President of Guatemala
Born Oscar Berger Perdomo, November 8, 1946, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Education: Earned law degree from Universidad Rafael Landivar.
Office—Office of the President, Palacio Nacional, Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Worked in family businesses; formed political group, Comite Civico Plan de Avanzada Nacional, with other business leaders, 1985; became Guatemala City city council member, 1985; mayor of Guatemala City, 1991–99; ran for presidency and lost, 1999; ran again as candidate of new party, Gran Alianza Nacional, 2003; took office as president of Guatemala, 2004.
Oscar Berger twice ran for president of Guatemala, and won on his second attempt, in 2003. Berger had been a popular mayor of Guatemala's capital, Guatemala City, but swore to leave politics after he lost his presidential bid in 1999. Conflict within the political party he had helped found led to Berger's apparent retirement from politics. But he nevertheless returned to the stage in 2003 at the head of a new political party. Berger won in a second round runoff election with a narrow majority. Praised as a good administrator and a skillful broker of compromises, Berger inherited a country plagued by poverty, famine, and an uncomfortable legacy of military dictatorship. Berger's nickname is el conejo, or "the rabbit," and some analysts judged him too manageable in the hands of Guatemala's entrenched business interests. Nevertheless, immediately on taking office, Berger took several bold steps, cutting the size of the army in accordance with a 1996 peace treaty, and endeavoring to cut corruption in government. Early into his presidency, Berger had a high approval rating among Guatemalans.
Berger was born in Guatemala City in 1946 to a wealthy family with business interests in coffee and sugar plantations. Berger went to the country's best private schools, and later earned a degree in law and the title of notary public. After law school, Berger managed various business interests, and he did not begin his political career until he was almost 40 years old. In 1985, Guatemala ended years of military dictatorship, though the country was still entrenched in a civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996. Berger joined with other businessmen and his friend, Alvaro Arzu, and created the liberal policy group Comite Civico Plan de Avanzada Nacional (Civic Committee for National Advancement Strategy) in 1985. This group evolved into the national political party Partido de Avanzada Nacional (Party of National Advancement, known as PAN). Arzu won the mayoral election in Guatemala City in 1985, and Berger held his first political post that year, becoming a city council member. In 1990 Berger got the PAN party blessing to run for mayor, replacing Arzu. Berger won the election, and took office as mayor of Guatemala City in January of 1991.
In his first term as mayor, Berger confronted the complex problem of traffic in the city. Berger wished to stimulate public transportation, but was stymied by the owners of the bus companies. The owners banded together and raised bus ticket prices unilaterally. Berger won the good opinion of the citizens of Guatemala City for taking the side of the people against the bus owners. This led to his reelection in 1995. The transportation situation only got more difficult in his second term. In 1996, the bus owners went on strike. Berger eventually called on the military to preserve order in the streets, and he also hired private trucks to carry people to work. Berger successfully resolved the bus strike, with concessions on both sides, and in 1998 the city acquired its own fleet of buses.
The PAN party suffered internal dissension, but nonetheless promoted Berger as its presidential candidate in 1999. Berger ran a race building on his image as a populist, promising to fight poverty and urban crime. But Berger was not a great orator, and this hindered his presidential bid. Berger lost the election that year to Alfonso Portillo of the conservative party Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). Though Portillo had also campaigned as a populist, his FRG party was led by Guatemala's former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt. Berger's loss embittered him, and he declared that he was leaving politics forever. Portillo's administration, meanwhile, was beset by scandals involving drugs and corruption, and the FRG party was roiled by dissension over Rios Montt. Rios Montt had been banned from seeking election because of his past actions, but he managed to have this ruling overturned by a sympathetic court. Faced with what looked like a weakened FRG, in 2003 Oscar Berger decided to return to politics. He won the PAN party nomination as presidential candidate. Months after winning the PAN nomination and gaining the support of his old friend, Arzu, Berger defected from the party and became the candidate of a much smaller party, the Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA). GANA was a coalition of three still–smaller parties, and was considered a center–right wing group.
The 2003 election made international waves because former dictator Rios Montt ran as the FRG party candidate. The general was accused of crimes against humanity, and courts both in Guatemala and in Spain were considering trying him for his part in the deaths of thousands of peasants in the months after he took power in a coup in 1982. His election would have strained Guatemala's relations with many other countries. But Rios Montt did poorly, and Oscar Berger won the first round of polling. Berger faced off against Alvaro Colom, a textile executive with much support in the indigenous Mayan community, for a second round of voting. Berger won the second round with about 54 percent of the vote. Yet his GANA party won only 47 seats in the 158–seat congress. Immediately after the election, Berger began putting together a legislative coalition with PAN and other political parties.
In a sense, Berger's win seemed unenviable. Guatemala was racked by poverty, famine, government corruption, and organized crime. Berger had carried the nickname "rabbit" since childhood, and he had been ridiculed for gaffes and verbal flubs while on the campaign trail. Some political analysts doubted that he was a strong enough figure to make a dent in Guatemala's problems. But after taking office in January of 2004, Berger began making good on some difficult campaign promises. Under terms of a peace treaty negotiated in 1996, the Guatemalan government had pledged to reduce its armed forces. While previous administrations had delayed implementing the treaty, Berger cut the size of the army by more than 40 percent and closed most of Guatemala's barracks. This finally put the size of Guatemala's army in line with armies in neighboring Latin American countries. Berger also publicly confronted his government's unsavory past. In April of 2004, Berger held a ceremony with the heads of Congress and the Supreme Court, and acknowledged government complicity in the 1990 murder of human rights worker Myrna Mack. Berger also moved against government corruption, making all his ministers and officials sign a code of ethics. Though he had won only 54 percent of the vote, in an election that many voters sat out, early in his term Berger was very popular. A Mexican consulting group took a poll showing that 83 percent of Guatemala's citizens approved of Berger. This was the highest approval rating of any Latin American head of state at that time. Berger vowed to use his time in office to fight poverty and hunger, problems which all sides agreed were extremely pressing.
Economist, November 13, 1999, p. 36.
Latin American Weekly Report, January 6, 2004; April 6, 2004.
Latin America Regional Reports, June 17, 2003, p. 2.
Latinnews Daily, April 1, 2004.
New York Times, November 11, 2003, p. A9.
"Conservative Ex–Mayor Wins Guatemalan Presidential Election," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/americas/12/29/guatemala.election.ap/index.html (January 5, 2004).