Riding a wave of anti-establishment emotion, Jimmy Morales – a comedian with no political experience, and backed by military hard-liners – has been elected as Guatemala’s next president.
Morales saw his popularity surge amid a series of corruption scandals that led to mass citizen protests, the arrest of several high-level government officials, and the resignation of former president Otto Pérez Molina. Capitalizing on his reputation as a “political outsider,” Morales achieved an unexpected first-round win in September before defeating former First Lady Sandra Torres in the October 25 runoff election.
Jimmy Morales, like his opponent, has made promises of transparency and anti-corruption efforts. But he has drawn criticism for his vague policies, his use of racist caricature, and the fact that some of his backers – including the founders of his political party FCN – are conservative members of the military who have been linked to war crimes from the internal armed conflict.
Though some Guatemalans are cautiously optimistic about the future, many remain skeptical that Morales will be able to pull the country out of its current political turmoil. “Nothing is going to change,”one voter said via Twitter – even as she cast her ballot.
Questions about the possibility of seeing lasting change in Guatemala were reiterated last week in Washington, DC, where members of Guatemala’s Human Rights Convergence and other civil society organizations participated in hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and met with US government officials.
In back-to-back hearings on transitional justice and the criminalization of human rights defenders in Guatemala, petitioners highlighted prominent examples of criminalization, including the defamation and unfounded complaints against lawyers and expert witnesses in the genocide case.
In another hearing, lawyers and community leaders highlighted the precarious and vulnerable situation of communities surrounded by African Palm production, where residents suffer harassment from the companies, contamination of the water supply, and other environmental problems. On September 18, indigenous activist Rigoberto Lima Choc was assassinated outside of a local courthouse in Sayaxché, Peten. Lima was one of the first to publicly denounce the actions of the African Palm company Reforestadora de Palmas del Petén (REPSA) for its alleged involvement in the contamination of the La Pasión River.
Just weeks later, Alex Reynoso– an environmental activist who has been involved in an opposition movement to Tahoe Resources’ El Escobal silver mine –survived a second assassination attempt; the first in April 2014 claimed the life of his daughter, Topacio Reyes.
Many human rights organizations view these attacks not only as part of an ongoing pattern of repression against land rights defenders, but also as a test for the transitional government – one that the administration has failed. At the same time that the State has allowed its police and military officers to serve as security for transnational corporations, it has repeatedly botched its response to attacks against its own citizens.
During a regional hearing on extractive industries, Commissioner Rose-Marie Antoine – responding to testimonies about indigenous people’s defense of territory and opposition to large-scale projects – called the violence, displacement and other repression against community leaders a “total disgrace for democracies in the region.”
Whether on issues of criminalization, indigenous land rights, or justice, the Guatemalan government categorically denied any responsibility or wrongdoing.
“We’re sorry to see that the State maintains its same position,” said Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) Director Juan Francisco Soto, “even though we now have a new president, and new appointed officials in the country.”
In the past few months, many had cited Guatemala as an example of the power of peaceful protest. But failed electoral reforms and ongoing land rights conflicts have prompted some to ask: has anything really changed in Guatemala?
Responding to that question at a panel discussion in DC, Daniel Pascual from the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) stated, “The people have changed. They have lost their fear of protest.” Civil society has been armed with new allies, said Pascual, and the country’s “social awakening” has given rise to a more informed and vigilant citizenry. With more people calling for justice, it will be ever more challenging for public officials not to act on behalf of the people.
Still, the vast majority of these urgent concerns – ongoing militarization of public security, high rates of impunity, deeply-rooted corruption in Guatemala’s institutions, the collapse of Guatemala’s healthcare system, and increased violence against environmental activists, among others – are issues President-elect Morales has barely mentioned and has, to date, shared no plan to address.
“Neither Morales nor Torres represent the change we need,” said Iduvina Hernández during the event. “But the social movements we’re experiencing may mean that someday we’ll have different options – candidates who really represent the people.”