Every government has its share of problems. Google “government scandals” are you can learn about Indonesia’s death penalty programs, Italy’s nepotism, or misused aid funds in Greece. Mention the U.S. and the names Nixon, Grant, and Clinton come to mind.
Government corruption is nothing new in Guatemala. The country is still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and included genocide against indigenous peoples. While the government is now a democracy, there are still many problems within the system like nepotism, bribery, and relationships with gangs.
For several weeks thousands of people have gathered to have large peaceful protests in downtown Guatemala City to call for the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who are accused of embezzling approximately $130 million from the national treasury through an elaborate tax-fraud scheme. Juan Carlos Monzon, Baldetti’s private secretary, allegedly played a large role in the plan and has fled the country. He is thought to be in Honduras.
This latest political scandal is nicknamed La linea (the line) and the uproar it is causing is significant. Guatemala has an incredibly wide wealth disparity with over 50% of its population lives in poverty, so these latest accusations are especially an affront to the poor.
What is unique about these protests are that they are mainly youth-led and social media has been instrumental in their success. Guatemalan college and high school students are tired of living in a supposedly democratic society where they feel that their vote never goes toward a person who actually wants to create positive change.
Speaking with my friend and current university student, Marina, she explained why the protests matter to Guatemalans. “When you go to vote,” she said, “the three biggest partidos politicos are listed on the ballot first, so most people just vote for one of them, even though they are not good parties.”
“In the past, people have protested by nullifying their vote or checking off multiple votes, but that doesn’t help anyone,” Marina said. “Now, people say to vote for a candidate or party that doesn’t have much publicity. They won’t win, but you’re not giving your vote to a bad party.”
I asked her what kind of difference she thought the protests are making. “Guatemalans protest for everything, but this is one of the first times a protest has been for such a specific reason. Everyone here knows the protests won’t actually make those in power quit, but we want to show them that we know what they’re doing.” On May 8, Vicepresidenta Baldetti officially resigned from office.
It was only after a series of peaceful protests that a government committee spoke out against the scandal and Baldetti left office. This move gives hope to those protesting that their voices are being heard in the fight against corruption.
It’s been a bit surreal knowing that while these protests have been going on in the city I’m currently living in, there are other protests happening back in the U.S. Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner may be household names there, but most Guatemalans I’ve spoken with are unaware of the protests and riots their deaths have influenced. It’s not fair to compare the protests in Guatemala to those throughout the U.S., though there are some similarities.
There is a tendency to look at the injustice in both countries, shrug your shoulders, take the easy route, and give into apathy. As Christians, we are called to engage the issues happening in our world, even though it may be difficult. In 2013, Pope Francis told an audience of 500 young people, “Have courage. Go forward. Make noise…against this civilization that is doing so much harm. Got that? Go against the tide, and that means making noise. Go ahead. But with the values of beauty, goodness and truth.” Guatemalans are taking that advice and won’t stop making noise until they are heard.