Guatemala – Minister of Social Welfare Arrested

In mid-January, the neophyte politician and President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, completed his first year in office. In the two months since then, Morales has faced mounting pressure on a number of different fronts, including a horrific fire that saw the death of forty girls, the forced resignation and arrest of one of his ministers, the investigation of a special advisor and an ongoing corruption scandal involving members of his own family.  All of this amidst a number of public protests calling for his resignation.

Morales was always going to face difficulties. Elected in October 2015 as a prototypical outsider riding a growing wave of the ‘politics of anti-politics’, Morales, of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación), a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother. Although a social conservative, his policy platform was always something of a mystery given his election manifesto was only six pages long. During the campaign, Morales railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. But his party won only 11 of 158 seats in the house, and it seemed likely that this outsider was going to face problems governing effectively.

Last Wednesday, these problems began to come to a head with a fire in a government-run children’s care home near Guatemala City, which has resulted in the death of 40 teenage girls so far. Amidst allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the care home, together with overcrowding, the Minister for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, resigned on Monday, but was then promptly arrested, along with the director of the shelter and a ministry official on charges of negligent homicide.

Morales replaced Rodas with Candida Rabanales, but this has not stemmed public anger. The socialist political party, Convergencia CPO-CRD, yesterday formally asked Congress to withdraw the immunity of President Morales, so that he can be charged in relation to the disaster. Although this is highly unlikely, there have been a number of public demonstrations and protests in response to the fire and the government’s response. These can be added to a number of other demonstrations in Guatemala city since mid-January, including a large agricultural protest that called President Morales ‘incapable’ of governing and demanded his resignation.

This has not been helped by an ongoing corruption scandal involving the president’s brother Samuel (Sammy) Everardo Morales and his son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, both of whom have been placed under investigation by the UN-supported International Commission on Corruption in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office. They allegedly fabricated invoices and contracts for goods and services that were never actually supplied and concerns Fulanos y Menganos, a restaurant in Guatemala city, owned by Congressman Gilmar Othmar Sánchez, who is a representative for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), Morales’ party.

And today, Guatemala’s Supreme Court removed the immunity of Edgar Justino Ovalle, a former military officer and currently a member of congress for the Frente de Convergencia Nacional. Ovalle, one of the co-founders of the President’s party, and a close adviser to Morales, is accused of human rights abuses during Guatemala’s civil war, including forced kidnapping and murder.

All of this must worry the President. Since the return to democracy across Latin America, large sustained street protests, often in response to allegations of corruption, have acted as the trigger for a number of presidential impeachments and forced resignations. Guatemala is not witnessing widespread protests akin to Brazil last year, for example. Far from it and what is more, although protests played a role in the downfall of many presidents, they were not sufficient for their removal. In most cases, this boiled down to the institutional position of the president. An excellent literature has now clearly demonstrated that presidential instability in Latin America lies at the intersection of popular protest and vanishing partisan support in the legislature (obviously two things that are not mutually exclusive. But even in the face of mass protests, presidents who can boast secure support in the assembly, a ‘legislative shield,’ become very difficult to remove from office.[1]

With so few seats in Congress, and beset on all sides, Morales’ position is precarious. If noting else, it goes to show the difficulties that these outsiders will face when trying to govern with little institutional knowledge or support.

Notes

[1] See for example, Pérez-Liñán, Aníbal. 2007. Presidential Impeachment and the New Political Instability in Latin America. Cambridge University Press; Mainstrendet, Leiv. and Einar. Berntzen. 2008. “Reducing the Perils of Presidentialism in Latin America through Presidential Interruptions.” Comparative Politics, 41(1), pp. 83-101; Hochstetler, Kathryn. 2006. “Rethinking Presidentialism: Challenges and Presidential Falls in South America,” Comparative Politics 38 (4), pp. 401-418.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *