Guatemala President Divorces So His Wife Can Run: A Political Telenovela

In a telenovela-worthy political scheme that has set this violence-wracked nation abuzz, the president has divorced his first lady—so she can run for his seat. Mac Margolis reports.

so she can run for his seat. Mac Margolis reports.

From populists to generalissimos, Latin American politicians have tried just about everything in their scramble for power and glory. But until now no one had resorted to divorce court.

If Sandra Torres gets her way, she will succeed her soon-to-be ex-husband, Alvaro Colom, as president of Guatemala in this September’s elections. The first couple filed for divorce last month, but only made the decision public last week, when Torres also announced her intention to run for president. Not that the love is gone. “My love for my husband is great and strong,” said a tearful Colom, when she announced the imminent split to the press. “But I love my country and my people unlimited and incalculable.” Whether this conflict-battered Central American country shares the feeling is an open question.

A popular public figure who tended social programs for the Colom administration, Torres would be the first woman to run this country of 13 million, joining an elite group of contemporaries that includes Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. But judging by the political scandal Torres’ divorce has stirred, the better comparison might be with Eva “Evita” Perón, the stage starlet who parlayed her charisma and marriage to strongman Juan Domingo Perón into national politics, until she was forced by the Argentine military to give up her bid for the vice presidency.

The immediate problem for Torres is not the Guatemalan brass but the national constitution, which bars immediate relatives of the president from the highest office. To her critics, she is trying to defraud the electoral laws, using divorce to circumvent an explicit ban on relatives from seeking the presidency. Torres claims she is a victim of a political stoning by hypocrites “who speak of morals but live in glass houses.”

The row has swelled to the proportions of a typical Latin telenovela, replete with public weeping and battalions of dueling lawyers that Guatemalans have followed with enthusiasm. But the political portent is all too real for this region, where institutional democracy is still as rare and fragile as the quetzal, Guatemala’s majestic and endangered national bird. Latin American governments are no strangers to constitutional laws, all of which have been fashioned by brilliant jurists and modeled on the high-minded traditions of Europe or the United States. Abiding by them is another story. Guatemala has had five constitutions since 1921, roughly one for every generation, each a bold compendium of laws and principles that have been observed most faithfully in the breach.

The current charter dates to 1986, a heroic document forged amid a civil war as a bulwark against the mayhem that gripped this Central American country for 36 years. One of the keystones is article 186, which was intended to prevent caudillos (strongmen), coup makers, leaders of “armed revolution or similar movement[s]” from steamrolling their way to power. It also meant to put up a firewall against political dynasties by barring relatives, immediate and otherwise, of sitting presidents.

Will the politically estranged couple remarry once the ballots are counted? “Only God knows,” Alvaro Colom answered dramatically.

But in Guatemala, where politics is a kaleidoscope of parties and clever lawyers excel at finding loopholes, there are few saints, and ambition often speaks louder than the law. The current presidential campaign also includes former President Alvaro Arzu, who is accused of shredding another constitutional article that limits presidents to one nonrenewable term. Then there’s Zury Ríos, daughter of Efraín Ríos Montt, the dreaded army general who came to power by a coup d’état in 1982.

The ink was still wet on the 1986 constitution when Montt was picking the constitutional lock again, staging another illegal bid for the presidency, this time by the ballot box. Montt failed, but apparently his example of gaming the elections inspired others. Virtually all candidates for this September’s race have shredded the campaign law by stumping for president before the official campaign has begun.

But there is something especially brazen about the Colom-Torres affair. The couple made no secret of their intentions as a political tag team. The divorce, they allow, is an open political ploy meant to circumvent the constitution that both, as president and minister, had pledged to uphold. What’s more, both Colom and Torres have cast themselves as victims. “We are making a personal sacrifice. It is going to be a real divorce, a real separation,” a weeping Colom told the Mexican network Televisa.

At best, the political soap is a distraction for a country once again torn by domestic violence, this time at the hands of drug cartels that have spread from Mexico throughout Central America, leaving a trail of havoc and terror. The crime surge led President Barack Obama to pledge $200 million to fight the cartels in his recent swing through Latin America. Guatemala logs about 55 homicides a week, one of the highest murder rates in the region, according to the U.S. State Department.

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Both Colom and Torres are adamant they are doing nothing illegal and that Torres’ candidacy will stand, should their case land in the constitutional court. Meanwhile, Torres has become a celebrity of sorts, though not necessarily in the way her campaign handlers might have had in mind. The Web throbs with comment about the case, including a chorus on Twitter and a busy no-vote Facebook page, with 25,000 “likes.” As the couple takes to the hustings, speculation is rife over the post-nup agreement. Who will keep the china and who gets to sleep in the presidential palace? And if Torres prevails at the polls, will she hire her husband for her cabinet? “Not a bad idea,” she told reporters.

As the local media pounced on the story, the first couple has begun to answer with the most familiar resource of embattled leaders: disclaimers and veiled threats. “I appreciate the true concern over our divorce,” Colom told a reporter recently. “But for those who take up a moralistic tone, beware.” And will the politically estranged couple remarry once the ballots are counted?

“Only God knows,” Colom answered dramatically. Latin Americans will stay tuned.

A longtime correspondent for Newsweek, Mac Margolis has traveled extensively in Brazil and Latin America. He has contributed to The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor, and is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.