Guatemala Elects Former Military Man to President

Since retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina was elected president of Guatemala last night, Central America-watchers in the U.S. have certainly had an earful about the retired general known as mano dura (“iron fist,” which was also his campaign logo and the symbol of his vow to crush rampant crime).  The first former military man to win the presidency since civilian rule was restored to Guatemala in 1986, 60-year-old Perez has been charged with overseeing widespread civilian deaths and atrocities while leading troops in the mountainous Quiche region in the 1980’s.

“Genocide-Linked Gen. Otto Perez Molina Likely to Become President of Guatemala,” blared the headline of a recent issue of Democracy Now. When asked her husband’s opinion of Perez by HUMAN EVENTS, the wife of a Guatemalan living in the U.S. was even more direct: “He’s a killer!

Perez supporters denied these charges and pointed out that their man represented the army in peace negotiations that ended Guatemala’s 1960-96 civil war (which left more than 200,000 dead) and dramatically weakened the army’s role in the postwar nation.  As much as voters were reluctant to turn power over to a tough-talking former military man in the past (Perez narrowly lost the last election in ’07), the rise of organized crime, youth gangs and foreign drug cartels made the race a natural for a candidate who vowed to hire 10,000 more police and extend video surveillance and sentencing.  Perez topped the ten-candidate field in September and on Sunday, he won the run-off over multimillionaire businessman Manuel Baldizon with 55% of the vote.

Whether the serious charges against the president-elect have any validity and how Perez pursues his law-and-order agenda will be played out in Guatemala and among Guatemalans.  But what is far more important to Latin America and to the U.S. is whether Guatemala’s new leader makes his country a player in the group of nations that stands up to Venezuela’s Marxist strongman Hugo Chavez.

“Chavez, the Castro brothers and [Nicaragua’s onetime Marxist leader and two-term President Daniel] Ortega form part of the Bolivian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), a band of leftist governments led by Venezuela,” Davidson College’s International Politics Prof. Russell Crandall wrote in Foreign Affairs (May, June 2011). “Contending that Latin America remains shackled by the imperial United States and its lackeys at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, members of this group remain committed to a non-aligned diplomacy and seek friendship with the governments of such countries as Iran, Russia, and to some extent, China. [emphasis added].”

The role of China as a political actor in Latin America is nothing short of alarming.  In ’08, China imported $71 billion worth of goods from Latin America, and increased its sale of high-tech military equipment to friendly nations.

Prof. Crandall worries that some left-of-center democratic governments in Latin America, such as those of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Brazil’s former President Luiz Lula da Silva, are enablers of Chavez and Company.  These leaders, he charges, “have been reluctant to speak out because they share some sort of revolutionary solidarity with Chavez and the Castros . . .”

So those opposed to Chavez, the Castros, Ortega, and other others in ALBA are going to be those who are on the right in economic matters and unafraid of friendship with the U.S.  Certainly, Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli, a businessman who defeated leftist Balbina Herrera (a protégé of deposed dictator Manuel Noriega) in ’09, is an example.  Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister who has presided over the demise of the feared FARC guerillas, is another.

All signs point to Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina as being cut from their cloth.  As he takes the reins of a country that is not only one of the poorest in the world but among the most dangerous (the murder rate is 40 per 100,000 people of a country of 13 million), the incoming president is sure to be watched in Guatemala for his performance on the economic and crime-fighting fronts.  But whether he shows an “iron fist” in dealing with the Chavez Gang and their growing influence in Latin America will also be a key factor in the performance of Guatemala’s new leader–and in Guatemala’s relations with the U.S.