Are We Witnessing a Central American Spring?

Are We Witnessing a Central American Spring?

GUATEMALA CITY — On June 20, some 500 people gathered in Guatemala City’s main square, blowing whistles, blaring on vuvuzelas, singing the national anthem, and chanting, “Con los chapines no se juega!” — “Don’t mess with Guatemalans!” Just two days before, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court had blocked an effort to impeach President Otto Pérez Molina and strip him of his prosecutorial immunity, a move that would have paved the way for him to face trial for corruption. The trial would have been unprecedented in Guatemala’s modern history; no president has been impeached since the mid-19th century. And protesters, who’d been calling for Pérez Molina’s head, were furious with the court’s verdict. “No to immunity. No one should be granted immunity,” read one homemade placard.

For nine weeks now, Guatemalans have been taking to the streets to demand dramatic change — an unusual sight in Central America, where corruption is the norm. On April 16, authorities arrested more than 20 top government officials, including the director and former director of the internal revenue service for their alleged roles in a massive customs fraud network known as “La Linea” (The Line). Several weeks later, on May 20, authorities arrested another 17 officials, including the head of the social security board and the president of the Guatemalan central bank, in connection with a $14.5 million bribery and influence-peddling scandal. The ongoing investigations, led by a U.N.-supported investigatory body, have also produced incriminating telephone conversations that may implicate Pérez Molina himself and that have already led to the resignation of his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Although the precise role that Pérez Molina and Baldetti might have played in La Linea remains unclear, the recordings suggest that they were at least aware of its existence.

The protests in Guatemala City began as a largely urban, middle-class phenomenon organized on Facebook and Twitter under the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Now) and took the form of massive demonstrations demanding the president’s resignation. But the outrage has since spread throughout Guatemala society, bringing together an unlikely mix of students, religious groups, gay rights organizations, and ordinary citizens who have attended the demonstrations with young children. Local media estimated that as many as 60,000 people joined a demonstration held on May 16.

And now, the protests are spilling across borders. Six weeks after #RenunciaYa began, Honduras’s attorney general revealed that a network led by the former social security board director defrauded the government of some $120 million from 2010 to 2014. (The investigation also alleges that some of the funds found their way into the ruling party’s coffers during the 2013 presidential campaign.) In response to the revelations, San Pedro Sula, Siguatepeque, Choluteca, and other major cities have erupted in calls for President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation. On June 5, as many 20,000 people took to the streets bearing torches and shouting “JOH out, JOH out!” — Juan Orlando Hernández out.

Guatemala and Honduras have long been linked by their corrupt and bloody histories, some of the world’s highest homicide rates, pervasive poverty, gang violence, and organized crime. Years of living under the boot of authoritarian military rule in these countries has also left their middle classes fearful of political activism. That makes the recent images of angry Guatemalans forming a human chain outside Congress and thousands of Hondurans holding candlelit vigils so extraordinary. History, it seems, has bound them once again.

None of this could have happened without the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the U.N.-sponsored body responsible for unraveling La Linea. Created in 2007 in response to intense pressure from Guatemalan civil society, CICIG investigates organized crime and trains local prosecutors. Its impressive track record includes prosecuting drug kingpins and a former police chief accused of running a death squad — and, now, fighting political corruption.

As CICIG found during a 10-month wiretap investigation, La Linea was vast. It started with border agents who received kickbacks from importers in exchange for charging just 40 percent of standard import taxes. It included officials running all the way up the chain, from mid-ranking bureaucrats to the chief and former chief of the internal revenue service to now-former Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary and possibly Baldetti herself, who stepped down on May 8 in response to CICIG’s allegation.

Although Guatemalans are accustomed to a crooked political culture, something about La Linea has struck a nerve. Voted into office on promises to curb soaring crime rates, Pérez Molina has failed to deliver on his No. 1 campaign pledge — to tackle crime — and has presided over a winnowing tax base. In the first quarter of 2015, Guatemala’s internal revenue service reported a $22.8 million shortfall. As a result, three of the country’s major hospitals ground to a halt this year after running out of food and medical supplies. Pérez Molina’s pledge to reduce crime rates rang hollow for many parts of the country when a gasoline shortage prevented police agents from attending emergency calls. Thus, for many Guatemalans, the news that La Linea network was pocketing $260,000 a week while the country’s schools, hospitals, and police stations languished proved to be the last straw.

Now, Guatemalans want to see Pérez Molina face justice. On June 11, the Supreme Court gave the legislature the green light to decide whether he should be stripped of his prosecutorial immunity. But one week later, the Constitutional Court temporarily accepted an appeal from Pérez Molina that halted the impeachment process, leaving his fate in doubt.

Even if Pérez Molina evades punishment, the demonstrators have already scored at least one major victory: forcing Pérez Molina on April 23 to renew CICIG’s mandate, which had been set to expire in September. Now, emboldened protesters in Guatemala are calling for September’s general elections to be postponed until Congress approves a series of reforms, including tighter campaign-finance regulations to prevent candidates from being beholden to powerful interest groups and organized crime, along with anti-nepotism regulations to prevent parties from becoming dynastic fiefdoms and a prohibition on the serial re-election of mayors and legislators. “We don’t want elections under these conditions” has become #RenunciaYa’s rallying cry.

Across the border, a series of infuriating events rallied Hondurans to action. On April 23, the Supreme Court struck down a revered constitutional prohibition barring incumbent presidents from running for a second term, paving the way for President Hernández to remain in power. Then, on May 13, news of the ruling National Party hoovering up public funds broke. That one-two punch, argues Honduran political analyst Juan Ramón Martínez, galvanized Hernández’s opponents into action.

With the election of new Supreme Court magistrates looming, protesters are demanding a more transparent judiciary and a sweeping reform of the criminal justice system that would include tighter regulations on private security firms, purging the police of corrupt officers, prison reform, better training for police officers, and tough sanctions for corrupt judicial officials. Hondurans are also calling on their government to create “CICIH,” its own version of CICIG, and are circulating petitions that will be sent to the United Nations, requesting a similar intervention. The idea was first put forward by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during his most recent trip to Central America, but rejected by Hernández.

Honduran economist Hugo Noé Pino believes images of Guatemala’s anti-corruption marches broadcast on television and circulated on social media inspired Hondurans. “People in Guatemala had taken to the streets for several weeks when the Honduran corruption cases began to make the headlines. Many callers on radio and TV talk shows were saying, ‘Let’s take courage from the Guatemalan example and go out and protest like they have done,’” he says. “Until recently, everyone agreed that Hondurans were very passive. Citizens needed an incentive, and Guatemalans gave them that.”

Pino is convinced that “a Central American spring” is within reach. “The Arab Spring protests stemmed from a need for democratization and political reform, whereas the Guatemalan and Honduran protests started as an anti-corruption movement but have taken on a political dimension,” says Pino. “In both cases, people who feel excluded from the decision-making process are voicing their anger because there’s elections every four years but there’s not a real participative democracy.”

Despite protesters’ ambitions, though, it remains unclear whether these movements can transform their governments and societies. “The protests are a wake-up call to the politicians to come down from their cloud. But the protests, as such, will not change the system unless there are new actors that feel inspired to take part in politics and make those changes happen,” warns Roberto Wagner, an international relations professor at Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquín University.

Agents of change in both countries, however, should brace themselves for a long fight. While President Hernández admits that Honduras’s social security funds helped fund his campaign, he claims his party’s leaders were ignorant of where the money came from. In an interview with CNN on June 17, he was adamant he will not resign.

In Guatemala, Pérez Molina has staying power. A retired general, he was the first military man to rule Guatemala since its restoration to civilian rule in 1986 after a long succession of dictatorships. In a press conference on June 11, he maintained his trademark expressionless gaze and monotone voice as he declared that he would not step down despite the intense pressure he faces from civil society. “I will remain in my position; I was constitutionally appointed and I will face” CICIG’s investigation, he said. Central America’s old order, it seems, will not exit quietly.

Photo credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP