The resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala closes one of the most sordid, but uplifting, chapters in the history of the troubled Central American nation. Sordid because the scandal that ultimately led to the president’s resignation, and might yet lead to his conviction and incarceration, revealed the underbelly of a corrupt political system that has controlled the country’s economy and politics for generations. Uplifting because the scandal revealed the strength of civil society backed by the international community, including the United States.
The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG for its Spanish name) was instrumental in unraveling the web of corruption that eventually led to the president. Established in 2006 through an agreement between the Guatemalan government and the United Nations, CICIG comprises independent investigators–led by a non-Guatemalan–to investigate corruption and serious criminal activity. Since it was established, CICIG has worked closely with local law enforcement officials to strengthen the investigative capacity of the local prosecutor’s office, and has achieved the arrests of dozens of government officials, including former President Alfonso Portillo and officials from President Oscar Berger’s administration. And it was the work of the CICIG and local prosecutors that uncovered the web of corruption involving the payment of bribes to avoid import taxes that led to a Congressional vote lifting the president’s immunity from prosecution, eventually prompting Pérez Molina’s decision to resign.
But as important as CICIG was in both investigating and giving international voice to the charges, civil society and the United States played equally important roles.
The massive corruption scheme—known as La Linea, an allusion to the telephone line used by the criminal network to carry out its illicit activity—stretched far and deep into the country’s economic and political system, implicating its elites in graft, bribery, tax evasion, and trafficking, among other crimes. In the midst of these revelations, civil society became the voice of broad popular disgust and protest, fueled by the refusal of the president to acknowledge his role in the scandal. By August the movement had united people and organizations of all ideological stripes and interests, from labor unions, civic organizations, human rights groups, indigenous groups, and, finally, the powerful CACIF—the main business association.
The mobilization brought together poor, middle class and wealthy Guatemalans. Throughout the summer thousands of people gathered in Constitution Plaza, the main square in Guatemala City, to demand the ouster of President Pérez Molina, after earlier protests had forced the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti on May 8, 2015.
In a country deeply divided by ethnicity and social class, the popular mobilization united the country. The crucial question now, though, is if the broad, diverse coalition that formed in the past year can advance the institutional changes necessary to clean up the country’s economic and political system. The resignation and arrest of the president, vice president and other officials on charges relating to La Linea does not guarantee that other clandestine criminal networks will not continue to operate.
The United States government and Ambassador Todd Robinson also played significant roles in the events. In early 2015, Vice President Joe Biden visited Guatemala around the time the country was debating whether to extend CICIG’s mandate. The vice president’s visit pressured Pérez Molina to renew CICIG’s mission—though he had originally opposed it—and explicitly linked promised billions of dollars of assistance to a demonstrated commitment to fighting corruption. Ambassador Robinson, a veteran foreign service officer, with a stellar diplomatic career, including Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and Deputy Chief of Mission in Guatemala between 2009 and 2011, was initially criticized for his tepid, slow response to the scandal. But the U.S. emissary proved crucial in his show of U.S. support for and his work with CICIG and local prosecutors.
Viewed Against the Past
The United States has not always played a positive role in Guatemala or the rest of Central America. In 1954, the U.S. sponsored a rebellion by disgruntled military officers that toppled the elected President Jacobo Arbenz, a violent rupture that laid the groundwork for the civil war that ravaged the country for 36 years and took the lives of more than 200,000 Guatemalans.
U.S. policy in Guatemala and much of the region has often been driven by expediency and the promotion of narrow self-interest. However, the Obama Administration’s emphasis on judicial reforms, combating criminal networks and reducing corruption—while not perfect and often lacking sufficient resources—has begun to change the discourse and focused attention on some of the underlying problems facing the region. What’s illustrative—and more than a little inspiring—is that in these cases, U.S. actions have been met not with the denunciations of yanqui meddling of the past, but with the support of a broad segment of Guatemalan society. Can this affinity between popular desire for change and U.S. support translate into deep institutional reform, not only in Guatemala but in the rest of the region?
There are some positive signs. On his trip to the region earlier this year, Vice President Biden officially announced the administration’s request for $1 billion to help combat corruption, drug trafficking and promote democratic governance. The amount is not nearly enough to meet the challenges facing the region, but its focus on security, tax reform and establishing the rule of law is an important step forward. Unfortunately, Congress has balked at approving the full amount.
In Light of the Elections
Guatemalans are in the process of electing a new president. The results of the first round of elections September 6 are not encouraging. The elections could not have been held under more difficult conditions. Some Guatemalan civil society leaders called for boycotting the elections or spoiling the ballot, but, turnout appears to be higher than in 2011.
The results indicate there will be a second round of voting on October 25th. The two likely choices are uninspiring.
The leading candidate going into the second round is Jimmy Morales, a comedian/TV personality backed by the National Convergence Front (FCN) a right-wing party founded by retired military officers implicated in corruption and criminal activity. The second spot is being contested closely by Manuel Baldizón, a businessmen who came second to Pérez Molina in 2011 and is the political boss of the Northern Department of Petén. Baldizón himself has been implicated in corruption schemes and his running mate has been accused of money laundering. The third candidate with a chance of making it into the October 25th second round is former first lady Sandra Torres. She divorced former president Alvaro Colom to run in 2011, but the Supreme Court ruled her candidacy unconstitutional. This year she was allowed to run, but she and her family have been associated with a number of corruption cases involving influence peddling and mishandling of government funds.
Meanwhile, the results of Sunday’s congressional elections have left a deeply divided parliament in which consensus will be hard to achieve. The results indicate that Baldizón’s and Torres’ parties have obtained the largest number of deputies. If Morales becomes the next president, he will find a Congress dominated by rival parties with few incentives to work with him.
It is hard to see how the victory of any of these candidates will improve the political situation in the country. However, it is also difficult to believe that, given the events of the last few months, Guatemalans will be willing to accept politics—or corruption—as usual. Whoever wins the presidency will begin their term of office with a very short leash, and under intense scrutiny from civil society and the international community.
The opportunity for reform will depend on transforming the popular mobilizations that brought down a president into a sustained effort that engages a broad segment of Guatemalan society. In these conditions, the new president’s honeymoon will be short. In a year or so, Guatemalans will either be reaping the rewards of their mobilization by furthering a process of positive change or they might be back in Constitution Plaza seeking the ouster of another president.
Orlando J. Pérez, Associate Dean, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Author of Civil-Military Relations in Post-Conflict Societies: Transforming the Role of the Military in Central America (Routledge, 2015).