San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemalan first ‘single’ lady hits the stump

GUATEMALA CITY – Wrestling through rabid fans, I’m blinded by an eerie green stage light. A green flag swoops at my face when a tiny girl with green ribbons in her hair wriggles precariously on her flag-holding dad’s shoulders. I duck and dive deeper into the green sea, brandishing my camera as a shield from further flag attacks, and search frantically for something to help me climb out of the swarm.

Stopping to work where the stage might be, I scan giant screens showing women gyrating in green sequined underwear. It dawns on me that this crowd of campesinos is pulsating to the Beyonce song “Single Ladies.” I wonder if the green is going to my head. By the time I reach the stage, a wild chant of “Sandra, Sandra, Sandra” is drowning the dancing ladies. Security guards lining a green path to the stage look petrified.

I could be nine years old waiting for the Spice Girls at Wembley Stadium again, but this is no pop concert. This is a political rally for Guatemala’s aspiring female president, Sandra Torres, leading the optimistically named National Union of Hope (UNE). We’re all jostling for a glimpse of this woman whose social programs and non-conformist personality have polarized a nation, and we want to know what the next four fraught months until Guatemala’s September elections will hold for her.

 Is she a savior for this brutalized country, championing the rights of the downtrodden through intricate social schemes and progressive laws to protect women? The elated countrymen and women around me who have been brought to Guatemala City by the green busload do love her social programs.

Or is she a monster guilty of manipulating the most vulnerable members of this precarious society into voting for her through corrupt poverty-relief schemes? Guatemala’s media has whipped up “Sandra-phobia” by pointing to the latter.

A man in green bounces up to a microphone to herald Sandra’s arrival. Sweat drips from the security guards’ temples as they guide her through the frenzied mob; she maintains a weary but skilled smile. The loudspeakers proudly tell us this is “Guatemala’s next presidenta!” but as her right to run for office is up in the air, this seems premature. She has embarked on an explosive legal fight to push through a divorce from her husband of eight years, the current president and leader of UNE, Álvaro Colom, in order to clear her candidature.

Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution aims to prevent the nepotism inherent in Latin American politics by banning anyone with an affinity to or within “four degrees of consanguinity” of the sitting president from candidacy. Sandra’s team insists the ban does not cover ex-spouses. Two months ago, shortly after announcing her long-predicted intention to run, she declared, “I’m divorcing my husband but I’m marrying the people.”

Since then, a dirty tug of war has seen her divorce petition delayed in the courts, with threats leveled at the judges. The likely victors in the coming elections are the Patriot Party, led by military strongman Otto Pérez Molina. They accuse Sandra of “legal fraud,” saying she is making a sham of Guatemala’s already fragile legal system. UNE has responded with a million-signature petition for her divorce and candidature to be granted.

As analyst Edmundo Urrutia explains, the final decision will be more than purely legal or moral: “It will be about power.”  Torres’ politics and personality have rattled Guatemala’s traditional elites and the backlash is building. She represents the first move towards redistribution of wealth seen here since before the conflict in 1954. In a country with little social conscience this hits a raw nerve.

“I know what it’s like for you not to have food to give your children. As a mother, I know,” she says to applause from near-hysterical mothers around me. Guatemala suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of childhood malnutrition. No one likes to talk about it, yet Torres has formed her politics around it. Her controversial social programs – the Bolsa Solidaria, a conditional cash-transfer scheme, and Mi Familia Progresa, which gives food in exchange for children attending school and health clinics – have lacked transparency since she implemented them with her husband four years ago, but they have forced a move towards supporting the poor that cannot easily be stopped now.

 On top of this, she has brazenly violated the norms of her First Lady role by putting herself center stage in a repressively machista, conservative, classist and racist society despite being a lower middle-class woman from Guatemala’s northern jungle region, with alleged ties to the left-wing guerrilla movement of the 36-year civil war. This aligns her with an increasing number of women in power across the continent, like Dilma Rouffeff in Brazil, who leads similar social programs. But the outlook for Sandra is rocky. Most Guatemalans judge her divorce tactic harshly according to recent polls indicating a drop in her popularity to 13 percent against her rival Molina’s 41-percent rating.

Political scientist Aneliesse Burmester asks, “How can we trust her to respect the law if she’s disrespecting it from the beginning?” Burmester said she is concerned that if Torres’ constitutional sidestepping is successful, it will bring such international ridicule to Guatemala’s already notoriously corrupt legal system that international agencies may pull away. “If we can’t keep a transparent process here, they may start wondering if we really want or can handle their support,” she said.

On the other hand, if Sandra is denied, Urrutia believes that the million Guatemalans living on her social programs will “start riots, protests, strikes… this will be a political crisis that would affect everyone.”

As I weave my way away from the stage, past the old U.S. school buses painted green, waiting to transport the crowd to the next rally, a scuffle ensues over the brown-paper bagged lunches promised to Torres’ supporters. As crisp packets and juice cartons are clutched at, my skin crawls.

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