Sandra Torres and Guatemala’s presidency

History is replete with bizarre examples of political ambition taken to unfathomable extremes. Earlier this year, in a reflective piece on the political culture of Nigeria, Nnedi Ogaziechi wrote that “thuggery, blackmail, betrayal [and] coercion are all very dear weapons meant to be used on the way to the El Dorado of political relevance.” There are other “weapons” too, like those ‘deployed’ earlier this year by a Guatemalan woman with presidential ambitions.

Of all the so-called ‘dirty wars‘ that dotted the landscape of the Americas during the era of the Cold War, the experience of Guatemala was surely one of the more tragic. The Central American country secured its independence from Spain as long ago as 1821 but is today still struggling to find its feet both economically and politically, its growth in both respects having been stifled by a long dark night of economic imperialism and tyrannical rule that began with a succession of brutally exploitative US private investments, buttressed by a succession of military dictatorships supported by a wealthy ruling elite.

The nightmare began as early as the turn of the twentieth century, ending in 1996 with the signing of a peace accord between the guerillas who had fought a protracted and costly war against the long line of military juntas and their oppressors.
The 1996 Peace Accord may have brought an end to the military conflict but it has not changed the social and economic fortunes of the country’s poor, notably the approximately 6 million Mayan Indians comprising around 40 per cent of the country’s population.  Nor, for that matter, has it changed the domination of national political life by the country’s traditional ruling class.

As part of the country’s post-conflict constitutional arrangements, Guatemala’s lawmakers inserted Article 186 into the country’s constitution. Article 186 debars both previous presidents and close members of their families from standing in future presidential elections. The change in the country’s constitution had to do with efforts to ensure that there would be no return to the era of oligarchic rule by the rich and powerful Guatemalan families that had thrown their economic muscle behind the military.

Article 186 has been a thorn in the side of sections of Guatemala’s ruling class since it stands in the way of the creation of a permanent ruling elite characterized by family succession to the presidency. It has not, however, sated their political ambitions which can only be satisfied by circumventing Article 186.

That is why the recent bid for a second term by former President Alvaro Arzu – who now serves in the less exalted position of Mayor of Guatemala City – has been thwarted. Article 186 has also snuffed out the presidential ambitions of a woman named Zury Mayate Rios Montt Sosa de Weller, the daughter of one of Guatemala’s most brutal former military rulers, General José Efraín Rios Montt.

Another woman aspired to the presidency. Earlier this year, in a bid for direct succession that amounted to yet another assault on Article 186, Sandra Torres de Colom, the wife of the serving President of Colombia, Álvaro Colom, declared her intention to make a bid to become her husband’s successor. What set Guatemala’s First Lady apart from the other would-be candidates whose credentials had been nullified by Article 186 was the extent to which she would go in her bid for the presidency.

Last March, in a bizarre charade that caught the attention of political watchers in the entire hemisphere, Sandra Torres de Colom sought and secured a divorce from her husband, thus, at least so she believed, settling the matter of her eligibility to run for the presidency. Having secured her divorce from the President the former First Lady then held a spectacularly theatrical press conference on March 24 during which, with tear-filled eyes, she told the Guatemalan people a tale about ultimate sacrifice; She had, she said, set aside her love for her husband, the President, for the sake of her people. “I am getting a divorce from my husband, but I am getting married to the people… I am not going to be the first or the last woman who decides to get a divorce, but I am the only woman to get a divorce for her country,” the former First Lady declared.

Sandra Torres’s political pantomime was rendered all the more absurd by the support that it received from her husband, the President. “We are making a real sacrifice, and it will be a real divorce, with physical separation… We put the stability and the governance of the country ahead of our personal situation,” President Colom told Mexico’s Televisa during an interview. This, incidentally, is the former First Lady’s second divorce, and she is President Colom’s third wife.

The High Court of Guatemala did not see things their way. Her divorce, the court ruled, amounted to a cynical attempt to circumvent the country’s constitution. The court held its ground on her ineligibility to run for the presidency.

Sandra Torres is reportedly an ambitious politician in her own right who wielded significant power inside the centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE) party that currently runs the country. She has even been the subject of a WikiLeaks cable which described her as the “most able” member of the government and the “most abrasive.”  She was considered one of the likely front runners for the presidency which, ironically, now appears likely to be won by an army general from Guatemala’s past. On the other hand, analysts of Guatemalan politics have applauded the fact that a country with a fragile tradition for democratic institutions has held its ground on what it saw as an attempt to set aside the rule of law to facilitate political ambitions which, in the case of Sandra Torres, were taken to a mind-boggling extreme.

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