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Viewing cable 09GUATEMALA917, First Lady Prepares Controversial Bid for Presidency

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09GUATEMALA917 2009-09-28 22:10 2010-12-14 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Guatemala

DE RUEHGT #0917/01 2712258
R 282258Z SEP 09


E.O. 12958: DECL: 2019/09/28 
SUBJECT: First Lady Prepares Controversial Bid for Presidency 

REF: A. GUATEMALA 254; B. GUATEMALA 009; C. 2008 GUATEMALA 1573 D. 2008 GUATEMALA 1017 

CLASSIFIED BY: Drew G. Blakeney, Political and Economic Counselor, State, P/E; REASON: 1.4B, D 


1. (C) Although she has not publicly stated her intentions, it is clear that First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom intends to run for the Guatemalan Presidency in 2011. Torres, who is to the left of her husband, President Alvaro Colom, is a controversial figure. She is the most able manager in the government, and also the most abrasive. Many poor, rural Guatemalans, ignored by previous governments, are grateful for her Conditional Cash Transfer and other social programs. 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. The Guatemalan Constitution bars presidential family members from running, but Torres is likely to challenge that obstacle. Her efforts to do so would generate considerable controversy, given the politicization and corruption in judicial institutions. The First Lady's likely candidacy means that the current GOG is balancing governance with preparing for the 2011 campaign. End Summary. First Lady Preparing for 2011 

--------------------------------------------- ----- 

2. (C) Although she has not publicly declared her intention, several Embassy contacts have reported that First Lady Sandra Torres de Colom has confided to them that she is preparing to run for President in 2011. The press regularly comments on her presidential aspirations, which Guatemala's First Family has neither discouraged nor denied. When inaugurated in 2008, President Colom publicly declared that his wife would be a First Lady "like no other," and indeed her policy activism and role in managing the government are without local precedent. 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. An Effective Manager... 


3. (C) 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. Torres de Colom leads the GOG's Social Cohesion Council, an inter-ministerial coordinating mechanism for the GOG's social welfare programs. The Council's activities constitute a ground-breaking official effort to alleviate poverty and attack its worst manifestations, including widespread child malnutrition. Although the recent increase in child malnutrition cases related to drought challenges some of Social Cohesion's effectiveness, we believe the First Lady is by far the best senior manager in government (albeit not a transparent one): She is smart, hard-working, and demands results. At the same time, her abrasiveness has lost her some allies, and we suspect that her subordinates are reluctant to give her or the public bad news. 

4. (U) Torres de Colom is best known to the public for the Council's flagship Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) Program, "My Family Progresses" (ref a). Like CCTs in Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, "My Family Progresses" provides monthly cash stipends to poor mothers on the condition that they keep their children in school and vaccinated. According to official statistics, the Guatemalan CCT reached 280,000 families in 89 municipalities in 2008. In 2009, the GOG plans to expand it to reach 500,000 families (approximately one-fifth of the country's population) in 140 municipalities. President Colom indicated that the annual budget for "My Family Progresses," which began at approximately $19 million, could reach $260 million in 2
010. This dramatic expansion so far has been funded largely by transfers from other government programs, including the Ministries of Health, Education, and Government. 

5. (U) Critics point out that the Guatemalan CCT omits transparency and accountability controls found in other such programs in Latin America. The GOG 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. 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. 

6. (U) There is some element of sexism and classism in the upper and middle classes' opposition to Torres. Guatemala is a conservative society, and the large, indigenous society to which Torres is appealing for support through her social programs is very male-centered. Torres is nonetheless making headway. Two days after listening to Guatemala City Mayor Alvaro Azul say that, "Guatemala will never elect a female president," the Ambassador visited a remote village in Quetzaltenango department; the auxiliary (unpaid, indigenous) mayor was glowing in his appreciation for Torres, who had recently listened to the town's request for a bridge and had just approved it for bid submission. In the subsequent ceremony there for the President and First Lady, there were as many cheers for her as for him. 

7. (U) "My Family Progresses" is not the First Lady's only program that has become popular with the poor. Other Social Cohesion Council programs include the Solidarity Bags Program (food assistance for poor urban families), the Open Schools Program (which provides children in gang-infested neighborhoods a safe place to play and learn on the weekends), and the Solidarity Din
ing Program (subsidized cafeteria meals). According to Social Cohesion Council data, 26,500 families benefited from the Food Assistance Program, 125,000 children participated in the Open Schools Program, and over 1 million meals were served as part of the Subsidized Meals Program from June 2008 to June 2009. According to Social Cohesion Council figures released in August, the budget for the three programs from June 2008 to June 2009 amounted to approximately $17.5 million. ...

But an Abrasive Personality 

8. (C) Sandra Torres de Colom's assertive personality does not sit well with everyone in male-dominated Guatemalan society. According to President Colom's ousted campaign manager, Jose Carlos Marroquin, Torres de Colom wrested from him control of Colom's 2007 presidential campaign. Following Colom's inauguration, the First Lady screened potential cabinet officers, and continues to query and chastise cabinet officers during her regular participation in cabinet meetings. Several former cabinet officers and cabinet candidates who declined positions privately cited her abrasive treatment as the reason they left government or did not join it in the first place. 

9. (C) Torres de Colom is widely suspected to have been behind the ouster of presidential security director Carlos Quintanilla (ref b), and influential Congressman Manuel Baldizon told Pol/Econ Counselor he and ten other members left the governing UNE's congressional bench over Torres' "dictatorial" direction of the UNE bench (ref c). According to UNE Deputy Christian Boussinot, Torres' insistence on taking the governing party further to the left is already dividing it, and led UNE President of Congress Roberto Alejos to publicly muse about leaving the party. Torres' inner circle of former guerrillas such as Peace Commissioner Orlando Blanco and Presidential Advisor Jorge Ismael Soto Garcia (aka "Pablo Monsanto," who was implicated in planning the 1968 murder of U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein), as well as her close relationship with Cuban Ambassador Omar Morales (per XXXXXXXXXXXXX, STRICTLY PROTECT), stir anxieties on the right end of the political spectrum. (Note: Conservative Presidents Arzu and Berger also had ex-guerrilla advisers.) Torres Likely to Clear Constitutional Hurdle 

--------------------------------------------- ------------ 

10. (U) Article 186 of the Constitution prohibits the president's relatives "within four degrees of consanguinity and second-degree in-laws" from running for president. Torres' supporters argue that, because she is neither a blood relative nor an in-law of the President, she is eligible to run. Opponents counter that Guatemala's Civil Code defines spouses as relatives and in-laws. In 1989, the Constitutional Court banned then-First Lady Raquel Blandon de Cerezo from running for president, concluding that the prohibition against second degree in-laws "includes the spouse." 

11. (C) Nonetheless, several elements work in Torres' favor. A new Constitutional Court likely to be sympathetic to the governing UNE party will be seated in April 2011, just in time to rule on Torres' candidacy. Furthermore, it is not clear that the President and First Lady are legally married. On February 24, 2002, Colom announced his marriage to Sandra Torres at the UNE National Assembly which launched him as a presidential candidate in 2003. Colom stated that they had married in Cuba on "the previous Saturday" (either February 16 or 23). According to newspaper "El Periodico," Sandra Torres was legally divorced from Augusto de Leon (see biographic note below) in December 2002 -- ten months after the First Couple married in Cuba. Finally, Colom later described the wedding as a "Mayan ceremony." Under Guatemalan law, ceremonial weddings have the same validity as common law marriages, which can be legally dissolved by either party "walking out." 

The Evolving Electoral Landscape 

12. (C) At this early stage, it appears that the two principal presidential contenders in November 2011 will be rightist General Otto Perez Molina of the opposition Patriot Party and Sandra Torres de Colom. Taking a page from her husband's successful campaign, Torres' strategy would be to win with the support of rural, poor voters, many of whom are benefiting from her social programs. Electoral reforms in 2007 that nearly doubled the number of rural polling stations, making it easier for rural citizens to vote, benefited Alvaro Colom and presumably would also benefit Torres. 

13. (C) Recent presidential elections have tended to favor the previous runner-up. Perez Molina finished second to Colom in 2007. A poll of unknown reliability published in August in newspaper "El Periodico" indicated Perez is the current front-runner, with the support of 34% of likely voters. According to the poll, almost none of the respondents indicated Torres de Colom as their first choice, but one Perez election advisor privately said he estimates her current support at about 12%. An economic advisor to Torres told Emboffs that Torres is aware that she is a polarizing figure, and that if her poll numbers do not quickly improve as the election approaches, she might resign herself to being the power behind the throne, and let someone else run in her stead. He said that so far there is no consensus on who that might be, or whom Torres might pick as her running mate. 

14. (C) The extent to which the MDF congressional finance scandal will sully Perez Molina is not yet clear, but it is something he will have to confront in the course of the campaign (ref d). Evangelical pastor Harold Caballeros of the VIVA Party plans to challenge Perez Molina for right-leaning voters' support, while center-left populist congressman Manuel Baldizon may challenge Torres for center-left votes. Many observers think, however, that 2011 is likely to be a trial run for Caballeros and Baldizon, and that they will become potential finalists for the presidency only further down the road. 

15. (C) (Biographic Note: Sandra Julieta Torres Casanova de Colom was born Oct. 15, 1959, in Melchor de Mencos, Peten Department, Guatemala, on the border with Belize. She studied high school in Belize, got an undergraduate degree in communications from San Carlos University, and received a Master's Degree in Public Policy from Rafael Landivar University. She owns several textiles factories. Torres' family is influential in politics. Her first husband, Edgar Augusto de Leon, was leader of the leftist and now defunct DIA party, which unsuccessfully ran Alvaro Colom for president in 1999. She has four children by de Leon. DIA ran Torres' older brother, Luis Rolando Torres Casanova, for president in 1995, also unsuccessfully. Her mother, Teresa Casanova, served as mayor of Melchor de Mencos. Her sister, Gloria Torres, serves as the Presidential Liaison to Guatemala's municipal governments. End Note.) 


16. (C) Much will change between now and Fall 2011, but different parties' plans for that distant event are already taking shape and impacting the political landscape. Guatemala's current electorate is distinct from that of many Latin American countries in that it ranges from center-left to hard-right. However, widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization of the large (but fractious) indigenous minority, and a long history of state neglect of the poor could prove fertile ground for the rise of a new, more radical left. Torres de Colom is working quickly to build just such a base for her presidential bid. MCFARLAND