Central America / Politics
“If the elections are clean, a progressive victory is possible in Guatemala”
Víctor Peña

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José Luis Sanz

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It has become a disturbing custom in Guatemala that a few hours after —and sometimes even before— leaving office, attorneys general, judges, or, in this case, the human rights ombudsman, secretly flee the country. They leave because they are afraid of being arrested under false charges as soon as they lose the immunity that came with their positions. In the past year, those who never enjoyed such protections —mid-level anti-corruption prosecutors, journalists, human rights defenders— have fled the country by the dozens, seeking protection in Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, or even El Salvador.

Jordán Rodas says he’s not in exile. But he left Guatemala the day before the end of his term as the human rights ombudsman, passing quietly through Mexico and then into the U.S. by land on August 19. El Faro interviewed him in Washington, D.C., where he spent two weeks on a stopover before continuing to the European city where he plans to stay for now (he asked that the exact location not be disclosed). In other words: a lot of precautions for someone who says he’s not in exile.

Rodas claims, as have others before him, that he will soon return to Guatemala. In recent weeks, opposition parties have announced their first local alliances ahead of the June 2023 elections, and Rodas says that if a coalition of the Left and anti-corruption movements consolidates, he wants to run for congress, or maybe even president. If the voting is clean, he says, it will be possible to dislodge corrupt elites from power in Guatemala. Given that his candidacy for rector of San Carlos University, Guatemala’s politically influential public university, was thwarted in June with reports of fraud, his first challenge may be securing permission from election authorities to even register as a candidate.

You’re not ombudsman anymore. And you never became rector of San Carlos University…

I might still be able to become rector. But it would be really difficult, almost impossible. The “Pacto de Corruptos” [the common refrain, “pact of the corrupt”] imposed my opponent, Walter Mazariegos, through a crude and fraudulent process, and in spite of the resistance of the Sancarlistas.

Do you really think it’s still possible to become rector? It seems like it would be hard for you to even return to Guatemala anytime soon.

I’ll return. When I return will depend on how democracy evolves in the country, on the security situation, on freedom of expression… But I’m not losing hope. I see my departure as temporary. There is a lot to do in Guatemala, and I think I can be of some use.

Are you talking about returning before or after the 2023 elections? Or specifically for the elections?

I’m hoping to come back before. Despite these dark times we’re in, I think I can help build new electoral alternatives for the population.

Are you saying you want to run as a candidate?

I’m considering proposals for different positions. I’m deciding whether to participate and, if so, in what way. It’s been suggested that I seek a position in congress, or run for president or vice president. But I’d accept any candidacy that would allow me to support progressive forces having a real say in the decision-making process.

In the early morning hours of July 24, 2021, Jordán Rodas (wearing a blue vest) accompanied former prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval to the Salvadoran border on the same day Sandoval was dismissed from the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI). A year later, facing government harassment, Rodas would also leave the country via El Salvador, traveling to Washington, D.C., en route to Europe. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
 
In the early morning hours of July 24, 2021, Jordán Rodas (wearing a blue vest) accompanied former prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval to the Salvadoran border on the same day Sandoval was dismissed from the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI). A year later, facing government harassment, Rodas would also leave the country via El Salvador, traveling to Washington, D.C., en route to Europe. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

Do you think you have a chance of winning an election?

The circumstances are hard. It would take a lot of political maturity; egos would have to be set aside, forces would have to join to present an alternative that represents something genuinely different. The population is fed up with corruption, something my candidacy for rector of San Carlos made clear. With a message as simple as “mafias out of USAC” I managed to reach the hearts and minds of the Sancarlistas, who represent a microcosm, I think, of what happens at the national level. If the people don’t go out in the streets to protest, that’s another issue, but the electoral system, as it stands, has been exhausted.

Are you confident the opposition can unite behind a single presidential candidate?

That would be the sensible thing to do, if we don’t want to continue being ruled by more of the same.

Who should be part of this coalition? And who has already reached out to you?

Different democratic forces have approached me, but I don’t see it as a personal issue. There’s a wide range of progressive parties and movements, and they have to be realistic; they have to recognize that they failed before because they were divided, and now they need to join forces. Today they have their small allowance of power — the six or seven seats in congress that allow them to survive politically. But repeating the same strategy would be selfish, really short-sighted, and would harm Guatemalan society. We need to unite progressive forces and formulate an alternative, so that hope can be born.

You say a “wide range” of progressive forces, but it doesn’t seem like the left is very strong or popular in Guatemala at the moment. In congress, critical voices represent a very small bloc.

Yes, but in the last general elections, if you add up the results, you’ll see that progressive forces won 20% of the vote, enough for a person to make it to the second round.

It sounds like you want to be the next Thelma Cabrera in the upcoming elections, or join her on a ticket.

I won’t rule anything out. All my respect and admiration to Thelma Cabrera, who took fourth place in 2019 and is an Indigenous woman who has achieved an important position of leadership in a macho and racist society. She represents a sector of society that has been excluded from decision-making, and to ignore her is to ignore the reality of the country. But it’s not enough. We need to make a stop on our way, and pick up more leaders. There’s still time.

Former candidate for the People
 
Former candidate for the People's Liberation Movement (MLP), Thelma Cabrera, greets supporters during a campaign rally at the Plaza de la Constitución in Guatemala City on June 8, 2019. Photo: Johan Ordóñez/AFP

What you’re saying is that a political alternative is meaningless if it doesn’t include the MLP [People's Liberation Movement] and CODECA [Campesino Development Committee]?

It would make more sense with them, with the MLP and WINAQ, with Semilla and the URNG, and with people from the faction of UNE who know that they need to keep their distance from the current government.

Do you imagine former first lady and UNE presidential candidate Sandra Torres being part of that alliance?

It’s hard to imagine, but not impossible. She is a woman with a lot of conviction and determination to be a candidate, who has had an important political career. This is why I’m calling for a process of collective discussion. But with her or without her, we need to create an alternative. And with or without Jordán Rodas, because I’m not obsessed with being a candidate either.

These days, I’ve been rethinking things. I’ve been the director of a chess league, the director of a lawyers’ guild, I had the opportunity to serve the country as human rights ombudsman, I was a municipal legal representative, I was on the city council in Xela, my native city, and I was a mayoral candidate… I’m not ashamed to be a politician. But politics is a long game. It’s not a 100 meter dash, it’s a marathon. Chess players understand that you don’t win in just four or five moves, and you don’t only have to think about what your next moves are; you have to think about your opponent’s, too.

Of all the possible candidacies in the works for 2023, which do you think is the most dangerous for the country?

We run the risk that we change the face or gender of the president, but fall another floor underground into the basement that Guatemala has already become. After Jimmy Morales, we thought that was the worst it could get, but then came Giammattei. And if Manuel Conde were to win, that would be even worse. Conde would be even more authoritarian than Giammattei. It would be a death sentence for our democracy.

Logically, the government is trying to get all the country’s mayors in line, through infrastructure investment projects, and that’s why we see Conde at the president’s side. It’s an attempt to build up his image, but it’s a contradictory one considering that Giammattei is the least popular president in the Americas, behind Pedro Castillo in Peru.

And then there’s Zury’s candidacy...

What would a potential Zury Ríos victory in 2023 mean?

First, we cannot ignore the resolution by the Inter-American Court [of Human Rights] that gives her permission to run, whether we like it or not. It will be the people who will get to decide, at the ballot box, whether they agree with her being president despite the fact that her father has been accused of genocide. She’s exercising a legitimate right.

On the other hand, she also symbolizes the genocide, to an extent, and her victory would mean that Guatemalan society has not fully acknowledged the full dimensions of what happened, the horrors that were committed during the war. This —without exculpating her for the positions she has taken— is the fault of the state, for not informing and educating its citizens about the horrors of the war. Most of the population is young, and they don’t know what happened during those 36 years of violence. The disappearance of one of my brothers is listed in the Diario Militar case. As a victim and as an informed citizen, I would never vote for her.

Guatemala’s former de facto president (1982-1983) and retired general, José Efraín Rios Montt, speaks with his daughter Zury Rios during a court hearing in Guatemala City on January 23, 2013, when prosecutors requested that Ríos Montt and retired general José Rodríguez be tried for genocide. Photo: Johan Ordónez/AFP
 
Guatemala’s former de facto president (1982-1983) and retired general, José Efraín Rios Montt, speaks with his daughter Zury Rios during a court hearing in Guatemala City on January 23, 2013, when prosecutors requested that Ríos Montt and retired general José Rodríguez be tried for genocide. Photo: Johan Ordónez/AFP

What will decide the outcome of the 2023 election? 

The international community has to be very attentive to ensure that there are fair and free elections, and that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is not manipulated to define who can participate So far, the TSE has been a respected institution, but I hope it doesn’t give into forces that would use it to discriminatorily block or allow certain candidacies to be criminalized.

That already happened in 2019 with Thelma Aldana and Ríos herself.

Now the fears are even more well-founded, because we can see that certain actors are campaigning in advance of the electoral season, and that the TSE and other institutions have not equitably issued reprimands. If the election is manipulated, the international community will hopefully refuse to recognize the results.

What is your opinion on the role of the international community in the current situation in Guatemala?

In recent years, we’ve had governments quite hostile to the international community. The past two administrations made a perverse bet on isolation, with a double-standard on questions of sovereignty in which, on the one hand, we welcomed the donation of vaccines, and on the other, we refused to hear any criticism from the State Department, the Inter-American Commission, or the European Parliament on issues of human rights and judicial independence. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, is under intimidation by the Guatemalan government because its presence in the country is up for debate every year, and is conditioned on how it acts. Many international officials in Guatemala have simply accepted that they’re virtually invisible.

In the end, it’s up to Guatemalans to defend our democracy. We have the example of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, which recently went so far as to stop Congress from instituting repressive measures intended to prevent citizens from demonstrating.

Cabrera, the 48 Cantons… You give the impression that campesino and Indigenous movements are the major source of legitimacy in the country at the moment. That the most important political forces in Guatemala are outside the capital.

Our hope is in the departments in the interior, in women, in the flame that was lit at San Carlos....  There are people who have already said, “everything has its limit.”

You haven’t said a word about the private sector.

Former commissioner Iván Velásquez, now Colombia's Minister of Defense, said years ago that the most fundamental problem in Guatemala was the financing of political parties and campaigns. This is why I’m in favor of public financing, because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We can’t expect much from a private sector as conservative as ours—from a CACIF [the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations] that is stuck in the stone age and goes so far as to claim that the current U.S. government is “leftist.” Really, they should be the ones most concerned about the deterioration of justice in the country, because they might have economic power right now, but organized crime is working to displace them and take it away.

It’s encouraging, at least, that there are already international sanctions against some businessmen, so that the private sector, which backed Otto Pérez, Jimmy Morales, and now Alejandro Giammattei, sees that there is a cost, that their vision of pulling everything inward toward them, of hoarding power and wealth while the massive gap in inequality destroys the country, does not come without a cost — even though it’s evident that the sanctions haven’t had the desired effect so far. It’s important for the United States to consider whether its policy is the right one, or whether it might need to tighten the screws a little more. In the end, it’s the economic system that sustains our structural problems of inequality, corruption, discrimination against women and racism against Indigenous people. If this is not addressed within Guatemala and with the support of the international community, we’ll continue to count the lost years.

Do you really believe that at this moment, when dissidents are being persecuted and the justice system has been hijacked by forces aligned with the right, that a left victory is possible in Guatemala?

The material conditions are there. The population is becoming more and more fed up. The key is in the hands of four institutions —the TSE, the Comptroller's Office, the Public Ministry, and the Constitutional Court— which should guarantee a transparent process, but might also hinder it. This is why international observation is necessary, and it’s crucial that not only the United States but also the European Union, Canada, and other consolidated democracies guarantee from this moment on that next year’s elections are fair and free. I believe that if the electoral process is clean, a progressive electoral victory is possible in Guatemala.

You say your hope is that Guatemala’s progressive forces will put aside their individual interests, that the private sector will do an about-face and commit to justice, and that the international community will be firmer in its sanctions and guarantee a transparent process. Isn't that asking for a few too many miracles?

Probably, ha, ha.

And the public has yet to support your vision for change.

The pendulum has been stuck on the right for a long time. That’s why it’s so important to work for change, not just by making speeches, but by changing public policies and budgeting priorities, so that the majority of the country benefits. We need to leave our corrupt and authoritarian governments behind, and not just in Guatemala, but across the region. We see it in El Salvador with Bukele, who violates human rights with mass arrests and persecutes the press. It’s a regional evil. Nicaragua set the tone with Ortega, and the rest of the countries followed suit. To continue betting on conservative governments in the region would be to shoot ourselves in the foot, and this goes for the international community and the United States, too.

Maybe hoping for the stars to align is asking too much, but something has to change in Guatemala. We’re sinking deeper into the sewer. When they captured José Rubén Zamora, I knew we were Nicaragua 2.0. Multiple justice workers and journalists have left the country, they’ve raided the offices of elPeriódico.... We could fall into despair and depression, but I think there’s another way out. It’s unlikely we’ll ever be dealt all the cards we need to get us out of the dictatorship, but we need to bet everything we have. The alternative is to give in to conformism, to give it all up for lost. And if we don’t succeed this time, I’ll continue to insist that we try again.

In 2019, Thelma Aldana tried to run for president but ended up in exile. You tried to run for rector at San Carlos but there were allegations of fraud. You have even temporarily left the country. Now that you’re saying what has been rumored for months in Guatemala, that you have political aspirations and would consider running as a candidate, don't you fear reprisals? Will you be surprised if the government suddenly opens a criminal investigation against you?

In Guatemala, being an anti-establishment candidate is always a risk. But that’s not a reason to shun that path. Running for election is a right, and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. The question is whether the conditions will be right in 2023, and whether we can achieve results that will change the course of the country.

What should the timeframe be for such an alliance to materialize?

By the end of the year, at the latest. It’s an effort that deserves to be taken seriously, but also requires urgency.

 

*Translated by Max Granger

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