Guatemala is facing a historic opportunity to bring about meaningful reform in a moment when the nation is on the verge of complete institutional collapse.
With unprecedented momentum building to address unbridled government corruption and impunity, the biggest impediment to successful reform may be the September 6 elections.
On Friday, just three weeks before Election Day, President Otto Pérez Molina and his former Vice President Roxana Baldetti were named as the head of a criminal structure that has been robbing likely hundreds of millions of dollars or more from the State. Baldetti, who resigned on May 8, is in police custody, and prosecutors are asking the Guatemalan Congress to repeal the president’s immunity from prosecution.
While this seems extraordinary in a country with pervasive impunity, it is only the latest in a series of corruption scandals that have linked numerous high-level public officials, and all major political parties, to corruption and other illicit activities. In May alone, seven different government ministers resigned or were fired, many under investigation for charges ranging from granting anomalous contracts and influence trafficking, to criminal conspiracy and fraud.
Furthermore, in a recent report, the institution leading these investigations, the independent and United Nations-backed Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), found that on average, 50 percent of money in Guatemalan politics comes from corruption and 25 percent directly from organized crime.
These revelations only serve to confirm what Guatemalans already know: candidates often fund campaigns through illicit activity or through donations from criminal enterprises, and once in office, use state institutions and taxpayer dollars to enrich themselves and their networks. The practice is so widespread and unabashed that it has practically bankrupted the State.
Indignation has grown under the Pérez Molina administration, as government officials boasted ostentatious vacation homes and private jets, presumably paid for with public funds, while public hospitals ran out of money for food and basic medicine.
And now Guatemalans are saying “enough is enough.”
— Jo-Marie Burt (@jomaburt) August 23, 2015
Overwhelming public condemnation has resulted in sustained mass mobilizations since mid April, with broad representation that has crossed historic divisions of race, class and political persuasion. The public has demanded urgently-needed election and campaign finance reforms, among others, and has called continuously for President Pérez Molina to resign along with other corrupt officials.
While arrests and prosecutions of the current administration are historic and important, political corruption has become systemic and won’t go away with the next administration. Already two of the biggest parties, UNE and LIDER, have been charged with exceeding legal spending limits on their campaigns and have been mentioned by the CICIG for using illicit campaign money.
One of the leading presidential candidates, Manuel Baldizón of the LIDER party, is rumored to be engaged in illicit activity in Petén, though he is not under investigation. He has been an outspoken critic of the CICIG, which is currently investigating his vice-presidential candidate, Edgar Barquín, for criminal conspiracy, influence trafficking and money laundering.
The vice presidential candidate for the UNE party, Mario Leal Castillo, is also under investigation for criminal activity. He was financial backer of President Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party and worked for the President until he announced his candidacy with UNE a few months ago.
Jimmy Morales, a professional comedian with no experience in politics, has launched a presidential campaign and has become very popular in polls. A candidate with the FCN party, he presents himself as a “new option,” but is funded in part by hard-liners in the Guatemalan military. Morales has also been linked to Byron Lima, a former military captain currently serving a sentence for the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi and who is now accused of criminal conspiracy and influence trafficking from within prison.
Also running, though not expected to make it to the second round, is Zury Ríos. Ríos is the daughter of military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, accused of overseeing a campaign of genocide and war crimes in the early 1980s. As the family member of a participant in a military coup, her candidacy is technically illegal.
Guatemalans will also be voting for all 158 congress people and mayors in every city. Here, interestingly, the slate of candidates includes a number of people who come not from partisan political backgrounds but from Guatemala’s historic social movements and indigenous leadership structures.
Overall, however, few candidates inspire confidence and the question many are asking is not “who are you voting for?” but “are you voting?” Indeed, analysts estimate that there will be high rates of absenteeism and “null” votes. (Null votes are used as a purely symbolic statement of dissent, given that a single vote can decide an election.) And even if reforms were passed immediately, they wouldn’t go into effect in time to impact this year’s election.
Doubts about candidates’ legitimacy are compounded by the problems that occur during every election cycle in Guatemala: election-related violence, manipulation of the voter registry (there hasn’t been an official census since 2002), vote-buying, and reports of ballot-burning in scattered municipalities.
To make matters worse, coordination of basic election-day logistics is in complete disarray. “I’ve been covering elections since 1994,” said journalist Dina Fernandez at a recent event, “and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
move forward in these conditions without first addressing systemic corruption is to simply perpetuate a broken system, Guatemalans say.
Hence the call to suspend elections.
In fact, the campaign began months ago, when doing so would have been within constitutional bounds. If the U..S hadn’t stepped in to support Pérez Molina and push for elections to move forward as planned, they may well have been suspended under the weight of public pressure.
However, the U.S. and Guatemala’s economic elite continue to advocate for elections in the interest of “maintaining stability” and respecting constitutional terms of office, which state that leadership must pass from one president to the next on Jan. 14, 2016.
This position, others argue, is blindly legalistic and doesn’t consider the broader context. “It’s like we’re standing 10 steps from an abyss, and we are being told we have to walk 12 steps forward, because that’s what the constitution requires,” said Iduvina Hernandez, journalist and director of Security in Democracy, in a recent meeting. “We all know we will go right off the cliff. But they won’t let us first take two steps back, and then walk 12 steps forward.”
Moreover, many have argued, holding elections and continuing “business as usual” may ultimately generate more unrest and instability than the alternative. Postponing elections at this stage does push the nation into a constitutional grey-area, uncharted territory which makes many uncomfortable, including the United States. Yet, if done with transparency and clear objectives, it could produce an outcome more democratic and legitimate than forced elections.
In the midst of this uncertainty, we must look to Guatemalan citizens to define the path forward.
And they are.
The current marches and mobilizations are a sign of hope that profound change could be on the horizon — particularly in a country like Guatemala still struggling to overcome a legacy of state-sponsored violence and repression. Here, the mere fact that people are in the streets week after week, united in their demands for justice and accountability, is itself a victory. “They robbed us of so much, they’ve even robbed us of our fear,” explained one sign at a rally.
As Election Day draws closer, protests are likely to intensify. Weekly gatherings continue in front of the National Palace and a coalition of 72 indigenous and grassroots organizations has called for more massive marches around the country in protest of the elections. Legal motions have been filed in an attempt to ban the three political parties leading in the polls, due to illegal spending.
Since Aug. 14, two women sit on a hunger strike in front of the national palace to denounce the elections as “illegitimate and illegal” and to join the call for the President’s resignation.
“This struggle isn’t ours, it isn’t new; it is from years back and has claimed many martyrs,” explained Gabriela in an interview with Soy502. “This is so our new generations have a better Guatemala.”