No relapse allowed for Guatemala’s anti-corruption wins

The Central American country, after a decade of progress against graft, defies a president’s backsliding and again sets a model for the hemisphere.

Guatemalans protest President Jimmy Morales's decision to expel Ivan Velasquez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in Guatemala City Aug.29.

 One adjective often used to describe corruption in Latin America is “chronic.” Or, even worse, “entrenched.” Such a fatalistic narrative, however, has been challenged in recent days by the people of Guatemala. They have adopted an alternative view that honest governance should not only be the norm but irreversible.

On Aug. 24, President Jimmy Morales – who was elected on an anti-corruption platform – attempted to squelch a probe into alleged shady financing of his 2015 campaign by trying to oust a key prosecutor. Several cabinet ministers then quit. Street protests broke out. Foreign leaders condemned the move. And a high court reversed the president’s action.

Soon after, Mr. Morales wrote on his Facebook page: “The rule of law should always prevail.” He now awaits a decision that could strip him of official immunity in order for him to face charges.

Such a rapid chain of events is testament to a decade of progress in the Central American country toward reversing a culture of impunity. Guatemala’s example also builds on similar achievements in tackling corruption, such as in Brazil and Argentina, that help defy the false stigma of a hemisphere condemned to live with graft in high places.

Guatemala also offers the region another model in pursuing clean government. In 2007, it agreed to the creation of a United Nations body, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, to assist local prosecutors in going after corruption. Dozens of officials have been convicted. Notably, in 2015 then-President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigned over a massive corruption scheme in customs. The unique panel remains a highly popular institution.

Morales, a former TV comedian and political outsider, was elected on the hope that he could keep the momentum going in this cleanup of government. Yet by challenging his attempt to remove the head of the UN commission, Ivan Velasquez, Guatemalan citizens realized even more that their newfound embrace of transparency and honesty in governance is the real driving force for change. Such a popular shift in thinking is essential for Latin American countries to draw top foreign investors, create healthy economies, and reduce inequality.

It also might result in descriptions of corruption in Latin America as “faltering” or “rare.”

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