Aren't we all Guatemala?

Jimmy Morales, a television comedian, has been elected to replace president Otto Pérez Molina, who resigned on September 3 under massive popular pressure. Guatemala is the radical expression of a crisis affecting almost every country in Latin America. Español. Português

Pedro Abramovay
2 November 2015

Thousands demand the resignation of Otto Pérez Molina. La Opinión. All rights reserved

As part of the peace agreements in Guatemala, a United Nations commission was set up on December 12, 2006: the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Its mission was to assist the Guatemalan government in carrying out criminal investigations and proceeding with the punishment of those found guilty through institutional channels, in a country which is used to resolving conflicts with bullets.

The combined existence of the CICIG and the efforts of an extremely virtuous Attorney-General, Claudia Paz y Paz, produced an actual institutional revolution in the country. Murders were punished, former President Efraín Rios Montt became the first head of state to be convicted of genocide by a national court, and for the first time corruption cases began to be investigated.

This shook the wasps’ nest. Claudia Paz y Paz was not reappointed and the government threatened to request the dismantlement of the CICIG.

The massive citizen mobilization, the courageous work of some independent media outlets and intense international pressure were the key elements which enabled the CICIG to carry on with its job and ensured continued public attention to the scandals that were being revealed.

A corruption scheme was eventually unearthed and it took Vice-President Roxana Baldetti with it. Big demonstrations took to the streets of the capital. She resigned. The investigation got as far as President Pérez Molina. He said he would not leave. The demonstrations reached unprecedented levels. Congress withdrew the President’s immunity and he too finally resigned. He was immediately arrested.


Celebrations due to the resignation of Otto Pérez Molina. El Tiempo. All rights reserved.

Just to make things more exciting, while the crisis developed, presidential elections were in full swing. Pérez Molina’s candidate Manuel Baldizón, who was the clear favourite before the mobilizations, did not make it to the second round. Who came first (and eventually won) the second round on October 25? Jimmy Morales, a comedian.

It is hard to describe who Morales is. His campaign, based on his TV popularity, focused on fighting the establishment, politicians, and politics. The problem is that Jimmy Morales ran for the party of the right-wing military. And he received support - and financing, of course - from businessmen who supported Pérez Molina and collaborated with his government. The large student mobilizations that led to the downfall of the Vicepresident, and later the President himself, obviously did not want this outcome.

What can we learn from all this?

Guatemala is the radical expression of a crisis affecting almost every country in Latin America. The last decades have witnessed huge progress (depending on the country) in transparency policies, thanks to the strengthening of anti-corruption institutions and a new kind of citizen mobilization, highly demanding and autonomous, independent of the traditional parties and movements. The great promise was that this would alter, by itself, the political culture of corruption in our countries. This has not happened. Neither in Guatemala, nor in Chile, nor in Mexico, nor in Brazil.

All of these countries – among others – are ultimately undergoing similar crises, arising from the clash between the new bodies fighting corruption and the old political culture. Their coexistence is unsustainable. Many observers believe that the existing political culture will necessarily give in to these new bodies. But this is a risky bet. The next wave may very well be one of institutional setbacks led by the old corruption colonels.

Demonstrations fired by righteous indignation against corruption are essential for political change. But they are not sufficient. If there is not a determined effort to carry through a true transformation of the political culture, to radically change how campaigns are financed, and to create new forms of citizen engagement in politics, these mobilizations could be captured by profiteers who promise change, so that everything remains the same.

This article was previously published by Asuntos del Sur.

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