Guatemala's presidential divorce of convenience
Sandra Torres, Guatemala's former first lady and presidential hopeful, divorced her husband to avoid a legal bar to her candidacy. But it may have turned the country's devout public against her.
An unemployed indigenous Mayan with a child whose belly she has trouble keeping full, Ms. Choc believed Mr. Colom â€“ a left-of-center candidate â€“ would combat endemic poverty.
â€śI think the president has good programs for the poor, ones that help us, like this one,â€ť she says, waiting outside one of the scores of food pantries the Colom administration opened. She says she eats there with her 7-year-old daughter regularly.
â€śSandra would have the same projects,â€ť she says, pausing to think, â€śbut sheâ€™s divorced.â€ť
For American voters, who have become accustomed to political sex scandals and moral improprieties far graver than divorce (if it even rises to impropriety), Ms. Torresâ€™s peccadillo may seem tame. But Guatemala is not the USâ€™s cultural equivalent. Nor is Torres the average candidate. Sheâ€™s the former first lady.
Torres divorced Colom to skirt a constitutional provision banning family members of sitting president from running for the following election. The controversy that followed, a series of smaller scandals and a political climate dominated by the question over how the country should combat a crippling crime wave, has turned the would-be first female president of Guatemala into a long shot. As the Sept. 11 first round approaches, her opponent, a former military general with a checkered past, is pulling away, according to recent polls.
'Divorce for her country'
Guatemalaâ€™s Constitution, which also prevents Colom from running for a consecutive term, prohibits family members from running to prevent family dynasties. In an emotional address in April, Torres said, â€śI am divorcing my husband, but marrying the people. â€¦ I am not going to be the first or last woman who decides to get a divorce, but I am the only one to divorce for her country.â€ť
The divorce was scandalous in a country where churches big and small, Catholic and evangelical, sit on every street of every city and village. The powerful Catholic Bishopsâ€™ Conference said the institution of marriage was not negotiable.
The perhaps more powerful association that represents big business owners, CACIF, was less charitable. â€śThese actions illustrate the decline of moral values of society,â€ť the group said in a statement. â€śHow can we expect to restore Guatemalaâ€™s moral and fundamental values if its presidential pair send a message like this?â€ť
A political bulldog with Tammy Faye Baker eyes, Torres has defended her decision to end the civil marriage.
But the divorce was followed by a series of scandals, including a legal effort by her own sister to invalidate Torresâ€™ candidacy.
â€śThe divorce has been a distraction that she has not really been able to overcome,â€ť says Guillermo MĂ©ndez, a professor at Guatemalaâ€™s Francisco MarroquĂn University and founder of the Institute for Services to the Nation, which is trying to inform voters on candidate positions. â€śHer campaign has not recovered enough for her to be able to deliver her message.â€ť
Torres is pursuing a strategy that mirrors the one that put her ex-husband in office. He was the first president to lose the important Guatemala City vote and still win the presidency, thanks to the support of poor, rural voters.
Early on, Torres took charge of the Colom administrationâ€™s marquee antipoverty project, aimed at the same population. The program includes food pantries and cash payments of $40 a month to families that send their children to school and for vaccines regularly.
Opponents accuse her of â€śusing [the program] to buy the First Lady a political support base for her presidential aspirations,â€ť the US Embassy wrote in a cable in 2009, more than a year before she declared her intentions.
The program reached 814,625 families in 2010, but â€śthose family, who are poor and mostly indigenous can recognize when someone is trying to take advantage of them for political purposes,â€ť says MĂłnica Leonardo, a professor at Guatemalaâ€™s University of the Isthmus and a lawyer with the Pro Justice Movement. â€śMore importantly, her discourse has been left-leaning and people, even if they are poor, are not going to buy the left-wing rhetoric in this election.â€ť
A mano dura alternative
In recent polls, sheâ€™s trailed her opponent â€“ former military general Otto PĂ©rez Molina â€“ by as few as 7 points and as many as 30 points. Although the polls have historically been unreliable here, they are unanimously against her.
â€śShe ran without considering the consequences. I donâ€™t think she listened when people said she didnâ€™t have a chance to win,â€ť says Sandino Asturias, director of the liberal Center for Guatemalan Studies. â€śMaybe her ego made the decision.â€ť
Mr. PĂ©rez, runner-up to Colom in the previous election, campaigns as a mano dura candidate, meaning heâ€™d take a hard-handed approach to drugs, arms, and human trafficking, and gang violence.
â€śWe donâ€™t want the violence and insecurity found in Guatemala. There will be 25,000 murders under this government, 25,000 families who lost [someone] ... and this government doesnâ€™t care,â€ť PĂ©rezâ€™s campaign told the Monitor in a statement.
PĂ©rez came up through the military ranks during Guatemalaâ€™s 36-year-long civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, 93 percent by the military, a truth commission found. PĂ©rez commanded a military unit in the western department of Quiche, where more than 300 massacres took place. He also directed a feared military intelligence agency. The war ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords between rebel forces and the government. PĂ©rez represented the military in the peace accords negotiations.
As the first round vote nears (a run-off will held in November unless a candidate wins the majority), PĂ©rez has focused less on the drastic measures for which he was once known â€“ like an antigang bill that would have imprisoned gang members even if they had not committed a crime.
â€śYou see him moderating his approach now. His mano dura approach is being framed as just complying with existing laws,â€ť Ms. Leonardo says. â€śI think he realizes that he has to appear more moderate. â€¦ Unless something drastic happens, heâ€™s going to win this election.â€ť