Politics of Poverty

Corruption and political crisis in Guatemala: citizen mobilization and challenges ahead

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City rooftops in Guatemala where protests have recently erupted following a government corruption scandal. Photo: Anna Fawcus/Oxfam

Guatemalan society is in the midst of an unprecedented upheaval, though you would hardly know it by following US or international media coverage.

Stephanie Burgos is Oxfam’s America’s Economic Justice Policy Manager.

This week began with new calls for marches and demonstrations by a wide range of sectors in Guatemala, from students and teachers to farmers and rural communities, adding to an already broad alliance that had announced three days of major mobilizations across the country this week.

All these protests are calling for the immediate resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina. So why is this happening now?

On Friday, charges were filed against the president for heading a major corruption ring, and the former vice-president who resigned in May under similar allegations was arrested. Since then, at least 14 Cabinet members have resigned, including six ministers. As a result, the government’s economic leadership has in effect disintegrated. Ministers of Health and Education, as well as key security officials, have also resigned. Only the Ministers of the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs continue to stand with the president.

Several of these resignations came after the president’s defiant pre-recorded speech late Sunday evening, following a reportedly heated closed-door Cabinet meeting. After the speech, in which much of the population had hoped to hear the president resign, Guatemala’s lead for the Alliance for Prosperity who had resigned the previous day tweeted on Guatemala’s trending twitter thread “I have no president”: only someone who seeks to undermine the constitutional order would deliver such a speech.

Those now calling for the president’s resignation include the country’s major business alliance (CACIF) and the Catholic Church hierarchy, further amplifying the voices of a broad range of civil society and community organizations.

Less than 48 hours after the president’s speech proclaiming his innocence, the country’s Supreme Court cleared the way for impeachment proceedings against him, which Congress must now take forward.

Guatemala at a crossroads

Guatemala is at a critical juncture. The country with the worst level of malnutrition in the western hemisphere is confronting a corruption scandal that reaches the highest levels of government. The president, who is now directly implicated in the corruption, has taken a combative stance – some say with the intention of provoking destabilization to force a coup d’état.

The public prosecutor, with the essential support of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG, is valiantly moving forward actions against those responsible for corruption just days before previously scheduled presidential elections. Yet many groups are calling for postponement of the September 6th elections, which they see as illegitimate because the leading parties and their candidates have been implicated in acts of corruption or fraud.

Since April, when CICIG first made public the investigation undertaken jointly with the prosecutor’s office that uncovered a corruption ring funneling bribes to government officials to avoid customs fees ,  citizens have held weekly vigils and peaceful protests calling for the resignation of all politicians implicated and fundamental reforms that can help put an end to such widespread corruption.

Public outrage should not come as a surprise given the tremendous social costs of government corruption. A recent study commissioned by Oxfam in Guatemala and carried out by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) revealed that 29 percent of Guatemala’s annual budget is allocated to areas that are most exposed to acts of corruption. According to the research, based on the reasonable assumption that one fifth of government funding in these areas is lost through corruption, six percent of Guatemala’s annual budget may evaporate into thin air (read: line the pockets of corrupt officials). Programs most affected tend to be those in health, education and social protection for Guatemala’s most vulnerable.

Some positive signs, but major reforms needed

In the face of this crisis, two very significant developments must be recognized.

First, the investigative work undertaken jointly by CICIG and the public prosecutor’s office is truly commendable and is a great success story of the Guatemalan government, which agreed to establish the commission eight years ago and extend its mandate this year, and the international community, including the US government, which has provided crucial support for its work.

Second, the widespread and somewhat spontaneous public mobilization of citizens in all segments of Guatemalan society in response to the corruption scandal is remarkable. Especially because the country has struggled over the last two decades to overcome the lingering consequences of internal conflict that sharply divided people along lines of class, race and ideology. It seems that indignation has prevailed over fear and has pushed aside differences. Outrage has mobilized people who had never before engaged in protests to peacefully take to the streets. This is the essence of a truly active citizenry, which is needed to hold governments accountable.

While there is no simple solution to the problems in Guatemala, one thing is certain: unless the population believes that all government officials can be held accountable, elections will not help to overcome the current crisis.  Therefore, the first and top priority for all actors in Guatemala should be to urgently move forward a series of electoral and related government reforms that have been put forward by alliances of civil society organizations and academic institutions.

What the US and international community can do

This is a particularly critical moment for the international community to show strong support for this broad citizen engagement and mobilization and to help push for the much needed reforms. So where does the US government stand with regard to the current crisis in Guatemala?

Recent statements by Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Jim McGovern have raised concern about the widespread corruption and expressed strong support for CICIG and for the civil society movement.  But the Obama administration seems stuck in a paradigm that relies on elections as the best way to avoid instability, which already appears to be a failed approach. It seems unlikely that most Guatemalan citizens will accept as legitimate the outcome of elections under current conditions, without any change in the fundamentals that enabled the existing crisis.

In fact, now is the time to raise serious questions about future US aid to Guatemala, currently under discussion in US Congress to support the Alliance for Prosperity in Central America’s northern triangle. The Plan of the Alliance is intended to address the lack of opportunities, which is a principle driver of emigration from Central America, through investment to generate structural change that reduces poverty, vulnerability and violence.

A Guatemalan government that has lost the confidence of its population and much of its own Cabinet, and is incapable of undertaking urgent reforms to address widespread corruption, should not be considered a worthy partner for US development assistance. Particularly at this moment, after the resignation of the Guatemalan government’s lead for the Alliance, the US government should not recognize any replacement named by President Pérez Molina, as doing so would legitimize a government that has lost legitimacy at home.

This is not the time for a business-as-usual approach to US aid. Rather, supporting local leadership in moving forward the necessary reforms to combat corruption should be the priority.

Guatemala is a country rich in natural resources and rich in culture and heritage, yet with significant poverty and vulnerability and high levels of inequality. History has shown that inequality and corruption feed off one another: the existence of inequality creates conditions that enable corruption, while corruption exacerbates inequality. It’s time to break that vicious cycle in Guatemala.

The unprecedented citizen mobilization in Guatemala this week is a hopeful sign for the future. But the road forward is paved with uncertainty and there are still many obstacles ahead.

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