of our region. 

This is not a discussion of “left” versus “right”; it is about pragmatic work in freedom to solve the terrible problems of violence, drug-cartels, poverty, exclusion and the need for coherent governments that respect rule of law, human rights and true democracy.

No, Sandra, don’t say it's love of country. The people from Guatemala may be poor, but they are not so easily fooled.

Dr. Carlos Ponce is a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and the elected general coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy. He is also a member of the steering committees of the World Movement for Democracy and the Community of Democracies. 

The views expressed in this article represent the opinions and analysis of the writer and do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy or its staff. Twitter: @ceponces

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