Guatemala's presidential divorce of convenience
Sandra Torres, Guatemala's former first lady and presidential hopeful, divorced her husband to avoid a legal bar to her candidacy. But it may have turned the country's devout public against her.
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An unemployed indigenous Mayan with a child whose belly she has trouble keeping full, Ms. Choc believed Mr. Colom – a left-of-center candidate – would combat endemic poverty.
“I think the president has good programs for the poor, ones that help us, like this one,” she says, waiting outside one of the scores of food pantries the Colom administration opened. She says she eats there with her 7-year-old daughter regularly.
“Sandra would have the same projects,” she says, pausing to think, “but she’s divorced.”
For American voters, who have become accustomed to political sex scandals and moral improprieties far graver than divorce (if it even rises to impropriety), Ms. Torres’s peccadillo may seem tame. But Guatemala is not the US’s cultural equivalent. Nor is Torres the average candidate. She’s the former first lady.
Torres divorced Colom to skirt a constitutional provision banning family members of sitting president from running for the following election. The controversy that followed, a series of smaller scandals and a political climate dominated by the question over how the country should combat a crippling crime wave, has turned the would-be first female president of Guatemala into a long shot. As the Sept. 11 first round approaches, her opponent, a former military general with a checkered past, is pulling away, according to recent polls.
'Divorce for her country'
Guatemala’s Constitution, which also prevents Colom from running for a consecutive term, prohibits family members from running to prevent family dynasties. In an emotional address in April, Torres said, “I am divorcing my husband, but marrying the people. … I am not going to be the first or last woman who decides to get a divorce, but I am the only one to divorce for her country.”
The divorce was scandalous in a country where churches big and small, Catholic and evangelical, sit on every street of every city and village. The powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference said the institution of marriage was not negotiable.
The perhaps more powerful association that represents big business owners, CACIF, was less charitable. “These actions illustrate the decline of moral values of society,” the group said in a statement. “How can we expect to restore Guatemala’s moral and fundamental values if its presidential pair send a message like this?”
A political bulldog with Tammy Faye Baker eyes, Torres has defended her decision to end the civil marriage.
But the divorce was followed by a series of scandals, including a legal effort by her own sister to invalidate Torres’ candidacy.
“The divorce has been a distraction that she has not really been able to overcome,” says Guillermo Méndez, a professor at Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquín University and founder of the Institute for Services to the Nation, which is trying to inform voters on candidate positions. “Her campaign has not recovered enough for her to be able to deliver her message.”