Popular movement takes down Guatemala’s president

    With the resignation and arrest of Guatemala's president the anti-corruption movement has won a major victory, but the struggle is not over.

    After nearly 21 weeks, the Guatemalans that have taken to the streets in protest to demand that the country’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, resign have won a major victory. Early in the morning on September 3, news broke that the president had officially resigned.

    The president’s spokesman made the announcement at 1 a.m. The president had previously refused to resign, but faced with growing protests, plummeting support and the filing of criminal charges, Pérez Molina could not continue.

    This is an historic development in the history of Guatemala: a peaceful movement in a country that has been plagued by violence managed to nonviolently take down a government of ex-military figures.

    The Guatemalan Congress quickly ratified the president’s resignation, and recognized the country’s interim vice president, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, as the new president.

    Pérez Molina’s decision to resign came the day after the Guatemalan Congress voted to strip him of his immunity. The decision was made unanimously, with only 24 congressional deputies abstaining.

    Following the decision, representatives from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, a United Nations-sponsored anti-corruption and impunity organization that has operated in Guatemala since 2007, and the Guatemalan Public Ministry filed an arrest warrant for the president.

    The anti-corruption movement began in April following revelations by CICIG of a criminal network, referred to as “The Line,” that operated in the administration and was linked to the president and vice president.

    Over four dozen public officials were forced to resign following accusations of corruption, including the president, vice president, minister of the interior and the minister of defense, among others. The president and vice president have both been arrested and face prosecution.

    The announcement comes as a vindication for the few politicians who had fought against corruption in the government, including Congressional Deputy Amilcar Pop, who was the first to file a denouncement against the president following the accusation of corruption. Pop has received death threats for his campaign against the president.

    Furthermore, the resignation and arrest of the president strengthens and justifies the wider movement against corruption.

    Beyond Pérez Molina

    It was a festive atmosphere in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city, following the news of the president’s resignation. Protesters celebrated with music and fireworks. Similar celebrations were held across the country. But organizers know and acknowledge that this isn’t the end of the struggle; there is still a long way to go.

    “The struggle continues,” said Donald Urizar, an organizer with the Quetzaltenango branch of the “Resign Already” movement. “We have removed the military to a certain point, but it will return through the same system and the same power. Right now comes the real work. We need the CICIG and the Guatemalan Public Ministry to remove the current candidates that have charges against them following the election. And we must articulate that the citizenry knows and understands that this was never just about Otto Pérez Molina, but rather about changing the system into something that benefits all Guatemalans.”

    He added that there is further concern created by the interim president, “who wasn’t elected by the people and comes from the ideology of the extreme right.”

    Also according to Urizar, the movement has discussed different scenarios of the results of the presidential election, and what the outcome will mean for the movement. Specifically they are preparing for the likelihood of voting manipulation by the large political parties, such as LIDER, a pseudo-populist party with known connection to criminal organizations.

    Demanding the resignation of now ex-President Otto Pérez Molina was just one part of the movement against corruption. As the movement grew and evolved, it brought in other demands, including reforms to Guatemala’s laws governing political parties and elections.

    Another report by CICIG released in July echoed these concerns of protesters. The anti-corruption institution uncovered the presence of illicit financing in this and past election cycles, stating that narco-traffickers, and national and international companies were illegally participating in the peddling of influence in the electoral campaigns.

    The pending elections on September 6 have already been discredited. Increasingly, protesters have called for a delay of the presidential elections, arguing, “In these conditions of crisis, we do not want elections.”

    The need to delay elections has spurred the new phase of the movement.

    On September 4, protesters associated with the Popular and Social Assemblies, an organization of over 72 indigenous, campesino and women’s organizations that emerged at the beginning of the movement, began an encampment outside the Guatemalan Electoral Council demanding the delay of elections. The electoral council building has increasingly been the site of protests with participants calling for the suspension of the campaigns of the LIDER party.

    The Popular and Social Assemblies have become an integral part in the organizing during these protests. They organized a three-day “general strike” between August 25 and 27. Campesinos shut down highways and students marched through the cities. The protests culminated in a massive and historic day of protest on August 27, when over 100,000 people protested in Guatemala City, and tens of thousands more in rural areas.

    More than just an urban movement

    The “Resign Already” movement against the president and corruption in Guatemala extended well beyond just the capital. It stretched to every corner of the country and encompassed almost every sector of Guatemalan society.

    One of the major regions for organizing was Quetzaltenango, or Xela, as it is commonly known. A unique branch of the movement developed there and grew from the anger over corruption in those communities and in the country.

    “Guatemala City has always been the center of power, and Quetzaltenango has been outside of this sphere of influence,” Urizar said. “We decided to start a replica of the march demanding the resignation of Otto Pérez Molina and [former Vice President] Roxana Baldetti, because we knew that there were people here who were angry as well, and couldn’t travel to the city.”

    In Xela a movement formed that is a little different than the one in Guatemala City. The leadership and organizers in Xela are openly known, whereas there are still questions about several leaders of the movement in the capital. And the organizing in Xela has extended beyond the streets to other projects. On August 13, the movement organized an open forum for voters to hear from and to know the various mayoral candidates in Xela.

    “We have been working with this dynamic as a movement,” Urizar said. “We have been marching through the streets demanding reforms and real change of the political climate we have in Guatemala. We are creating a conscious citizenry.”

    But this project and movement has brought more backlash from supporters of the administration than in the movement in the capital. Beside accusations of being affiliated with a political party, Xela was the site of some of the only violence and intimidation against organizers when the property of organizer Tony Pérez was burned to the ground.

    In the rural areas the protests took on another form. On multiple occasions campesinos blocked highways to demand the resignation of the president.

    Through all of this, Guatemalans have learned from the short history of the movement that led to this victory.

    “We have learned that a movement of people can change things and that blocking the highway and strikes work,” Griselda Pocop, an activist from Sololá, said.

    But throughout the whole movement, the dedication to nonviolence in the face of a system that is known for violence stood out. The leaders have stated that they will continue to follow this philosophy.

    “The people have the power right now,” Urizar said. “But we are still in the process of creating a new Guatemala from the small communities. And we are doing this without violence and without weapons.”

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