Guatemala: Fed up with corruption (New Internationalist)

General elections in Guatemala usually follow a predictable pattern of propaganda, violence and despair. This year, three lacklustre centrist candidates – rightwing populist Manuel Baldizón who promises to reintroduce the death penalty, former first lady Sandra Torres and comedian Jimmy Morales – are vying for the presidency. But the build up to September’s vote has been anything but routine.

Guatemala is facing a political crisis that has seen tens of thousands march against repeated corruption scandals. The movement has toppled a plethora of high-ranking government officials.

“The youth are not willing to tolerate the corruption that earlier generations have grown accustomed to,” says Mario Polanco, a Guatemalan human rights activist.

The exposure – by a UN-backed anti-impunity commission – of a multi-million-dollar customs fraud scheme has led to the arrest of 20 state officials and the resignation of the vice-president and six ministers. But that was only the beginning.

Subsequent investigations prompted the jailing of the heads of the central bank and social security institute, cast doubts over individuals within the main opposition party and concluded that the country’s elections are flush with illegal money.  

Guatemala is no stranger to a protest; but in a deeply divided country, with a history of conflict between the rural and urban population, corruption fatigue has prompted an unprecedented display of unity.

“People who had never protested before came out onto the streets. People aged 50 or older protested against these abuses for the first time. Crucially, they protested alongside students from all kinds of universities, people of diverse economic and cultural backgrounds and gay people. Even in a country as machista as Guatemala, everyone was welcome,” said Polanco.

Emboldened by the imprisonment of dozens of suspects and the resignation of others, many protesters are calling for the elections to be postponed until Congress approves a series of electoral reforms.

Guatemala has struggled with high-level corruption for years, and few believe that swapping the current president for another will make a difference; what the country needs is a new constitution that mandates electoral reform, to bring in changes such as tighter rules about party financing.

But until that happens, one thing has changed, says Polanco. “The people won’t put up with these abuses any longer. They’ve become empowered and I’m sure they will continue protesting, even against corruption in the next government.”

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