How Guatemala's anti-corruption drive is shaking its political elite

With the former president behind bars, disgruntled voters are choosing a replacement. A neophyte candidate polled first in Sunday's vote, and will contest a run-off on Oct. 25.

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
Protesters are seen reflected in mirrors during a protest against what they say is the death of Guatemalan democracy in Guatemala City, September 5, 2015. On Sunday voters went to the polls to choose a new president, and are set to vote again next month in a run-off between two candidates.
Moises Castillo/AP
Guatemala's former president Otto Pérez Molina listens to his lawyers in court, during his third corruption hearing, in Guatemala City, Sept. 8, 2015. Pérez Molina was ordered jailed on charges of fraud, conspiracy, and bribery in connection to a customs corruption scandal that took down much of his government and forced him to resign.

After months of peaceful protests, President Otto Pérez Molina resigned earlier this month and may face jail time over a corruption scandal. Over the past five months, Guatemalans have staged more than 20 mass protests seeking change. The demonstrators, from a range of backgrounds, have shaken up everything from leadership to presidential elections. On Sunday, voters went to the polls to choose a new president, and are set to vote again next month in a run-off between two candidates.  

Q: Why are Guatemalans protesting?

Since Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996, most citizens have looked the other way when it comes to government corruption. But over the past several years a number of positive developments have taken place, from international support for high-profile investigations to strengthening institutions and the arrival of a reform-minded attorney general. 

There’s also been an emergence of “a new generation that is unafraid to stand up and be counted,” says Anita Isaacs, a political science professor and Guatemala scholar at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. It’s a phenomenon underscored by the genesis of the recent protests. 

The first march – organized by a small group of citizens who had met on Facebook and were concerned over the findings of an investigation of government bribes – surprised everyone with an outpouring of nearly 30,000 participants. Using hashtags such as #RenunciaYa (Resign Now) and #JusticiaYa (Justice Now), the protests have galvanized rural and urban populations, the young and old, and a cross section of economic classes, who have turned out, rain or shine, every Saturday since late April to peacefully demand a new status quo.

Q: Why was President Molina thrown in jail?

The United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigation uncovered evidence, among other allegations, that government officials had defrauded the state of millions of dollars by lowering customs taxes in exchange for bribes. Tens of thousands of wiretaps in this investigation revealed conversations referring to “No. 2” and “the president,” believed to be code for Vice President Roxana Baldetti and Molina.

Ms. Baldetti resigned in May and was detained soon after. Half of the president’s cabinet stepped down in late August. And on Sept. 1, just days before the presidential election, thousands of Guatemalans gathered in the pouring rain, armed with flowers and chanting slogans such as “The people are present; we don’t have a president,” to pressure Congress to remove Molina’s immunity.

Once Molina was stripped of his legal protection, events moved quickly: resignation, detention, and a criminal probe. Molina maintains he’s innocent. It’s an important moment for Guatemalans who have for decades felt powerless in the face of their political system. It also bucks past trends of power brokers escaping punishment or trial, a promising step for the judicial system. 

Q: What effect have demonstrations had on the elections?

Despite calls to delay presidential elections, more than 70 percent of Guatemalans turned out to vote Sept. 6. The power of the protests was clear in the first round: An “anti-establishment” candidate and political newbie, comedian Jimmy Morales, whose slogan was “Not corrupt, not a thief,” emerged as the front-runner with 24 percent. He will face former first lady Sandra Torres, who got nearly 20 percent, in a runoff on Oct. 25. The conservative candidate favored in pre-election polls, Manuel Baldizón, finished third and has dropped out of the race. He alleged election fraud but didn’t request a recount.

Q: What’s next for Guatemala?

The protests mark a “quantum leap” in the population’s demand for accountability from elected officials, but continued citizen participation is key, writes columnist Carolina Vásquez Araya in the leading daily newspaper Prensa Libre. Mike Allison, associate professor of political science at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, agrees. “I have little faith that [presidential hopefuls] Morales, Baldizón, or Torres will lead the charge voluntarily,” he says.

One test of the nation’s progress will be the legal proceedings against Molina. In 2013, a Guatemalan court convicted former dictator José Efraín Rios Montt on charges of genocide only to have the conviction shockingly unravel 10 days after the case closed. 

“Right now it looks like everyone is against Perez Molina and that there would be a massive outcry if justice isn’t delivered,” says Ms. Isaacs. “But these things can change one day to the next. Too often there are powerful players making deals behind the scenes.” 

Q: Could the protests influence regional neighbors?

They already have. Large-scale, peaceful protests cropped up in neighboring Honduras in May, with many protesters pointing directly to Guatemala as inspiration. “Watching Guatemalans unite to demand more from their government, I realized we can do that, too,” says Carla Piñosa, a teacher at a July protest in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

Across the border in El Salvador, where gang violence is on the rise, there’s buzz on social media about the need for citizen protests and their own version of CICIG. 

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