By Theresa Braine
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Despite deadly presidential campaign violence in Guatemala onlookers think efforts to bring women and indigenous people to the polls boosted turnout. The sole female presidential candidate was eliminated and the runoff is Nov. 4.
SAN MARTIN JILOTEPEQUE, Guatemala (WOMENSENEWS)--Dressed in a traditional Mayan outfit--colorfully woven skirt, cummerbund, ruffled eyelet blouse accented with embroidered flowers--Cecilia Alvarez stood proudly in line a week ago waiting to cast the first vote of her life. Leaving the polls, she glowed.
"I came because I wanted to learn how to vote," said the resident of this village outside Guatemala City, brandishing her ink-stamped fingertip as proof she had cast a ballot.
Cecilia was like many other first-time female voters this election cycle in Guatemala; except that she's 10 and heard about the "Elecciones Infantiles," or Children's Elections, through school.
Between July 21 and Aug. 12 several thousand children "registered," received civil-education materials, practiced voting and responded to a poll about rights and responsibilities.
After Cecilia's simulated voting experience, her mother, Xmucanet Alvarez, 33, a blood-bank technician who is studying psychology, brought the fourth-grader to a real polling site to watch her vote.
"I believe it's good and it's very important that she is beginning to understand and make decisions about the future of the country because it's her future," said Alvarez. "She is learning what she has to do when she grows up, as a citizen and the Guatemalan who she is, and she should know her rights and obligations toward her country."
About 40 percent of Guatemalans are indigenous, from more than 20 Mayan groups speaking as many languages. Most live below the poverty line, surviving on just a few dollars a day. Traditionally excluded from the political mainstream, they suffered the highest death toll of any ethnic group during the nation's decades-long civil war.
Government statistics released earlier this week showed that just over 3 million people voted out of 6 million who were registered. A breakdown of voters--male, female, indigenous--is not yet available.
The children's training was just one front in a push by women's groups, indigenous groups, government officials and nongovernmental organizations to drive more women and more indigenous voters to the polls during a deadly presidential campaign season that divided the presidential field among 14 candidates and will be settled in a Nov. 4 run-off.
The 100 children's polls scattered around the country were sponsored by the Foundation for the Analysis and Development of Central America, an organization based in Guatemala City. The effort was supported by Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal and other organizations.
Nearly 50 local candidates, party workers and activists were slain in the months leading up to the election, two of them just a few days before the election.
At least eight of those killed were affiliated with the Encounter for Guatemala party, whose platform focuses on alleviating poverty, increasing security and fighting corruption.
This is the party of 48-year-old Rigoberta Menchu, the country's first Mayan female presidential candidate, who won a 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on indigenous rights during the latter years of the 1960-96 civil war. Up to 200,000 people were killed, the majority of them Mayans, including members of Menchu's family.
No party was immune from the campaign violence, which has been attributed to gangs and organized crime.
Menchu earned 3 percent of the tally, or about 98,000 votes, matching polling projections throughout the campaign.
Maria Isabel Lux, a 37-year-old nun in the small town of Chimaltenango, 35 miles northwest of Guatemala City, says that even though Menchu lost, she was heartened to see her and other women on the ballot. "I'm happy and proud to see that yes, my sister women are taking off."
Dozens of women ran for lower offices throughout the country, from congress to town council. Many of these women are indigenous. News agency Prensa Latina reported that 20 congressional seats will now be held by indigenous women, or 12 percent of the 158-person body, but did not report how many seats were previously held by women.
Women made no inroads in municipal elections. They currently hold eight of 332 mayoral positions nationwide.
More than 2,500 women have been brutally murdered in Guatemala since 2001 and few, if any, of the crimes have been solved, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, a lobbying group and think tank. The violence has been condemned by international human rights groups.
But femicide in particular did not become a major campaign issue, falling instead under the general problem of combating the violence that in 2006 led to the murder of 6,000 people in this country of about 12 million. All candidates addressed violence but differed in how they would approach the issue.
In the presidential run-off the leading candidate, Alvaro Colom of the National Union of Hope, a center-left party with a platform based on social and economic change, faces tough-on-crime Otto Perez, a retired general running with the Patriot Party. Menchu has so far not endorsed either one.
The campaign violence--which claimed nearly 50 lives--prompted human rights groups such as Amnesty International to appeal for calm ahead of last week's vote.
Despite the alarming news, Jorge Darbin Marroquin, a polling coordinator, thought turnout was good at his station in San Andres Itzapa, a town near Guatemala City with a large indigenous population.
Marroquin, 42, estimates that women's voting participation at his polling station was nearly 50 percent higher than in previous elections.
Marroquin thinks the rise in women coincided with an overall increase of indigenous voters. "We believe they have realized that their participation is important."
Political analyst Alvaro Pop agrees. He led 250 volunteer indigenous electoral observers in Guatemala City--home to about 2 million--as well as 50 more volunteers scattered around the country.
"There is a significant amount of participation of indigenous people in general, especially women," he told Women's eNews on the floor of Guatemala's election headquarters, where the government's Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced the vote counts on election night.
Carolina Escobar Sarti, a Guatemalan journalist and author who volunteered on Pop's team, said it helped that the government decentralized the voting system for this election. Previously, polling stations were in major municipal areas, making them inaccessible to many who lived in remote regions. This time stations were set up outside major municipal centers, making it easier for rural people to reach a voting site.
In addition, the government simplified the voter registration process by reducing the amount of paperwork required.
Several women selling produce at local markets, however, said such efforts hadn't spurred them to the polls.
"I was never registered," said Maria Marta, 30, parceling out soccer ball-sized, fragrant bundles of fresh cilantro from her stall in Guatemala City's main produce market. "They never gave me my voting papers. I don't know how to do it or where to go."
Theresa Braine covers Mexico and Latin America. She has written for Newsday, People, the Associated Press and other publications during four years based in Mexico City.
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"Guatemala Pressed to Investigate Surge in Killings":
Rigoberta Menchu's campaign Web site (in Spanish):
Amnesty International, "Guatemala: Presidential candidates
must resolve legacy of conflict":
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