WikiLeaks XXXII: Guatemalan President Colom Walks a Tightrope Between U.S. and Venezuela

Colm ChavezPictured: Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirty-second in the series.

As if he didn’t have enough to worry about already, Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom has been scrambling to contain the diplomatic fallout from a US embassy cable published on Sunday by WikiLeaks.

The cable, dating from Summer 2008, describes outgoing US Ambassador to Guatemala James Derham’s final meeting with the Central American leader and his foreign minister Haroldo Rodas. The trio covered quite a bit of ground, including discussions of Guatemala’s imminent oil deal with Venezuela, the state’s efforts at battling corruption and violence, and the country’s Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu.

Colom’s withering assault on Menchu has captured the lion’s share of attention thus far. Discussing a recent incident where indigenous activists fighting the construction of a proposed cement factory had killed a community leader in favor of the plant, Colom noted that former presidential candidate and Nobel Peace prize Laureate Rigoberto Menchu was at least partly responsible for inciting local opposition to the proposed plant. She had told Colom of her involvement and that she would continue to encourage indigenous people to protect their land. Colom said he had responded by saying that encouraging indigenous people to protect their land was acceptable, but that killing was not.

Colom went on to castigate Menchu, labeling her a “fabrication” of French anthropologist and “I, Rigoberta Menchu” author Elizabeth Burgos’ imagination. To be sure, a series of controversies have swirled around accusations questioning the veracity of Burgos’ accounting of Menchu’s life. But Colom’s derision on this count reeks of disingenuousness. By 2008, it had long been clear that while some details related in Burgo’s telling of Menchu’s tale were imprecise and others outright fabrications, the overall thrust of the book was an accurate description of the stomach-turning violence that gripped Guatemala during its civil war, and Menchu’s interpretation of events correct.

Strangely, after blaming Menchu with inciting murder by indigenous activists, the Guatemalan president dismissed her political standing with such groups, arguing that Menchu is “widely disliked by Guatemalan indigenous people” and claimed that he attended a ceremony in 1997 where “Mayan leaders formally pardoned Menchu for ‘betraying her people.’” While it is certainly true that Menchu’s nation-wide political standing is weak (she barely registered any popular support as a presidential candidate in 2007), Colom had apparently felt threatened enough at the time that he magnanimously “advised her against running, saying she should not risk sullying her reputation in politics.”

The cable’s more substantive, and interesting, contents concern Colom’s dealings with Venezuela. The outgoing ambassador made it a point of priority to inquire after the Guatemalan president’s upcoming trip to Caracas to sign an oil deal with Hugo Chavez. Colom firmly stood his ground in the face of American concern arguing that Venezuela’s favorable terms of sale were in the national interest of his country. The president confided surprise with his American interlocutor that

the Guatemalan countryside had not yet “exploded” in protest at recent increases in fuel and food prices, and expressed concern that a popular backlash might not be long in coming.

Colom correctly pointed out to Derham that “food and fuel inflation was straining people’s budgets” as they were all throughout the developing world at that time, which resulted in “increased pressure on the state’s limited social welfare net.” The sweetheart oil deal proposed by Chavez would free up considerable funds for social welfare programs. Just a month ago, PetroCaribe negotiations had ground to a halt, Colom said, but changing economic conditions had required the GOG to reconsider. Colom said he had discussed PetroCaribe with Dominican President Fernandez, who had encouraged Guatemala’s adhesion.

And if defenders of Menchu were angry to hear Colom’s criticism of the Nobel laureate, Caracas was likely not pleased to learn of an oblique slap across the face to the Bolivarian Revolution. Foreign minister Rodas assured Derham that the “decision to join PetroCaribe was strictly economic” and alerted the ambassador to the fact that while Venezuela had pressured Guatemala to join its anti-American free trade initiative, ALBA, the Central American country “wanted no part of it.” “We’re Social Democrats,” Colom added, “not fanatics.”