In late August, the calls for President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation amidst fraud and corruption charges grew louder. But no one expected what happened next. We watched in awe as Pérez Molina resigned on September 2nd and then, arrested just a day later. Guatemalan citizens had done what many saw as, “the impossible.” Led by university students adept at social media, they mobilized a unified demand for justice that hadn’t been seen in the country in decades—bringing together all Guatemalan voices, including urban middle class, women and indigenous and rural peoples. Describing the historic roots of this citizen uprising Patricia Ardon from JASS Mesoamerica explained, “This is not new. It is cumulative of 36 years of conflict. There is a glut of corruption and impunity that is not unique to this government. There is an accumulation of a lot of pain, but there were no exit channels for those wounds and no justice was delivered.“
Guatemala’s Civil Unrest
The first blow to the Guatemalan presidential immunity came in 2014 when Efrain Rios Montt—General and former President—was convicted of genocide for overseeing the killing and torturing thousands of indigenous people during his military dictatorship in 1982-83. But this didn’t last long because the Guatemalan judiciary annulled the judgment and his retrial is set for this year.
Because of the immense corruption and impunity that permeated the justice system after the peace treaties in 1996, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established. In April 2015, Special Prosecutor, Colombian Iván Velásquez Gómez and the Public Ministry uncovered a case of corruption in customs known as La Linea that implicated senior government officials, like Vice President, Roxana Baldetti and director of the Tax Administration of Guatemala. They were stealing nearly 30% of the taxes in country were at least 70% live below the poverty line. Public outrage exploded. The protests began spontaneously in urban areas and rural communities. Indigenous communities, students of the National University and the private universities, took to the streets—amassing over 60,000 people in the capitol city at one point. Social networks boosted the mobilizations. Day after day, people filled the streets. Under growing pressure, the vice president resigned. To Ardon, a 35 year veteran of social movement organizing before and through the Guatemalan peace process, it was very exciting:
We hadn’t seen this kind of concentration since the peace agreements. One of the most interesting things is that there was no visible leadership. Everything was moved by groups and collectives. Social organizations did not even carry their flags, showing that it wasn’t just about individuals or distinct groups, but a claim that came from all. It was the first time that this generation of young people took to the streets collectively…there was a very emotional moment when the traditional leadership of a cross-section of indigenous groups placed wreaths around the necks of university students, recognizing their new role and it was exciting to see young women have been involved in these processes, and are demanding a role in social protest,” concludes Ardon.
The protests sparked the convergence of civil society actors to promote legislative reforms and create a People’s Assembly that brought distinct sectors and movements together. The Public Ministry and the CICIG presented evidence that linked the Presidency with organized crime structures. Congress, under pressure because of public protests, withdrew presidential immunity. On September 2, just before midnight, Otto Pérez Molina, President and commanding General of the Armed Forces, submitted his resignation to Congress a few days before the election. Perez Molina is currently in prison.
The factors shaping these democratic victories are complex and the future far from certain. For the first time in recent years, the US Ambassador Todd D. Robinson played a key role behind the scenes in pushing for the resignations, a role that many describe as game changing. At play are many economic interests—national and international—that stand to benefit from the multi-billion dollar aid package through the Alliance for Prosperity, aid that is far from certain given the corruption in the region.
Key individuals in the Guatemalan business elite and Congress remain part of a deeply corrupt system that remains intact for now. Riding a wave of anti-establishment emotion generated the recent election of Jimmy Morales, a comedian and political outsider. His backing by hard-liners in the military raises even more doubts about the future.
Ardon describes the complex reality at play, “We are beginning to see tensions in the public discourse between what is legal and what is politically legitimate. For example, some argue that protesters can’t clog roads because it is unconstitutional, even though these protests are clearly supported by the public and necessary to clean up the government. Also, there are distinct biases when there is a demand for more fundamental changes related to the causes of corruption and not just corruption itself. There are some entrepreneurs in prison… but the business sector with significant power in the country remains intact.”
What we can learn
Firstly, although slow and complicated, international actors can make a positive difference nationally. Secondly, protest and citizen demands and pressure for change must be accompanied by institutional mechanisms for accountability. Corruption has re-emerged as a dominant agenda in Latin America and globally thanks to mass civic mobilizations. “Social media is vital because it has enormous power to mobilize people. But it doesn’t have the power to create movements, and can’t substitute the organizing processes and leadership that can convene and join forces.” Ardon added, “It’s not clear what will happen next because we can’t stay in this kind of ‘controlled crisis’.“
Real change in Guatemala requires more than knocking a few heads. If the change is not structural, corruption will continue with other names. This victory provides the country with an active civil society ecosystem, aware of the power of their political participation, and a democracy whose power emerges citizens—something never seen before in Latin America. But that aside, what happened in Guatemala is an important step and message of powerful change for the entire region. As Patricia Ardón says: “hope is contagious!”
Picture credit: Luis Echeverria/ZUMA @Mother Jones