Columnas / Corruption

From Fear to Outrage in Guatemala

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Elsa Coronado

In Guatemala, fear of the virus was overshadowed by outrage in the face of corruption and abuse of power.

In late November and early December, public plazas came to life and the powerful trembled. A citizen-awakening unlike anything the country had seen since 2015, when a nonviolent revolution forced the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti and then of President Pérez Molina. Though the events of 2020 did not have the same intensity as five years ago, due to the overtones of violence and the aggressive police response, the root cause remained the same: a population fed up with a political system that serves the few and leaves everyone else vulnerable. 

As the year ends, the street protests have subsided, but the fire of accumulated outrage has yet to be extinguished. The new government, which assumed office on January 14, overlaps with a perverse alliance in Congress that has abused its power and attempted to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

With a representative from the official party serving as its president, the political steamroller delayed the election of judges to the courts of justice for seven months, and obtained the endorsement of certain other judges to submit four members of the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body in the country, to political trial. Though the attack never materialized, its intended targets were those who had called for the election of honest judges. 

As if that were not enough, representatives of the congressional alliance then fast-tracked approval for a 2021 budget that allotted more funding to superfluous and corruption-susceptible expenses than to fighting the country’s epidemic of malnutrition. This, in a country with 52 precent of its roughly 17 million inhabitants living in conditions of poverty, with 26,420 cases of acute malnutrition in children under the age of five, and with 61.6 percent of the citizenry surviving with access to only half of necessary services.

2020 has been a year of disappointments. The new government was unable to distribute the $11 billion Quetzals (roughly US$1.4 billion) of aid approved by Congress to provide relief to small business owners, informal businesses, workers forced into unemployment, and families that were already experiencing shortages and are now living in even more precarious situations, due to restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic.

The result is that for a few, help has arrived drop by drop, while thousands more have yet to receive any assistance. For example, the $2,250 Quetzal (roughly US$288) bonuses intended for 2.6 million people did not prioritize the country’s poorest citizens. Only 39 percent of Guatemalans living without access to electricity were promised the benefit. 

Outrage also grew in response to the government’s inability to pay the salaries of medical doctors. It was common to see health workers, on break from a hectic day on the job, demonstrating in front of the gates of the Parque de la Industria temporary hospital, telling journalists that they had gone without pay for four months in a row, even though the funds to pay them were available. 

If there’s no help, then where did all the money go? This was the question that spread across social media and brought hundreds out into the streets. First in the urban centers, then joined by the ancestral territorial authority known as the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, an institution that in addition to organizing road blockades, promoted a historic day of work stoppage in the heart of the country’s rural areas.

Outrage has grown toward a crescendo. The government has kept health officials who failed to manage the crisis in key positions of power. Patients have had to pay for their own medicine and even oxygen to stay alive.

The national hospital system collapsed despite the existence of other facilities designated to care for people with positive diagnoses, leaving the country with no way to conduct mass testing. Then, when nothing could get any worse, tropical storms Eta and Iota made landfall, and the crisis worsened. More than 2.5 million people impacted, whole towns flooded, thousands left homeless. 

President Alejandro Giammattei, who was so proud of his own handling of the health crisis, could not fathom that anyone would call for him to leave office. Yet even his own vice president called for him to step down, offering to resign with him.

In an attempt to dissuade his opponents, the president addressed the nation, ending his official state broadcast with a bang: “I only ask you not to forget that Covid is still among us, and my only concern is to safeguard the lives of all Guatemalans.” It didn’t work. 

Families and individuals, young and old, filled the plaza to demand the president’s resignation. The peaceful rallying cry of an enraged citizenry, unwilling to let four years of government mismanagement pass by without confronting the abuses, inefficiency, and waste, once again filled the nation’s streets.

Giammettei fueled this rage. He failed to follow through on promises to disband his personal security force, which represents an annual cost of $162 million Quetzals (about US$22 million), and has spent thousands of dollars on personal purchases of upscale food items like salmon and carpaccio, at prices far beyond the means of most Guatemalans. Instead of reforming or shutting down the Central American Parliament, as he had suggested, Giammettei didn’t bat an eye when Congress allocated more funds to the institution’s 2021 budget.

Bottled up anger and shattered hopes combined to bring clamor into the streets. Instead of bending to the popular will, the government claimed that the protests represented an attempt at a coup, with some members of Congress branding all protestors as terrorists. The excuse came when a small group of protestors set fire to part of the congressional building, unimpeded by the police—the same police who would later receive instructions to use tear gas and violence to disperse everyone who had attended the peaceful protest and make arrests.

In the end, only hours after these acts of political violence, Congress reluctantly backed down and invalidated the previously approved budget. Giammattei had no choice but to acquiesce. 

He made peace with his vice president, offering him continued participation in the government, and announced that he would open a national dialogue to discuss the budget. Giammettei also said that by the end of the year he would dissolve the Centro de Gobierno, an institution that cost the country 2.5 million Quetzales in eight months and has taken authority and responsibilities away from the vice president. 

This was put on hold, however, when Giammettei resolved to wait for the outcome of an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office before deciding whether to dismiss  Minister of the Interior Gendri Reyes, the official responsible for the violence against the November protesters.

A task assigned to another institution suffering through its darkest hour. Not only because the Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, sympathizes with the interests of the government and the legislative alliance, but also because the office continues to pursue spurious accusations against the head of the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI, by its Spanish acronym), which was left to take on cases of corruption after the dismantling of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The latest action by Porras, and one which has kept the fire of popular outrage alive, is her recent appointment of Karin Orellana as special investigator in the cases against the head of the FECI. Orellana is a lawyer married to a man accused of drug trafficking and wanted for extradition by the United States.

Reasons enough for the outrage to show no sign of subsiding.

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Elsa Coronado is a Guatemalan journalist who writes for Plaza Pública.

*Translated by Max Granger

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