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Twenty years ago, Guatemala came to the end of its bloody, 36-year-long civil war. Here are four things to know about Guatemala’s steps towards democracy since then.
1. Getting to democracy has been rocky
In 1954, Col. Carlos Castillo Arma ousted Jacobo Arbenz, a democratically elected president. CIA archives reveal that the U.S. government backed this coup, as Arbenz’s communist ideals did not align with U.S. interests. Armas repealed land reforms, stripping thousands of poor Guatemalans of their land and their voting privileges. This led to a rebellion and Armas’s eventual assassination. By 1960, Guatemala was engaged in a violent civil war, a conflict that claimed over 200,000 lives and forced a million people from their homes.
During the next 36 years, a series of military-dominated governments fought against guerrilla groups representing the disenfranchised in Guatemala. Some rulers came to power through military coups; others were elected, amid allegations of widespread fraud. There were thousands of deaths and disappearances, particularly during the 1982-1983 period, when Gen. José Efrain Rios Montt was in command.
Guatemala’s courts are attempting to try Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, but the 90-year-old reportedly has dementia.
2. There have been democratic elections, but governance is still volatile
In 1994, Guatemala elected a civilian president, Ramiro De Leon Carpio. The new government initiated peace talks with the Guatemalan Revolutionary National Unity faction. The United Nations facilitated these negotiations, and Guatemala ultimately declared peace under its new president, Alvaro Arzu, in December 1996.
Since the peace of 1996, the country has had a series of democratic elections. None of them has returned an incumbent party to power, however, indicating the lingering volatility. Further, Guatemala has not left its violent legacy behind. For instance, in 2003, despite a constitutional ban, Montt ran for president. Voters chose not to elect the former dictator. The election had one of the highest turnouts in Guatemalan history – close to 80 percent.
But it is not black and white. In 2011, Otto Pérez Molina was elected president, despite military ties, on his promise to take severe action against organized crime.
3. There’s a big push underway to clean up scandal and corruption
A year ago, the La Línea corruption scandal once again brought scrutiny to Guatemala’s democratic governance. In April 2015, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) accused several high-profile politicians of taking bribes from importers in exchange for lower tariffs. In reaction to the CICIG report, there was widespread public outrage – and numerous nonviolent protests calling for the resignation of Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
The Guatemalan Justice Department launched a rigorous investigation, which culminated in the arrests of several high-level officials. Congress unanimously voted to strip the president of his prosecutorial immunity, which ultimately led to the arrests of Molina and Baldetti on corruption charges.
4. Citizens are pushing for a stronger rule of law
These events may seem like signs of a failing democratic system, but they can also be seen as a win for a budding democracy.
Here’s why: First, the 2015 scandal showed the power of civil society to combat corruption. For five months, protesters gathered repeatedly at Guatemala City’s central square demanding the president to resign. A Facebook call to mobilize, #RenunciaYa (Resign Now), brought together more than 100,000 protesters within a few days.
Second, the protests successfully pushed the Guatemalan Justice Department to respond. The investigation was thorough, and the public officials found guilty were punished. This was a historic moment in Guatemalan history, since the country’s justice system is ineffective and is ranked extremely low on the Global Competitive Index in Judicial Independence.
Third, quite simply, the 2015 events did not lead to a military coup, but to a democratic election. Jimmy Morales, a former television comedian, was elected on a platform of trustworthiness, despite his inexperience in politics. But the voter turnout was less than 50 percent, indicating citizens’ frustration and skepticism with the democratic process. Moreover, Morales’s affiliation with the party called the National Convergence Front. which was founded by former generals with ties to human rights violations, seems problematic. However, the party has tried to build a new populist image.
Further, despite concerns with the democratic process, the judicial branch in Guatemala is demonstrating increased strength. In February, Attorney General Thelma Aldana convicted a number of high-ranking military officials on charges of sexual violence and enslavement. This case marks the first conviction in the world for sexual slavery by a country’s domestic prosecution. It signals not only the great capacity of the judicial institutions but also reinforces Guatemala’s commitment to the rule of law.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of peace, is there a clear democratic path in Guatemala? There have been some promising signs of accountability, rule of law and public participation in governance, particularly in the past year. But this remains countered by a violent past, continued military presence, low voter turnout in the previous election, and lack of clarity on the new president Morales’s ability to push Guatemalan democracy forward.
Kiran Alwani and Corrin Bulmer are graduate students in the master’s of public policy and global affairs program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Alwani can be found on Twitter @KiranAlwani and Bulmer @CorrinSBulmer.