Not Corrupt, Not a Thief, But Not the Answer: Jimmy Morales and Corruption in Guatemala

Last month, Guatemalans went to the presidential runoff polls and elected former comedian Jimmy Morales in a landslide over former first lady Sandra Torres. Morales ran as an anticorruption candidate; his slogan, “not corrupt, not a thief,” says it all. Not being a thief might seem like a low bar for a presidential candidate, but Morales’s election shows that such qualifications are apparently and alarmingly sufficient in Guatemala. Despite never having held public office or having been involved much in politics as a private citizen (unless racism and cultural insensitivity count), Morales was a well-known and available outsider in the right place at the right time. Indeed, Morales seems to have gotten elected not despite but rather because of his lack of experience and prior political involvement—characteristics that were valuable assets against the backdrop of widespread public outcry against corruption in Guatemala over the last several months, culminating in the resignations and arrests of President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in September.

Many hail Morales’s victory as an indication that the anticorruption movement reached a tipping point and created change in Guatemala. But there are at least three reasons to worry that far from an anticorruption success, electing Morales may be a setback or at least a non-event for anti-corruption and democracy in Guatemala.

  • First, there is no indication that Morales’s anticorruption bite will match his bark. If Morales has a policy plan, as he claims, its contents remain largely unknown. His campaign manifesto is only six pages long. Overarching transparency concerns aside, it is perhaps most troubling that none Morales’s few known proposals—keeping drugs, abortion, and gay marriage illegal, giving cell phones to every child in Guatemala, ensuring teachers are in class through GPS tracking, and reclaiming neighboring Belize—relate to the central tenet of his campaign: fighting corruption. On that front, he has said just that the judiciary should be a focus and that he plans to renew CICIG (the UN-sponsored anti-corruption investigatory force behind Perez’s resignation) only until 2022, at which time Guatemala (somehow) will be able to tackle corruption on its own. Even if Morales had concrete, commendable anticorruption proposals, he would face an uphill battle in implementing them. Morales’s party won only 11 of 158 seats in Congress. Perez’s party won more seats even as Perez sat in jail. The parties of the other two chief contenders in the presidential race together hold the majority of seats. Regardless of his mandate from the Guatemalan public, the new president will have no choice but to work with his opponents, a reason to expect little change.
  • Second, Morales’s election may signify a return to military rule made possible by anticorruption rhetoric. Ever since the end of the civil war, Guatemalan politics have occurred against a background concern of ensuring that civilians, not the military, rule the country. Former President Otto Perez’s election was a possible affront given that Perez is a former general who was in command over the rural areas of Guatemala in which some of the bloodiest massacres of the civil war took place. Indeed, Perez was the military’s representative in the peace talks that ended the conflict. The voters who put Morales into office thought of him as an outsider, the antithesis to Perez. But they may have overlooked an important similarity: the military connection. Morales has attempted to assuage this concern by publicly announcing that, unlike Perez (whose cabinet consisted of several ex-military officers), he will not appoint ex-military personnel to cabinet positions outside of defense. Yet this concession may not make a practical difference: If the president can be a puppet for his party, why not the cabinet he appoints? If the ex-military leaders of Morales’s party are going to have the real power, as seems likely, Morales’s presidency may not be as far a departure from Perez’s administration as voters may have hoped. One optimistic view of Perez’s election was that if military leaders wanted power in Guatemala, at least they had to get it through the democratic process. But Morales’s elections suggests that the military may have found a work-around—capitalizing on anticorruption sentiments to push an easy-to-manipulate outsider into the country’s top leadership role. Instead of being constrained by anticorruption rhetoric, military leaders found a way to appropriate it.
  • Third, anti-corruption may have paved the way for continued racism and xenophobia in Guatemala. For a nationalist conservative outsider like Morales to run and win on an anticorruption platform is not unprecedented. Current Indian Prime Minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi ran on a platform of good governance, and won despite whispers of his involvement in attempted genocide. Today, among other more positive developments, Modi’s party continues to fuel ethnic tensions, with adverse effects on reform and investment in India. As Katie pointed out in her recent post, anticorruption rhetoric similarly helped boost the current right-wing government of Hungary, known for xenophobia and anti-Semitism. These dynamics also shadow otherwise optimistic portrayals of the head of Russia’s political opposition, Alexei Nevalny. Perhaps the substantive link between anticorruption and prejudice against minority groups has to do with the positive spin on political incorrectness that accompanies an outsider candidate or (as Katie suggested in her post) the focus on cleanliness that a governance campaign entails. Either way, these concerns are especially salient in Guatemala in context of a genocidal civil war that spanned four decades and ended just 20 years ago. Eighty-three percent of the conflict’s 200,000 casualties at the hands of the Guatemalan military were of indigenous Mayan heritage. Indigenous communities still make up the majority of the Guatemalan population today. Morales has strong ties (to put it lightly) to the perpetrators of Guatemala’s genocide. As noted above, the same military leaders responsible for the civil war control Morales’s political party, and they created it precisely to strengthen impunity for military officers in the aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war. The new president himself has already demonstrated acquiescence to the party line, denying on numerous occasions that genocide ever occurred in Guatemala, despite the UN’s contrary conclusion. While it may seem unlikely that genocide will recur, racism remains a strong force in Guatemala today. As a comedian, Morales perpetuated (again, to put it lightly) negative stereotypes and inferiority associated with indigenous communities. Indeed, his election evidences the pervasiveness of racism in Guatemala, and he is unlikely to champion minority rights while in office.

The anticorruption movement in Guatemala today is strong, at least among the public and civil society groups. But public sentiment cannot and will not sustain progress without  governmental support. If Morales is indeed a puppet of the military, with an interest in retaining their impunity for past and present malfeasance, Morales might use his considerable administrative power to stall the anticorruption momentum that remains. Perhaps the only antidote to these concerns is continued public and international scrutiny. When Perez was elected in 2011, questions abounded about whether he would continue to support CICIG, Guatemala’s independent, UN-sponsored anti-corruption body. Even when he must have known that supporting CICIG was not in his own self-interest—CICIG was ultimately responsible for the investigation that forced him to resign—Perez had to continue to extend its mandate in the face of international and public pressure. Morales may seem like an anticorruption ally, but such pressure and scrutiny will continue to be important during his administration so that he does not set back the fight against corruption in Guatemala.

16 thoughts on “Not Corrupt, Not a Thief, But Not the Answer: Jimmy Morales and Corruption in Guatemala

  1. Pingback: Not Corrupt, Not a Thief, But Not the Answer: Jimmy Morales and Corruption in Guatemala | Anti Corruption Digest

  2. Thanks for a very informative, if sobering, post! You certainly raise some strong arguments that President-elect Morales will not be the anti-corruption hero that some might have wanted, but is there at least some hope that Guatemala might nevertheless be moving towards a more transparent and less corrupt future?

    Acknowledging my unfamiliarity with the Guatemalan system, one actor that seems notably absent from your discussion is the judiciary. You mention that public support and civil society remain strongly committed to fighting corruption. Could the courts somehow advance this effort absent strong support from the President?

    • I think the courts could theoretically advance the effort despite an un-allied president, but unfortunately the Guatemalan judiciary has a reputation for corruption on its own. But, in the past there have been a handful of very effective judicial actors, like former prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz and the current prosecutor Thelma Aldana. It seems to me that success in Guatemala on the anticorruption front largely depends on whether the people in power especially within judicial institutions happen to be effective and truly committed to fighting impunity.

  3. Your post raises quite a number of difficult issues very quickly. Just on one of them, my initial inclination is that the lack of officially announced anticorruption policy goals or measures is not in and of itself a reason to believe there will be no change made on that front. It may be a campaign tactic, telling voters what they want to hear at that particular moment. At the same time, a campaign tactic without specifics could still come to fruition if the public demand and/or the elected official’s belief in the project are robust enough. However, another issue you raise at the end of that first point seems to me to be more of a serious roadblock, namely that the election of one individual still leaves a status quo–in this case, many others, either parties or individuals, who may have benefited from or relied on the existence of entrenched forms of corruption. On this point, and in a highly speculative question, do you think there are reasons why Morales’s celebrity or his campaign rhetoric might or might not make him more effective at working with or against existing political actors? More generally, do you think “outsider” candidates are better placed to counter entrenched corruption, or does that job require someone who knows how to navigate the political scene? If voters are looking for a candidate who can effectively tackle the status quo, what might be some characteristics or claims that they should look for?

    • The power of outsider candidates to change a system is definitely an interesting question. In this case, though, Morales seems to me like less of a genuine outsider and more of a puppet for the military establishment. So, the main reason I think he will be ineffective in fighting corruption is neither his capability to navigate the system nor the willingness of others to work with him but instead the motivation of those backing him to maintain the corrupt status quo. If voters are looking for someone who can tackle the status quo, I imagine a range of characteristics might be helpful in different situations, but that list would almost never include strong ties to the main power center–especially if that power center is notorious for operating with impunity itself.

  4. In a way, it seems that not only has the military co-opted anticorruption rhetoric, they’ve gone a step further: if your characterization that their political party is just a way to ensure they get impunity, that’s a kind of corruption in and of itself. Maybe there’s something about the lack of money changing hands that makes that narrative less potent, though.

    To spin off of your final thoughts and Kate’s questions, is there reason to think Morales would be less or more responsive to international pressure?

    • I also would be curious to know whether Morales might be more responsive to international pressure, especially since he’s campaigned on this anti corruption platform. On your second point, I agree that his promise not to appoint ex-military to non-defense cabinet positions wouldn’t have much bite if Morales were controlled by the military, but at the same time, it might nevertheless help, and I’m not entirely convinced that this situation is evidence that the military community has found a way to appropriate anti corruption rhetoric. If Morales does end up being so easy to manipulate, might this not become evident to the international (and domestic) community? That might not necessarily be the case (or be more difficult) where, in the absence of even small measures like such promises not to appoint ex-military, accountability is even more spread out and even less transparent.

      • Thank you for the thoughtful and sobering post. To add to Jeanne’s excellent questions, I’d love to know more about Guatemalan civil society. I know Mexican NGOs, for example, are credited with helping to develop that country’s recent spate of institutional anticorruption reforms. It remains to be seen whether those reforms will work, but the NGOs at least provided a source of ideas and pressure.

        • On Courtney’s point: Everything I have heard about civil society groups in Guatemala suggests that they are not just allies to the anticorruption movement, but zealous proponents of it. They have gotten some of the credit for the “Guatemalan Spring” and from what I understand, deservedly so.

          On Jeanne’s point: I think the international community on the ground will be watching closely. It would certainly be evident to them if or when the power holders in Morales’s party manipulate him while he is in office. The issue in my mind is not so much whether international and domestic actors will notice, but rather what they will be able to do about it. Also, I think it is correct that the situation would be worse if Morales did appoint ex-generals to his cabinet directly, but perhaps functionally not that much worse than the alternative situation that we have now.

          On Katie’s point: I am not very optimistic. The anticorruption rhetoric from his campaign does tie Morales to CICIG to an extent, but not necessarily to continued international involvement. He has already publicly put an end date on CICIG’s mandate. His comments on that issue suggest to me that his position is along the lines of ‘corruption is important, but should be handled largely within the government and not by external actors.’ Of course, I am guessing. No doubt that the international community on the ground in Guatemala has done a great deal of research about the extent to which they should see Morales as an ally, and would have a more educated prediction.

      • I think the international community on the ground in Guatemala has probably done a great deal of research about the extent to which they should see Morales as an ally, and it would certainly be evident to them if or when the power holders in Morales’s party manipulate him while he is in office. The issue in my mind is not so much whether international and domestic actors will notice, but rather what they will be able to do about it. Also, I think it is correct that the situation would be worse if Morales did appoint ex-generals to his cabinet directly, but perhaps functionally not that much worse than the alternative situation that we have now.

        On the point of Morales’s responsiveness to international pressure, I am not very optimistic. The anticorruption rhetoric from his campaign does tie him to CICIG to an extent, but not necessarily to continued international involvement. He has already publicly put an end date on CICIG’s mandate. His comments about that suggest to me that his position is along the lines of ‘corruption is important, but should be handled largely within the government and not by external actors.’

  5. A highly engaging and powerful read Ratna. The eagerness of parties and leaders across who run on ‘anti-corruption’/anti-establishment platforms to shift to ‘establishment’ mode following elections is worrying. I believe that voters in many of these countries make the mistake of considering ‘anti-corruption’ as a political ideology in itself. Fed up of clientelism and corruption of established parties, they jump to vote for anyone who looks sufficiently differ from the establishment. If this goes on, anti-corruption stands the danger of losing its legitimacy from overuse and under delivery. Without a clear political ideology backing it, anti-corruption is a mere shell. It is high time that anti-corruption is treated as an integral element of the election manifesto and not the whole of it.

  6. CICIG plays such an interesting role in the political dynamic in Guatemala, I wonder if the same pressure that forced Perez to keep CICIG in place will force Morales to ignore his self-imposed 2022 deadline for expiration. As a follow-on question, I echo Courtney’s question about civil society and wonder if it has the resources and political force to demand and stand up a domestic replacement for CICIG if Morales sticks with the 2022 deadline.

    Do you think the outcome of the Perez litigation might impact how Morales deals with CICIG in five or six years? That is, would a conviction make CICIG more popular and, thus, more difficult to shutter, or would it (probably incorrectly) give Guatemalans a false sense of security that corruption is on the way out and, as such, CICIG is no longer necessary? Perhaps it is somewhere in between, but it would certainly be interesting if Morales’s own ends were served by preventing a conviction for Perez, the very person whose corrupt acts made it possible for Morales to win the presidency.

    • The Perez outcome question is an interesting one. I hate to be cynical, but I think the most likely outcome is that Perez escapes true accountability leading to public disappointment. I don’t think such a result would diminish confidence in CICIG, but rather in the Guatemalan judiciary, which is itself quite corrupt.

  7. Thank you for this excellent post Ratna. I am always fascinated by politicians running with anti-corruption campaigns (and might not do anything to tackle corruption issues once elected). Pursuant to your post it appears clearly that Jimmy Morales is far from being a good solution for Guatemala. I wonder if the other option would have been better.
    If I recall former first lady Sandra Torres had allegations corruption against her and her divorce with the former President a couple of month before the 2011 election was very suspicious. Not being an expert on Guatemala, I remember reading that in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled out her candidature holding that the divorced was only to bypass a constitutional ban on relatives running for President. In these circumstances, do you think Jimmy Morales was the less of two evils?

    • Very true – Torres has her own corruption issues, and the divorce was almost certainly strategic. While it’s true that there was no “good” option, Morales does not strike me as the lesser of the two evils if for no other reason because Torres does not have the same strong military connection that Morales does. In context of Guatemala’s civil war, military control over the government through Morales seems like a bigger problem than continuing corruption, especially since there are no guarantees that corruption will stop under Morales.

  8. Pingback: Comparing Presidential Corruption Scandals in Guatemala and Brazil: Part 1 – insightcrime.

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