Protesting in Guatemala

Guatemala has witnessed massive social protests against President Jimmy Morales and the connivance of 107 lawmakers who enacted a law protecting the corrupt. Español

José Zepeda
13 October 2017

Demonstrators protest against the incumbent Guatemalan president Morales in Guatemala City, Guatemala, 20 September 2017. Morales has been accused of illegally financing his campaigns. The protestors also took aim at widely perceived corruption. Photo: Jesús Alfonso/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Carlos Fuentes was in Guatemala in 2001, invited by UNICEF, for the ceremony of its communication awards. On that occasion, he said that corruption was the most evil form of stealing from the poor. He is right. The more so if this crime is being committed in a country with a large proportion of poor people - 59% of the population, a figure that rises to 76% in the rural areas - and where 49% of the children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

In recent days, Guatemala has experienced massive social protests over allegations of corruption against President Jimmy Morales and the connivance of 107 members of Parliament who passed a law protecting the corrupt.

These two events have generated the dissatisfaction of a wide social spectrum ranging from students to small entrepreneurs, from housewives to professionals. Weariness far exceeds politics and anger goes well beyond any ideological consideration.

Nineth Montenegro is a long-time human rights activist whose history began on February 18, 1984, when her husband disappeared and she took to the streets to reclaim him despite threats by the army. Nineth is today the leader of the Encounter for Guatemala party parliamentary caucus. On the wake of a national strike and street protests calling for the resignation of President Jimmy Morales and the 107 MPs who voted for the law establishing impunity for public administration crimes, she stated that demonstrations in Guatemala have had a great impact since 2015, despite the fact that accusations cannot be cleared up because the authorities are hiding behind judicial immunity.

The law passed by parliament eliminates prison sentences and establishes penalties in their stead for all public administration crimes: embezzlement, illicit enrichment, bribery both active and passive, and other related crimes.

Sadly, only thirteen members of Congress voted against the reform. But that was undoubtedly the reason why, on the same night that the reform was passed, the population came out and surrounded Congress in a spontaneous protest.

The situation deteriorated in such a way that the party leaders had to acknowledge that the reform was in fact unconstitutional, illegal, improper and inconvenient. This, however, did not lessen the tension. The unease came to be so widespread that many restaurants and shops declared persona non grata the 107 parliamentarians, and are now barring their entry to their premises and putting up pictures of them in their shop windows. Another form of rejection has been the so-called escraches: citizen gatherings in front of the MPs’ private homes to shout abuse at them.

Guatemala’s Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, will very likely file a new preliminary proceeding against President Jimmy Morales. In recent days, two new elements have come to be known which provide additional ground for her request. The first one is the documented fact that the Ministry of Defence has been paying the President a “security bonus” of 7.000 dollars monthly which, added to his salary – which is one of the highest in Latin America – totals about 9.800 dollars. There is no political ground or administrative reason justifying such a bonus.

The second piece of news is that a major bank has been found to have been involved in the election financing of several parties and, among other high-ranking names, the President is once again being mentioned.

If and when the Attorney General files her request, parliamentarians will have to analyse the situation carefully, for they are faced with a clear choice: either to prioritize service to their country or the defence of an individual.

Thelma Aldana has played a central role in the fight against impunity so far and, for this, she has counted on the support of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). This explains why so many of the people involved in corruption cases are so eager to get rid of both.

This is the background which helps to understand why President Jimmy Morales, addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, said that Guatemala is hoping for an early start of the revision process of the Convention for the establishment of the CICIG, in order “to favour its correct implementation, to ensure due process and the presumption of innocence, and to avoid selective persecution, the politicization of justice and the judicialization of politics". He added that his government is firmly against corruption. But this is just one more presidential folly, as if the CICIG was the main reason of current popular discontent in Guatemala.

The unrest has gone far. The Archbishop of Guatemala City, Óscar Julio Lian, has been asking for three things: the cleansing of Congress, legal proceedings against the President, and reform of the political system.

It is in this severely impaired environment that a prominent Guatemalan academic from Harvard University, Claudia Escobar, puts forward several questions: How do we choose a political class capable of legislating for the benefit of citizens? What tools are needed to ensure that the State is administered by honest and competent officials? How do we transform the Justice System to make it efficient and transparent? In short, how are we to consolidate the State in Guatemala?

"Even though it is not immediately apparent -adds Nineth Montenegro-, I would say that poverty and extreme poverty in the most remote villages of this country are, somehow, the result of ignorance and hunger-motivated votes – that is, political patronage. This accounts for more than half of the population in Guatemala. Political parties are paying people for joining them and are paying them monthly with food. The big parties, which have large economic resources, have always been returned to power. How do they get their resources? This is what we are seeing right now - a practice that has been going on for more than 30 years”.

“We ourselves are a small party, what we get is the urban vote, and with it we have won seven councils. But in the rural areas, what are the people saying? "There is hunger, misery, severe malnutrition. What we want here is food. We are not interested in politics". And they are quite right: until poverty and extreme poverty are not resolved, true citizenship is just not possible. People need a plate of food, and the certainty of having a job. In Guatemala there is no true citizenship, except in urban areas and in the intermediate towns. It is the middle classes who are speaking out - students, professionals. Sad as it may be, if you go out to a country village and ask what is happening in this country, they will probably not know what you are talking about”.

The in word in Guatemala today is dialogue – which is all very well, but, is it really viable, with things as they are, to have a dialogue that can be truly transformative and not just a table where everything remains the same?

“Dialogue”, says Escobar, “is always healthy and uplifting. Crises should be seen as opportunities. Many people are asking to prosecute the President, to have the 107 deputies resign, and then, to get down and have a dialogue - a dialogue to set up the basis for refounding the State. The problem is that polarization could increase in the meantime and, if this were the case, the parties of violence could take advantage of the situation and eventually prevail”.

“This is obviously a hot issue that is being discussed extensively in Guatemala today. There are rumours, nothing is certain. They say that a wounded animal attacks, it does whatever it can to survive. That could be happening here. There are attacks, disinformation campaigns, disqualifications. People have been led to believe that all the fight against impunity comes from the Left, which is perfectly irrelevant and has nothing to do with the issue at stake. Why do they do it? Because the ghost of the Left generates much rejection: in addition to the lack of knowledge in the villages, Guatemalan society is a highly conservative one. Putting the stamp of the Left on anything is a weapon that is used by those who feel threatened”.

Claudia Escobar mentions that it is being rumoured that “some bloody event” could happen, eventually. And she is adamant: “I hope that this never happens - never again. Because those of us who have experienced political violence, who have lost family members during the armed internal conflict, know what the transition to democracy has cost: 45.000 people missing and thousands dead. That must not happen ever again”.

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