Friday, September 11, 2015

The State of Things

It’s an exciting time to live in Guatemala.  Though I don’t usually follow current events or even attempt to stay up to date on the political scene here in Guate, over the past few months, it’s been impossible not to.  And what has been happening has been simply remarkable. 

Alfombra at our school to celebrate Independence Day

I am still by no means an expert, but I think almost everyone here in the city now has at least a basic understanding of what’s been going on.  I’ll attempt to keep this update accurate and concise. 

To begin, we have to go back a few months, to the spring.  It was at that time that the then-vice president of Guatemala, Roxanna Baldetti, was linked to a corruption scandal.  This news sparked a campaign called RenunciaYa (“Resign Already”) which called for the resignations of both the vice president and the president (who people assumed was involved, though no formal accusations were made).  Baldetti resigned in May, but President Perez Molina did not step down. 

All summer, peaceful protests were held on Saturday afternoons in Zone 1 of Guatemala City, people with signs and chants demanding the president resign.  He did not. 

Things began to come to a head in August.  As the presidential elections grew nearer, evidence came to light implicating the president and the first formal accusation against Perez Molina was made.  Just two weeks before the election, the president gave a speech.  Many thought he would finally announce his resignation, but instead, he proclaimed his innocence and lashed out at the UN group that has been spearheading the corruption investigations. 

The speech sparked a massive uprising.  A protest was planned for August 27th that would shut down the city.  Schools (including mine) cancelled classes for the day, businesses closed, and thousands of citizens took to the streets.  The university students started marching from their campuses, picking up more and more people until they reached the Parque Central in zone 1.  Over 100,000 people gathered that day to demand the president’s resignation.  And remarkably, the entire event remained peaceful.  In this violent country, that fact alone is amazing and wonderful. 

The beginning of the march, in Zone 15

Unfortunately, the protest achieved no visible results—at least not right away.  If the president were to resign, he would lose his immunity and be subject to investigation for corruption charges.  By remaining president, he prolonged his freedom. 

So the government took matters into their own hands.  First the supreme court, and then the congress, voted to strip the president of his immunity.  The final vote in congress was 132 to 0 in favor of renouncing his immunity. 

As soon as Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity, a warrant was put out for his arrest, and he resigned the presidency a few hours later.  And the people of Guatemala rejoiced.

Yet the future of this small country is not yet clear.  Things are moving in a positive direction, but in September 6th’s presidential election, no one on the ballot seemed to be a good choice; most of the candidates are known or suspected to be just as corrupt, if not more so, than the previous administration. 

One candidate in particular, Manuel Baldizon, is known to be bad news.  In the days before the election, lawmakers lobbied to have his party removed from the ballot due to charges of bribery and corruption during his campaign.  The motion was not successful, and Baldizon remained on the ballot.  Yet another civilian campaign was in motion called “No Te Toca Baldizon”  (“It’s not your turn, Baldizon”). 

The fight to keep Baldizon from getting elected was just as fierce as the fight to get Perez Molina to step down.  While everyone I spoke to or heard from in the city was anti-Baldizon, the problem was conveying the message of the candidate’s corruption to the poorer citizens of Guatemala (which is sadly a huge percentage of the country).  It’s hard to convince someone that a person is a poor choice for president when all they know about him is “He gave me a bag of food and necessities,” or, as is rumored (but perhaps not confirmed to be true), “He said he’d give me a job if I voted for him,” or “He said he’d pay us if we voted for him.”    

The morning of September 7th, the day after the vote, Guatemalans were disappointed, but not without hope.  The leader in the presidential race (which will go to a second round of voting between the top two candidates from the first vote) was Jimmy Morales, a comedian who apparently has acknowledged he knows very little about politics but had the charisma and the team to be elected.  Manuel Baldizon and Sandra Torres were (are) neck and neck for 2nd and 3rd place.  Currently, Torres leads by 1.2% (less than 6,000 votes), and Baldizon is claiming the elections were fraudulent and is pushing for a re-vote between him and Torres.  For now, though, it appears that #NoTeToca was successful.  But in the effort to keep Baldizon from the presidency, no one pushed hard enough for the right candidate. 

Guatemala is moving forward, but there is still a long way to go.  

Viva Guate! 

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