For those who aren’t tracking Guatemala closely (HBO’s John Oliver advises his audience to look up the country in an atlas and pay more attention to what’s going on there), former comedian Jimmy Morales has become the face of what some are dubbing the “Guatemalan Spring.”
Could Jimmy Morales really be the Jon Stewart of Guatemala?
That question came during the intermission at an international conference on the media earlier this month in Vienna, Austria. Admittedly, there are a lot of similarities, but with one big difference: Jon Stewart isn’t a leading candidate for president.
After weeks of protests bringing the country to a standstill, President Otto Pérez Molina resigned at the beginning of September. Protest movements have brought down presidents before in Guatemala (see President Jorge Serrano’s bid to suspend the constitution in 1993 as an example), but never has a president accused of corruption been forced to resign and then face immediate prosecution.
As former President Pérez Molina sits in jail, former comedian Jimmy Morales is campaigning for his job. Morales scooped up the most votes in a 14-way, first-round presidential race earlier this month and he will face former first lady Sandra Torres in October in the second round of the presidential election.
But is Morales the real face of the Guatemalan Spring or just its lucky hero?
There is a particular irony for a television personality like Morales to be the front-runner for president. Generally, Guatemalan television system has been a partner in keeping the power structure stable, answering to the country’s economic and political oligarchy. Albavision, the company that has a near monopoly on Guatemalan television, has long been one of the kingmakers in the Guatemalan political system.
Send in the clowns
Morales says he thought about running for president more than a decade ago. But his ideas and image came into sharp focus in a series of mildly satiric TV comedy sketches in which Morales was a campesino who accidentally becomes president. These sketches not only created a brand for Morales as someone representing the common Guatemalan, they also gave him the name recognition necessary to launch his campaign this year. However, up until the week Pérez Molina resigned Morales was still well outside the top tier of candidates in most pre-election polls.
But building on his established popular image from traditional television, Morales was able to seize the advantage of the social media campaign behind Guatemala’s protest movement to vault into first place in the presidential race. The Twitter and Facebook campaigns that helped the organizers get Guatemalans into the streets demanding Pérez Molina’s resignation also fueled support for Morales as the outsider on the ballot that protesters wanted. Given the ways in which traditional media had sustained the oligarchy in power, and confined democratic development in Guatemala, the combination of using typically elitist television to catapult a candidate to the public eye and then using non-traditional media to tap into voters was a revolutionary accomplishment.
Morales has become the politician whose photo is most associated with the protest movement and the end of Pérez Molina. But Morales might just be an accidental hero. Certainly, his central campaign slogan revolves around an anti-corruption message declaring openly that he is not a crook. This clearly establishes Morales as different from Perez Molina and past Guatemalan presidents, but also as different from Manuel Baldizon, the head of the LIDER Party. Baldizon was polling in first place for much of the campaign until Baldizon’s running mate, Edgar Barquin, was caught up in corruption allegations. Much to the surprise of many, Baldizon dropped into third place in the wake of his running mate’s corruption scandal and Pérez Molina’s (whom Baldizon had supported until the last moment) resignation.
The Morales campaign was not central to the anti-corruption marches that brought down Pérez Molina. That street movement is separate from National Convergence Front (FCN), the party Morales leads. Rather, the FCN was founded by military veterans, which has caused some to doubt Morales’ independence from Guatemala’s powerful military establishment. However, Morales was the first of a variety of candidates to survey the political landscape and see how the anti-corruption theme could propel his candidacy. His smart survey of the Guatemalan political scene and how to focus positive attention on himself is why the former comedian is now just one step away from the presidency.
Electing Morales will not be a panacea to Guatemala’s ills. And many Guatemalan voters have openly expressed that to the media. If the timing of the election had not coincided with the anti-corruption movement’s unseating of Pérez Molina (the first round of balloting took place the same week Pérez Molina resigned), then a candidate more closely linked to the Guatemala’s political class would likely have emerged on top. Although many are caught up in the exuberance of the Guatemalan Spring movement, some political observers caution there is a need for a wait-and-see approach when it comes to what Morales or Torres can do to truly create a different political structure for the country.
There are many reasons to be cautious. Guatemala does not have a history of democratic or transparent presidents. Apart from the corruption allegations for which Pérez Molina now will stand trial, two other recent events demonstrate just how far Guatemala has to go.
The 2013 judicial decision to order a retrial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges following his initial conviction shows the justice system is not ready to hold accountable those responsible for many of the wounds of the 36 year civil war. Ríos Montt was de facto president from 1982 to 1983, during which time his troops committed numerous atrocities and war crimes targeting the indigenous Mayan population. Ríos Montt’s retrial will be held in closed chambers, and, due to his mental state, even if he is found guilty, he will not be sentenced to prison time. The former dictator’s original genocide trial—a trial in which he was judged to be guilty—for now will need to stand as the sole moment where the human rights community demanded Guatemala begin to confront the ugly truths of its past.
The second event was the return of former president Alfonso Portillo to Guatemala. A protégé of Ríos Montt, Portillo received a hero’s welcome in Guatemala City after serving a short sentence in the U.S. on money laundering charges. He has vowed a return to politics. That could just be rhetoric, but if he gains any support it is another marker that the Guatemalan political system hasn’t really changed that much at all.
So can a former television comedian be any worse than the rogues gallery that is the fraternity of former Guatemalan presidents?
Despite the fact that Morales was a nationally known television personality, the public does not yet know his depth of character besides the self-effacing humble image he portrays on the campaign trail. That makes him very different from Jon Stewart, who was known for his mix of transparency, wit, and bravado on The Daily Show and also as someone who wasn’t afraid to mix it up with a sitting president. And although Stewart has polled in the U.S. as one of the most trusted people in the country, he’s unlikely to turn to politics, even as a stunt or a joke. On reflection, Jimmy Morales is a closer comparison to Stephen Colbert who adopted a particular political persona and ran for president briefly in 2007. (Of course, that ended up as an extended piece of political performance art.)
In Guatemala now, though, with a comedian as the front-runner for the run-off election, it’s no longer a joke. The country can ill afford another clown—even if he is a real one—as president.