Democracy in the streets
On August 27, President Jimmy Morales declared
CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez Gómez
persona non grata and ordered the foreign affairs minister
to ensure Mr. Velásquez’s immediately departure from Guatemala
“within the legal and diplomatic framework.”
Thus began a political crisis that holds lessons and hopes
for the entire Central American region.
The crowd is brandishing placards against Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. In one showing his photograph they’ve added a red button to his nose recalling his past as a professional TV comedian. He doesn’t seem to have forgotten it either because last year, while on stage presiding over the Army Day celebrations, he began marching in lock step to the beat of the military band and the amused gaze of his then-minister of defense, General Williams Mansilla.
Once again people are out in Guatemala’s streets and squares in civic rebellion, just like when mass protests brought an end to the government of General Otto Pérez Molina, forced to resign along with his Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, both now in prison on corruption charges. At that time the presidential elections were coming up and the electorate’s choice was limited. That’s why they voted for the comedian, who bombastically proclaimed himself “neither corrupt nor a thief,” only to soon end up linked to both. His brother Samuel and his son José Manuel were tried last January accused of embezzling public funds through a restaurant called Fulanos y Menganos S.A. which charged the government for 564 never-served breakfasts and an equal number of non-existent Christmas baskets. Armed as always with his strange histrionic talents, Morales compared his situation to that of Francoist General José Moscardó, whose son was taken hostage by the republican forces while he himself was under siege in the Alcázar of Toledo during the Spanish Civil War.
Touching the CICIG complicated matters
Morales really complicated matters recently when “in defense of national sovereignty” he decided to declare persona non grata Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez Gómez, head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in retaliation for the commission’s decision to investigate possible illicit financing of Morales’ political party during the 2015 electoral campaign. Velásquez Gómez is renowned for his integrity
The CICIG answers directly to the United Nations Secretary General and acts independently as guaranteed by Guatemalan law. It has accumulated the impressive record of having dealt with more than a dozen legal cases—with support from Guatemala’s Public Ministry—involving various levels of government officials, starting with Presidents of the Republic. It has brought approximately three hundred people to trial for corruption, among them politicians, ministers, businessmen, legislators and mayors.
More impunity bought people into the streets again
The former comedian’s horizon has darkened. People took to the streets to protest his expulsion order against Velásquez. Foreign Minister Carlos Raúl Morales refused to issue it and resigned, along with other Cabinet members, and finally, the Constitutional Court annulled the measure through an appeal filed by Justicia Ya (Justice Now), a youth organization defending civil rights.
In a conspicuously shameless maneuver, Morales managed to get a majority in the National Congress to pass an emergency amendment to the Electoral Law establishing that the only ones responsible in cases of illicit financing of political parties are their accountants, freeing leaders and candidates from all blame out of hand. At the same time, an amendment made to the Criminal Code reduced the prison sentence to ten years and made it possible to buy one’s freedom with a fine.
The Public Ministry declared that the lawmakers’ haste prevented them from seeing that this measure of turning a prison sentence into a fine also benefitted the authors of more than four hundred other classified crimes, including raping of children, organ trafficking, various kinds of homicide, swindling, embezzlement and bribery. They could now buy a get-out-of-jail card at only US$2,400 each. It was a generous sharing out of impunity.
Faced with the formidable civic pressure expressed on the streets and in the social networks, along with protests by civic and union organizations, the legislators hastened to demonstrate their repentance. It was a mistake, they announced, that would be amended in a new law. Nobody believed them; instead people besieged the legislative premises demanding their resignation. The Constitutional Court, giving them no time to prove their repentance, unanimously annulled both amendments “because they could cause irreparable harm to the justice system.”
What else? The e-publication Nómada discovered that Morales had secretly received from the Army’s high command an “extraordinary liability and risk bonus” of US$7,000 a month, in addition to his US$20,000 salary. With that, the temperature of grassroots anger came close to the boiling point. The Comptroller General’s Office immediately declared the bonus illegal and the President, already tottering on the edge of the abyss, announced that he would return all the bonus payments.
The moral of this story
The basic moral of all these events, where brazen corruption and lack of respect for institutions take turns as if it was all a big circus, is that the people in the stands don’t buy the spectacle and go down onto the floor, indignant, to demand that the show be stopped.
The crowd prevented the official Independence celebrations, going so far as to assault the presidential podium before Morales’ arrival. These protests will recur as long as impunity continues to be defended with tricks and dirty schemes, mocking the laws and the Constitution.
More good news is the key institutions that are refusing to submit. The Constitutional Court, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Comptroller General’s Office, bodies vital to democratic functioning, have stood their ground.
In Guatemala, a country so historically besieged by violence and decay, citizen rebellion has come to represent a valuable and hopeful asset, one on which the country’s institutional future depends.
A healthy intolerance has already shown in the past that it’s capable of stopping pillage and abuse, and can put Presidents in the dock. Once more, democracy has taken to the streets.
Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer and was Vice President during the first Sandinista government