Jimmy Morales Can’t Fix Guatemala
As Guatemala wrestles with the ghosts of its civil war past, its new president may already be a lame duck.
When comedian Jimmy Morales was inaugurated as Guatemala’s new president on Jan. 14, the question on everyone’s mind was whether he could lead the beleaguered country into a more just and democratic era. Morales, 46, had run on the slogan “not corrupt nor a thief,” in the wake of a sprawling corruption scheme that took down sitting president and former military commander Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who are now in jail awaiting trial. Despite a thin offering of policies and few concrete plans, he rode a wave of widespread discontent to carry nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Now, two months into his tenure, his actions have dampened hope that change will come quickly, if at all.
The country that Morales inherited is a troubled one. Two decades after the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which killed over 200,000 people and displaced more than a million, it is still grappling with that legacy. In 1999, the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission found that 93 percent of the deaths were attributable to the U.S.-backed government forces; in four regions, the commission found, state agents committed genocide against indigenous Mayan groups. The perpetrators, however, have rarely been brought to justice. Meanwhile, the deeply entrenched structural conditions that gave rise to that conflict — the enduring vestiges of colonialism, political exclusion, inequality, and poverty — remain largely intact.
The previous government also had a documented history of corruption at its highest levels. In 2015, Guatemala’s then-attorney general and International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG), the U.N. anti-corruption mission, found that officials were demanding kickbacks from importers in exchange for lower taxes. The ensuing protests cut across socioeconomic and political divisions, uniting tens of thousands of Guatemalans who demanded an end to corruption and impunity for crimes committed by the government dating back to the civil war. They later placed their confidence in a political outsider to correct the long-standing problems plaguing the country.
The uprising and its immediate rewards — the disgraced Pérez Molina stepped down on Sept. 3 — generated cautious optimism. But Morales’ ascension might not live up to its billing as a populist victory.
One problem: As a neophyte politician, Morales aligned himself with a party whose connections to the past bode poorly for a new future. That party, the National Convergence Front, was founded in 2004 by former generals with ties to conflict-era human rights violations. Since then the party has aimed to rehabilitate the military’s sullied image in the postwar era and protect former military members from accountability for the egregious abuses perpetrated in the name of counter-insurgency. Morales and Pérez Molina have denied that genocide occurred, a stance that impedes a full reckoning with those crimes.
Before his inauguration, Morales declined to announce his cabinet. He then stocked it with members from former administrations and prominent businessmen who are presumably sympathetic to status quo policies on the economy and impunity. The perils of relying on the old guard became clear just 11 days after Morales took office, when Sherry Lucrecia Ordonez Castro, his minister for communications, infrastructure, and housing, resigned after it was revealed she was delinquent in taxes — an issue Morales claims he was unaware of. Morales has also faced criticism for his failure to use government funding to address medicine shortages in public hospitals and accept expired pharmaceutical donations instead.
Morales’ problem isn’t just one of judgment. It has also become clear he lacks the vision to transform the government. Aside from his anti-corruption platform and pledge to reform education and health care, his six-page campaign platform included very little in the way of a practical agenda or a plan to achieve it.
Since his election, he has not signaled any deviation from the status quo free market economic policies that many Guatemalans believe have exacerbated the country’s pervasive poverty. (He has supported, for instance, the Alliance for Prosperity Plan, which is backed and partly funded by the U.S. government and aimed at stemming the flow of desperate migrants fleeing violence and deprivation.) Morales appears poised, instead, to continue Pérez Molina’s policies of resource extraction and monoculture agriculture, which have engendered resistance from and repression of indigenous and environmental activists. There is little sign that he plans to reverse the collapse of the country’s health and educational systems, or correct the policies that have allowed for pervasive hunger among the country’s poor. Nor has Morales shown a commitment to transitional justice by acknowledging the human rights violations during the country’s civil war, and demanding an end to the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of those crimes.
The labyrinthine prosecution of former dictator Jose Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and war crimes, meanwhile, offers a discouraging portrait of the formidable barriers to justice Guatemala’s institutions must surmount. Ríos Montt was convicted in May 2013 after a trial that served as a testament to the valor of the survivors of his government’s abuses and the human rights advocates who have been fighting on their behalf. Just 10 days later, however, the ruling was reversed after his lawyers, bolstered by the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), and other powerful business groups, exerted significant pressure on the legal system and engaged in a concerted effort to turn public opinion against the prosecution.
That flagrant abuse of the legal process has left future prosecution uncertain. The oft-delayed retrial, scheduled for early January, has been suspended again. Because the proceedings were conducted behind closed doors, the rationale for the ongoing delay remains unclear.
Fortunately, there are countervailing pressures continuing to propel the country forward. In a landmark case, on Feb. 26, Attorney General Thelma Aldana secured convictions for crimes against humanity against former military soldiers Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdez Asij for sexual violence and the domestic and sexual enslavement of 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women from the village of Sepur Zarco about 30 years ago. The case marks the first convictions for sexual slavery in a domestic prosecution. On Jan. 6, just before Morales’ inauguration, Aldana announced charges against 18 former military leaders for massacres and disappearances during the height of the country’s civil war — a breakthrough for justice again facilitated by the persistence of courageous victims and their advocates.
The unprecedented arrest of so many high-ranking military officials on human rights abuses signaled that accountability for past crimes is not beyond Guatemala’s reach. Yet, one of those investigated, Congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle, enjoys immunity from prosecution as a close advisor to Morales. Aldana petitioned to lift immunity, but the Supreme Court rejected the request.
Even a politically experienced and adroit president would be hard-pressed to balance the competing pressures from an assertive and independent prosecutor’s office, the powerful military and business sectors that resists accountability, the omnipresent influence of Washington, and an increasingly insistent population demanding justice and political inclusion. Morales’ lack of political experience has made the task even harder than it otherwise would have been.
Morales hasn’t yet said much about Aldana’s work. But as the nation struggles to embrace an era of waning influence for those accustomed to impunity, merely declining to impede high-profile prosecutions for war crimes won’t be enough. For Guatemala to move forward, Morales will have to help uproot the entrenched military-criminal enterprises (dubbed the “hidden powers”) that still wield outsized influence, and challenge the grip of powerful business groups such as CACIF that vigorously resist a reckoning with the bloody past. He also will have to ferret out corruption at all levels, strengthen weak institutions, and attend to the impoverished and disempowered majority. Judging from his leadership so far, his cheerful campaign slogan aside, it’s hard to be sanguine. But, even if Morales doesn’t have a major role to play in ushering in a brighter future, the newly mobilized civil society that helped bring him to power is sure to continue pushing Guatemala beyond the dark shadow of its past.
Photo Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor