Can the centre hold? Why central America is on a precipice
PUBLISHED: 21:00 21 September 2018
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With democracy and the rule of law on the back foot, could the region be returning to its darker days? Will Worley reports from Guatemala, one of the countries tipping towards crisis.
The day had begun like any other Friday in Guatemala, until the streets of the capital echoed with the roar of military vehicles. President Jimmy Morales – a former comedian – had a stunning announcement to make. Flanked by army officers, Morales told the public that the one of the country’s most respected institutions was no longer welcome.
The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – more commonly known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG – is a UN-backed institution, established in 2006 to fight corruption in the Central American state.
Rated 143rd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, graft is an endemic problem in Guatemala, and underlies many other issues afflicting its people.
Morales told the public that CICIG’s mandate would not be renewed after the end of its current run in September 2019. Simultaneously, the fleet of armed jeeps – donated by the United States for fighting drug cartels at the country’s borders – surrounded CICIG’s offices and passed near the US Embassy in Guatemala City.
The unexpected show of force led some observers to initially think a coup was taking place, and the government actions were an uncomfortable reminder of country’s dark authoritarian past.
A few days later, the Commission’s determined and highly effective chief, Ivan Velasquez, was barred entry into the country on the grounds that the Colombian former judge was a “person who attacks order and public security”.
It came in defiance of the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest legal authority, which ruled last year that Velasquez could not legally be thrown out of the country by the president (Morales tried a similar move in 2017). His willingness to flout the court’s previous decision this time around has been likened by observers to a self-coup. The court is meeting this week to decide if the move was unconstitutional. There is uncertainty as to what will happen if Morales ignores the verdict – he said he is authorised by the constitution “not to obey illegal orders”.
In addition, there are plans being considered in Congress to alter the make-up of the Constitutional Court, which has acted as a check on power, potentially weakening its independence.
CICIG, when fully functional, was far from toothless. Its most formidable scalp was that of former president Otto Pérez Molina, who allegedly conducted scams while in office and is now in prison. The Commission, which had high levels of public support, was preparing to open investigations into the financing of Morales’ 2015 election campaign. Members of his family were already under investigation.
“The government was running out of time, the noose was tightening, and elections are scheduled for next year,” says Anita Isaacs, a professor of Latin American politics. She believes the attack on CICIG is a “disaster for the entire region and gives the green light to organised crime”.
The episode, at the end of August, has galvanised civil society, which worked quickly to raise awareness and organise demonstrations. A week of protest action was soon announced by a broad alliance of unions, indigenous groups, students and activists.
But while other Guatemalans just see it as another bad episode in a history of bad governments, experts and activists say the episode is not just a massive danger for democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala, but in the entire region.
“It feels like Central America is on a precipice,” says Dr Christine Wade, a long-term Central America scholar. “I can’t help but feel democracy has lost its way in the region and that the threat is real and very disconcerting.”
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the so-called Northern Triangle – all bear the scars of vicious civil conflict and have long struggled with high levels of violence and poverty.
But since April this year, Nicaragua – which was more peaceful than its restive neighbours to the north – also spiralled into chaos following mass anti-government protests. More than 300 people are believed to have been killed in just a few months (In contrast, the protests that rocked Venezuela last year left 125 dead). President Daniel Ortega recently expelled a UN investigation team whose report charged that state forces were responsible for the human rights abuses and deaths during the protests.
The events in Nicaragua took regional observers by surprise, creating an atmosphere of heightened uncertainty.
In Honduras, which neighbours both Nicaragua and Guatemala, democracy has also been under attack. Last December’s elections were particularly contentious, and the Organisation of American States (OAS) said allegations of vote-rigging were “particularly serious” and made it “impossible to grant any certainty to the result of the electoral process”. President Juan Orlando Hernández “got away with fraudulent elections,” says Wade.
According to the UN, at least 16 people were then killed by state security forces in the unrest that followed.
But the country also has an anti-corruption institution similar to Guatemala’s, known as Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which was enacted following popular protests in 2016.
A body of the OAS, it has also come under considerable pressure from the government. Its former leader, Peruvian Juan Jimenez, resigned in February, citing a lack of support from both the Honduran authorities and OAS.
The Honduran government was “already emboldened to undermine MACCIH,” says Wade, but Morales’ move “further re-emboldens the [Honduran] regime to undermine the rule of law”.
Some in Guatemala actually believe the opposite is true. “I think Jimmy is taking advice from our neighbour,” says Donald Urizar, a member of the Colectivo Ciudadano campaign group in Quetzaltenango, the country’s second city. Urizar cited the US indifference to the country’s 2007 coup, last year’s contentious election and the extra-judicial deaths. “Our concerns [come from] Honduras,” he adds.
But the civil society response in Guatemala was swift and dedicated. Even prior to the main week of action, Urizar’s organisation declared Morales persona non-grata in Quetzaltenango, putting him off opening up the huge Independence Day celebrations in the city.
Justicia Ya, another civil rights campaign group, has been focused on highlighting the danger of the government actions. “The government has been very strategic in its messaging,” says the group’s co-founder, Gabriel Wer. “They say if you are pro-CICIG, you are anti-country. And it’s been doing very well.” Other pro-government narratives have presented CICIG as a partisan, left-wing organisation.
Wer, who thinks that a well-planned government strategy is playing out, adds: “That’s why we believe a harsh, violent response is an option, because they have been creating the conditions for that.”
Briseida Milian, another Justicia Ya member, agrees. “We fear violence. This is a serious situation.”
The activists have long been subject to surveillance and threatening phone calls and are forced to take regular security measures. But even they were surprised by the show of force displayed by Morales, and it was interpreted by many as a deterrent to civil society protests.
“I’m very worried, I never thought it would get to this point with this government,” says Wer. “The military was a shock... none of us expected the way they did it.”
Guatemala has a deeply bitter history of state repression, and the military presided over a bloody civil war and genocide which killed around 200,000 people. Numerous people were struck by the imagery of the press conference, comparing it online to photos of the bad old days.
“Many of military people surrounding Morales [at the press conference] were involved directly in that genocide,” says Isaacs.
For some, the events have been possible because of a campaign to curry favour with the United States, which has traditionally been highly supportive of CICIG, financially and diplomatically. Guatemala was the second country to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, following Donald Trump’s controversial order, and has also formally recognised Taiwan. There have also reportedly been lobbying efforts in Washington.
“These are carefully calculated efforts by Morales to cultivate favour with segments of the US Congress and White House,” says Isaacs.
Ulizar agrees: “We believe these movements [were to get] some favours from Trump, because he is like Morales in the United States, and he’s under investigation like Jimmy, too.”
Even after the military vehicles passed by the US embassy, the America’s response was mixed, with seemingly contradictory statements being released by various officials. The US was also not included in a multilateral statement of regret from other international donors to CICIG, which included the UK and EU.
“It increasingly seems the US has no articulated policy on the region,” says Wade. “There are concerns over migration but no articulated foreign policy.” She adds: “To some degree US is absent and doesn’t seem interested in upholding the rule of law in the region, even though its massively in its interest to do so.”
The apparent lack of interest is worrying to Guatemalans who want CICIG – and by extension, the rule of law – to remain.
“The international response has been crucial and will continue to be crucial in coming months,” says Milian.
Ulizar is more blunt. “If we don’t see condemnation from all over the world against Jimmy Morales, he and the army will restart crimes against students and [civil society] leaders,” he says, referring to the repression of the civil war era.
With protests and legal battles still very much in play, the crisis is at an unpredictable phase. This state of unpredictability is mirrored among through region’s leaders.
“As long as these individuals – Daniel, Juan Orlando and Jimmy – enjoy the support of armed forces,” says Wade, “we have the potential for quite serious situations unfolding in the region.”
Central America: always on the edge of turmoil
Juan Orlando Hernández, pictured below, took office in 2014, promising a zero-tolerance approach towards organised crime and pledging to bring down the high levels of drug-related violence. He won a second term last November, in a disputed vote which led to deadly protests. The country has a long history of military rule, corruption, poverty and crime. Until the 1980s, it was dominated by the military. Since then, civilian leaders have sought to curb the power of the military, with varying degrees of success.
Once dominated by foreign-owned banana companies, the country remains a major fruit exporter. It is also Central America’s second largest coffee producer.
Left-wing Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, below right, made his political comeback in the 2006 elections, having led Nicaragua through revolution and a civil war before being voted out in 1990. He cruised to victory in the 2016 presidential election to win a third consecutive five-year term. His wife Rosario Murillo won the position of vice-president. Independent observers voiced concerns about the fairness of the poll.
The after-effects of dictatorship and civil war have left the country one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Yet, it is hoping to launch one of the world’s most ambitious infrastructure schemes – a canal to rival the one in Panama.
Jimmy Morales, a former comedian with no experience in government, defeated the former first lady, Sandra Torres, in a run-off in 2015, with 72% of the vote. In 2017 prosecutors sought to open an investigation against President Morales over alleged campaign funding irregularities.
The country is still trying to come to terms with a 36-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996 and pitted leftist, mostly Mayan insurgents against the US-backed state. More than 200,000 people – most of them civilians – were killed or disappeared.
The indigenous Maya make up about half of the population but rights campaigners say they face extreme inequality.
A former rebel leader, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, won the presidential run-off of March 2014 by a narrow margin – less than a quarter of a percentage point.
The most densely-populated state on the mainland of the Americas, El Salvador is a small and highly-industrialised country. Violent street gangs have left it with one of the world’s highest murder rates.