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New President, Old Problems: Guatemala Seeks to Turn the Page

Guatemala inaugurated its new president, but the country still struggles to emerge from the shadows of its undemocratic past.

Jimmy Morales, the former comedian turned politician referred to as the “Donald Trump of Guatemala,” began his presidency last Thursday as the previous elected president and vice president were forced to look on from jail cells as they face prosecution on corruption charges.

Morales deftly used the tax and customs corruption scandal known as “La Linea” involving the country’s main political parties and more than 100 government officials and business people who embezzled over US$120 million, and the consequent public outrage, to propel his ascent to the nation’s highest office.

“The discrediting of the traditional politics as usual played in his favor and he capitalized on that quite smartly,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a political science professor at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Morales’ campaign slogan was “Neither corrupt, nor a thief,” but could have included “nor a politician.” His zero political experience, highlighted by his never having held public office, proved to be his main selling point and allowed him to successfully brand himself as an outsider in a country with growing contempt for political insiders. Morales’ anti-corruption platform resonated with voters, who were willing to overlook the fact that his campaign’s broader political manifesto was short on concrete policy proposals, never mind words, as it was only six pages long. He crushed former first lady Sandra Torres in October’s presidential runoff with about 68 percent of the vote.

When the corruption network, believed to be led by Perez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, was unveiled in April after an almost yearlong investigation, tens of thousands of Guatemalans from across sections of civil society protested in the streets to vent their anger. This was unprecedented in a country still trying emerge from the long shadow of its 36-year civil war and government genocide campaign that left over 250,000 mostly Mayan Guatemalans killed and disappeared.

Even though the conflict officially ended with the signing of the 1996 peace accords, systematic state violence and repression continues, albeit on a lesser scale, largely due to institutionalized impunity and the failure to convict war criminals, many of whom still occupy the highest levels of state institutions. In fact, former President Perez Molina was a general during the war in the 1980s, leading a battalion in the western highlands of the country where some of the worst acts of violence were committed. So it should come as no surprise that during his presidency, which began in 2012, there was a dramatic spike in violence against human rights defenders.

In September, at the height of the protests and after Perez Molina’s arrest, I spoke with Victoria Sanford, a professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Lehman College, City University of New York, and author of “Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala.” She said what was significant about these protests was that Guatemalans were able to “overcome the culture of fear and culture of terror that was the legacy of U.S.-backed military regimes.”

Sanford likened the explosion of large-scale protests and the downfall of Perez Molina to Guatemala’s “democratic spring” of 1944, when a popular uprising removed a U.S-backed dictator from power and ushered in a decade of democracy – prematurely ended by a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1954.

“It means that Guatemala is on the democratic road. And a lot of places could learn a lesson from that,” said Sanford of last year’s protest movement. “It was a peaceful overthrow of what was really a military government.”

WOLA’s Burt echoed the same sentiments when I spoke with her by phone last Tuesday. She called Guatemala a “traumatized society” as a result of the country’s bloody internal conflict.

“I see a break from the past,” said Burt. “Whether they can maintain that momentum remains to be seen.”

But as much as a majority of the Guatemalan public may finally want a break from the past, the past continues to latch on. While President Morales likes to paint himself as an outsider and not tied to politics as usual, his National Convergence Front party was founded by former members of the military tied to the human rights abuses of the civil war. In fact, last week Attorney General Thelma Aldana announced that she wants to arrest Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, the co-founder of Morales’ Convergence Party and one of the incoming president’s top advisers. However, she is hampered by his legislative immunity, which she asked the Supreme Court to revoke.

Ovalle Maldonado is also a School of the Americas graduate, as are 12 of 18 other former military officials arrested by the attorney general when she announced her intention to arrest the president’s confidant. The School of the Americas, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, is a U.S. army institute based in Fort Benning, Georgia, which has trained Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency, executions and torture.

“This series of arrests from last week, some of them go right to the heart of the political allies that he has,” said Burt. “I think that it’s kind of a little earthquake within Jimmy Morales’ inner circle.”

Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, said that the arrests “will be a test of Morales’ approach to justice for human rights violations of the past.”

It’s hard to predict what a Morales presidency will bring to Guatemala given that he has yet to name a cabinet, his party’s token representation in Congress, and his avoidance of revealing any concrete policy plans and priorities. But if Morales fails to act on issues such as poverty, transitional justice, and corruption, public outrage could flare up again.

“If the public senses similar problems in the incoming administration, it likely won’t be long before they take to the streets again,” said Alford-Jones.

One thing Sanford told me before Morales’ election was that one triumph of the protest movements of 2015 is, “Whoever becomes president is not going to have the same level of power previous presidents have had.” If this holds true it might be the most promising facet of Morales’ presidency moving forward, as he will be haunted by the specter of public accountability. And if Guatemala is going to continue to tackle corruption and impunity and make democratic gains, it will depend on the ability of civil society to successfully mobilize in order to pressure a hesitant, if not unwilling political elite to make meaningful concessions and reforms.