Of all the countries on the mainland of the Americas with a history of chronic bad government and violent repression that stifle democracy, none has a longer track record than Guatemala. That makes it an unlikely stage for the political upheaval that has shaken the Central American nation and forced the resignation of a president.
A country of exceptional beauty — and with a wretched tradition of impunity and corruption — Guatemala has long needed to change course. Reform movements have customarily been squashed by state-endorsed violence, military intervention and/or political chicanery of all sorts.
Thus, it is all the more surprising to find a spontaneous popular movement against corruption leading to President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation. The retired general’s critics accuse him of being the main beneficiary in a massive tax-fraud and kickback scheme involving customs duties that sparked popular outrage and led to a midnight resignation. Thursday morning, he appeared before a judge to hear the charges. Thursday evening, he was escorted to a military barracks, where he was to spend the night in custody.
His resignation was preceded in recent weeks by those of more than a dozen Cabinet ministers who were either tainted by the scandal themselves or could no longer support the president. Last month, authorities arrested his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, a key figure in the scandal who’s now in jail awaiting trial. The president denies complicity, but by Thursday afternoon Congress had accepted his resignation.
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Latin America watchers may find all this a bit surreal, given that Guatemala has been an inhospitable place for popular protest since 1954, when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a military coup against a popular leftist government. A series of right-wing governments, usually with military backing, followed. The coup stunted the nation’s social and political growth. Dissenters were often targets of violence.
Inevitably, a decades-long civil war broke out that claimed the lives of 200,000 civilians and produced credible evidence of genocide against indigenous communities. A peace accord was signed in 1996, but democratic progress has been stifled. Weak judicial institutions proved unable to establish respect for the rule of law.
Enter, in 2006, a U.N.-backed agency called the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Its original target was organized crime, which had penetrated the government. Eventually, the criminal networks were overcome, and the commission began to focus on the twin evils of impunity and corruption, leading to the cascade of disclosures that have roiled the government.
It’s too soon to say whether these dramatic developments mark a turning point in Guatemala’s political trajectory.
Sunday’s long-scheduled congressional elections may offer a clue. But the emergence of courts with independent judges and the key role played by civil-society groups in the dramatic events leading up to the president’s ouster — including business associations — give room for hope.
Social protest often dissipates without having a permanent impact. Even so, these events — and similar protests against corrupt government in other Latin American countries such as Ecuador and Brazil — suggest that increasing numbers of people in Latin America want the rule of law to prevail. They expect their leaders to be honest, and they no longer are content to be mere spectators in their own history.