Of elections and other fables: Guatemala today

by Jim Hodgson

My recent sojourn in Guatemala coincided with the formal launch of Guatemala’s 2023 election campaigns in March. But not everyone who wants to run will be allowed on ballots.

Voters will head to the polls on June 25 to elect a new president, vice-president, 160 congress members, 20 seats in the Central American Parliament, and mayors and counsellors in 340 municipalities. 

Leading the list of those banned from running is Thelma Cabrera, a 52-year-old Indigenous farm-worker who was to be the candidate of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP). 

She is blocked because her running mate, Jordán Rodas, could not present a letter stating there are no corruption cases open against him—even though other politicians with pending cases were allowed to register. From 2017 until last year, Rodas served as a human rights prosecutor, but he was forced to leave Guatemala because he had allied himself with anti-corruption efforts. Several times this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has warned that new prosecutors are using the judicial system to harass and prosecute justice officials who previously investigated crimes of corruption.

The MLP emerged before the last election four years ago as the “political arm of a social movement”—the Comité de Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA, the Farmworkers Development Committee). 

“We are seeking to transform the country, after all the injustices we have suffered,” Cabrera told Associated Press recently. The MLP’s main objectives are the nationalization of basic services; promotion of a Popular and Plurinational Constituent Assembly to build a plurinational state from the Indigenous’ autonomies and territories; and recovery of land and water for cultivation and consumption.

But you know who IS allowed to run? Zury Ríos, the daughter of the former military dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the 1982 coup and who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide. The constitution bans close family members of coup organizers from running for office, but in the case of Ríos, the law is simply overlooked.

Campaign posters abound, mounted by a vast array of political parties. 
For about 20 days in March, I was in Guatemala in the company of people from the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking The Silence Network (BTS) and the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA, Highlands Committee of Small Farmers). You can read about our specific activities with regard to Indigenous land rights and fair-trade coffee on the BTS site.

As I set out to write about these elections, I struggled with how we think about corruption, democracy and, yet again, notions of development. I mean, why should I pick on Guatemala for its apparent failures? Scores of countries seem unable or unwilling to quash corruption or expand democratic participation, much less advance policies to promote the common good (“vivir bien”) or to “rule by obeying” the people (“mandar obedeciendo,” as the Zapatistas in Chiapas have been doing in their communities for almost 30 years now). 

In writing in these blogposts about development, I have tried to emphasize the importance of good political choices in shaping development priorities. This is true weather protecting the greenbelt around Toronto from urban sprawl or creating conditions in Guatemala that might allow people to remain in their homes instead of migrating northward. 

A lot of what gets talked about in Guatemala is corruption–sometimes defined as use of public office for private gain and sometimes as a problem of opacity: “how much do things really cost?” And it’s real: judges, prosecutors, police; government officials (congress members, civil servants). 

But I am uncomfortable using the term without broader context. Sometimes, discourse about corruption is linked to the problem of under-development in ways that make the rich northern countries seem innocent. But please think of debates in the United States, for example, over campaign financing and gerrymandering of voter districts, or in Canada of the coziness of real estate developers with the government of Ontario or of mining companies with their reluctant regulators

Discourse about corruption in Guatemala and elsewhere needs to be examined for bias. I can’t do a complete lit review in this blog space, but here’s an essay (2001) that deconstructs the way the World Bank has used the term. Another researcher (2006) looks at ways “the anti-corruption consensus” leads to omissions that then fail to engage the “core problems of politics and ethics.” People in wealthier countries should examine their own polities—take the log out of their own eyes before remarking on the specks in the eyes of others (Matthew 7:3-5).

Discourse about democracy can also be problematic. Countries of the global North seem content that others observe formal democracy: fairly regular elections, multiple parties, etc.—but put up obstacles when governments in the global South try to change their essential, existential problem: poverty. 

In the face of that overwhelming reality, talk of formal democracy remains unconvincing. People no longer expect “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité” or “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” or even “Peace, Order and Good Government” to trickle down from the Western democracies. Indeed, liberal democracies these days are leaving doors wide open to fascism because liberals are more interested in unrestrained capitalism and in protecting private property than in easing the problems of poverty and growing inequality faced by the wretched of the earth (Frantz Fanon) or even taking on the more focused challenge of addressing root causes of migration while more than 100 million people are on the move.

One thought on “Of elections and other fables: Guatemala today

  1. Thanks Jim. Colonialism of the historic type and modern economic capitalistic imperialism continue to undermine economic and social justice in too many nations, esp. global south.
    Canada needs to revise from “peace, order, and good govt” back to “peace, well-being, and good govt” as fundamental values.

    Liked by 2 people

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