When democracy is treated as a hoax

Democracy and transparency

What separates dictatorship from democracy? What is the link between peace and democracy? As I’ve said numerous times, democracy is such a broad term and its presidential or parliamentary structure cannot be the only differentiation between the two. Each democracy needs to work according to each country’s specificities, history, and transition (and this goes beyond hybrid regimes).

Two years ago, I spoke about the social cost of corruption in the Leadership and Government Plenary Session at the One Young World Summit in Bangkok. I spoke of how the people of Guatemala came together so strongly to repudiate corruption that ignited the path for our former President, Otto Perez Molina and Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, to resign; they are both currently in prison for customs tax fraud and influence peddling in a case known as The Line. I quoted, ‘they stole so much from us, they also stole our fear.’

Back then, we thought citizenship was taking relevance once more against impunity – fostered by the UN anti-corruption agency, International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the Attorney General’s work. They burst open and dismantled political parties related to heavy drug cartels, public and corporate embezzlement, tax evasion, known as ‘Co-optation of the State’, and only a year after Jimmy Morales, our current President, took office, they came knocking at his door…  

…the door of the Presidential Palace to be exact, delivering an apprehension order against his son and brother for a small fraud scheme they pulled a couple of years ago which sent them behind bars temporarily - the President himself considered ‘corruption as normal’. Simultaneously, another case called ‘Construction and Corruption’ was revealed which linked Mr. Sinibaldi, former Ministry of Communication and with an arrest order behind his belt. He initially ran as Presidential Candidate for the then official party, Partido Patriota (PP), but was forced to back down because of the 2015 scandal within his party. He used laundered money to fund electoral campaigns of other political parties which had better odds of winning.  

Illicit funding, which entails not declaring the full amount and origin of funds received during a presidential campaign, involves shady and dubious ‘favours’, ‘partners’, and steers political [and perhaps even corporate or military] movement towards a certain bias. This funding creates strong ties between military officials and forces, who founded FCN Nacion – the official political party, and other political parties. The most notable of these other political parties is Partido Patriota (PP), headed by former President Perez Molina, a retired army-general and chief of the military intelligence during the civil war that lasted 36 years.

Unchanged change

So, what really changed from the government we dismantled from the one we elected? The power behind the power, as a friend puts it, has never changed. I again quoted in The Economist ‘if you elect a clown, expect a circus’. Jimmy Morales, our current President and long-time entertainer and comedian pulled off a motto ‘neither thief nor corrupt’ to legitimately plunder the elections. One year and a half later, a non-existent governance of ignoring matters like education and infrastructure has prevailed and is leading us into the most dangerous phase of this corrupt ‘democracy’.

Last month, CICIG and the Attorney General revealed all political parties that have yet to declare their campaign funds. This includes FCN, UNE (the runner-up, being Sandra Torres the main candidate and former First Lady) and Lider (now dissolved party, attempted to attain the presidency several times). This would entail prosecution of the heads or secretaries of those parties. Coincidentally, President Morales was the Secretary of FCN during that time of illicit party activity, and so were Orlando Blanco of UNE, and Roberto Villate of Lider (current members of Congress – keep wary). So, the CICIG and Attorney General’s office solicited to strip immunity from the President in order to investigate him. President Morales, very displeased with this impending investigation and the failure of UN Secretary General, António Guterres, to acquiesce to his demand to have the Head of CICIG, Ivan Velasquez removed, he personally declared Mr Velasquez ‘non grato’ and expelled him from the country.  

This swept demonstrations against President Morales and rampant corruption, in favour of Mr Velasquez. It also gave rise to, perhaps unsurprisingly, another front of supporters who favoured the President’s decision, claiming institutionalism and national sovereignty.

The Constitutional Court annulled the President’s order since it lacked adequate procedures, clear understanding of rule of law and failed to follow the CICIG mandate in Guatemala. The #IvanSeQueda (Ivan stays) campaign was running strong.

To strip a high-level official from immunity – impeachment – Congress needs first to approve it. Far from doing so, it was dismissed it entirely. This entailed the support of different parties in Congress, and within other branches of government structure – from his cabinet, to municipalities. Those who publicly supported President Morales’ decision to remove Mr. Velasquez, primarily public workers, are those who clearly have something to hide and will do anything to avoid being investigated by a higher entity.

In the midst of all this brutal scandal, the country nearly fell victim to violent confrontations. A sense of confusion, frustration, and anger was vivid. His impeachment for illicit funding was on standby. Unless another accusation came his way.

On 12 September, Nómada, a digital independent outlet, released that the Ministry of Defence had awarded the President a ‘Responsibility Bonus’ of thousands of dollars. The Ministry’s subsequent statements, declared giving him not one, but nine responsibility bonuses for him to ‘deal with legal fees’ of his son’s fraud case. Unaware of these payments were the National Accounts Authority and the Ministry of Finance. Suspicious add-ons to his salary?

107 Congressmen reek of sewage

The next day, Congress met again in an ‘urgent meeting’ where an overwhelming majority voted in favour of modifying the Penal Code. Among the amendments included removing all responsibility to declare funding from party secretaries and immunising them against prosecution, therefore legitimising illicit funding (with a minor punishment)! Congressmen shielded themselves, some while having their immunity hanging by a thread (told you to keep wary) and others certainly dark influences of favours to respond to. La Hora referred to the government as a ‘corroded system’, the headline stating, ‘Infamous Day: Congress eliminates anti-corruption laws’. The passing of these amendments represented an alignment of FCN and UNE in Congress, both of which are still currently under investigation for illicit funding.    

If their frustrated play to ban CICIG’s head was not enough, the executive and legislative bodies found a way to legitimise not only corruption, but crime. It was a widespread pardon for those already in prison with less than 10 year sentences to run free by paying bail. Even worse, the indirect effects of the Penal Code amendments were softening measures against murder, extortion, embezzlement, human trafficking, bribery, illicit association, and others, in which perpetrators could avoid trail by committing them.

That same night, protesters ran towards Congress to visibly show their outrage. International organisations, embassies, local authorities, private sector clusters, media, academia and civil society spoke out about this disproportionate abuse, and urged the President to veto Congress’ decision. Public opinion was bursting into action. Numerous legal protective measures against the recent amendment were carried out by lawyers, activists in the Constitutional Court and the Human Rights National Authority.

Ivan Velasquez with President Morales.

At some point during this political upheaval, President Morales returned the full amount of his ‘Responsibility Bonuses’ back to the Ministry of Defence.

Guatemalans have not had peace in a long time. A legal peace does not translate into practical peace. Democracy does not entail the dismissal of military powerhouses in government. Democracy and peace are certainly not correlated with respect for human rights, nor are they correlated to freedom for all, at least in this tiny country. Impunity is a sense of freedom for some, as easily demonstrated by Congress. Yet, citizens are the ones who create justice, peace and democracy and prevail through their rights.

Independence Day- when the people, excuses and tear gas met

The atmosphere was dense and hostile, fuelled by anger and lack of peace of mind. No peace because of the reckless and selfish promotion of impunity by using public posts for childish games plagued by ignorance and negligence. Instead of promoting social good, they have abused their reign with irresponsible public duty and guarded themselves from punishment.

Citizenship proved once again as it did in 2015 an absolute refusal of this political rampage. On 14 and 15 September, day and night, protesters met again in the main Plaza in front of the Presidential Palace and Cathedral, the Constitutional Park, and Congress demanding the resignation of both President Morales and corrupt Congressmen. Once again, the demonstrations were peaceful, but the other ‘front’ was a mixture of Military Police, Presidential Police (SAAS), and the National Police who promoted an even more tense environment.

These demonstrations were entitled as ‘Independence from Corruption’, referencing Guatemala’s Independence Day on 15 September. All government-led celebrations of this day were cancelled due to public demonstrations.

In the meantime, the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled against Congress’ amendments, being considered as a serious threat that could inevitably cause irreversible damage to the judiciary system.   

Congress was hit in the face with the citizen’s outburst and the Court’s resolution. They met once again on 15 September, where they pulled away from their most recent amendments to the Penal Code. They are now void and inactive.  

Demonstrations outside Congress lasted until midnight – the streets were filled by people demanding their resignation. Congressmen were unwilling or unable to get out. A heavier police enforcement had to come into place, spreading tear gas in order to make way for Congressmen to get out.

No comedy here, only civic duty

False messages sent by the President himself and some Congressmen and women added to the propaganda-styled misleading explanation of events.

Our fragile democracy was boosted by the pressure of citizens and businesses that adhered to public demands and the responsibility of at least one of the three powers – the judicial branch.

Let this be an example of zero- tolerance of abuse of power for other countries, where our voices and unity play a big role. However, the feeling of a possible coup or augmented military force spread the idea of bloodshed and a break in democracy, making a return of seeing Guatemala as the ‘land of eternal tyranny’.

A national strike against corruption and individuals that live by impunity is scheduled to take place this Wednesday, 20 September, organized by University of San Carlos – USAC – and Justicia Ya.

Even in the fear of uncertainty, this Independence Day was the way to celebrate our country and our dignity, by joining together, and not by lagging indifferently by some same-old parade and great display of national power and traditional abuse of power. This is the feeling, this is the essence.

So when democracy is treated as a hoax, those elected clearly underestimate the etymological origin of the regime they are supposed to serve and represent, demos.

Bibi La Luz Gonzalez is a One Young World Ambassador from Guatemala. She holds an MA. International Political Economy from the University of Warwick. Bibi founded Eat Better Wa'ik, an organisation which is creating food awareness to fight malnourishment in middle to low income urban families through education and economics. She also currently freelances in collaborating for articles by The Economist, The New York Times, The International Reporting Project, and hopefully more. She has worked for the United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank / Multilateral Investment Fund projects, local NGOs, Nómada, and academia. She is a Global Shaper, Young Leader of the Americas Fellow Alumni, and World Merit Local Council.

*This article reflects the views of the author, not the publisher.