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The promised change in Guatemala is nowhere to be seen

Two years on, the government of Jimmy Morales is much discussed for its lack of direction and corruption is still present in the political scene. Español

Jimmy Morales, current president of Guatemala. Image: Nueva Sociedad. All rights reserved.

Two years ago, Jimmy Morales’s accession to the Presidency of Guatemala reloaded the voters’ hopes in the fight against corruption and the purging of the traditional political system.

The new president was not a politician. He had campaigned under the slogan "neither corrupt, nor thief", and had captured the vote of the citizens who were fed up with things-as-usual.

But his naivety and lack of political and public management experience soon surfaced, revealing his inability to bring together different sectors of society and carry out much needed reforms of the State apparatus.

The new president was not a politician. He had campaigned under the slogan "neither corrupt, nor thief".

He let himself be guided by the dark powers that be and withdrew himself from the fight against corruption to save his and his family’s neck.

The campaign

Although Morales was a newcomer in politics, this was not the first time he had tried to come to power. He had already run for mayor of Mixco, one of the closest municipalities to Guatemala City’s urban area. He finally made it in 2015, with the help of the National Convergence Front (FCN) - a fairly new party founded by army veterans.

His previous occupation was in entertainment. He achieved popularity as host of his own TV program Moralejas. His victory owed to this background but also to the "punishment" that the population inflicted on the traditional political class – especially because his predecessors, Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti, had been accused of being part of a number of parallel structures designed to loot State funds for their private benefit.

During the campaign, the former comedian promised that he would work to guarantee access to education and the supply of medical drugs, to support micro-entrepreneurs, and to fight corruption.

Two years on, Morales's role has been, at best, a passive one. His agenda consists of attending events, signing conventions, opening small road projects, and giving speeches. His activity as president is reminiscent of his political campaign: visiting, greeting and getting pictures taken.

 “Newcomers”

In his first year as president, Morales made several blunders. Right at the start, he failed to make sure that all of his cabinet members were honourable persons.

Even though most of them were experienced professionals with long standing careers behind them, he was severely criticized for the fact that the then Minister of Communications, Sherry Ordoñez, had outstanding tax debts.

She resigned a month later. Another mistake Morales made was to accept donations of medical supplies, including expired medications, and have them distributed to health centers throughout the country.

Meanwhile, the FCN members of Congress had to keep to their benches as they did not get to fill any of the Parliament’s Bureau posts and not even any parliamentary committee chair.

Javier Hernández, the party whip, had an "ace" up his sleeve, which was to accept turncoats into the FCN ranks so as to increase the party’s weight in Parliament. But this proved to be a setback for the President, as it became difficult for him to keep on flying the flag for change while his party welcomed politicians suspected of corruption.

By mid-2016, the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office indicated that José Manuel and Sammy Morales, the President’s son and older brother, had committed fraud by issuing invoices which were used to simulate food purchases from the State, duly endorsed by the General Property Registry (RGP). On this he clashed for the first time with the Attorney’s Office and the Commission, with both of which he had maintained until then an open dialogue.

Morales also championed constitutional reform so as to strengthen the judiciary, but the changes he proposed were not welcome in some political and business sectors, whose opposition was echoed in Congress. Little by little, the reform proposal was dropped from the legislative agenda and the issue was forgotten.

If you can’t beat them, join them

By the beginning of the second year, the government party managed to win the chair of the main parliamentary committees: the Finance and Currency Committees (which are instrumental for the definition of the budget). Yet, the government experienced several additional setbacks in 2017.

Morales was keeping to its commitment not to intervene in favour of his relatives in the #PropertyRegistrationBooty case, but very soon the CICIG and the Attorney’s Office pushed him into choosing sides between the social sectors demanding justice and other sectors interested in keeping things the way they are.

The president did not imagine that being Secretary General of the FCN would entail legal consequences – criminal, in fact - for him. The ruling party was accused, along with others, of illicit electoral financing for failing to make clear where more than 585.000 US dollars, which were spent during the 2015 campaign, came from.

By September 19, 2017, Morales' role in the fight against corruption was defined. On that day, he announced at the General Assembly of the United Nations that the government of Guatemala was reviewing the agreement for the creation of the CICIG, to "avoid selective persecution" and international interference.

In August, the president delivered a live message on national TV declaring Iván Velásquez, the head of the CICIG, persona non grata and asked that he be expelled from the country. Citizens took to the streets to support Velásquez and to demand Morales’s resignation. Legal appeals filed by the opposition and social organizations prevented Velásquez’s expulsion, but the Guatemalan Chancellery’s attempts to remove him have not stopped since.

Then, the members of Congress staged a coup. Facing investigations and preliminary trial requests against officials and representatives, they formed an alliance for the purpose of passing a reform of the criminal code which would avoid their being investigated for illegal electoral financing. A day later, they were forced to back down before the threat of citizens’ protests.

The first two years of Morales’s government have been presided by peaceful demonstrations demanding the end of corruption and the President’s resignation.

Throughout the year, Morales was reported between six and eight times, both by the CICIG and the Attorney’s Office, as well as by social organizations and congressional groups. None of the requests filed for the withdrawal of his immunity and for his investigation were admitted by the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ), thanks to his allies in it.

The mayor of Guatemala City and former president of the country, Álvaro Arzú (who signed the Peace Agreements in 1996) also came to Morales’s rescue and declared war on all his opponents. Arzú had been recently accused of paying with Guatemala City public money the campaign of the Unionist party, the leader of which is Álvaro Arzú Escobar, his son.

The first two years of Morales’s government have been presided by peaceful demonstrations demanding the end of corruption and the President’s resignation.

Unending darkness

Now in their third year, both Congress and the government have gained experience and knowledge. The representatives who supported the reform of the criminal code have come together again to set up a ticket to fill all the Parliament’s Bureau posts in 2018.

The dark forces have spoken, and Álvaro Arzú Escobar has been elected Speaker. In his team there are several representatives who have been accused of corruption and tax evasion.

The Constitutional Court (CC), however, has ruled that the congressional vote should be repeated. The motive being that the Arzú Escobar ticket includes a turncoat congressman, which is something the law does not allow. A new ticket formed by congressmen from the minority benches will be put to the vote.

For its part, the government has done some house cleaning and has dismissed three of its ministers: the ministers of the Interior, Social Development and Economy. The name of the new Minister of the Interior, Enrique Antonio Degenhart Asturias, stands out for he is mentioned in the #PanamaPapers as a middleman for the Westbend Management company.

The head of the Tax Administration Superintendency (SAT), Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, was also dismissed, officially for not having met the tax collection goal for 2017. But it is suspected that the real reason for his dismissal may have to do with his placing in administration a number of companies owned by powerful people identified as having committed tax fraud.

Progressive opposition

Properly speaking, there is no "progressive opposition" in Guatemala. Not a single one of the 16 political groups in Congress can be called progressive. Most of them have assumed the role of overseeing State resources and only one of them – Convergence – includes human rights and indigenous peoples’ issues in its agenda.

Convergence is left of centre and has only three deputies out of 158. It lacks political strength, is not backed by the business sectors and is shunned by Conservative politicians. It has focused on denouncing the President’s actions, such as his demand to expel the head of the CICIG.

Other opposition parties, such as the National Unity of Hope (UNE), are weighed down by the fact that several of its members have been accused of corruption by the Attorney’s Office and the CICIG.

There is no doubt that the situation of Guatemala is a complex one. The government of Jimmy Morales is much discussed for its lack of direction, and corruption is still present in the political scene. The promised change is nowhere to be seen.

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This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here 

About the author

 Paolina Albani es licenciada en Ciencias de la Comunicación por la Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. Ha sido reportera en los periódicos La Hora y Siglo 21 y ha colaborado con la revista Plaza Pública.

Paolina Albani holds a degree in Communication Sciences from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. She contributes as a reporter to the newspapers La Hora and Siglo 21 and the magazine Plaza Pública.


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