Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Alfonso Portillo Shakes up the Guatemalan Election Campaign

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Former President Alfonso Portillo returned to Guatemala on February 25, 2015 after spending just nine months of a six-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.

In May 2014, he was convicted of conspiring to use U.S. banks to launder a $2.5 million bribe he received from the Taiwanese government in exchange for

Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island in its long-standing dispute with China.

A crowd of sympathizers gathered at La Aurora airport hours before his plane was due to land in Guatemala, carrying banners with messages of support. During his administration (2000-2004), Portillo imposed price controls on basic foodstuffs, subsidized electricity tariffs for the poor, increased the minimum wage and challenged monopolies. As a result, despite his tainted past, he still enjoys considerable support among disenfranchised rural and urban Guatemalans.

“Portillo is one of the few politicians who’ve understood that putting food on the table is the standard by which a politician is judged,” explains political analyst Christians Castillo, of the the University of San Carlos’ Instituto de Problemas Nacionales (Institute of National Problems—IPNUSAC). According to Castillo, Portillo is seen as “a Robin Hood figure who steals to defend the rights of the masses.”

A poll carried out by Borge y Asociados for Contrapoder magazine in August 2014 revealed that two out of three Guatemalans would re-elect Portillo out of all of the country’s former presidents since the peace agreements were signed in 1996 (the survey was hypothetical, as the Guatemalan Constitution forbids re-election). Guatemala’s general elections are scheduled for September 13, 2015.Upon arrival, Portillo gave a press conference in the airport’s designated lounge for state announcements. Next to him sat his ex-wife Evelyn Morataya, his daughter Gabriela and his sister Edna.

His speech was carefully crafted to appeal to the country with the third largest Christian population in the world (97 percent). “I come here like the prodigal son […] Jesus didn’t come for the saints, he came for the sinners like me,” he said.

During the press conference, Portillo dropped hints about the need for constitutional reform to allow for re-election. At the same time, he was deliberately vague about his political intentions. “I’m not saying I’m not going to run for office, I’m saying that’s not my main objective. My aim goes beyond that; I want to push for a real transformation in Guatemala, but of course, if there’s a convincing proposal I wouldn’t write it off” he said. Although the Constitution prohibits Portillo from running for president, he can legally run for mayor or for a seat in Congress.

He also talked about the need for an “inclusive” political force that would include intellectuals, peasant leaders and business leaders, and said that rifts between himself and the private sector had been “one of his mistakes”—a reference to the unpopularity of his social policies among the country’s conservative business elite.

Three days after his arrival, speaking from his ranch in the eastern department of Zacapa, Portillo said that he would support his ex-wife’s intentions to run for Congress without giving any further details as to which party Morataya would run for.

Guatemalan investigative website Nómada reported that Portillo intends to support Edmond Mulet, the UN Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, as the presidential candidate for the Todos party. However, after investigative website Plaza Publica published an exposé on Mulet’s alleged involvement in a child trafficking ring during the early 1980s, Portillo’s supporters sought to distance themselves from him and played down the significance of talks between Mulet and Portillo while the president was still held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.

Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú stunned her supporters last week by expressing sympathy for Portillo and asserting that he was targeted for political reasons, meaning that his trial for embezzlement in a Guatemalan court in 2011 was motivated by the private sector’s opposition to his social policies. After Portillo’s controversial acquittal, the U.S. requested his extradition to face money laundering charges.

Menchú also said that Portillo had paid his dues, leading to speculation about a seemingly unlikely alliance between Portillo and the country’s most famous Indigenous leader. “I welcome him [back to the country], like many other Guatemalans,” she told the Guatevision TV channel. Menchú ran for president in 2007 with the center-left party Encuentro por Guatemala, and again in 2011 as the candidate for the Indigenous Winaq party. However, on both occasions, she  captured just over 3 percent of the vote, mainly as a result of sectarian divisions within the Guatemalan left and left-wing parties’ chronic underfunding.

With the September elections looming, Portillo’s sudden appearance has shaken up the political scene and has led to a frenzy of speculation regarding his alleged political ambitions. “A chicken that could add flavor to the broth” was the headline of a feature published by El Periódico newspaper three days before his return—a reference to Portillo’s nickname, “El Pollo Ronco” (“the hoarse chicken”). His raspy voice and the large tufts of bristly grey hair that protrude above his ears earned him the moniker.

The latest poll, carried out in November by Borge y Asociados for Contrapoder magazine and Canal Antigua TV channel, shows Manuel Baldizón, a right-wing populist from the Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Liberty—LIDER) party is leading the race for the presidency, followed by the ruling Partido Patriota’s (Patriotic Party—PP) candidate, Alejandro Sinibaldi, and the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (The National Unity of Hope—UNE) candidate and first lady to former President Álvaro Colom, Sandra Torres.

Sinibaldi has been tainted by the current administration’s corruption scandals and the PP’s failure to deliver on promises to tackle crime. Torres, on the other hand, remains popular in rural areas where the social welfare programs implemented by the UNE administration were welcomed by the rural population. However, this popularity has waned considerably over the past four years, as funding for these programs has been slashed under the current PP administration.

The candidate that could feel most threatened by Portillo’s return is Baldizón, who is popular in rural areas, especially in his native department of Petén in northern Guatemala—but who is loathed by the urban middle class, according to Juan Luis Font, director of Contrapoder. Baldizón has promised to bring back the death penalty, introduce a 5 percent flat tax and an extra month’s bonus pay for workers, and is wooing the same impoverished audience as Portillo.

During an interview with Font, Portillo stated that LIDER was his least favorite party, which he branded as Baldizón’s “personal platform” and a party that was “not serious,” highlighting the rivalry between the two candidates. Added to this, La Nación newspaper, owned by Baldizón, reported on February 27 that an obscure lawyer, Sergio Cayas, was suing Taiwan’s former ambassador, Andrew Wu, for signing the checks that Portillo allegedly received during his administration. Although the lawsuit is unviable—as the case against Portillo has been closed—Font sees this as a sign that Baldizón intends to fight tooth and nail to push the latest newcomer out of the electoral race.


Louisa Reynolds is an independent journalist based in Guatemala. Her work has been published in a wide range of local and international publications. She is the 2014-2015 International Women's Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @ReynoldsLouisa.

Tags: Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala
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