Viewing cable 03GUATEMALA473

03GUATEMALA4732003-02-21 17:23:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Guatemala
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/19/2013 
Classified By: Political Officer Erik Hall. Reason 1.5 (b&d). 
¶1. (C) Summary:  Portillo's virtual absence from public 
during a time of mounting social protests has led to growing 
concern about governability.  The latest challenges, from 
teachers, ex-PACs and the "campesinos," are not easily 
attributed to Portillo's traditional opponents in the private 
sector, and the GOG has few resources to address their 
demands.  Bloody prison riots fuel public concerns that the 
GOG may be abdicating its responsibility for security, as the 
prisons were left in the hands of the mutinous prisoners.  As 
election campaigning begins, Guatemalans are concerned about 
the growing potential for confrontation and the lack of 
effective action by the Portillo Administration to resolve 
the conflicts.  One GOG official expressed concern that 
governability could decline this year as popular demands grow 
and the GOG either cannot or will not address them.  It is 
important that monitoring of the election begin early so that 
social tensions do not negatively impact on the transparency 
of the electoral process. End Summary. 
Portillo Faces Growing Challenges in Final Year 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
¶2. (C) President Portillo is facing growing pressure from his 
traditional populist base as he enters the final year of his 
presidency.  His agreement in 2002 to negotiate with former 
civil patrol members (ex-PACs) a compensation package for 
their service during the internal conflict led other social 
sectors to compete for the same potential GOG funds.  Public 
school teachers, an important electoral base of any sitting 
government, have been on strike for over six weeks seeking a 
40% pay increase, and "campesino" groups demanding land are 
increasingly marching in Guatemala City and blocking roads in 
the countryside.  Portillo's reaction so far has been to let 
his ministers talk with the protesters without making 
commitments, but Portillo himself has been out of the public 
eye for almost a month.  He surfaced in Panama for a recent 
meeting of Central American presidents with Colombian 
President Uribe, but other than that has not appeared in 
public and has not spoken to the press.  He even recruited 
Attorney General Carlos de Leon (constitutionally not a 
member of the executive) to give a nationally televised 
speech calling, on behalf of the President, for the avoidance 
of violence in the protests.  Portillo's virtual absence has 
led to much perhaps exaggerated press speculation that 
Portillo is increasingly disengaging from the day to day 
issues of governance and that governability will continue to 
deteriorate in this final year of his administration. 
Teachers and Campesinos Drawing Closer 
¶3. (C) As the national teachers strike (an unofficial work 
stoppage rather than a legally sanctioned strike) entered its 
sixth week on February 17, police and military MPs cordoned 
off key government buildings, but could not prevent 
occupation by protesters.  The striking teachers number more 
than 80,000 nationwide, and on January 30 and February 12 
turned out 20-40,000 in the capital -- the largest popular 
protests in recent history.  On February 17, teachers agreed, 
after mediation by Church leaders, to leave the occupied 
Finance Ministry and restart dialogue with the Ministers of 
Labor, Education, and Finance over their demands for more 
funds for education, but the dialogue so far has not produced 
the outlines of a solution.  Finance Minister Weymann told us 
that the GOG does not have the funds to back up its original 
offer of 100 Quetzales (approximately $13) a month pay 
increase for the teachers (which the teachers rejected), and 
said that giving in to the teachers would lead other public 
sector workers to ask for similar increases which would 
"break the bank." 
¶4. (SBU) Meanwhile, campesino groups and organized labor have 
voiced sympathy for the teachers, and talks between the two 
groups were announced for February 18.  Nery Barrios, head of 
the UASP union confederation which includes the striking 
teachers and the major campesino federation, told the 
Ambassador on February 13 that direct action (meaning 
unsanctioned strikes and street-level protest) are the only 
means available to workers to counter fruitless dialogue with 
the GOG.  Jose Pinzon, leader of the other major labor 
federation, the Union of Guatemalan Workers (UGT), said 
workers are disillusioned by electoral politics, where 
"(political candidates) run (for office) for the people, but 
govern for their financial backers." 
¶5. (U) GOG Peace Commissioner Catalina Soberanis told 
reporters on February 17 that the GOG had completed its 
census of ex-PACs and had determined that 600,000 people were 
eligible for compensation.  There has been no significant 
movement, however, on funding a compensation package for the 
former civil patrol members or the widows and orphans from 
the internal conflict. 
Prison Riots Go Unchecked 
¶6. (SBU) Even as Guatemalans wonder how the GOG is going to 
address the growing social demands, two bloody riots at local 
prisons have left many concerned that the GOG is not 
fulfilling its responsibility to keep order and impose the 
law.  The latest in a series of prison riots, which occurred 
on February 12, left seven dead at the capital's preventive 
detention facility, including the convicted murderer of 
Monsignor Gerardi.  Reports that prisoners were playing 
soccer with the decapitated heads of rival prisoners in full 
view of the guards left most Guatemalans numbed.  News of 
this gruesome event set off rumors of GOG intentions to use 
the riot as an excuse to declare a "state of exception or 
siege."  Guatemalans were deeply disturbed by the 
Government's inability or unwillingness to impose order in 
the two prisons that were now under the control of the 
mutinous prisoners.  The prison riots coincide with an 
alarming rise in violent crime that affects all Guatemalans, 
but especially the poor, and has led some commentators to 
question whether the Portillo Administration is increasingly 
abdicating its role to provide effective citizen security. 
One GOG Insider Concerned About Lack of Response to Protests 
--------------------------------------------- ------ 
¶7. (C) The continuing social tensions and the lack of 
effective GOG response has some concerned within the GOG as 
well.  New Secretary for Strategic Analysis Arturo Montenegro 
confided to us privately his misgivings about the 
determination among Portillo Administration hard-liners, 
especially Vice President Reyes Lopez, to meet growing social 
and political opposition to the government with confrontation 
or total inaction. 
¶8. (C) Montenegro believes that the teacher's strike has the 
potential to become a bigger problem for the GOG.  He is 
concerned that it is only a matter of time before the 
ex-PAC's begin pressuring the government as well, and said 
the government doesn't have any solution to offer.  Instead, 
he said, the GOG was seriously considering firing the 
teachers, adding fuel to the fire.  Election pressures will 
make every possible group surface demanding resources from 
the government.  Meanwhile, he said, the GOG is broke, and 
cannot honor any promises it makes.  In addition, the crime 
situation is fast getting out of hand and no one has a 
solution; none of the solutions being talked about in the 
Cabinet (including using the military) has any hope of 
addressing the problem effectively, he opined.  Finally, 
Montenegro worried that the international community 
(including the US) will gradually disengage from Guatemala if 
they don't see the Portillo Administration addressing its own 
problems and strengthening governability in this final year. 
¶9. (C) The confluence of popular demands and street-level 
protests is no surprise--it has surfaced in several forms 
since 2000 (which the GOG has dealt with, often by postponing 
resolution of conflicts) and may increase as the election 
campaign heats up.  The major social groups are competing for 
resources the GOG doesn't have to offer, and are frustrated 
after long fruitless efforts at dialogue with the government 
and a succession of unmet promises.  To a large extent, 
Portillo brought this series of social protests on himself by 
conceding early to ex-PAC demands for compensation after they 
blocked tourist and transportation access in the Peten last 
¶10. (C) The Government does not appear to have a coherent 
strategy for dealing with the current social protests, and 
the lack of leadership, indeed, the virtual absence of 
President Portillo, has led many to question if the Portillo 
Administration is beginning to disengage. 
¶11. (C) If the Portillo Administration does not respond 
effectively to the current challenges to governability, and 
protests continue through the electoral campaign, public 
doubts about the transparency of the electoral process will 
grow.  The international community has little to offer the 
GOG in terms of addressing the underlying problems which have 
led to the protests, but it is in our interest to seek an 
early beginning to international election monitoring in order 
to ensure the transparency and public credibility of the