Until Politics Do Us Part

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It's Only Love. photo: Olivier Kaderli/flickr

If Latin American politics can sometimes look like a bad Telenovela, Guatemala has just added two more characters to the cast: Alvaro Colom, the country’s president, and Sandra Torres, the first lady.

Torres announced on 8 March that she planned to run for president as the candidate of a coalition of her husband’s UNE party and the Great National Alliance in September’s general elections. However, as the Guatemalan constitution blocks relatives of sitting president’s from running for office, the couple now decided to quietly file for divorce in an attempt to circumvent the country’s set of fundamental principles.

The Colom-Torres divorce set off an avalanche of criticism from opposition parties, members of the Catholic Church and conservative elements of Guatemalan society, with the leading right-wing Patriot Party (a favorite to win the next elections) calling it an “electoral fraud.” Shortly thereafter, a group of university law students filed the first legal challenge to the divorce, followed by seven further petitions by representatives of different sectors within Guatemalan society.

This latest move for conjugal succession places Mr Colom, an ordained Mayan priest, and Ms Torres, who heads up the government’s social development programmes, in a select club of Latin American husband-and-wife teams who have tried to perpetuate themselves in power – the most recent being Cristina Kirchner, who followed her husband as Argentina’s president.

But as the presidential couple starts the arduous task of dividing up their books, chinaware and record collection, these family politics could prove extremely costly for Guatemala. Especially as the country is coming dangerously close to becoming a failing state. The Guatemalan state only collects the equivalent of 10.2 per cent of gross domestic product in taxes, the lowest in the region with the possible exception of Haiti.

Not only that, but Guatemala suffers from shocking levels of violence. In recent years, this nation of about 13m people (the most populous in Central America) has seen rival cartels battling it out for control of the lucrative smuggling routes for shipping cocaine from South America towards the US. At more than 6,000 homicides a year (or roughly 18 a day), the murder rate is now higher than it was during some periods of the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

Guatemala is plagued by a crippling institutional weakness. During Mr Colom’s watch, the country’s highest-ranking anti-narcotics official, at least two national police chiefs and even a former president have been arrested on drugs-related charges. So the Colom-Torres farce now only adds insult to injury by further undermining the state’s institutions, essentially making a mockery of the constitution and the country’s history. It’s the latest Latin American Soap Opera – and it might just remain on our screen for a very long time.

For more information on Guatemala, please see our extensive resources in our Digital Library.

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