The Economist: Guatemala’s comedian-president fights the corruption-fighters


If you elect a clown, expect a circus

BEFORE he ran to be president of Guatemala two years ago, Jimmy Morales pretended to be a presidential candidate in a television sitcom called “Moralejas” (“Cautionary Tales”). Neto, the bumbling office-seeker, clad in a white suit, red bandanna and cowboy hat, decides that after telling “a boatload of lies” he will withdraw from the race. He offers the remaining (fictional) candidates some parting wisdom: “Haven’t you realised that people aren’t dumb? That people see how you go to sleep poor and wake up rich?”

In the real-life election of 2015 Mr Morales levelled the same sort of accusations at his rivals. It came soon after the country’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, and vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were arrested on corruption charges. Running as an outsider with no connection to the discredited political class, Mr Morales won 67% of the vote in a run-off that October.

Now Guatemalans are feeling duped. Mr Morales soon showed Neto-like ineptitude in exercising the powers of his office. Worse, many voters now see him as beholden to the system he ran against. On August 27th he ordered the expulsion from the country of Iván Velásquez, the Colombian head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala(CICIG), a UN-backed body that has been investigating corruption for more than a decade and helped bring down Mr Pérez and Ms Baldetti. Mr Morales’s order came less than two days after Mr Velásquez sought to strip him of immunity from prosecution, alleging that he had failed to disclose $900,000 in contributions to his presidential campaign.

Foreign groups, including the UN and the United States, condemned Mr Morales’s order. The constitutional court has now blocked it, so Mr Velásquez can continue his work. But the confrontation has shown that the accused can strike back at their accusers. And it leaves the country in a political limbo; the president has lost his moral authority, but no alternative leader commands widespread respect. The next national elections, due in 2019, are unlikely to provide one.

Things have got worse since the heady days of 2015, when perhaps 100,000 Guatemalans filled the streets to demand the removal of Mr Pérez and Ms Baldetti from office. Then, ordinary citizens and much of the country’s elite were united in disgust at the alleged wrongdoing that CICIG, working with the country’s attorney-general, Thelma Aldana, had uncovered. The two politicians were implicated in a scandal called La Línea, which involved taking bribes from businesses to let them avoid paying customs duties. Few Guatemalans were sorry to see them go.

Nasty networks

Since then, the scope of CICIG’s investigations has widened. One probe revealed that Mr Pérez’s Patriotic Party had set up shell companies for the sole purpose of soliciting donations from banks, oil firms and other companies in exchange for favours after they were elected. Such scandals have implicated dozens of businessmen. A fifth of congressmen are under investigation. Many of these have links to Guatemala’s vast underworld: more than two-thirds of the cocaine that enters the United States passes through the country. It is these networks, which have their origins in the country’s 36-year civil war, that CICIG was set up to investigate. A report by CICIG estimates that a quarter of campaign money comes from organised-crime groups.

Now it is going after Mr Morales’s National Convergence Front (FCN), which was founded in 2008 by former army officers and became a political home for legislators from Mr Pérez’s defunct Patriotic Party. Keeping such company has damaged Mr Morales’s reputation. Some of his advisers have been accused of committing atrocities during the war. A recent cartoon in a local newspaper portrayed Mr Morales as a puppet whose strings are pulled by generals. Although no one accuses Mr Morales of enriching himself, this year his son and brother were charged with issuing false invoices to the state property agency.

As CICIG’s investigations have expanded, opposition to it, and support for Mr Morales, have hardened. “There’s a climate of fear,” admits Fernando Linares Beltranena, an ultra-conservative congressman. He disparages Mr Velásquez, Ms Aldana and Todd Robinson, the American ambassador, as la trinca (“the trio”), a left-wing triumvirate that is plotting against the government. Why isn’t CICIG targeting street gangs?, the right wonders. The association of mayors has endorsed Mr Morales.

Businesspeople claim that CICIG’s investigations are driving away investment. That is hurting GDP growth, which is around 3% a year but is expected to slow. “Jimmy had the right to do what he did,” says one businesswoman. “The feeling [among Guatemala’s elites] now is, ‘Let’s protect ourselves, we’re all in the same boat’,” says Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a reformist former finance minister.

Just who will win the tussle between the frightened establishment and the 80% of Guatemalans who back CICIG is not clear. “If you elect a clown, expect a circus,” read banners carried by CICIG supporters at its headquarters in Guatemala City. But they encountered bigger groups of Morales backers, who blocked diplomatic cars from leaving. “I signed the peace accords but I can also make war,” said Álvaro Arzú, a former Guatemalan president who is now mayor of Guatemala City. To some, that sounded like a call for a crackdown on anti-Morales protesters. The national police cancelled leave for its officers.

The commission has few friends in congress, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove Mr Morales’s immunity. Congress has so far thwarted reforms backed by CICIG, such as extending judges’ terms from five years to 12 and shifting responsibility for administering the judicial system from the constitutional court to an independent council.

The next election may not bring much change. All the three main political blocs have been implicated in one scandal or another. Starting new parties is not easy: proto-parties have to collect 23,000 signatures, and a government commission wants to raise that number. A group of young activists called Movimiento Semilla (“Seed Movement”) hopes to put forward a presidential candidate in 2019 but has yet to choose one. The seed of renewal in Guatemala may take years to flower.