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Guatemala: Democracy in Crisis

This past June, over the course of a week and a half, I would travel through much of Guatemala, exploring a nation that, despite making great strides towards democracy in recent decades, now finds itself on the cusp of a major political upheaval that threatens it. My first glimpse into this crisis, however, would come at the most seemingly unlikely of times—breakfast. On my first day in the country, I went on a half-day tour to the Mayan archaeological site of Mixco Viejo, an hour’s drive north of the city. It was after we passed vibrant open air markets, colorful colonial architecture, and murals and monuments honoring Guatemala’s Mayan heritage that I would finally get to taste Guatemala’s political crisis—alongside an order of fried chicken and plantains. At a Pollo Campero, the Guatemalan equivalent to KFC, I found that, much to my surprise, anarchists had carved their logo into many of the tables, and “Down with the Government” had been written in red Sharpie across the bathroom mirror.

As we drove further into rural Guatemala, big signs could be seen on street-side billboards, the logos of Guatemala’s major political parties—LIDER, UNE, Partido Patriota, and FCN—were painted onto the sides of hills and cliffs, and an endless sea of banners lined the streets of the many towns we passed by. The more I became aware of the Guatemala’s upcoming elections, the more I found Guatemalans wanting to share their thoughts on it. On the whole, I found that Guatemalans had already chosen who they were voting for, with complete towns choosing their allegiances early on. In many cases, Guatemalans had decided void their own votes, a sign of anger and frustration at the federal government. There was a consensus that the Guatemalan government was corrupt and unaccountable, and most felt that democracy had failed them. In one extreme instance, an indigenous Mayan woman at the Chichicastenango market preferred the days of the Civil War—when the government was weak and guerillas ruled the countryside—because “at least then the local guerillas were directly accountable.” I had accidentally stepped into one of the most complicated political crises Guatemala had ever faced, and all during election season, no less.

The June Protests

The Guatemalan elections scheduled for September 6 were quickly proving to be some of Guatemala’s most competitive and contentious. Candidates were spread thin across the country, rallying the people in hopes of achieving the 50% necessary to win the candidacy. With polls showing three to four way ties across the board, it was clear this election cycle would drag on. Under normal circumstances, dragged out elections do not disrupt the federal government. When combined with the collapsing of the federal government and its executive branch, however, the result is absolute chaos. In the lead-up to Guatemala’s largest protests, the executive branch found itself embroiled in a scandal of monumental proportions. After early probes into federal activities discovered traces of bribery, wiretapping of presidential telephones revealed that Roxana Baldetti, the then-Vice President of Guatemala, was receiving a 50% cut of illegal payments channeled by businesses to government officials in exchange for reduced customs duties. As the preliminary reports began to be published, public opinion turned, and Baldetti and eight other cabinet members resigned in May. Almost immediately after the incident, attention shifted to President Otto Perez Molina, who declared himself innocent and refused to resign over the scandal. As prosecutors struggled to incriminate Molina, protests began to increase in frequency and size, crippling services through strikes, street barricades, and other activities.

By June, Guatemala was well on its way to rejecting the radical right that had come to dominate its politics. As a result of the scandal, the Partido Patriota saw opinion turn quickly against it, while the right-wing populist candidate for LIDER, Manuel Baldizon, saw his numbers collapse as the scandal intensified. Guatemalans were now faced with choosing between left-wing populist Sandra Torres—the ex-first lady who divorced her husband (former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom) to become eligible to run for the presidency—and centrist Jimmy Morales, a famous Guatemalan comedian that took over the FCN after the party’s dismal performance in 2011. The intensity of the election cycle and the scandal had Guatemalans on edge, and protests in early June brought the nation to a screeching halt.

It was around noon on June 12 that I realized the power of these protests. I had recently crossed back into Guatemala from Honduras when my tour guide and I were stuck in an unbelievably large traffic jam. After walking for 20 minutes to investigate, we ultimately found the source of the issue. Local villagers, frustrated with the government and the scandal, had used trees, branches, and slabs of concrete to barricade the Jupilingo Bridge, which connects the road from Guatemala City to the Honduran border. With hundreds of tractor trailers backed up for miles in both directions, the economic loss to both countries would become significant over the course of the next few days. Effectively shutting down the Guatemala-Honduras border crossing, the protests forced many people, including myself, to use the winding dirt roads to get around the roadblock. After setting our schedule back for many hours, we arrived in Guatemala City on the eve of a second protest. At this next protest, over 250,000 people crowded the central streets of the city, chanting “Down with the Government!”, “Molina Needs to Resign,” and “End Corruption Now.” The protests themselves proved effective, adding the pressure necessary to have Congress revoke the President’s judicial immunity, deny the President leave from the country, and, on the late August eve of elections, result in Molina’s arrest and subsequent resignation.

The State of the State

With Guatemala’s executive branch losing most of its operational ability, Vice President Alejandro Maldonado became interim leader as the country awaits January 2016, the month when election results will be released. As a result of the scandal and the resignations, the country is currently caught in a dangerous power vacuum. Guatemala’s Congress and the Supreme Court are in full control of the nation, and few checks and balances exist between the two. The scandal, which overwhelmed the judicial system, gave Congress the flexibility to pass legislation mostly unopposed. All of this in turn has undermined the popularity of democracy in Guatemala and made Guatemalans more divided in their support of candidates. These divisions have led to the dragging out of the election cycle, which has been in constant operation for over a month and a half and has an unclear conclusion. A primary fear among Guatemalans at the time of my visit was that the military, currently barred from voting in elections in order to limit their influence, may decide to intervene, given that it remains weaker than it was in the late 20th century but strong enough to orchestrate a coup.

At the time of this writing, Baldizon has dropped out of the election after losing a tight runoff against Torres. Polls suggest that Morales will get most of Baldizon’s votes, eventually defeating Torres to secure the presidency. The Congressional results, on the other hand, reflect a crisis for the presidency, in which a Morales victory will leave him with a Congress made up by the two rival parties that opposed his victory. A victory by Torres, on the other hand, would likely result in a leftist swing, given that Baldizon’s right-wing LIDER party holds 44 seats and the Torres’s left-wing UNE party holds 36 (80 seats are needed to secure control of Congress). Such uncertainty adds significant pressure to a fragile Latin American democracy that had been taking bold steps towards reform and recovery and that is now teetering on the edge of disaster. Ultimately, it will take a genuine commitment by the Guatemalan people towards their state to ensure that the new government is accountable to them.

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