International attention trained its sights on Guatemala in recent months after a massive democratic protest led to the resignation and arrest of the country’s establishment-backed president. Last week, the continued democratic fervor replaced him with an ex-comedian turned political novice. But before all this, a scandal rocked Guatemalan institutions and revealed just how deep-seated state corruption had become. In case you missed all this, here is a brief recap of what’s going on in Central America’s most populous country.
First, to set the stage for the so-called “Guatemalan Spring”, let’s turn back the clock to the year 1944, when the crazed dictator Jorge Ubico resigned the Guatemalan presidency after revolts shook the capital. Ubico was replaced by Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, a figure who inspired hope among the poor campesinos in the rural countryside. Arévalo’s term, combined with that of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, was a period of peace and contentment called the Ten Years of Spring. Arévalo defended the rights of the poor by checking the abuses of plantation owners and trying to return unused lands to farmers. From the 1940s to 1950s, Guatemala seemed to be heading in the right direction.
Despite the slight progress, these years also witnessed increasing tensions between landowners. Because a tiny number of elite families owned the majority of Guatemala’s land, rural farmers were left with small plots that were barely enough for subsistence agriculture. As generations passed and families grew, such plots were further divided, and farmers were forced to work on plantations or immigrate to the United States. In 1952 Árbenz passed an Agrarian Reform Act, allowing farmers to retake unused agricultural land. However, government bureaucracy weakened the act, and impatient farmers began to seize land for themselves, sometimes using violence.
Progress was also stalled by the United Fruit Company, a U.S. company that exerted significant influence over Guatemalan politics. Under the reform, 225,000 acres of UFC land were to be given to rural farmers, but the UFC considered this insufficient. With the support of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the UFC began a campaign of political propaganda to slander the Árbenz regime. The U.S. feared that Árbenz’s policies could be used to set up a Soviet puppet state on its doorstep. Scared by similar situations in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the U.S. believed that Guatemala would become the third domino to fall in the increasingly unstable Central American isthmus. As a result, the U.S. used its intelligence agency to forcibly remove Árbenz in 1954. By 1960, the country’s poor had grown tired of unfulfilled promises, and very small bands of guerrilla soldiers formed in the mountains. The first, the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP) began to feel out potential allies and construct bases in the wilderness.
Guatemalan Armed Conflict (1960-1996)
Mainly concerned with gaining support in rural areas, the guerrilla forces were quiet in their initial years and reserved their firepower for attacks on key figures in the capital. Tensions continued to build between the guerrilla and the army, but widespread violence did not begin until fraudulent elections brought General Romeo Lucas García to power in 1978. When the emboldened EGP began anti-military attacks, the Guatemalan army unleashed its frustration against the supposed rebel base, the civilian population itself.
Massacres of civilians began in the 1970s, and the guerrilla forces were powerless to defend their people. By 1980 human rights abuses by the Guatemalan army drew international attention to the armed conflict. After another revolution in 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt oversaw 17 more months of bloodshed and genocide. Guerrilleros were impossibly elusive and difficult to attack, so the army continued its campaign of murder. By killing civilians, the army hoped to reduce and demoralize guerrilla support. This upturn in violence led guerrilla groups to merge and form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Tens of thousands of Guatemalans fled to México.
Ríos Montt put a scorched-earth policy into full effect, wiping out entire communities and crops. The army established civil defense patrols that forced citizens to keep watch on their own neighbors or risk guerrilla association and death. The tactic complicated the situation by fostering distrust and fear within united communities. Some PAC members participated in the massacre of their own people, but many more only joined out of fear. Ríos Montt’s policies resulted in the reduction of guerrilla activity at the cost of thousands of lives. While the guerrilla forces were not innocent of war crimes, it is estimated that between 80 and 93% of the human rights abuses during the armed conflict were the responsibility of the military. Finally, in 1983 Ríos Montt was overthrown and democratic elections were held. Short-lived presidencies followed until the Peace Accords were signed in 1996.
Overall, over one million people were displaced, 200,000 were killed, and 600 villages, many of them entirely indigenous, were obliterated during the Guatemalan armed conflict. Countless others fled the country. Years or decades later, these refugees would return home to find others living on their land, invited there by the same government that had razed their homes to the ground. Based on the disproportionate killing of Mayan civilians, the military’s scorched-earth tactics have been classified as genocide.
Aftermath (1996 – Present)
The signing of the Acuerdos de Paz (Peace Accords) in 1996 did not signal an immediate end to human rights concerns in the country, but military influence was gradually reduced over the next several years. Guatemala worked closely with the United Nations to establish the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an oversight agency aiming to end political corruption, investigate drug trafficking, and fight organized crime. Since the end of the armed conflict, Guatemala has seen relatively steady growth, stability and a series of democratic elections. However, the aftermath of the violence is clear and troubling. Widespread problems persist, among them chronic malnutrition, an incredibly young population, extreme poverty, abundant crime, and extrajudicial killings.
Otto Perez Molina, a former army general with difficult-to-ignore ties to the army’s scored-earth tactics in indigenous highlands, was elected president in 2011. His running mate, a former journalist named Roxana Baldetti, became Guatemala’s first female vice president. Fast-forward to this year, and things begin to get interesting.
La Linea Scandal
On May 8, 2015 Roxana Baldetti was forced to resign amid a corruption scandal involving Guatemala’s customs authority (SAT, by its initials in Spanish), which fleeced the country of millions of dollars over the past year. The scandal centered on a network known as “La Linea”, a combined effort of SAT employees, high-level government officials, and low-level importers. Within the government, Baldetti’s Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas was the point person. Put simply, SAT would charge companies in order to exempt the goods they brought into Guatemala from import taxes. Careful, secretive coordination between SAT and corrupt inspectors ensured that specific containers would not be checked. The end result was that importers were able to claim fewer taxable imports, inspector were bribed thousands of dollars per week, and member of La Linea collected millions of dollars in under-the-table revenue.
CICIG, the UN-backed organization that was founded after the Guatemalan Peace Accords to promote transparency and reduce corruption, thoroughly lived up to its responsibilities in La Linea scandal. By tapping phone lines and accessing suspected La Linea members’ email accounts, they were able to connect the dots between a Chinese importer named Miao Miao all the way to Roxana Baldetti’s secretary Juan Carlos Monzón Rojas. After 9 months of investigations, CICIG made its first wave of arrests in February of 2015. Many members of La Linea have been taken into custody, but there are still several key players at large, including Monzón himself. Once CICIG confirmed Baldetti’s complicity in the scandal, she was forced to resign. This was just one of several recent investigations that have demonstrate just how endemic corruption has become within Guatemala’s political system. Baldetti’s would not be the last head to roll.
After the Guatemalan vice president was out of the picture, an unprecedented political movement zeroed in on the next step up the food chain – president Otto Perez Molina. For weeks, youth-driven protests filled Guatemala City’s historic center, demanding the president’s resignation, election reform, and a purging of the corrupt political machine from outside the doors of the national palace. Despite limited Internet access, young Guatemalans used social networks to promote the #RenunciaYa (resign now) movement, which eventually created so much pressure on the Guatemalan elite that multiple votes were held to remove Molina. Eventually, even the establishment-backed Chamber of Commerce (CACIF) turned against their president, and he was ousted directly into the hands of the authorities. Guatemalan Congress stripped Molina of his diplomatic immunity, and he now sits among ordinary criminals in a Guatemalan jail.
This extraordinary uprising of Guatemalans from all walks of life represents a call for change that the country has not experienced in decades. United against the continued exploitation of the country’s resources by a privileged elite, divided communities are demanding reform and a brighter future. Shortly after the arrest of Molina, Guatemala had the opportunity to elect its future president. On one side was the epitome of Guatemalan nepotism, Sandra Torres, the wife of former president Alvaro Colom, who was previously barred from running for president. Guatemalan law prohibits relatives or spouses from both serving as president, but apparently the Supreme Court thought enough time had passed for Torres to run. On the other side was a political novice named Jimmy Morales, a former comedian with zero ties to the Guatemalan political machine.
Running on a political platform of “ni corrupto, ni ladrón” (not corrupt nor a thief), Morales handily won the run-off election. His victory is seen as evidence of the Guatemalan people’s distrust of their political system, and many hope that he will purge the government of corruption and lead the country into a new age of prosperity and equity. Jimmy Morales is not without his troubling qualities, however. His fame is derived largely from a series of incredibly racist comedy skits, he infamously denies that genocide occurred during the Guatemalan armed conflict, and he seems hell bent on reasserting Guatemalan control over Belize. Only time will tell if Morales can bring positive change to his country when he takes office in January of 2016. For now, the “Guatemalan Spring” has surely united los chapines, but they must remain vigilant and demanding to ensure a brighter future for their land of eternal spring.