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What’s Worse than Corrupt Elections in Guatemala?

By: Steve Hecht and David Landau - Sep 2, 2015, 9:19 am

EspañolGuatemala’s congress last night voted to strip President Otto Pérez Molina of his official immunity from charges of involvement in a bribery ring. His former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, is already in prison, where she is awaiting trial on similar charges.

As matters now stand, President Pérez will be subject to the judicial processes that any ordinary citizen would face. At such time as he is placed under arrest, he will be suspended from his office, though not removed from it.

If you’ve been following the crisis — which is easy enough, as the international press has been full of it — you’re likely to have had the thought: oh, great, one more corruption scandal in Latin America.

But don’t count on your media to share a vital perspective with you — namely, that this episode has become the newest chapter in a melodrama called, Co-Opting Popular Sentiment. The theme of the drama is: you can scale the heights in Guatemala, even if no one really likes you, as long as you have the United States, the United Nations, and the European Parliament at your back.

For a year or more, radical groups in Guatemala have been trying to seize on official corruption as a pretext for substituting a much larger corruption of their own: the destruction of Guatemala’s fragile constitutional framework. And they have been moving toward that goal with the active complicity of the United States and the United Nations.

In April 2015, the CICIG, which is the UN watchdog in Guatemala, publicly alleged the existence of a fraud in which customs officials were being paid bribes to forgive import charges. In May, Vice President Baldetti resigned her office after her secretary — who became a fugitive — had been accused by the Justice Ministry of running the bribery ring.

This ring has actually been in existence for decades. It functioned, for example, during the Serrano administration (1991-93), when Otto Pérez was the head of military intelligence. The CICIG has been working in Guatemala for eight years, and it is curious that the UN group has waited until this year to raise the issue. That question, however, is not in play, because the rules dictate that the CICIG is the party that asks the questions, not the one that answers them.

The very day Baldetti resigned, the State Department in Washington was ready with a statement — as if someone there had known what was coming. The statement publicly expressed support for President Pérez and called on Guatemala, “a strong partner of the United States and a regional leader,” to continue “to work closely” with the CICIG.

US Ambassador Todd Robinson (left) and Secretary of State Counselor Thomas Shannon flank and give their support to the UN Impunity Commission, the CICIG. (US Embassy Guatemala)
US Ambassador Todd Robinson (left) and US Secretary of State Counselor Thomas Shannon (right) give their support, including with taxpayer dollars, to Commissioner Iván Velásquez (center) of the UN Impunity Commission, the CICIG. (US Embassy Guatemala)

Ten weeks later, on August 21, the CICIG and the Justice Ministry filed criminal charges against the president himself while, the same day, Baldetti was placed under arrest. For now, she is confined in the general prison population until she goes to trial.

Whatever happens to the president, he will be out of office in mid-January because a new president is scheduled to be chosen in an election cycle that begins this Sunday, September 6. Even if he were in better political shape, Pérez could not succeed himself because the constitution does not allow it.

Despite the fact that the charges against the president and vice president have not been proven, it appears that most Guatemalans believe their leaders are guilty. What is more notable, certain political groups have claimed the country is too corrupt for fair elections. Those groups are calling for the postponement of elections and the convening of a constitutional convention to create a new, supposedly better structure.

From the world of activists, Manfredo Marroquín, head of the NGO Acción Ciudadana or Citizen Action, has asserted: “Without major political reform, elections will just be about choosing the next group of thieves.” According to the UK Guardian, “Protesters are now demanding that the vote be called off. ‘Under these conditions, we don’t want elections,’ has become one of the demonstrators’ chants.” 

Its proponents don’t say who will draft the new constitution, when it will be ready, or most importantly who will govern during the interregnum. Presumably the new leaders will come from the ranks of the groups that now insist on overthrowing the constitution.

This kind of proposal plays to a genuine rejection of the system and of corruption. People want electoral reform; but the election season is not the time for it. Election season is for elections; and whatever the problems with elections, it’s not a smart idea to suspend them because, once suspended, they are likely to be gone for a good long time.

The reform opportunists have expressed much of what the public legitimately desires; but many of those “reformers” are trying to mislead the public, and they are at least as corrupt as the leaders they propose to replace. The time and place for changing things is in the next congress. To try moving that process forward, as the self-appointed reformers have done, is only to confuse the issue.

The talk of postponing elections — in other words, canceling them — has actually circulated for a year or more. The bribery charges against the country’s chief executives have given it a more convenient pretext. By the late spring of this year, the threats against elections had acquired enough momentum for the Organization of American States to address it.

In mid-June, a plenary session of the OAS adopted a resolution of “Support for the Electoral Process in Guatemala.” On August 23, two days after Pérez had been indicted and Baldetti arrested, the OAS issued a statement on behalf of its secretary general, Luis Almagro, who expressed “his concern over the recent political developments in Guatemala, including calls from various sectors of society to postpone the elections scheduled for September 6.”

Almagro, the statement said, “stresses that it is essential that the elections be held under the existing constitutional framework.… The Secretary General reiterates the inalienable right of citizens to express their will through the ballot box, thus ensuring the continuity of the democratic process in Guatemala. In addition, he calls on all sectors of society and the authorities in the country to respect the laws and the Constitution.”

In light of that urgent appeal, the US embassy’s comment five days later was plainly vapid.

“The United States government,” it said, “supports the constitutional process for democratic elections in Guatemala, scheduled for September 6, and urges all parties to conduct peaceful campaigns. The United States recognizes the rights of all Guatemalans to assemble peacefully, to freely express their views and opinions, and to conduct free, fair, and transparent elections. We encourage Guatemalans to responsibly exercise their democratic right to vote.”

Nowhere, in those well-chosen words, could the sentiment of freedom be heard to ring.

The United States, rather than following the example of the OAS, was getting in step with the CICIG — which, for its part, could afford to be outspoken against elections whereas the United States could not. On July 16, the CICIG published an investigative report called “The Financing of Politics.” According to a friendly summary:

“A new report details the sweeping extent to which organized crime and interest groups have infiltrated Guatemalan politics.… Guatemala’s political parties derived around half of their financing through corruption, including 25 percent from wealthy elites and businesses and 25 percent from criminal organizations.… The situation is fostered by Guatemala’s costly election campaigns, weak campaign-finance regulation, lack of independent media, and nearly complete impunity regarding political corruption.”

In presenting the report, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez Gómez gave a compelling summary for its argument against elections. Guatemala, he said, “is the perfect country to commit electoral crimes without consequences.”

CICIG’s report on money in politics is actually a potent document. The trouble is, it’s a guided missile going in the wrong direction. The CICIG analysts are mostly correct in identifying the ills of society; it’s their proposed solution that harms. They have told the truth, but in furtherance of a destructive agenda.

In the field of actions without consequences, the CICIG can speak with a high authority. It is a powerful body that deals out criticism while being exempt from it. The CICIG wields the power of the state in Guatemala, without being responsible to the citizens of that country or of any other. To invoke that loaded word, the CICIG operates with a near-perfect degree of impunity.

Its actions, furthermore, are hardly free of partisanship. Five years ago, the CICIG used its political weight to eject from office an attorney general whose reputation the UN agency had besmirched with mere implications. The CICIG then installed an attorney general who established a regime based on inflated statistics — a judicial regime in which the act of prosecution was its own justification. Until the charges against Pérez and Baldetti are proven, it may be remembered that their accusers, the CICIG, are believers in prosecution for its own sake.

While the CICIG exercises itself over the financial corruption of the electoral process, it has left uninvestigated, and unnoticed, many millions of dollars that have flooded into Guatemala from abroad to support the activities of radicals and guerrilla-style militias — parties which are now trying to win by manipulation what they could not win in four decades of insurrection, or in the two decades of relatively peaceful political competition that have followed.

In 2012, Professor Miguel Castillo prepared a report for presentation to the president about security, justice, and energy development. The report contains a diagram showing the extensive networks of organizations that promote conflict and deny the validity of the Guatemalan state. The network includes entities of primary financing (blue), of intermediaries (dark blue) and of action groups (green, red and brown). Several of these groups, including the violent CUC and others that stem from the armed conflict, have recently been active in calling for no elections.

Guatemala conflict: the network of violent and rogue organizations includes entities of primary financing (blue), of intermediaries (dark blue) and of action groups (green, red, and brown: environmentalists, farmers, and indigenous). (Miguel Castillo)
The network of violent and rogue organizations includes entities of primary financing (blue), of intermediaries (dark blue) and of action groups (green, red, and brown: environmentalists, farmers, and indigenous). (Miguel Castillo)

If you pierce the veil of the CICIG’s impunity, you are likely to find that the UN agency is in firm sympathy with groups in this diagram, and with others who want to postpone elections.

And so, despite her assertions to the contrary, is the United States. The very day that the CICIG issued its report on the financing of political parties, the US embassy greeted it with a howl of joy:

“The report makes it clear that the political classes have been mocking the Guatemalan people. Guatemalans deserve better. They have suffered under these conditions for too long. As the Commissioner notes in his conclusions and recommendations, Guatemalans must decide what to do about this: continue as they have until now or change the dynamic.… No one said that change would be easy, or that it would happen overnight. The interests that created this corrupt system will work hard to defend it. But that will not overcome the determination of the Guatemalans who have filled the Plaza de la Constitución week after week. The Government of the United States supports their call for reform and change.”

Too bad the State Department couldn’t work itself into that kind of passion for the Green revolutionaries in Iran, whose movement went into oblivion with hardly a kind word from the United States. This message to Guatemala’s protesters, on the other hand, is a call for insurrection — and how much more deeply felt it is than the embassy’s call for orderly elections.

Indeed, the embassy’s message occasioned by the CICIG’s report is precisely the kind of encouragement that the Obama administration addressed to the street rebels in Ferguson — phrased with care, so as not to return to its authors in an unpleasant way, but calculated to sow the seeds of discontent.

Many Guatemalans who have followed these matters are well aware that the United States, at least for the time being, does not have the interests of their society at heart. On the other hand, they suppose that the CICIG, which plausibly claims to be acting against corruption, is a friend of the constitutional order.

Guatemalans are impressed with the CICIG — and with reason, because the CICIG has attacked the evils they hate. But while its analysis is strong, its agendas are misleading. And its very place in Guatemalan society is a classic case of power misused.

It’s time for a closer look at that anointed party — and at assumptions like the one that says, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” A hard lesson of politics is that the enemy of my enemy can also be my enemy. In a case like Guatemala’s flawed electoral system, the devil you know is more tractable than the devil you don’t — because the unknown devil will replace your system of bad choices with a much tougher system that offers no choice at all.

Steve Hecht and David Landau Steve Hecht and David Landau

The authors have worked together in Guatemalan political matters for 20 years. Steve Hecht (pictured), a businessman with two degrees from Columbia University, has lived in Guatemala for more than four decades. David Landau, based in San Francisco, cut his journalistic teeth as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. He is an expert on Cuba and publisher of Pureplay Press. Follow @shecht6.