On Guatemala, Corruption, and the Strength of Democracy in Latin America

While much of the focus here has fallen on the recent corruption scandal in Brazil, there is another case in Latin America where the public and legal actors are beginning to hold political elites responsible for corrupt practices. In Guatemala, a scandal has been building over a massive bribery scheme. The scandal itself is widespread and complex, but effectively, extremely high-ranking officials took bribes to lower customs duties, thus enriching themselves while defrauding Guatemala of what amounts to millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars. The allegations reached the upper-most levels of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s cabinet, with Vice President Roxana Baldetti resigning in May. This occurred even while a separate social security scandal erupted, with the head of Guatemala’s Central Bank and the president of Guatemala’s Social Security Institute were charged with bribery in a contract scandal, leading to the arrest of both men and other officials. Since May, Guatemalans have taken to the streets repeatedly, demanding a full investigation, the removal of Molina, and an end to corruption.

Those demonstrations, and the investigations surrounding the scandals, helped lead to yesterday’s events, in which police formally arrested Baldetti on corruption charges. Meanwhile, with the aid of the United Nations’ CICIG (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala,  International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala), prosecutors have gathered enough evidence for a public prosecutor to call for President Molina’s impeachment amidst increasing evidence that he is directly tied to the customs scandal. All of this is occurring even as Guatemala gears up for presidential elections next month. Suffice to say, it has led to a moment that is simultaneously politically tumultuous and socially ferment, as people in the streets have pressured government officials and investigators to pursue investigation of these officials while demanding an end to corruption and impunity for the political elites in Guatemala.

Some will inevitably see what is going on now in Guatemala and Brazil as evidence of corruption being endemic to Latin America, but that would be to misread the circumstances and historical context in several regards. Politics and economics have long been the domain of the socio-economic elite, and they have used that power to their benefit, be it in post-independence Latin America or elsewhere in the world. As these countries have moved into more democratic regimes (and, to a much more mixed degree, democratic societies), the political and economic institutions have been slow to change. The result has been an ongoing privileged group (often male-dominated) that uses its power to continue to defend its interests and privileges even in the face of juridically illegal practices within democratic governments. Additionally, the long-term failure to indict elites for corrupt practices has simultaneously reflected and shaped a broader culture of impunity in much of Latin America – the same culture that sees police go uncharged for extrajudicial killings, that still sees far too many torturers and human rights violators remain free through amnesties of military regimes. Finally, the ways in which one defines corruption matter, too – depending on how one defines corrupt activities within democratic societies, one can make the argument the US is highly corrupt itself. (The point being not that Latin America is somehow not corrupt in its own ways, but that definitions of corruption are cultural, and relying only on definitions that define activities elsewhere as corrupt while excluding troubling practices in one’s own country creates its own problems.)

However, the fact that we are seeing real investigations, charges, and social movements against corruption in places like Guatemala and Brazil actually speaks not to the weakness of democratic regimes in these countries, but to their growing strength, both institutionally and socially. Institutionally, a democratic regime that can investigate and punish corrupt politicians works to ensure a greater representation and transparency in government. Socially, people demanding an end to corruption and turning against politicians who abuse their privilege – be it in Brazil in 2013, Guatemala, Honduras, or elsewhere – works toward making politicians consider and (hopefully) work toward representing the peoples’ interests, rather than their own individual greed. That these things are happening now suggests not that democracy is failing in these regions, but that it’s working. Put another way: because in the past these politicians would not even face questions and suddenly now have to answer to judicial officials, to the press, to the public, suggests not a weakness of a system, but its strengthening. It’s a step away from the system serving as the means for politicians to extend their privilege, and a step toward a political system that, while far from perfect, is at least closer to representing or reflecting the public’s voice. There’s still a long way to go for true democracy – politically, economically, socially – in the region, but reducing elites’ impunity within governing institutions is an important part of that process, and the investigations and protests in both Guatemala and Brazil are examples of that process.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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