By Robert Brenneman*
Guatemala’s popular movement for justice and transparency is suddenly and happily discovering that nothing breeds success like success. Many Guatemalans have grumbled for years about rampant corruption among the political class, but in recent weeks a surging popular movement has finally emerged giving voice and energy to years of that frustration with impunity and graft. The movement picked up steam after a public exposé of a shadowy tax fraud and contraband network called “La Línea,” orchestrated out of Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s office by her private secretary. The report was produced by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). (Click here for analysis of the Commission’s renewal.) President Pérez Molina not only renewed CICIG’s term until 2017; on May 7 he also accepted the resignation of Baldetti and her secretary, who had served as the key money-raising dealmakers for his administration. The U.S. Embassy suspended the visas of many of the officials named in the report, including the luckless former vice president herself.
These actions have not been enough to appease the appetite for justice and transparency sought by the growing crowds of flag-waving nonviolent protestors converging each Sunday afternoon in front of the Guatemala City’s Municipal Palace. An estimated 57,000 gathered under thunder and pouring rain on May 17. Empowered by the relatively swift impact of their movement, and outraged by the mounting evidence pointing to the president’s personal connections to the corruption network, the crowds of protestors – led principally by students of the public university – have shifted to demanding that the president himself step down. Pérez Molina, sensing that the wheels are coming off his administration, has requested the resignations of his closest advisors and top officials, including his Interior Minister and his Chief of Strategic Intelligence. He has revoked or rescinded several of the most lucrative (and obviously corrupt) government contracts that he had vociferously defended only a few weeks ago.
President Pérez Molina’s political future remains up in the air. Many Guatemalan political analysts believe he should step down. José Rubén Zamora, founder of Guatemala’s influential daily El Periódico, argues that resigning is “the only way out of an impossible labyrinth” of the president’s own making. But many others view the president’s fate as less important than whether the country takes advantage of the opportunity to use public pressure to pass sorely needed structural reforms. For years Congress has ignored several bills that would tighten campaign finance rules and bring transparency to government contracting. Since pay-to-play politics is not unique to this administration, fixing the problem will require legal and structural changes, not merely changing the nameplate on the presidential suite. One hopeful sign is that Manuel Baldizón, leader of the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER), has not managed to coopt the popular outrage to kickstart his own election campaign. A popular banner at the protests warns him “¡No te toca!” (“It’s not your turn!”). The leaders of the movement recognize that Baldizón – who has many skeletons in his own closet and heads another investment-financed party – is hardly the answer. The protesters’ focus on reform rather than politics suggests that the most certain – and long-lasting – outcome of all is the strengthened civic sphere that appears to have emerged as the protests grow and the newspapers report daily arrests and resignations. In this civics lesson, the Guatemalan public is both pupil and teacher.
May 26, 2015
*Dr. Brenneman teaches sociology at St. Michael’s College and is author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press 2012).