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feb 2011February – also known as the mes del cariño – in these parts is always a weird time, and when it lands in an election year, the mix gets just that little bit headier – a pungent stew of Hallmark-style sappiness blended with harsh, no-holds-barred politicking.

Guatemala got its latest installment of Wikilove last month, as it was revealed that President Colom had told the former US ambassador that he thought Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu was a “fabrication” who is “widely disliked by Guatemalan indigenous people”.

While Colom did some serious blanket denying and backpedalling, there’s no argument that Menchu’s political career has never really taken off – polls regularly report that she has between 2 and 3% support as a presidential candidate, which is about the amount of the vote that she got when she ran for president in 2007.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that Menchu is the wrong indigenous leader. A more realistic reading of the data is that the time isn’t yet ripe for any indigenous presidential candidate. Leaving aside the gap between Ladino and indigenous culture in general, it’s also an error to think of “the indigenous demographic” as any sort of unified force. The same way that, in your country, the “minority vote” is an incredibly hard thing to harness, Guatemala’s indigenous population is rife with rivalries (some of them dating back to before the arrival of the Spanish) and separated by the fact that the “Mayan language” is actually more than 20 separate languages, many of them mutually unintelligible.

But the President’s comments are interesting because they shine a light on the real state of Ladino/indigenous relations in this land that is lauded for its multiculturalism. Colom (and other Ladino leaders) regularly use indigenous leaders and imagery, both to garner political support (non-Ladinos make up just over 40% of the population, making Guatemala the most indigenous of any Central American country) and to project the “right” image to the outside world (Guatemala’s official “slogan” is ‘Heart of the Mayan World’), but Guatemalan politics is extremely pragmatic and ideology holds a very small place somewhere way in the background of the political landscape. For proof, just look at human rights activist Nineth Montenegro (who often votes with the right-wing Patriot Party) and former president Berger, who changed parties multiple times before he found one that could take him to the top.

With few candidatures announced and only seven months to election day, we’re probably in for an intense race this year, where the dialogue will no doubt leave Colom’s Wikicomments seeming tame and almost polite.

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