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Latin America - Guatemala’s First Lady

Maria Luisa Rivera, 14 December 2010, GMT 22.00

Sandra Torres de Colom, one of the main left-wing candidates competing in the upcoming September 2011 presidential elections in Guatemala, may suffer a disadvantage because she is a woman with working class origins, according to a cable dispatched to Washington on September 28, 2009 by the U.S. embassy. Also her assertive personality does not sit well with everyone in male-dominated Guatemalan society, according to U.S. ambassador Stephen G. McFarland.

Guatemala, one of the 10 poorest nations in Latin America, has a long history of right-wing dictatorships backed by powerful landowners and U.S. argicultural companies that have been supported by the U.S. government.

Indeed in 1954, President Jacobo Arbenz, a socialist, was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), after he initiated land reforms that Washington believed could lead to a communist takeover.

Following decades of right wing governments that were embroiled in a civil war in which millions of indigenous peasants were killed, peace returned to Guatemala in 1996, but poverty has yet to be seriously addressed.

In 2007, Álvaro Colom Caballeros, a centre-left politician from the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party became president. Sandra Torres de Colom, his wife, has become famous among Guatemala’s poor because of a flagship Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program that "constitute a ground breaking official effort to alleviate poverty and attack its worst manifestations, including widespread child malnutrition."

"Colom has also told the Ambassador that Guatemala’s deep-rooted poverty, violence, and impunity could be resolved by the continuity of having the same party in power for two to three presidential terms," wrote McFarland. "With the Guatemalan economy buffeted by the global downturn and security continuing to deteriorate, President Colom regularly points to his wife’s social programs as his government’s principal achievements."

But McFarland says that many believe that the social programs run by Guatemala’s first lady are not transparent: "GOG (government of Guatemala) has refused congressional requests to disclose the names and addresses of program recipients on privacy grounds despite a January 2009 Constitutional Court decision ordering it to do so. Critics charge — without proof — that the refusal is cover to facilitate continuing theft of program resources," wrote McFarland. "Business sector and other critics have accused the GOG of fomenting a culture of dependency via the CCT, and of using it to buy the First Lady a political support base for her presidential aspirations."

Upper Class Distrust

These social programs have polarized Guatemalan society, says McFarland. "Torres, who is to the left of her husband ... is a controversial figure. She is the most able manager in the government, and also the most abrasive ... She is smart, hard-working, and demands results," wrote McFarland. "Many middle- and upper-class urban voters tend to see Torres as a radical populist ... her sex and middle class provincial origins reinforce the upper class’ distrust of her."

Despite the opposition to her gender and social status, the U.S. ambassador believes that it is clear that the Sandra de Colom will run for the Guatemalan presidency. McFarland also notes that she might face yet another obstacle: constitutional matters forbidding Presidential family members to become candidates. The U.S. diplomatic memorandum even questions the validity of Colom marriage - a Mayan ceremony celebrated in Cuba - and then insinuates that it is quite easy to obtain a divorce in the country if both parties agree.

The legal dilemma has to be resolved before May 2011 when a change in the Constitutional Court will provide a key moment to test the limits and the influence on political decisions. According to MacFarland, the court will be favorable to a Colom candidacy.

Former guerrillas and the new, more radical left

The memo also notes that although former presidents have had high-level guerrila advisors in the past, the right wing are anxious about the first lady’s inner circle of former guerrillas and her links with Cuba. (De Colom’s former husband, Edgar de León, was a member of the guerrilla forces) In fact, these connections with the left have severely divided her political party, causing several high level party officials to quit their jobs.

McFarland’s cable indicates that the embassy is worried that de Colom may soon swing further to the left. The cable warns that "widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization of the large (but fractious) indigenous minority, and a long history of state neglect of the poor" will help de Colom to build a "new, more radical left" base in the Central American nation.