By: Lisa Lopez-Escobar, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Corruption in the government is nothing new for the people of Guatemala. This time, however, it seems they may have had enough. Guatemalan citizens of the working and middle classes have been taking to the streets in mass mobilizations to raise their voices. An anti-corruption movement has materialized in the country demanding three things: the resignation of current President Otto Pérez Molina, the prosecution of former Vice President Roxanna Baldetti, and a reform titled Reformas a la Ley Electoral y de Partidos Políticos (Reform of Electoral and Political Party Law) that would create a constituent assembly in charge of curtailing corruption in the country.
What Guatemalans want is for big businesses and the corrupt elite to be punished and for constituent voices to be heard. They are doing this with weekly demonstrations. The latest was held on June 13 in the capital, Guatemala City, with Guatemalan flags waving in the air, posters with the hashtag #RenunciaYa (#ResignNow), and demonstrators singing the national anthem. Another protest is being called for this Saturday, June 20. The massive protest movement had humble beginnings, starting out as a Facebook initiative of nine members, demanding the resignation of President Pérez Molina with the hashtag #RenunciaYa. They began back on April 25 with about 10,000 people in attendance. The largest to date was held on May 16, which drew crowds of up to 50,000 people.
Motivation and Charges
The protests began after the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Ministry mounted an operation against alleged customs fraud and smuggling in the Superintendence of the Tax Administration (SAT). The CICIG, an independent body commissioned by the United Nations, is tasked with supporting the state criminal justice institutions in investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in the country. The organization has exposed numerous corrupt individuals from all levels of government.
Congress Deputies Amílcar Pop and Ángel Sánchez filed a lawsuit against the president and former Vice President Baldetti after the CICIG uncovered a criminal network called “the Line” with ties to Baldetti. According to an article in La Prensa Libre on April 16, “the Line” functions with the following methodology: First, merchandise arrives in containers at checkpoints to be reviewed. Then, an official worker for “the Line” offers to help the seller pay lower taxes on his or her merchandise. If the seller agrees, they are given a number to call for a “consultation.” This call is how the first connection is made between the seller and officials higher up the chain of command within the corrupt network. According to the value of the merchandise, an agreement is made on how much the seller will pay. For example, if the seller has 20,000 items, an agreement is reached to declare only 10,000. The seller will unofficially pay duties on only 15,000 goods instead of the original 20,000, and La Linea will receive the money from half of the 10,000 items that were left undeclared, while the seller will save money on the remaining 5,000 that were virtually untaxed. Everyone benefits except the government, which is cheated out of essential revenue. Roxanna Baldetti’s private secretary was presumably the leader of this network.
The public was outraged and demanded justice. Baldetti resigned from her position as vice president on May 8, sparking cheers from Guatemalans, a move that stripped her of immunity; now the public wants full disclosure of the evidence of her connection to “the Line.” Despite the resignation of his vice president and massive protests, Pérez Molina has responded that he will remain in office until the end of his term in January 2016.
Corruption Scandals Add Fuel to the Fire
Because of the CICIG, many instances of corruption involving government actors have been exposed. Aside from “the Line” scandal, which forced Baldetti out of office, the Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad (IGSS)-Pisa case, which has been repeatedly tied to Pérez Molina, has also caused much outrage and controversy amongst the Guatemalan people. Pisa is a pharmaceutical company that sells drugs to IGSS to distribute out to hospitals and patients. The president, like many others before him, has appointed many of his friends and allies to important positions such as consul general in Miami and the presidency of IGSS. Gabriela Aparicio Urizar had no previous political experience but was Roxana Baldetti’s makeup artist and was given the position in the Consulate General. Juan de Dios Rodríguez, who likewise had no previous experience in the field of public health, was Pérez Molina’s lawyer on multiple occasions and was given the presidency of IGSS.
The IGSS-Pisa scandal involves a deal struck by IGSS executives with the pharmaceutical company Pisa authorizing the sale of the company’s products on the market and with the IGSS executives getting a cut of the profits. According to the Prensa Libre and CICIG, the IGSS would pay roughly $15 million USD for the drugs and Pisa would give IGSS’ executives $1 million USD. However, these drugs have resulted in serious injuries and 17 reported deaths. Journalist Philip Chicola attributes some responsibility for these deaths to Pérez Molina since he appointed Juan de Dios Rodríguez to a position Rodríguez was not qualified to fill. On Prensa Libre TV, Chicola publicly shamed the head of state, declaring, “And you, Mr. President, have blood on your hands.” Recent CICIG accusations have stoked the fire in terms of the protests, while the press and social media have helped to keep the corruption scandals on everyone’s minds.
A Struggle that Transcends Class Lines
The corruption scandals have fallen on the ears of the entire population and the movement against it has picked up momentum and support throughout the social classes. Middle-class, working, and indigenous citizens in the country have all raised their voices to enact change.
Indigenous groups in particular refuse to stay silent and passive, mindful of the genocide perpetrated by the state in the 1980s and still striving to overcome the impunity of the perpetrators. Recently, a video was aired by Democracy Now, an independent news source, revealing that Pérez Molina was also a major in the National Guatemalan Police force during the time of the genocide. He went under the name “Major Tito” and allegedly implemented the brutal tactics that massacred many innocent indigenous people in Guatemala. The president has tried to hide his identity as Major Tito, but it is undeniable.
If the president does resign early, he will lose immunity and likely be put on trial for his crimes. Even if he does not resign, once his term is up he can also be prosecuted, like former President José Efraín Ríos Montt, who is currently on trial. The indigenous people who have suffered in silence after the genocide are now more than eager to support the anti-government movement and the reformation of the government, urging that Guatemala will not and cannot be rebuilt without their input. The working and middle classes share in this sentiment. The movement is demanding a more equal Guatemala where all classes have a voice and the elite oligarchy is toppled.
With the president under heavy attack from the public, there have been mysterious occurrences during some of the protests that have left many wondering whether Molina and his government are responsible. The #RenunciaYA campaign and other media have become such an integral part of spreading information to the masses that at the April 25 protest, many protestors took to social media to complain that their phone signals were being blocked by “installed devices” around the national palace mounted on cameras and lights that prevented them from broadcasting the event and up-loading content to social media. This has happened again on multiple occasions, including the protest on June 6.
A new obstacle was added the weekend of June 6, however, which had previously not been seen. Barricades were strategically put in place around the capital, preventing people from getting to work on time while the protests were occurring. Many had to get out of their cars and walk to work, arriving hours late to their destinations. Although it is assumed that the barricades were set up because of the protestors, no one showed any hostility towards the demonstrators. Instead, the public was angry at the fact that no one took responsibility for the barricades and authorities had no answers. If Pérez Molina was trying to stop demonstrations by cutting phone signals and causing frustration toward the protests, then his plan backfired. News sources in print and online continue to report on corruption allegations, revealing new information and updates on pending cases daily, and people speculate that he was somehow responsible for making their commute to work unbearable and chaotic.
The barricades are not the only things causing chaos in the country. The accusations made by CICIG and the Public Ministry have been useful in exposing criminal activity that was previously ignored. However, they have also served to destabilize the country with numerous accusations, causing a simultaneous uproar by the public that appears to have no end. Journalist Fernando Monterrozo took to Facebook to express his concerns that these accusations were damaging Guatemala’s international image as well as the internal economy. These “rumors,” as he calls them, are causing panic and chaos throughout the country. Indeed, there is a sense of emergency in Guatemala. When a rumor got out that a bank was closing because of corruption and bankruptcy, many people lined up to take out their money.
There is a lack of trust in the government and in the banking sector, and this speculation could very well lead to the depreciation of the quetzal, which would hurt the Guatemalan economy. With news of corruption within government agencies surfacing daily, the pressure from Guatemalan citizens is mounting, and their voices will not be silenced until action is taken in the direction of change. As of now, the hostile, distrustful environment in Guatemala will not stand much longer. The first step toward change may be the resignation of Pérez Molina. This month there will be a big push toward this goal. With the resignation of his vice president and most of his cabinet, except for two members who have decided to go down with the ship, this seems like a tangible goal. A five member commission will be chosen by the legislature to investigate the complaints of corruption filed against Pérez Molina that will recommend to strip the president of his immunity or not. Then the legislature will have the final decision on whether to accept the recommendation. However, some Guatemalans seriously doubt the success of the protest in forcing the president’s resignation since his term is coming to a close in January.
With this date on the public’s mind, attention has also shifted toward the next presidential elections on September 6. There are currently four political parties in Guatemala: the Partido Libertad Democrática Renovada (Renewed Democratic Liberty Party; LIDER), the Partido Patriota (Patriotic Party; PP), Unión del Cambio Nacional (National Change Union; UCN) and the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (National Unity of Hope UNE). Pérez Molina is of the PP party, which presently dominates the Congress, with LIDER being the strongest opposition party. The PP defines itself as liberal, democratic, and, above all, patriots that believe in a strong control of the government similar to the promise on which Molina once campaigned. LIDER, on the other hand, define themselves as humanist, egalitarian, pacifist, and democratic. In principle they profess a center-left ideology, but in practice, they have supported right-wing and left-wing policies. UCN promotes nationalism, liberalism, and has a center-right ideology. The UNE is a social Christian party of which former President Álvaro Colom was a part.
The presidential candidates running for the 2016 election include Manuel Baldizón of the LIDER party, running again after two previous defeats; Mario David García of the PP; Mario Estrada from the UCN; and Sandra Torres, ex-wife of former President Álvaro Colom, who got divorced to be eligible to run for presidency under the party UNE. The anti-corruption movement, however, is making life difficult for these candidates as the public searches for truth. Alejandro Sinibaldo, former minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing, was running with the Partido Patriota but recently decided against it, citing that the public is asking for a new way to run politics, one that he cannot be a part of. Manuel Baldizón is not well liked by citizens because they do not perceive him as trustworthy. It was proven that he falsified documents about his education and uses many words and phrases from other people including the former Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica. The LIDER party and others are still pushing back against the unrest in the country. Baldizón said that the “conflict is destroying the nation” and that the protests should be focused directly on the corrupt and those that abuse power. It has gotten to a point where no matter what the parties and their candidates promise, the public no longer believes what is being said.
This has not deterred political parties from trying their best to garner votes. The LIDER party promised bags of food to women in various neighborhoods in exchange for them to register to vote. They have also promised items like tin roofs to the indigenous population in exchange for them to register. LIDER representatives claim that the offer is simply to ensure that people get out to the polls and that the vote remains secret and uninfluenced in any way. Despite attempts by the political parties to proceed gaining votes as normal, there is a giant push within the country for the Reformas a la Ley Electoral y de Partidos Políticos (Reforms to the Electoral Law and the Political Parties), which will change the way political parties are run. There would first be a change to the way members are chosen and accepted which will make it more accessible to the everyday citizen and, second, there will be a change in the way they can run to allow for easy participation of the common man. Congressmen and party members are advocating for this assembly to be implemented in the next four years, but Guatemalans are asking for the implementation of this new assembly for the elections.
Pérez Molina and the elite business class are facing a hostile atmosphere in Guatemala, as people continue to protest on the streets, on local media, and on social networks. There is great uncertainty as to what the future holds for the Central American country. No matter what happens to Pérez Molina, the political parties, and the electoral reform, the one thing that is certain is that the majority of Guatemalans refuse to be ignored any longer. The few currently in power who have enjoyed exclusive benefits at the expense of the large majority will need to adjust to that majority, which demands to be heard.
By: Lisa Lopez-Escobar, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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Featured Photo: Otto Pérez Molina. From: www.ahoratabasco.com
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