Presidential Comedian Plunges Guatemala into Another Corruption Scandal



by Adriana Guzmán
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Guatemala is finding itself experiencing déjà vu exactly two years after the former president and vice president were forced to resign due to a massive corruption scandal.

The country faces another scandal with their newest president, former comedian and political newcomer Jimmy Morales, at the center. The situation has heightened after Morales threatened to expel the director of the International Commission against Immunity in Guatemala (CICIG) from the country.

In 2015, Guatemala was in the midst of a particularly complex corruption scandal involving the then President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. The country united in protesting its leaders in a peaceful and progressive way, resulting in the resignation and indictment of both Perez Molina and Baldetti, showing that unity against corruption can be successful. This first step filled Guatemalans with hope and optimism in the fight against corruption, with support for CICIG being at an all-time high. How is it possible then, that Guatemala is finding itself in the same position two years later?

In the aftermath of the 2015 corruption scandal, it seemed the country was on the same page, following the guidance of Attorney General Thelma Aldana, supporting CICIG, and pushing back against traditional political norms by electing Jimmy Morales, a television comedian, over Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of former President Álvaro Colom and longtime political bigshot, in a landslide victory for the presidential seat. A deeper evaluation of the new presidential candidate reveals some concerns about his allegiance to the mission of fighting against corruption and for the people.

At the time, candidate Morales preached a fresh start, a commitment to fighting corruption, low taxes, limited government, and a promise to look out for the interest of the “common man” with the basis that he himself was a “common man.” Morales based his campaign on the concept of providing a fresh start for the country, emphasizing that his lack of political experience was an asset in a country long ruled by traditionally corrupt politicians.

The party Morales aligned himself with, the National Convergence Front (FCN), introduced some doubt in his anti-corruption promise as the FCN was founded by former military officials involved in human rights violations during Guatemala’s lengthy civil war.

The FCN has consistently opposed the CICIG, claiming it to be a threat to Guatemala’s sovereignty. The party also holds strong beliefs against abortion, same-sex marriage, and legalizing drugs. Morales’s campaign was centered on being different from Perez Molina, which was emphasized in his campaign slogan, “ni ladrón, ni corrupto (neither a thief nor corrupt), which can be further interpreted as “Morales capitalized on the corruption crisis to propel his candidacy.”

A year later, the anniversary of Morales’s inauguration marked a year of inefficiency for the Guatemalan government, according to many of the country’s social, indigenous, and political groups. The Indigenous Observatory stated that Morales is “incapable of governing due to his lack of vision to boost the country’s development.”

Despite the critique, Morales did accomplish some significant moves in his first year in office. The percentage of Guatemalans with access to free medications increased to 84 percent, and the homicide rate is down 5 percent. However, the small Central American country is still ranked in the top 25 most dangerous places to live in the world, and has one of the highest violent crime rates in Central America as of January 2017. Although improvements in access to medication seem promising, it is still estimated that basic health and nutrition services in Guatemala only meet 54 percent of the needs of the rural population.

On the anticorruption front, Attorney General Thelma Aldana and CICIG director Ivan Velasquez continued to pursue corruption leads against the Guatemalan elite, seeking to investigate political and business elites, including the beloved former president and current mayor of Guatemala City Álvaro Arzú. Through continued investigations, accusations of corruption eventually reached the Morales family. Both the president’s brother and son are waiting to go to trial for fraud and embezzlement.

Anticorruption investigators knocked on President Morales’s door with the CICIG’s petition to remove his presidential immunity from prosecution in order for an investigation to be opened with regard to illegal campaign financing during his 2015 presidential campaign. The investigation announcement sparked protests throughout the country in August, with citizens pushing for Morales’s resignation.

Days later, in the early hours of August 27, Morales released a statement ordering the immediate expulsion of CICIG director Velasquez, causing immediate backlash from other government officials, civilians, international communities, and the UN. The move was ultimately truncated by the Constitutional Court on the basis that Morales does not have the authority to expel Velasquez, though this does not remove the stain from Morales’s legacy. Three of the members of his cabinet resigned upon the presidential announcement, and the U.S. Government as well as the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guerras condemned the action. To say that Morales’s hasty decision was reckless is an understatement, as it may lead to decreased U.S. aid coming into Guatemala and the Northern Triangle as a whole.

A month after the initial crisis, Aldana is requesting for a second time that Morales’s immunity be revoked in order for a different investigation to ensue, this time relating to money that the president received from the Guatemalan army. The path towards a non-corrupt Guatemala seems never ending, particularly with the most recent string of presidents, but there is hope in the strength of the anticorruption team in Guatemala and the overwhelming international support that has been pouring in, including support from the United States and the UN.

Although U.S. support comes on a positive note in this instance, it is important to consider historical interactions that cemented Guatemala’s position as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. During the Cold War, the U.S. State Department and CIA orchestrated a coup d’état in Guatemala to oust the second democratically elected president in Guatemala’s history, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, on the basis of the interests of the U.S.-based United Fruit Company and a fear of the president’s communist support. The change of power led the country into an era of repression, a string of military dictators, and down a path towards a brutal civil war that lasted three decades, and whose effects still linger today.

Adriana Guzmán is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Biological Engineering and minoring in Global Health and International Development.


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