BELIZE CITY, Mon. Oct. 26, 2015–President elect Jimmy Morales, 49, has won over 70% of the votes in a run-off election in Guatemala against his rival, Sandra Torres, 60, a former first lady widely perceived to be part of the old power establishment in that country.
Morales, a TV actor and comedian turned politician, soared to the top of the polls in the first round of the presidential elections when the former president, Otto Perez Molina, and his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were jailed in August after a customs fraud scandal exploded and changed the whole Guatemalan political landscape.
“His military backing is significant, and not to be underestimated.” – David Gibson, senior diplomat and former ambassador in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
During his campaign, Morales had made a number of controversial statements reflecting, some say, his naiveté about some of the critical issues; others say that Morales was attempting to think outside the box and present to the Guatemalan voters something different from what they are used to.
On several occasions Morales has also floated the idea of reviving Guatemala’s unfounded claim to Belize, which has brought severe criticism from political observers who say that Morales is naive and lacks experience, prompting his rival, Torres, to comment during the campaign that “Guatemala is not a comedy.”
In one exchange with reporters in Guatemala, Morales was asked which historical event in Guatemala he thought was most deplorable. Morales answered that there were some things never spoken about in Guatemala.
“Everything that goes contrary to national unity and territorial integrity are things that should hurt us. Something is happening right now – we are about to lose Belize,” he said.
He was pressed further by the reporter, who asked, “Do you believe that it’s worth [sic] for Guatemala to recover Belize?”
Morales responded, “I think that it is worth anything that is natural resources and of benefit to the nation. Like I said, it is deplorable, anything that is a loss for Guatemala.”
Those statements drew the attention of many observers, especially here in Belize.
When Morales won the first round of the presidential race, the Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, was asked about Morales’ statement about resurrecting the old aggressive posture to Belize by advancing the claim.
At the time, Mr. Barrow had said “He’s made some statements or at least one statement that is troubling, but I am hoping that if he does win, the Guatemalan foreign policy establishment, the Guatemalan political elite and certainly the international community, will make absolutely clear to that gentleman that any notion of pursuing their claim in a way that is disruptive of the good relations between Belize and Guatemala, that is, threatening to Belize, simply will not be tolerated. So I am sure that we’ll be able to deal with that situation if and when it occurs.”
Campaigning on a theme of “No corruption, no thief” as the mantra of his campaign, Morales struck a chord with the Guatemalan public, hungry to see a new day.
Morales had also distanced his party, National Convergence Front (FCN), from the old guard of the military, which is blamed for the atrocities in Guatemala’s civil war.
“Signs tying Morales to military personnel associated with acts of repression during the civil war and other dark facts from his past don’t seem to have had much impact on the vote registered in our survey,” said the ProDatos research, published on October 21 in Prensa Libre.
“People aren’t voting for the candidate they really want, but rather to reject the other options,” said Pedro Trujillo, director of the political science department at Francisco Marquis University in Guatemala.
Trujillo said the pressure will truly begin only when Morales takes office.
“From tomorrow, there will be pressure that the future Cabinet and politics of the new government starting in January 2016 will follow a different route from the old one, which was steeped in corruption,” he said.
With only 11 seats in Congress out of 158, Morales’ National Convergence Front party will be forced to cooperate to some extent with the political old school to govern, he observed.
David Vargas, Communication Director for the Embassy of Guatemala in Belize City, told Amandala that they are not authorized to say anything until there is an official word from Guatemala City, but he did remark, “Like every election, this election in Guatemala yesterday offers new opportunities for the future.”
CEO of the Belize Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Sylvester, told Amandala, “Many of the comments Morales made about Belize were during the election campaign, which is usually filled with positions that many times change when a candidate wins and settles down to governing. There are career diplomats, technical people, who will provide the kind of scope for a policy position that the president -elect will need to help him stay on course.”
Major Lloyd Jones, a former BDF officer and now standard bearer for the PUP in the Belize Rural North, told Amandala that Morales’ win should concern all Belizeans because of his strong military backing. “There is genuine concern that he is echoing the military. If this is true this would be troubling,” he said.
“If he wants to revive the claim and resist going to the ICJ, and there is no negotiated settlement, that leaves only one option: military. Sedi [Minister of Foreign Affairs] has left us exposed; the Guatemalans have outmaneuvered us, diplomatically,” Jones said.
The election was a wake-up call to the impoverished Central American country’s established parties, which have been shaken by investigations led by the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-backed anti-corruption body. The International Commission against Impunity is a body created by the United Nations in 2007.
The CICIG’s probe toppled Perez and has prompted calls for similar bodies elsewhere in Central America.
Morales, a former theology student with socially conservative leanings, has applauded CICIG’s work and vowed to extend its remit. But he will now face a test of just how honest he can make the government, under the watch of the CICIG.
Senior diplomat and former ambassador in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, David Gibson, said that while Morales’ statements before his victory on Sunday were troubling, it’s the pronouncement on the issue in his post-electoral speech that will be significant.
“The dispute was not an electoral issue as it is here in Belize. He is manifesting the view of the military elite whose position is already seen in their Sarstoon posture. The question is who is influencing the military? Will there be a recrudescence of the Comision de Belice?” he commented.
Gibson continued: “His military backing is significant, and not to be underestimated. Similarly, nothing he does should be underestimated. He is an alumnus of their High Level Institute of Security Studies.”
But if Morales has the backing of the military, as did former president Molina, why does he distance himself from Molina, we wanted to know.
Gibson said, “His main platform was the anti-corruption one which has major public support. Molina had to be distanced, but is still ‘under the care’ of the military. The low voter turnout is significant, since it reflects a continuing skepticism about the [government’s] ability to seriously curb corruption.”
Will the military direct his policy regarding Belize, we asked.
Gibson said: “The military will influence his policy positions on Belize. They should be expected to adhere to the Special Agreement to pursue going to the ICJ. It will be important to see who they appoint as foreign minister, but as in the case of Carlos Morales [ former Guatemalan foreign minister], that person will have to toe the military line.”
What are the options open to Belize in light of this new situation, Amandala wanted to know.
“It can be expected that Guatemala will adhere to the Special Agreement to take the dispute to the ICJ. It can be expected that Guatemala will exhibit low tolerance for actions by Belize to assert its sovereignty in the Sarstoon. It can be expected that Guatemala will reassure the world of its adherence to the CBMs,” Gibson replied.
Gibson went on to add that “Belize needs to consider the following in the context of a comprehensive review of its diplomatic strategy with Guatemala, first, by insisting through the OAS for an immediate return to the status quo ante the Sarstoon assertion by Guatemala, with a cessation of BDF harassment on the river.
“Secondly, seriously assessing, the reliability of the OAS as the moderator of relations between the two countries. Relations have deteriorated in Guatemala’s favor and strong diplomatic work is required by Belize to restore the balance, with the support of the new OAS. If this is not achieved, Belize should seriously consider elevating the matter for attention by the United Nations Security Council, as it was advised to do in 2009, if there was a persistence of creeping Guatemalan aggression.”
“There should be accompanying international mobilization for support, in the US, UK and CARICOM, in the first instance,” Gibson said.