Guatemala is at a historic juncture. President Otto Pérez Molina submitted his resignation on September 2 after months of protests that culminated in a nationwide strike on August 27. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in the streets throughout the country.
Pérez Molina is now behind bars. He faces charges of fraud, accepting bribes, and illegal association.
The protests began in April, when CICIG—a United Nations commission formed to help Guatemala prosecute high-impact crimes—found that the vice president and others in Pérez Molina’s administration had been eliminating customs tariffs in exchange for bribes. This maneuver cheated the Guatemalan public out of millions of dollars of revenue—no small matter in a country with a 75 percent poverty rate, and where 18 people a day die of malnutrition. In late August, CACIF—Guatemala’s powerful chamber of commerce, industry, agriculture, and finance—joined the broad-based calls for the president’s resignation.
With their victory still fresh, the Guatemalans who pushed all summer for justice have hope, enthusiasm, and determination. In their view, the struggle has just begun.
“The movement won’t stop,” explained Claudia Samayoa, director of the Human Rights Defenders Unit, in an e-mail exchange. “The movement has organized around various general objectives: jail for the corrupt, clean elections, and political reform. The first objective has had important results—the main one is the fact that the president resigned and now is detained, pending the investigations and possible trial for acts of fraud and organized crime. But there is still a long list of politicians that need to get their immunity taken away so that investigations can proceed.”
If courage is all that’s needed to effect the sweeping changes the broad reform movement envisions, Guatemala will soon be a different place.
The protesters have willingly faced risks. Samayoa, whose organization tracks human rights violations, notes that the movement in Guatemala has given birth to hundreds, if not thousands, of new human rights defenders, most of them young. “We have observed a pattern of aggression against the new leadership, coming mostly from politicians that have lost the most with the movement. We have seen how 15 days before the elections, the attacks grew in intensity and frequency. After the elections, the targeting has already started, both against the new leadership but also against human rights defenders who have important leadership in the struggle for the right to land and a healthy environment.”
But two potential obstacles loom large: the current government’s conservative bent, and the impending presidential run-off.
The Impact of the Elections
Conservative party candidates made a strong showing in the latest congressional elections, held in tandem with the local and presidential elections on September 6.