Alina Rocha Menocal

Guatemala: Transformation against the odds

A new article by DLP Senior Research Fellow Alina Rocha Menocal discusses how the combination of an internationally-backed initiative against organised crime and a mass protest movement has played a crucial role in sowing the seeds for 'transformation against the odds' in Guatemala. The article appears in Dialogue, the Kings College London Politics Society journal.

Gautemala is a fascinating example of how an internationally supported anti-corruption initiative can harness internal pressures for reform. The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has opened up spaces that would have been near inaccessible in any other way, given Guatemala’s highly exclusionary socio-economic and political system.

This, combined with public outrage at proof unearthed by the CICIG that President Otto Pérez Molina was not only head of state, but headed a parallel nationwide criminal structure of high-ranking officials and corrupt businessmen, has brought about unprecedented – and unexpected – change.

Pérez Molina had been a high-ranking general in the former military regime and head of its murky intelligence apparatus in the 1990s; and as such he was thought to be untouchable. However, after the CICIG published details of a multi-million-dollar customs scam early in 2015, Guatemala experienced a period of unprecedented social mobilisation. After weeks of mass protests staged by citizens from all walks of life – the middle classes, indigenous peoples, union members and rural workers – Pérez Molina was finally forced to resign.

The CICIG was established in 2007, the outcome of protracted negotiations between the government, civil society organisations and the United Nations, with support from the international community. Through the CICIG, Guatemala effectively outsourced part of its judicial system. Unlinked to the business class, the military, judges or legislators – and protected by its international sponsorship – it couldn’t be influenced. 

Alina describes the Commission, a unique initiative in the UN’s history, as a ‘rare, politically astute and bold step’ taken by the international community to directly combat impunity and tackle corruption and the structures that maintain it. Once it became clear that public opinion was firmly behind its work, the Catholic Church and even the powerful Chamber of Commerce (CACIF) were forced to side with the protestors.  

She adds, however, that history has shown that it is often easier to remove an undesirable leader than it is to build an inclusive, representative and accountable political system. While the assumption that Guatemala’s elites can continue to use and abuse power with impunity has come unhinged, the new president Jimmy Morales, a former comedian who has no previous experience of government, faces a steep political climb. 

View full article as a PDF (reproduced with permission).

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The Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) is an international research initiative that explores how leadership, power and political processes drive or block successful development.

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