Guatemala: Anti-corruption spirit ebbs ahead of elections. Can it be revived?

The massive anti-corruption protests earlier this year succesfully forced former President Molina from office. But as the election looms closer, the leaderless movement is split on how to move forward amid a new political awakening.

Moises Castillo/AP
A demonstrator covers her mouth with tape carrying the message Spanish: "I'm not voting," during a protest demanding election reform in Guatemala City, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, the day before general elections. (AP Photo/)

The Central Plaza in Guatemala City was eerily quiet on a recent Saturday afternoon, as some 50 people milled about encouraging citizens to boycott the upcoming presidential vote. But while their commitment was strong, their numbers were a shadow of what the world saw just weeks earlier, during the massive protest movement that led to former President Otto Perez Molina’s Sept. 2 resignation.

The small turnout speaks to both the success and the perils of the nation’s recent political awakening: While nearly six months of protests resulted in historic change, the movement’s victories have also raised concerns about where protesters will go from here.

The large-scale anti-corruption protests that swept the country last spring and summer grabbed the attention of the world. And they surprised many here with their inclusiveness, peacefulness, and ability to unite around the common goal of holding elected officials accountable. 

But with several high profile resignations – from the president to the vice president – under the movement’s belt, identifying next steps that protesters from all social classes and age groups can rally behind has become increasingly difficult.

“We have to break with the idea that we’ve already won because [former Vice President Roxana] Baldetti and [former President] Perez Molina are in jail, and so corruption has ended,” says David Jerez an activist with the group Otra Guatemala Ya, “Another Guatemala Already,” which prioritizes ending corruption and impunity. 

With less than a week to go before presidential runoff elections, some groups believe the election should be boycotted so that candidates outside the established political machine have a chance to enter the race, while others are pushing for everything from judicial reform to indigenous rights. But as the clock ticks down to the Oct. 25 election, scores of protesters from disparate groups are trying to overcome differences and unite in their search for the best path forward for their country.

“It’s easy to raise collective demands for someone to resign. It’s a whole other thing to stay together and see what kind of country you want to build,” says Anita Isaacs, professor of political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and longtime Guatemala scholar. “That’s the huge challenge that lies ahead: What kind of democracy do you really want to build?”

'Still learning'

On a recent Saturday morning, seventy members of Guatemala’s protest movement gathered in a vast auditorium here to try and agree on next steps.

The moderator greets the audience with a simple opening message: we have a lot of work to do. 

A handful of corruption scandals over the past few years, including a customs-fraud network that implicated top politicians last spring, galvanized a population often cowed by fear from decades of brutal civil war, rampant abuse of power, and weak democratic institutions.

“As a society, we are still learning how to work together in agreement and disagreement,” says Javier Gramajo Lopez, who moderated the discussion among protest leaders, and who works with protest group G-48, which advocates for constitutional reform. “If we don’t have a common objective, we are going to continue to be divided." 

When the first protests formed under the slogan, Renuncia Ya (Resign already), the organizers decided there would be no leader. Instead of a podium for one person to speak at protest rallies, citizens of all ages and social classes marched together in the capital’s historic plaza. 

It was a powerful symbol of unity, but it makes it more difficult to strategize and negotiate with the government, which is exactly what the protest movement needs to do now to be successful, says Maynor Berganza, lawyer and political science professor at University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.

“It’s clear that the mere resignation is not going to modify the conditions that are [restraining] true social development for Guatemala,” Mr. Berganza says. “The protest groups would do well to propose a specific objective … [and] call on their supporters and the people to demand this plan.”

What next?

Some, like Mr. Jerez from the group Otra Guatemala Ya, think the movement should focus on longterm constitutional and electoral reform. About 50 percent of those present at the meeting want to boycott the presidential vote, despite runoff elections between comedian Jimmy Morales and former first lady Sandra Torres set for this weekend.

Online forums like Facebook and Twitter reflect the same lack of united message among protesters, who are voicing their frustrations and discontent.  

A woman who goes by Galileasonisvelle Drv took to Facebook in mid-September to encourage continued protests, warning that, “The protests will go down as [a rare creature] if we don’t force the politicians who have the power of Congress behind them to respond to our struggle.”

One Guatemalan, Andrés Quezada, who works with protest group JusticiaYa, joked on social media that people were saying “we need a movement with clear leaders,” only to turn around two seconds later and chide anyone taking on a leadership role as solely seeking out power or fame.  

But many at the meeting hope their efforts at cooperation are just the first small steps toward a new Guatemala. As the event wraps up, someone brings up the protest hashtag, #EstoApenasEmpieza, or "This is just the beginning."

"We are very conscious of the fact that this is just the beginning," Lopez says. "We have created a new consciousness and [it's] for a better country and a better outlook for the future."

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