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Guatemalans Must Pay the Price of Eternal Vigilance to Be Free

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Oct 2, 2015, 4:12 pm
Guatemalans will elect a new leader on October 25, but that alone is not enough to ensure an end to government corruption.
Guatemalans will elect a new leader on October 25, but that alone is not enough to ensure an end to government corruption. (El Heraldo)

EspañolAs Guatemala heads into the presidential election set for October 25, much is being said about the need to elect honorable leaders capable of eliminating the widespread corruption in the country.

While the trial over the massive customs-fraud scandal that put the former president and vice president in jail is now underway, citizens are preparing to choose between Jimmy Morales, a political unknown, and former First Lady Sandra Torres, who carries the burdens of her past.

Torres, the ex-wife of Álvaro Colom (2007-2011), divorced the former president in order to circumvent a Guatemalan law prohibiting the president’s spouse from running for office. She launched her candidacy for the nation’s highest office in the 2011 election, but the courts prevented her from running.

As first lady, Torres helped launch various social-welfare programs, which she is now promising to expand. Her populist leanings, along with her past as a guerrilla member, and the many criminal accusations she has faced in the past, are now reflecting negatively in the polls.

On the other hand, there are lingering questions as to whether her opponent, Jimmy Morales, is the right person for the job. His lack of experience in politics makes it difficult to predict what he would do should he emerge victorious, which seems all the more likely given Torres’s disapproval ratings.

Most Guatemalans yearn for a government that will put an end to the years of corruption and poor administrative management. But, as history shows, it’s not enough to simply choose the right people to rule and pass reasonable, sound legislation.

It’s crucial for the public to remain alert and vigilant to avoid corruption, and to keep the government from violating their rights and liberties.

Since time immemorial, we have debated the qualities and virtues of a ruler and tried to define who “the best” people are to put in power. History, however, has proved two bleak truths:

First, there is no way to have everyone agree on who the “best” is, and no way to guarantee that the people chosen are not just simply the most ambitious and most adept at playing politics.

The second lesson is that even the most righteous man can be corrupted given the right set of circumstances, and especially when in positions of power.

Some two and a half centuries ago, the United States experienced an intellectual revolution that radically changed the approach to this dilemma. The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution believed that, as time went by, people with bad intentions would attempt to obtain power, stay in power, and brazenly use their positions in government to advance their own personal interests. What then should be done?

The answer the came up with, which was unusual for those times, was to design a system in which power is divided into different branches (executive, legislative, and judicial), between federal and local levels of government, and the citizens. Each of these components would retain some capacity to decide on public issues.

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Experience has also shown us that this system, in and of itself, is no guarantee of good government or individual rights. It’s not enough to simply have a constitution to maintain the rule of law and prevent tyrants from rising to power, as we’ve seen in some Latin American countries.

The grassroots movements that emerged in Guatemala over the last few months must remain active and vigilant, if they truly want to change the course of their country. We must always remember that people can change, and laws can always be modified to serve powerful interests.

It cannot be simply about keeping people with questionable pasts from reaching power, or reforming electoral law to benefit a certain group that seeks to exploit the state, control the finances of political parties, and enforce gender and ethnic quotas that only further racism and cronyism.

No matter who is in power, it is paramount for citizens to be ready to check the power of their government, pay close attention to how their tax money is being spent, and prevent any sort of abuse. Otherwise, even the “best” government can revert to the same corruption that has so badly damaged this country in the past.

Translated by Adam Dubove and Guillermo Jimenez.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324