Tag Archives: Guatemala

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.

Guatemala – President Morales under Pressure from Corruption Scandal

Once again, a corruption scandal has affected the executive office in Guatemala. Although the president, former comedian and political outsider, Jimmy Morales, is not directly implicated, his brother, Samuel (Sammy) Everardo Morales and his son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, have both 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. Last week, a Guatemalan judge barred both Sammy Morales and José Manuel from leaving the country.

The alleged offence involves the fabrication of invoices and contracts for goods and services that were never actually supplied and centres upon Fulanos y Menganos, a restaurant in Guatemala city, owned by Congressman Gilmar Othmar Sánchez, who is a representative for Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), Morales’ party. Apparently, Guatemala’s National Property Registry contracted Fulanos y Menganos, together with José Manuel and Sammy Morales, to provide 564 Christmas breakfasts in 2013. A bill was submitted to the Property Registry for 90,000 quetzals for the breakfast (about US$12,000), together with another 90,000 quetzal bill for seating. The breakfast is reported to have never happened. What is more, under public procurement law, three companies must submit formal bids for any contracts below a certain value. To cover his tracks, the President’s son, José Manuel supposedly asked his uncle to provide falsified bids from two other companies, in a competition that Fulanos y Menganos than won. Falsifying documents in this manner is also a crime.

What makes this case particularly noteworthy is the fact that Morales’ election campaign last year railed against the corruption allegations that dogged, and ultimately prematurely ended, the presidency of his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina. Molina had been accused of involvement in a scheme, know as La Linea, that allowed businesses to evade paying custom charges in return for generous kickbacks.

Morales’ election was symptomatic of the rise of political outsiders and the ‘politics of anti-politics’, which has become something of a recurring feature of the Latin American political landscape. Jimmy Morales, 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 and his election manifesto was only six pages long. In fact, the major and central plank of his entire campaign was opposition to the graft and corruption that was endemic among Guatemalan political elites. His campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’, so this current episode is particularly embarrassing for the President.

This incident is indicative of corruption scandals that continue to plague executive offices all over the region. For example, aside from the scandal involving Molina, another Guatemalan ex-President, Alfonso Portillo was recently sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, appeared in court last year to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in.

I have written before about the relationship between corruption and the executive office in Latin America. Explanations range from the historical development of the state and Guillermo O’Donnell’s infamous ‘brown areas’, to the lack of transparency during the economic reform process of the 1980s and 1990s, to the combination of presidentialism and the PR electoral system, a variant of which most Latin American countries employ.[1]

More significantly, Kurt Weyland has suggested that a contributing factor to the persistence of populism has been the rise of politicians who appeal to “the masses” via television. Weyland argues: “Over the past 15 years, such personalistic leaders have sought to bypass established political parties and interest groups in order to reach “the people” through direct, most often televised, appeals aimed at building up a loyal following from scratch. Because its methods are costly, the new media-based politics has given ambitious politicians much higher incentives to resort to corruption.”[2]

Jimmy Morales is the proto-typical outsider politician. His campaign, and that of his vice-president, Jafeth Cabrera, was subjected to claims that it benefitted from a donation of half a million dollars from a known drug trafficker.  With this barrage of corruption scandals and with his party, the FCN, holding only 11 of 158 seats in the house, the incentives for the kind of behaviour Weyland described must surely rise. Either way, the Guatemalan President will do well to celebrate a one-year anniversary in office.

[1] See For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.

[2] Kurt Weyland. 1998. The Politics of Corruption in Latin America. Journal of Democracy 9 (2): 108-121.

Elections in Guatemala – Former Comedian Becomes President

The rise of political outsiders and the ‘politics of anti-politics’ is a recurring feature of the Latin American political landscape. On Sunday, Guatemala elected an archetypical political outsider as president. Jimmy Morales of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación) won the second-round run-off election with 67 per cent of the popular vote. His opponent, Sandra Torres of the left-leaning Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), the former first lady and wife of Álvaro Colom, who she divorced in 2011 to ensure her candidacy was eligible for these elections (spouses of former presidents are constitutionally barred from running for the office), with only 33 per cent of the popular vote, was forced to concede defeat early.

Jimmy Morales, a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, has spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother. Morales, a social conservative, released a manifesto that was only six pages long. This means his policy preferences remain something of a mystery and given his party, the FCN, have only 11 of 158 seats in the house, it will be very difficult for him to govern effectively.

Morales’ election to the highest political office in the land perhaps marks the apogee in the evolution of political outsiderism in Latin America. He joins the ranks of former amateur candidates across Latin America who previously ran for political office for established parties, including Álvaro Noboa (PRE) in Ecuador and Mauricio Funes (FMLN) in El Salvador.[1] His victory comes in the wake of the resignation of current incumbent, Otto Pérez Molina, over allegations of corruption. Molina has been accused of involvement in a scheme, know as La Linea, that allowed businesses to evade paying custom charges in return for generous kickbacks. Molina is now housed in Matamoros prison awaiting trial. His resignation follows months of protests, which slowly eroded Molina’s support.

During the campaign Morales railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. Morales is not just an outsider – his lack of policy specifics and his ‘anti-politics’ message, highly critical of the political establishment, also echoes many of the populists across the region. But his message clearly appealed to a Guatemalan public that is hungry for political change.

Of course, given Morales’ lack of political experience, and given his party’s very weak position in Congress, it remains to be seen whether they will actually get the change they want. This is one to watch. Conflict seems inevitable as this case has all the ingredients of Linz’s causal chain.

[1] For an institutional argument for the rise of political outsiders, see Miguel Carreras, 2012. “The Rise of Political Outsiders in Latin America, 1980-2010: an Institutionalist Perspective.” Comparative Political Studies.

Guatemala – Results of Presidential Election

On Sunday, Guatemala held the first round of presidential elections. With nearly all ballots counted one result is clear: Jimmy Morales of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación) will contest the second-round run-off election. Morales, a television comedian with no prior political experience, currently has 23.87 per cent of the national vote.

However, it is still not clear who Morales will face in the second round. Manuel Baldizón, a right-leaning businessman of the Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER), has 19.63 per cent of the vote, while Sandra Torres, the left-leaning former first lady of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), has 19.73 per cent. Given only a few thousand votes separate the two contenders for second place, the electoral tribunal has ordered an official count of each district. The results are not expected until this Friday.

Morales’ victory comes in the wake of the resignation of current incumbent, Otto Pérez Molina, over allegations of corruption. Molina has been accused of involvement in a scheme, know as La Linea, that allowed businesses to evade paying custom charges in return for generous kickbacks. Molina is now housed in Matamoros prison awaiting trial. His resignation follows months of protests, which slowly eroded Molina’s support. Indeed, on this blog, my posts on Latin America have a few recurring themes and two of the most prominent must surely be related to corruption in the executive office and public protests calling for the president’s impeachment or resignation. Molina’s resignation comes amid protests in Honduras and Brazil (and Venezuela) that are also calling for their presidents to resign in the wake of corruption scandals. In fact, only last year, Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan.

Morales’ victory is clearly related to these events. His campaign had all the hallmarks of the prototypical outsider. He railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. This clearly appealed to a jaded public, tired of constant scandal. In fact, Morales, as a crusading outsider highly critical of the political establishment, clearly resembles the rise of other populist leaders across the region.[1]

The second round election has been scheduled for October 25th.

[1] See for example, Roberts, Kenneth M., 2007. “Latin America’s Populist Revival,” SAIS Review, Vol. XXVII (1), pp. 3-15.