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.

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