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Guatemala - Politics

The Central American country is still struggling to recover from the U.S.-funded civil war (1960-1996), which saw more than 200,000 Guatemalans killed, most of them indigenous Mayans. The country has a 75 percent poverty rate and ranks among one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Despite their dependence on foreign commerce, economic elites in Guatemala managed to create a closed culture, avoiding the outside world and its modern tendencies. They trusted that their control over large tracts of fertile land and the certainty of counting on seasonal farm workers, in addition to the subordinated political regime that provided them physical security and potential financial benefits -- credit, tax exonerations, and tariff protections -- were sufficient to preserve their power, peace, and well-being. The coming of modernity, therefore, was undesirable.

In her renowned investigation Lineage and Racism, Marta Casaus demonstrated how dominant family groups have preserved their power since the beginning of the Republic. The entrance of the emergent sectors during the 20th century was realized through a marriage of convenience among aristocratic families. It involved a mechanism of mutual assimilation that permitted the closure and control of the elites’ circle.

The slow transition process of Guatemala's economic elites during the second half of the 20th century in the economic realm occurred where traditional plantations lost importance and leaders of the agriculture industry lost political weight. In the political realm, the transition saw the introduction of more democratic rule and the promotion of civil liberties as a condition of international legitimacy in a market economy. In tandem but independent of this group, new fortunes have surfaced whose origin is -- as it had been with families of the traditional elite -- related to government. A third group has emerged around trade and non-traditional exports, tourism, and contraband.

The so-called “communist threat” helped to solidify the last line of defense. Guatemalan guerrilla groups, as well neighboring insurgencies, awakened a sense of selfpreservation that was placed above the squabbles and conflicting interests of economic groups that arose out of the economic diversification and narrowing social stratification during these decades; thirty years that saw appreciable and sustained economic growth, the growth of the middle class and of urban centers.

Scholars consider that the democratic process of Guatemala began in 1985 with the arrival of the Constitution of the Republic and with the first free election of a civil president. Guatemala faces asymmetrical power relations characterized by a long history of repression and political violence. The armed conflict during the second half of the 20th century had devastating consequences for a large portion of the population as well as the country's social leadership. The ongoing violence resulted in negative psychosocial effects among the population, including mistrust toward institutions and low levels of social and political participation. Although Guatemala made progress in creating spaces for social participation in public policy after signing the Peace Accords in 1996, the country still faces after-effects of the conflict.

Based on anti-communist principles that rejected the totalitarian state model, Guatemala's economic elites embraced with great ease the package of ideological principles that emerged as the winner of the Cold War: neoliberalism. But they embraced a primitive and closed version known as the Austrian School.

The traditional and emerging elites who have converted into lobbying groups -- which can be comprised of families or business alliances -- seek protectionist policies and other advantages that would provide them greater business opportunities. They do this by financing electoral campaigns in order to later have access to the highest level officials. This is also done by selecting a representative within the economic and financial ministries of the central government.

As a general rule, for example, for the past two decades of democratic rule the salaries of top-level public servants have been notably inferior to those of top executives in the private sector -- by a ratio of 1:3. The income of ministers is subsidized via bonuses known crudely as “dobletes” and paid by the business alliances. In some cases, the ministers are paid directly by the large corporations. It is not surprising, therefore, that said ministers are always available via phone, or in person, for those who are really paying their salary.

The rise of drug trafficking changed entirely the conventional parameters of corruption. Weak or nonexistent election campaign finance controls, as well as the loss of tradition and partisan loyalty, opened the doors to criminal influence in Guatemala’s new democratic government.

Common and violent crime, aggravated by a legacy of violence and vigilante justice, presents a serious challenge. Impunity remained a major problem, primarily because democratic institutions, including those responsible for the administration of justice, have developed only a limited capacity to cope with this legacy. Guatemala's judiciary is independent; however, it suffers from inefficiency, corruption, and intimidation.

There were no legal restrictions on the editorial independence of the media. Reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship, recognizing the danger investigative journalism posed to them and their families. The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but freedom of expression advocates noted that difficulty obtaining licenses to operate community radio stations and obtaining some judicial information limited press freedom.

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