Guatemala’s Legislators Lit the Fire That Burned Down Their House

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Earthquakes, category 5 hurricanes, deadly volcano eruptions and Covid-19: Guatemala has had them all. Yet what has galvanized hemispheric attention most recently is the wholly unnatural disaster of a political establishment gone rogue and fatally estranged from the people it governs.

The epicenter was the national legislature in Guatemala City, which furious crowds vandalized and set ablaze on Nov. 21. The spark was the legislature’s decision to pass President Alejandro Giammattei’s 2021 budget, stuffed with a generous spending increase — generous, that is, for those in positions of power and privilege.

The new spending package, the largest in Guatemala’s history, included a hefty outlay for infrastructure. That wouldn’t have been all bad were the big money not earmarked for some of the darkest patches of the national bureaucracy. Honors to the communications ministry, two of whose former chiefs are awaiting trial for alleged crooked dealings.

By 115 votes to 45, lawmakers also halved the money for the national judiciary in a government elected on an anticorruption banner. They also slashed $1.5 million from a signature nutrition program, notwithstanding the pandemic’s harsh impact on a country that already had the world’s sixth worst rate of malnutrition. Heaping insult upon injury, a right-wing legislator called poor Guatemalans “bean eaters”; meanwhile, the budget served up a $65,000 yearly meal allowance per legislator.

What were they thinking? In a hasty post-midnight session, unencumbered by debate, the congress steamrollered into law a budget that managed to displease the Catholic hierarchy, universities, fiscal watchdogs, farmers and exporters. In response, thousands poured into the public squares and streets, leading to the congress’s torching. Its head promptly rescinded the budget as the government called for social roundtables to overhaul the package. An emergency peace mission by the Organization of American states arrived in Guatemala on Nov. 27.

Guatemala has seen this before. Huge demonstrations in 2015 forced President Otto Perez Molina and his gravy train to resign on charges of bribery. That revolt’s momentum helped to elect comedian-turned-politician Jimmy Morales on a clean government ticket. He completed his term, but left office with corruption investigators on the First Family’s heel and new waves of protestors in the street. Cue Giammattei, another soi-disant corruption buster, who began his term amid renewed hopes for an ethical revival in January and vows to fight organized crime with “sufficient testosterone.” Eleven months on, he, too, is against a wall.

The serial upheavals trace back to the late 2000s, when Central America’s richest country pioneered a bold experiment in anti-graft crackdowns through a model investigative panel staffed with imported legal eagles. CICIG – shorthand for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – became Central America’s acronym of the 2010s, assisting beleaguered public prosecutors to bring cases to the corner offices of Guatemala City and beyond.

The balance sheet: “CICIG investigations led to 1,540 indictments in 120 cases involving over 70 illicit networks,” American University researchers Charles Call and Jeffrey Hallock wrote in a study on Guatemala earlier this year.

The independent investigators, led by Colombian jurist Ivan Velasquez, became emblems of the new regional sensibility in favor of radical transparency and the rule of law, inspiring similar initiatives in Honduras and El Salvador.

Still, Guatemala’s influence brokers are practiced in the art of finessing legal emergencies, often with a varnish of civic rectitude. Morales survived his term by closing ranks with other endangered lawmakers, maneuvering to outflank and shut down the aggressive anticorruption office he’d once heralded. By becoming the first head of state to follow Donald Trump in moving his country’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, Morales insulated himself from any U.S. blowback for expelling CICIG.

If Guatemala launched Central America’s prosecutorial counteroffensive against dirty politics, it runs the risk of being remembered as a cautionary tale about the limits of reform in entitled societies run by captured institutions.

Happily, as the convulsion in Guatemala suggests, that may not be the whole story. Although CICIG and its spinoffs haven’t stopped the rot at the top, their digging has tapped civic frustration and resentment that has deepened as it spreads. Guatemala ranked 148 on Transparency International’s 180-nation corruption perception index. No wonder two of three Guatemalans distrust the government. The budget revolt reached 10 Guatemalan provinces (departamentos), where inconformity flared into fury. “More battlesome, with a Jacobin feel, at once unruly and consistent, the people took on the government and the political system,” wrote Alvaro Montenegro, a journalist and political activist who helped launch the national campaign for Giammattei to resign.

The beleaguered Guatemalan leader, belatedly, is trying to hang on through appeasement and civic dialogue, and he may stave off his removal. “The pandemic has put social tensions and conflicts on hold throughout the region for most of this year,” said Giancarlo Morelli, a Central America expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit. But as Morelli notes, “the root causes are still there and are likely to return even stronger.”

Guatemala’s political elite may have written the book on surviving popular revolt and upheaval. Governing under the volcano is another matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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