Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

Civics Lessons from Guatemala

By Robert Brenneman*

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor with sign "We demand justice" Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor holding sign that proclaims “We demand justice.” Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

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).