An antiquated system that refuses to change
Now halfway through his presidential term,
Jimmy Morales is being challenged on corruption
and closely scrutinized by the US State Department.
He’s still defended by an archaic, dehumanizing system
that refuses to change, even though it’s falling apart.
The good news is that Guatemalan society
now understands who owns that system.
While they still have a lot of power,
those owners are no longer anonymous.
They’ve been unmasked… and this is progress
Fernando Girón Soto
Before the end of 2017, Guatemala’s general public hadn’t yet clearly identified the roles of many of the actors in their country’s profound crisis, exposed in all its brutishness starting in April 2015. But it all became much clearer with the events of last August and September. It seems increasingly evident that there will be no turning back from here on out; no way to rearrange matters and return to the exercise of power that prevailed before April 2015, even though the interested parties are using all their resources to try to do so.
The deterioration within the patrimonial-oligarchic economic model, its political system, and the “administration” of justice that attempts to validate them is so far rendering that regeneration impossible. Worn down by inefficiency and corruption, those three instruments of domination—economic, political and judicial—will keep going, but they will almost certainly end up undergoing transformations. What kind of changes does the system need, and when, how and to what degree might they be brought about? Since the answers to these questions currently reside in the realm of speculation, it seems more useful to reflect on the moribund model that refuses to disappear and on where we’ve made progress.
The doors first opened in April 2015
Guatemala’s social movement has been gradually but continually developing since the events of April 2015 that put paid to the government of Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. That itself is a very new reality because grassroots pressure on public institutions, which are accustomed to doing what they want with virtually no opposition and even less public protest, has changed some of the coordinates of political and institutional functioning.
It was essentially this grassroots pressure that opened the doors that finally shed light on the corrupt way the economic power elite act; a subject taboo in Guatemala since 1954. In the medium and long term, this new knowledge will necessarily modify the ways power is exercised and hegemony built, as well as the subsequent correlation of forces among social actors.
The social mobilization that began on April 25, 2015, was initially triggered by the flagrant corruption of Pérez Molina and his Vice President. Discovery of that corruption spurred sectors of the capital’s urban middle class to mobilize, revealing a malaise that had been silently accumulating for years throughout the population. That outbreak of mass indignation and protests in turn sparked into life civic grassroots organizing, dormant for so long.
Awakening from dormancy
People quickly began to grasp that uniting in street demonstrations goes a long way toward rekindling awareness of the importance of politics; that collective action and that each person’s presence in that activity helps revive their self-esteem and confidence. After the fear implanted by such prolonged state terrorism, this in itself is very valuable. People came to realize that grassroots pressure can force political decisions that were effectively untouchable for more than thirty years and force institutions to comply at least minimally with their legal obligations. Those mobilizations succeeded in ousting a corrupt military government supported by the big business sector, which is mainly responsible for the institutional disorder and lack of social viability.
Some organizational nuclei born of the April 2015 mobilizations flourished; others didn’t. But with the awareness of a sector of the population reawakened, people began to shake off conformism, fear and despair. They stopped thinking nothing could be done and nothing would ever change.
For years the oligarchy succeeded in obtaining both active and passive consensus in support of its hegemony by politically alienating a large sector of the population, first through the use of terror. It then reinforced that alienation by promoting absolute individualism in the media, organizing ongoing religious manipulation based on both Catholic and neo-Pentecostal fundamentalism, blocking the avenues of critical reasoning and exacerbating the country’s vacuous, chauvinist and stultifying traditionalism. In light of all this, the emergence of different sectors of the population from such a long dormancy has been no small thing.
The oligarchic economic model
Now that Guatemalan society is reawakening, it finds itself facing an archaic, antiquated and moribund economic and political model that refuses to succumb.
The dominant economic model, based largely on agriculture and raw materials, is structurally oligarchic and oligopolistic. It is organized by and around some twenty rentier family groups, usually endogamous, that run the show. Although their model is essentially closed, this hegemonic oligarchy has been penetrated by new families over the last 60 years. They have concentrated social wealth in their own hands, preventing further development of industry, commerce and services, sectors that are now only reproducing the concentration of wealth. Among many other privileges, they do this via financial intermediation (money laundering), fiscal privileges, subsidies disguised as production incentives and appropriation of tax resources through exclusivity in financing domestic credit.
This model relies on exploiting the labor force, depredating the natural resources and widespread fiscal and commercial corruption, financial intermediation, and blatant plundering of peasants’ lands and territories, especially those of the original peoples. The result is poor economic growth, which has averaged only 2.5% over the decade. As this is lower than the annual population growth of between 3 and 3.5%, the wealth becomes concentrated even more excessively. The World Bank ranks Guatemala 9th among the 14 most unequal countries on Earth, of which another 5 are also in Latin America: Honduras (6th), Colombia (7th), Brazil (8th), Panama (10th) and Chile (14th)
What the model causes
A limited amount of the wealth this model produces trickles down as far as the urban upper-middle class, especially in the capital, creating a pocket of comfort, consumption and ideological identification with the hegemonic sector, thus making it an ally of the political system, corrupt economic model and racist ideology. The technical and “intellectual” cadres who work for the model and are functional to it come from this sector.
It barely needs to be said that this economic model causes high poverty rates. According to the United Nations Development Programne, the country’s poverty level in 2011, the year preceding the Pérez Molina government, was at 90.6%. The UNDP broke that percentage down as follows: 62.4% of the population lived in average poverty, 29.6% in extreme poverty and 3.6% in severe poverty. Of the children under 5 years of age, 49.8% suffered chronic malnutrition, the highest rate on the continent. The 2014 National Living Conditions Survey of Guatemala’s National Statistics Institute indicates that poverty and extreme poverty have only increased in the eight years leading up to that study.
And none of these percentages has varied significantly since then. The constant deepening of poverty and inequality resulting from the model has inevitably increased migration: if by 2013, 1.6 million Guatemalans had emigrated to the United States; in 2017 that number had nearly doubled, to just under 3 million.
The political parties are controlled by mafias
This economic model enables a political system that is, by law, a democratic republic with three independent branches of government. The population directly elects those who head the executive and legislative branches, while the judicial branch authorities are elected by the parties’ legislative representatives. But the political system adheres not to laws, but to the rationale of those who hold economic power, the oligarchic sectors and criminals. These mafias, which we call the Illicit Economic-Political Networks, profoundly influence the political parties they finance, assuring that they share the same goals.
The parties are simply electoral vehicles for their respective power mafias. They have no vocation for or interest in the common good and no capacity to intermediate between state power and the public. Themselves shaped by clientelism, they have shaped a corrupt political class that over history has turned Guatemala into the equivalent of a huge hacienda, which they manage like one, with all the rewards that implies. The appeal of this control explains the quantity and variety of parties that emerge and then disappear within a few years. They all spout a discourse defending the principles of a neoliberal economy, but Guatemala’s prevailing economic model isn’t even neoliberal. As described above, it’s conservative, patrimonial and resistant to change.
Its modern roots are in the 1954 counterrevolution
Although the political system has been authoritarian since colonial times, its contemporary characteristics date from the 1954 counterrevolution, independent of whichever regime it has transitorily adopted since then, be it a military counterinsurgency dictatorship or a parody of a liberal democracy, as it is today
Since 1954, the final year of the revolutionary democratic experiment of Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first-ever democratically elected President (1945-51), followed by Jacobo Arbenz (1951-1954, when he was overthrown in in a coup masterminded by the US government, sponsored by United Fruit and executed by the CIA), the country’s political model has been characterized by the unending strengthening of the oligarchy; a prominent political role for the Army; the weakening of public institutions and civil society; and strongman party bosses with hierarchical and exclusionary discourse that prioritizes obedience and “order,” understanding this to mean the absence of criticism or any push for change. All this has steadily increased the impoverishment of most of the population.
An incompetent political system
Not surprisingly, given this context, Guatemala’s political institutions are extremely weak, their representative capacity poor and their legitimacy now non-existent. The minority on the left of the political spectrum who participated in the internal war that ended in 1996 are now almost anecdotal on the political stage. They are weak, with severely diminished organizational capacity; their former leaders are absent or in need of replacement; and their political discourse doesn’t resonate with the public. It is even alien to the ears of the 47% of the population that, according to Bank of Guatemala data, is under 30 years of age. The level of political schooling of this majority population is negligible given the nearly 40 years of state terrorism, longer than they’ve been alive.
The political parties, representatives and operatives of criminal and other behind-the-scenes de facto powers, have absolutely no intention of allowing any reform to the political system that Guatemala so urgently needs because it benefits them unrestrictedly just as it is. With the existing political system incapable of resolving the country’s crisis, we are moving towards a new electoral process in 2019 that, in the main, we fear will be more of the same and will further deteriorate the already critical conditions.
A corrupt justice system
Lacking any possibilities of political, social or ethical validation, both the economic model and the political system at least need to be legally validated. That requires a justice system that meets legal formalities but doesn’t punish corruption or safeguard the legality of public life, much less be society’s ethical reserve.
Coopted by the Illicit Economic Political Networks, the justice system is expected to ensure impunity to the workings of those mafias. Thanks to this cooptation, the justice system is characterized by highly opaque, corrupt, bureaucratic, inefficient, arbitrary and foot-dragging management.
Until recently the penal system was only able to resolve 2% of the judicial processes it should be handling. As its primary task is to protect the Networks’ political, economic and criminal operators, the system is an economic burden on the population, which receives slow and inefficient justice, if any at all.
Awakening the middle classes
Despite this antiquated economic and political order imposed in 1954 and unchanged since then, it hasn’t been able to stop the slow and cautious irruption of the urban middle classes, whose predecessors played an important role during the 1944-1954 democratic revolution.
After Arbenz was overthrown, however, those middle classes largely allied themselves with the oligarchy, although generally still as uncritical, chauvinistic, consumerist and conservative, which differentiates them from the oligarchies, which they admire, and from most of the poor population, whom they generally despise with racist, intolerant and violent attitudes, privileging the appearance, double standards and exclusion of “difference.” Nevertheless, a small sector of these middle classes, curiously involving important generational leaps—the generations of the 20s, 40s, 60s and 80s—held to a principle of critical thinking, particularly in times of greatest crisis: we saw them join urban and rural workers and the political struggle not only in the 1944-1954 decade but also in the 1962-1984 open armed rebellion against the system. And we’ve again seen them awakening since April 2015.
Ingratiating themselves with Trump
We’re now entering a new year for President Jimmy Morales, who has personally been accused of corruption while Guatemala’s entire ruling system is already in Washington’s crosshairs for that same reason.
On Christmas Eve, President Morales announced his decision to move Guatemala’s Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, joining only six other small countries—Honduras among them. He did it to ingratiate himself with President Trump, improve his image after his insane decision in August to declare Iván Velásquez, head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) persona non grata, and, most importantly, remove the pressure on him exerted by the US security policy due to the unbridled corruption in our country.
Morales’ self-proclaimed “sovereign decision” to vote with the United States and Israel rather than join the massive condemnation expressed by the rest of the UN General Assembly, seems to have done nothing to produce those goals. It shows that the main US strategic priority is always its security policy and it doesn’t alter it in exchange for such craven “indirect support.”
In case Morales didn’t get that message, the State Department issued a travel advisory in January for US citizens wishing to visit Guatemala, highlighting the dangers: sexual assault, car theft, armed robbery and murder. The warning stressed that gang activity is common, so visitors could also be victims of extortion, violent street crimes and offenses linked to drug-trafficking, particularly in border regions.
A strong message
On October 16, the two top-ranking officials of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote an open letter to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to sanction “individuals in Guatemala who are committing or facilitating acts of corruption.” In a statement to InSight Crime at that time, Guatemalan-born Congresswoman Norma Torres seconded the proposal, saying that “defending the gains made in Guatemala will require a range of policy options, including the use of targeted sanctions to block visas and access to US financial institutions,” Then on February 6, at a hearing by that committee, she warned that the Guatemalan political class and many individuals from its private sector are doing a lot of damage to undermine the work of Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the CICIG. She urged the sending of a stronger message from the United States to those sectors.
A month earlier, on January 8, the recently confirmed US ambassador in Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, had already sent a strong message to Guatemalan Congress about the election of its new two-year board of directors: “The United States trusts that the Congress will elect a board committed to the fight against corruption and impunity….” He added that the United States “values highly” Guatemalan partners committed to that struggle and that “a lack of this commitment could affect US cooperation with Guatemala.” Crystal clear!
The Congress, however, was too busy with other things to take note. It is currently embroiled in a dispute about influence peddling and patronage in an attempt to elect Representative Álvaro Arzú Escobar as its board president. Arzú, a notable representative of the “Corruptors’ Pact” forged in the September 2017 crisis, is the son of current mayor of Guatemala City and former Guatemalan President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, today in pretrial, accused by CICIG and Attorney General Aldana of creating fake payrolls and using public funds for his reelection bid in 2015.
Again, crystal clear. The intention is to preserve the political system at all costs, freezing any modification Congress could make and “preparing the artillery” to control the election this coming May of the new attorney general, who will replace Aldana at the head of the Public Ministry, and the election in October of the comptroller general of accounts so that with those posts under control, all energies can then focus on achieving the major goal: CICIG’s definitive exit from the country… or at least the retirement of CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez.
They were unmasked
Behind all these movements are the families that control the economic power and their allies, the Illicit Economic Political Networks. They are the ones striving to ensure that nothing changes and the economic model and political system remain intact.
They are running a serious risk and they know it. They have the advantages their enormous power gives them but also have a deep fracture in the loss of their precious anonymity, as Edgar Gutiérrez rightly pointed out in his column in El Periódico when he wrote that “The good news for Guatemala is that now that they are exposed, they need to be obvious. They are no longer the untouchable benefactors they sell themselves as. They are powerful, extremely powerful, but the mask fell and we saw their putrefaction. And that, in politics, is too much.”
The regime is falling to pieces
The regime is falling to pieces, some large and others less so, but it’s falling by the weight of its own inefficiency and corruption. Above all, it’s falling apart because its leading protagonists don’t know and can’t propose, much less do, anything other than what they have always done: parasitize, degrading social relationships and the lives of the majority. And now there’s a society that’s more awake, more alert.
Fernando Girón Soto is a political information analyst and envío correspondent in Guatemala.