Hannah Spyksma & Luis Barrueto: Crisis, corruption & comedy in Guatemala

It was a pretty average Spring in London by all accounts, when I stayed with Guatemalan Luis Barrueto at his Holloway flat in late-April, 2015. For the few days I was there we did all the things 20-somethings should do while studying abroad; stayed up late, partied, saw the sights and attended street festivals. But for all my hedonistic London encounters, something much more important was going on for Luis.

Back home, President Otto Pérez Molina had been found guilty of tax fraud, and lost the political backing to stay in parliament. Guatemalans at home and around the world were fed up. They wanted political immunity removed from Molina and other high-ranked members of his Cabinet. “For the first time in Guatemalan history people forcing for change and protesting on the streets had managed to raise pressure at the political level,” says Luis.

He was among them, organising demonstrations in London that bookended my visit, in support of the main protests back home.

I remained, unsurprisingly, relatively unaware of all Luis’ behind-the-scenes political work and the seriousness of the situation. After a late night out, a few too many drinks and an initial missed flight, we parted ways and have stayed in contact – via Facebook – since. To be honest, I haven’t given the situation in Guatemala much thought beyond our meeting. But in September, Luis put an SOS call out to our alumni network of journalists from around the world.

Back in Guatemala, Luis’ medium for international protest has shifted to online. He wrote to our network calling for media to spotlight an unfolding political crisis with a serious sense of déjà vu. In the space of two years Guatemala had not only ousted one corrupt President. They had also, with little choice, elected a new President who was “basically picked as the least worse option available to us in 2015,” says Luis.

“For the first time in Guatemalan history people forcing for change and protesting on the streets had managed to raise pressure at the political level.”

Despite campaigning on promises of political reform, political outsider, former TV comedian and current President Jimmy Morales is now being investigated for bribery and fraud. In Guatemala, he says, corruption “is not the mere deviation of public officials’ behaviour. It is a systemic linkage between criminal groups and elected officials to divert public funds to private pockets, and promote their agendas through the power of the state.”

And this time round, protesting hasn’t changed the situation.

The country remains in a state of political limbo and now, two-and-a-half years on since Luis and I hung out in London, I’m filling in the gaps of an ongoing political crisis that isn’t showing any signs of resolution. It’s a disheartening situation to say the least, given that over the past decade Guatemala has been acknowledged as a leading country in the Central and South American region for addressing state-sanctioned corruption.

But it’s one that perhaps the world should be paying a little more attention to. The rise of Jimmy Morales rings eerie alarm bells for the consequences of electing a president with little knowledge of political processes.

How a comedian rode a populist wave of dissent to power

Like all good tales of zero to hero, it didn’t start like this.

“I think when I got back everybody was having a moment – sort of 15 minutes of optimism, rather than fame,” says Luis, who returned to Guatemala City in late-2015 after completing an MA degree from City, University of London. “But the mood quickly became sour.” One of the complexities of Guatemala’s current political situation is that the nation is in the process of trying to reform its electoral system. But approving legislation requires sign-off from the President’s office – and, prior to that, the Senate and Congress agreeing on a proposal that has had public, cross-sector input.

This meant that when Pérez Molina and his Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) were finally ousted in September 2015, there were few mechanisms in place to enable new parties and fresh faces to stand for office. And the options for replacing him were, according to Luis, relatively banal. “Everyone was hopeful that we managed to kick out one president, but when we went to elect the next one there were no clear examples of good people that would go into politics and, sort of, renew the system,” he says. “That didn’t happen.”

“When Pérez Molina and his Partido Patriota were finally ousted, there were few mechanisms in place to enable new parties and fresh faces to stand for office.”

Most candidates were people the public already knew from past elections, or who had taken positions in office before. Several had made deals with the party Frente de Convergencia Nacional, FCN–Nación. If they managed to get back into power, they would select people to the courts, for example, as a way to control the judiciary processes. “They were covered by the same blanket, we say.”

But then along came Jimmy Morales. “He had made some comedy programmes – they weren’t great – but he was known for that among the population,” says Luis. “People in FCN-Nación – well they basically turned to him as a nice, fresh figure that would allow their party to be elected to office.” While FCN was a new party in name, it was controlled by former military men and other hardliners who basically chose Morales to whitewash the party’s intentions. Morales “was less a strategic populist, so to speak – he was more of a person that was in the right spot at the right time to ride the wave to get elected.”

But being President isn’t quite that easy. “When he was actually in power he was not so much a proxy [to FCN-Nación] as he was during the campaign,” says Luis. “But Morales was still a weaker man than you would expect a regular president who is not an outsider to be. He was really inexperienced, and he was really not connected with the way politics works in this country.” Although many wanted to give him the benefit of doubt, Luis counts himself as among those who were skeptical.

“He had an opportunity to perform as the reformer, the fresh face to clean up corruption. He was elected in a climate that was already determined by that topic. I mean, the focus was not on violence, or unemployment and growth and whatnot, but on the single issue of corruption. So he had to be one thing and support the anti-corruption fight and it would have been great for him to position himself as a key reformer.”

From charm to corruption – the unfurling of a politician

In this respect, Morales has clearly fallen short.

Luis’ calls for international attention on the unfolding situation in Guatemala follow a major political gaff in September. Morales, whose Presidency quickly became a bad joke, tried to kick Colombian national Iván Velásquez out of the country. It was, for want of a better phrase, a politically dumb move.

Velásquez is head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed international watchdog established in 2007 to hold politicians to account as part of an anti-corruption movement in the country. Velasquez has been trying to lift impunity from Morales in order to fully investigate him for fraud and bribery, as had been done for Pérez Molina two years ago.

“He had to be one thing and support the anti-corruption fight and it would have been great for him to position himself as a key reformer.” 

Early into his presidency in 2016 there were a few tip-offs that Morales might move away from a transparency agenda, says Luis. “But in the end, what turned out to be the determining factor, where he stepped out of line from the anti-corruption narrative, was that at some point CICIG was investigating a different issue altogether – something to do with private property registry.”

“The Commission found some fake invoices related to purchases that the president’s son and brother had made, so they put them under investigation. That managed to be the breaking point for Morales regarding the anti-corruption fight, and that point was when he started turning it personal rather than a state issue.”

Guatemala’s constitutional court was able to block Morales’ move to declare Velásquez a persona non-grata, and there is now some international pressure on the country, including from the US and EU. Morales hasn’t yet been convicted of any wrongdoing, but his lack of willingness to cooperate, along with his brother and son’s charges, is not a good look. Especially for a country trying to make inroads on political reform.

The calm before the storm: Can electoral reform happen before 2019?

And so, the country is at a stalemate.

Luis says the feeling in Guatemala City at the moment is that of the calm before a storm. The storm being the 2019 general election. He hopes there will be an opportunity, and enough time, to implement much-awaited electoral law and political party system reform. But between now and then that reform must be brought forward to Parliament and legislated – otherwise they risk waiting until 2023. A big task, considering the President’s current predicament.

The agenda for reform is, at a high level, relatively straightforward. “This is basically just a procedural form where we can just unlock the democratic process and renew the political class. Everybody has come to the conclusion that in order to unlock the political decisionmaking process what needs to happen is to allow for new political figures to sort of jump into the foreground and be elected in the upcoming 2019 election.”

The proposals being talked about include a variety of things. Attempts at reform to strengthen the justice system, for example, were shelved in Congress last year. And other initiatives to improve transparency and reduce opacity in how state institutions are managed have also floundered.

“In order to unlock the political decisionmaking process what needs to happen is to allow for new political figures to jump into the foreground and be elected in the upcoming 2019 election.”

The challenge right now is getting different sectors – civil, public, private and international – on the same page. It’s a matter of whether they can they come together and approve a “marriageable reform” to the electoral law and political party system. Or, as Luis says, “whether the congressmen will be able to get away with a different proposal or nothing happening all together, both of which would be scenarios that are convenient to them.”

The situation has in many ways cycled back to 2015, a time when – as Luis and I were dancing salsa in Southbank – people were demanding dialogue. Luis has talked before about this. How, at that time it seemed there was a groundswell of sentiment that change was possible. It was a historic moment for the country in that various sectors of society, cutting across various demographics, were united. The question remains now, whether – with Morales’ lack of ability to lead – that dialogue can still happen.

“I think overall the situation is quite good,” says Luis. “These issues are coming up to the surface and people are recognising that things as they used to be aren’t quite the same.” But whether Morales has the last laugh and stays on as President for the rest of his term, still remains to be seen.

Luis Eduardo Barrueto is an activist, journalist and academic, based in Guatemala. He holds a joint MA in Journalism, Media and Globalisation from City, University of London and Aarhus University. Find him on Twitter.

Hannah Spyksma is Media & Climate Editor at Impolitikal. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.