Guatemala is in the midst of its worst political crisis in the two decades since the end of the country’s civil war in 1996. Weekly marches, sit-ins and demonstrations keep drawing tens of thousands to the streets, denouncing corruption and demanding the President’s resignation, as well as a purge of politics and the judiciary (among other things). The scope and size of the demonstrations has been something of a surprise, given that the Guatemalan public often seems uninterested in political affairs or reluctant to express dissent. Although the protests originated in the capital, they have now spread to the whole country, and brought lower and middle classes together. The main cause of this discontent? Public anger over a string of corruption scandals.
The demonstrations—which some believe are the start of a “Guatemalan Spring”— began this past April, when the Office of the Public Prosecutor against Impunity, together with the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish) published an investigative report linking fraud in the Customs Department to the Vice President’s Office. Specifically, Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary, Mr. Monzón Rojas, stands accused of being at the helm of a wide tax and customs fraud scheme known as La Linea (“the line”), which has defrauded the state of about US$120 million. Although Vice President Baldetti, tried to distance herself from her Secretary (who’s still on the run), mounting public and political pressure forced her to resign on May 8. In addition, there were further revelations that lawyers representing detainees in connection with La Linea attempted to bribe Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. And there were other scandals as well: the head of the Ministry of Energy and Mining lost his post over corruption charges, the Ministers of the Interior, Environment, and Energy resigned, and the President of the Central Bank and the head of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security (who was formerly the President’s personal secretary) have been forced to resign after being accused of fraud and influence peddling.
Although there are many interesting aspects of these anticorruption protests, let me highlight what seem to me especially important features of both the protests and the underlying problems that triggered them—features which, though specific to Guatemala, may have broader implications for the fight against entrenched political corruption.
- First, in Guatemala, these anticorruption protests have a distinctly class-based aspect. In the current turmoil, the first waves of public discontent and demonstrations originated in lower and middle-income classes (historically, the cauldron of public discontent and mobilization against the government). The student movement, though divided at first, now seems to have rallied around the same message and is also playing an important role. There seems to be an association, in the mind of many less wealthy Guatemalans, between elite corruption and systemic economic inequality. Incidentally, leading business representatives have spoken out vigorously from the corruption scandals, perhaps in an attempt to distance themselves from them.
- Second, and perhaps expectedly, the widespread disgust with corruption seems to be both connected and contributing to a distaste for and disillusionment with “politics” as a whole. A recent poll suggested that about 80 percent of respondents will not be voting in the upcoming elections, but also that former President Portillo (who until recently was serving a jail sentence in the U.S. for money laundering) is one of the front-runners. This reaction—a disgust with corruption leading to more general disaffection with the democratic process—is likely to weaken the country further and raises doubts about the legitimacy of the outcome of the country’s scheduled presidential, legislative, and local elections in September, and whether the elections will usher in change or be a sign of business as usual.
- Third, although in many systemically corrupt countries prosecutors and investigators lack the capacity, independence, and/or the will to pursue well-connected corrupt figures, in Guatemala—perhaps somewhat surprisingly—the investigators (mainly the Attorney General’s office, aided by CICIG) appear relatively adept at investigating and prosecuting corrupt individuals. The obstacles to successful prosecutions in Guatemala seem to lie elsewhere: with the judiciary, which is systemically corrupt. (Just a few years ago, CICIG uncovered a corrupt network within the judiciary, which was shown to systematically rule in favor of organized crime.) Thus, despite a relatively efficient investigatory system, doubts remain over the actual outcome of the prosecutions.
- Fourth, and related to the above point, CICIG, which was set up in early 2006, appears to have played an important role in bringing these corruption cases to light. Indeed, one wonder what would have happened without the input from that body. Although the Guatemalan president had indicated earlier this year he would not call for the renewal of CICIG’s mandate, he backed down under growing domestic and international pressures (including from US Vice President Biden). On the one hand, this suggests (optimistically) that international assistance can indeed play a valuable role in the fight against corruption and in building local capacity (CICIG trains investigators). On the other hand, it also raises questions and concerns about whether these improvements in local capacity will be sustainable once the direct international assistance (in this case, the CICIG) eventually winds down. It is not clear how long can CICIG can continue to supplement the Guatemala’s policing and investigatory capacity.