Fed Up in Guatemala

As recently as a few months ago, Manuel Baldizon of the center-right Renewed Democratic Liberty party probably felt pretty good about his chances of becoming Guatemala’s 37th president. With a huge corruption scandal engulfing the leadership of the ruling party, the withdrawal from the race of his nearest rival, and a comfortable lead in the polls, most ground-level factors seemed solidly in his favor. History, too, appeared on his side; Guatemala’s last five elections have been won by the runner-up in the previous one, and the most recent runner-up for president was, coincidentally, Manuel Baldizon.
Despite its solid fundamentals, Baldizon’s campaign did not pan out as he, or most outside observers, expected. On September 14, he withdrew from the race after placing third in the first round of voting, failing to advance to the runoff. Adding insult to injury, charges of corruption and campaign finance irregularities, which not long ago were considered the foundations of any competitive Guatemalan presidential campaign, might soon be giving him legal headaches. Baldizon’s fall from grace is only one result of the country’s sudden political transformation, brought about by the massive protests that have rocked the capital since the beginning of summer. Guatemala’s political establishment has become toxic to voters, and Baldizon, replete with a previous presidential bid, powerful party machinery, and murky campaign financing, was the political establishment incarnate.
Many Guatemalans have instead shifted their political support to Jimmy Morales, a presidential candidate whose status as a political outsider has made him the darling of the protest movement. While Guatemala isn’t the only Latin American country to have been battered by protests recently (Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and several others all saw mass street movements over the summer), its demonstrations are unique in both scope and resilience. In a country not accustomed to rapid political change, the rise of outsiders like Morales and the protestors may prove particularly consequential, and Guatemala’s political future now largely depends on whether Morales can capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity.
A Song of Angry Men
A comedian with a penchant for blackface, Morales is not somebody who at first glance appears particularly presidential. He has no political experience, and his platform of “Christian Nationalism” is more marked by its vagueness than any creative policy solutions. His party, the National Convergence Front, is made up partially of former soldiers with potential links to war crimes. The FCN is varyingly classified as centrist, right wing, and far right. Less inconsistently reported by news agencies is his recent victory in the polls, which put him several points ahead of his opponent, Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope, going into the October 25 runoff. Morales’ journey from the fringe to the political center stage was fueled by his anticorruption stance, which from the beginning have been central to his campaign. His success is an indirect result of a UN commission’s efforts to tackle corruption in Guatemala, which scores a lowly 32 out of 100 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
In April, that commission, known by its Spanish initials CICIG, exposed a massive customs fraud case in the country. Top-level officials were found to have accepted bribes over a hotline, “La Linea,” in return for lower tax rates on selected importers. Among those implicated were the president and vice president, Otto Perez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. While Baldetti was arrested in short order, Perez Molina held out until large-scale protests forced him to resign on September 2, after Congress stripped him of his immunity from prosecution. Both now languish in jail as they await trial.
Such blatant sleaziness in the highest reaches of power was too much for many Guatemalans, and protests have taken place every Saturday in the capital since the scandal came to light. While the “young people” that feature so prominently in many protest reports did indeed play a role in starting the ones in Guatemala, citizens of all ages and social classes appear to have participated, united in their disgust with politicians of any kind. The demonstrations not only featured calls for Molina’s resignation, but also shots at Baldizon’s presidential campaign, including the hashtag #NoTeTocaBaldizon, or “not your turn, Baldizon.” Sandra Torres, Morales’ opponent and former first lady, is also widely perceived as part of the establishment, which naturally means she has her own closet of skeletons. Morales, for his part, has capitalized on his lack of political experience: his main campaign slogan is “Neither Corrupt, Nor a Thief.” In an interesting parallel with the primary races in the United States, voters currently value Morales’ lack of political experience, and if it does not guarantee him a victory, it at least gives him a distinct advantage over Torres.
Not Just a Plowing of the Sea
Of all the protests currently sweeping Latin America, the ones in Guatemala have certainly achieved the most, and there are several factors that have made them so effective. Other Latin American protests, while similar in some regards, are not nearly as extensive in scope. Peru’s and Colombia’s have largely been single-issue movements, focused on mining expansion and agricultural reforms, respectively. In contrast, corruption in Guatemala is an issue that touches the lives of a broad swathe of the citizenry, both geographically and socioeconomically. Neither Peru nor Colombia’s protests approach the Guatemala City demonstrations in terms of numbers; while Colombia’s marching farmers have only numbered 5,000 at their peak, the very first efforts in Guatemala drew a crowd six times that size.
In other places, particularly Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, unrest has been triggered or exacerbated by economic hardship. In contrast, Guatemala had four percent GDP growth in 2014, a respectable figure, and economic conditions certainly have not soured enough to draw thousands into the streets. It was frustration with the country’s long-term prospects—not a sudden drop in growth or living standards—that brought Guatemala’s ruling class to its knees.
Even in Brazil, whose protests have mirrored Guatemala’s in many respects, the political discontent has been mostly focused on the prime minister and her party. While the Petrobras scandal has affected other senior Brazilian politicians (most notably Eduardo Cunha, leader of the PMDB and Speaker in the country’s Lower House), Dilma Rousseff and her Worker’s Party has taken the lion’s share of the blame. Brazil’s protestors are largely focused on her resignation, as opposed to transforming the political climate in the country. More likely than not, losses for the Worker’s Party will translate directly into gains for the Brazilian opposition next election. Not so in Guatemala: there, the mood is verging on revolutionary. Torres, as a left-leaning opposition member of the political class, has thus far failed to turn the fall of a right-leaning government to her advantage. Guatemalans may yet give her a chance, but they appear inclined to cast off the old establishment, right and left, Torres and Baldizon, in favor of newcomers like Morales.
Whether or not a Morales Administration could provide any lasting change in Guatemala is uncertain, and judging by his vague campaign, perhaps even unlikely. However, even in the event of a Torres victory, it is clear is that Guatemalans have set a much higher standard for their leaders. The forces that ejected Perez Molina are not leaving anytime soon, and with parts of the protest movement morphing into civil society, watchdogs like CICIG will have new allies ready to hit the streets should Guatemala’s ruling class be tried and found wanting yet again.
Image source: Wikimedia // Nerdoguate

Leave a Comment

Solve : *
16 + 15 =