On February 25, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordered the removal of Education Minister Bienvenido Argueta for failing to provide the court with complete information regarding the beneficiaries of President Álvaro Colóm’s flagship social program, Mi Familia Progresa. This latest development in a months-old political drama augurs poorly for Guatemala’s fragile education system and President Colóm’s claims to be supporting transparency measures in this notoriously corrupt nation.
Mi Familia Progresa (MFP) is Guatemala’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, which provides cash payments to poor mothers, conditional upon them sending their children to school and for health check-ups. CCT programs have become increasingly popular in Latin America, as they have shown demonstrably positive results on school enrolment and child health.
President Colóm has hailed MFP as the cornerstone of his anti-poverty platform in Guatemala, but critics have argued that Colóm has used the program to reward voters who supported him in the 2007 elections. Colóm’s critics also worry that the president has been transferring funds from other ministries to the program to use it as a campaign tool for his wife, Sandra Torres de Colóm, the coordinator and face of the Council of Social Cohesion that oversees MFP.
In recent months, congresswoman Nineth Montenegro has been leading efforts to force the Colóm government to divulge the names of program beneficiaries along with their identification numbers. Montenegro, former human rights activist and leader of Encuentro por Guatemala (the party that nominated Rigoberta Menchú as its presidential candidate in the 2007 elections), wants the information to determine the validity of accusations that the Colóm government was using this program for partisan ends. She won a court order demanding that the Ministry of Education provide a full list of program beneficiaries’ names and ID numbers. The Ministry of Education proceeded to provide only the names, denying that it needed to provide further information.
Montenegro then went back to the Constitutional Court, which responded by issuing the order for Argueta’s dismissal.
At the time of writing, the Colóm government had not responded to the Court’s actions. But, whatever comes next, certain consequences of the ruling are already clear.
First, Argueta’s dismissal will thrust an already-weak Guatemalan education system into further disarray. Since classes began in late January, the country’s principal teacher’s union has gone on strike repeatedly—closing schools, occupying Ministry offices and blocking roads. The teachers first took action in late 2009 and early 2010 to support the government’s call for increased taxes to augment the nation’s education budget. More recently, though, the union took to the streets after breaking off negotiations with Minister Argueta over salary increases.
As if that were not enough, the Ministry has also failed at many schools to distribute food and school supplies for students on-time. These delays, at least in part, reflect the broader fiscal crisis facing Colóm’s government given its inability to get Congress to pass tax reform.
Now, assuming the government accepts the Court’s order, Guatemala will have its third education minister in six months. Bringing in a new education chief will undoubtedly lead to further delays in putting out the union-related and logistical fires already dogging the ministry. Unfortunately, putting out these fires will also postpone the long-term task of improving the quality of Guatemalan education. Education experts all agree that, though education coverage has improved dramatically since the 1996 Peace Accords, the quality of education remains woefully low and nowhere near a level necessary for Guatemala to transform itself from being one of the poorest countries in the Americas.
The Court’s action will also have further repercussions for Colóm’s government. Colóm has recently tried to fashion himself as a leader in the struggle for greater transparency in Guatemala, criticizing widespread impunity and corruption and arresting former President Alfonso Portillo on corruption charges. In fact, hours before the Court ordered Argueta’s dismissal, Colóm ousted his Minister of Agriculture, Mario Aldana, for irregularities in bids to supply a government program with fertilizer.
But Thursday’s ruling against Argueta will undermine Colóm’s pro-transparency stance. If Colóm were serious about his position, he would have ordered Argueta to abide by the Court’s ruling. It is hard to believe that Argueta would have resisted if Colóm had insisted that he comply. As it stands, the ruling against Argueta gives the impression that Colóm’s government is either incompetent or hiding something. And “stupid” or “corrupt” are not typically the adjectives between which a government would like to choose.
But perhaps the most distressing consequence of the MFP controversy will be the potential discrediting of government programs designed to address Guatemala’s rampant poverty and inequality. CCT programs have a strong international track record of improving educational and health outcomes in Latin America. But, in Guatemala, this model has been tainted by accusations of malfeasance that the government has done nothing to dispel. Now, opponents of Colóm (the first Guatemalan president elected on a left-of-center platform since 1954) will feel emboldened in their criticisms against government spending to alleviate poverty and address its underlying causes. Already, the Guatemalan Right has held up much-needed tax reform, basing its opposition on arguments that taxes should not increase until taxpayers can trust that their tax dollars will be used effectively and transparently. This argument is, in large part, a spurious recasting of the anti-tax position that the Guatemalan Right has maintained since 1996, but Thursday’s court ruling will likely bolster the anti-tax lobby’s position.
Finally, looking forward to Guatemala’s next elections, the potential ramifications of the current crisis are even more worrying. It’s no secret that the man to beat in the upcoming elections will be retired General Otto Pérez Molina, who barely lost to Colóm in 2007. The election of Pérez Molina, who played a critical role in the genocide of rural indigenous Guatemalans in the 1980s, would signal a major step backward for a country that has only begun its fight against impunity.
With all these issues in mind, it is clear that Argueta’s dismissal could have a major impact on the remainder of President Colóm’s term. It will now be up to Colóm to show leadership by respecting the Court’s decision and appointing a new Minister who will provide the required information on MFP. If Colóm is serious about supporting greater transparency in Guatemala, his government must share its complete files and shed light on MFP. Continued secrecy will only prolong this scandal, and, in the process, further weaken the education system, undermine transparency initiatives, and strengthen Colóm’s right-wing opposition.
Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org conducting research in Guatemala and Honduras. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.