Latin America

Waves of protests rock Guatemalan and Honduran governments

Corruption scandals have spawned a spring of discontent in Central America

Guatemala City / San José (Costa Rica) -
A recent anti-government protest in Guatemala City.
A recent anti-government protest in Guatemala City.STRINGER (REUTERS)

A Central American spring of discontent has swept across Guatemala and Honduras – and could now affect neighboring El Salvador – as citizens grow tired of ongoing violence and corruption, and head out to join a protest movement organized, not through traditional channels, but via the social networks.

In just a few weeks, increasing public demonstrations in Guatemala and Honduras have forced the governments of both countries against the wall and shaken institutional structures as their two presidents try to hang on to their jobs.

The presidents of Guatemala and Honduras are both trying to hang on to their jobs

In an area with low personal income and one of the highest homicide rates in the world, the fight for more government transparency and honesty has awakened an excitement not seen in decades.

It began on April 25 in Guatemala where two universities used the social networks to organize a demonstration in front of the old government palace in Guatemala City to demand that President Otto Molina Pérez clean up his government.

A scandal into a customs fraud and bribery conspiracy at Guatemala’s tax agency allegedly organized by a corrupt gang of officials began brewing.

The protests extended to other cities across the nation and eventually cost Vice President Roxana Baldetti her job in early May when her name surfaced in the investigation.

The protests extended to other Guatemalan cities and eventually cost Vice President Roxana Baldetti her job

Despite undertaking a Cabinet reshuffle to appease public opinion, President Pérez Molina’s reputation and popularity have been badly beaten. Nevertheless, he insists he wants to serve out the rest of his term, which ends next year.

But last week the Supreme Court opened an investigation to determine whether to strip the Guatemalan leader of his immunity so that he can answer to charges that he may have covered up the investigation and amassed personal wealth, as alleged in a complaint filed by the opposition.

According to sociologists Carlos Guzmán Böckler and Gustavo Berganza, these massive protests would not have been possible without the social networks, over which the government has no control.

“In this awakening, Guatemalans are demanding a different country; a new formula that would permit changing the political fabric with more transparency on political party financing, which has always been dependent on shady sources who ask for favors in the end,” says analyst Edgar Gutiérrez.

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The direction of this new movement is unclear because its structure remains weak and it has no clear leadership. And despite the growing pressure from protestors, there have been no tangible results so far.

“In Honduras, we are going to have our own spring the moment we force the president to resign,” says Ariel Varela, one of the organizers of the massive demonstrations that have been taking place in one of the poorest countries in Central America.

A $350-million embezzlement that allegedly occurred between 2010 and 2014 at the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) has tarnished President Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration and ruling National Party (PN), which was first swept into government into 2010.

According to the allegations, the PN drew in large sums of cash from the IHSS through both ghost companies and big withdrawals, which went to finance its local and national campaigns in 2013.

President Hernández has admitted that his party may have received illegal contributions, but affirmed that “no one has bought their impunity, and corrupt officials must answer to the law.” He also promised “zero tolerance of abuses.”

A $350-million alleged embezzlement at the social security offices has angered Hondurans

But in a country where 42 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and where medicines are scarce, the ransacking of the IHSS is what has made people really angry.

Varela, a 34-year-old married father of three, claims he does not belong to any organized protest movement and considers himself just another “indignant one.”

More than 7,000 people participated in one of the first demonstrations in May. “If each one of those Hondurans had taken part in the ransacking, they would have each received $47,000,” Varela says. “It is an unfortunate disaster, not so much because of the money that was stolen, but because of the deaths of many Hondurans who could not receive basic medicine. Honduras is living under an epidemic of corruption.”

Like in Guatemala, the protests were organized on the social networks and in no time spread across Honduras with new demands.

A long drought has affected the country’s agriculture sector, and people have been falling sick with chikungunya, a tropical flu-like illness transmitted by mosquitoes that can be deadly in the young and elderly.

Like in Guatemala, people in Honduras were called out to protest through the social networks

At the same time new scandals are surfacing. On May 20, the son of former President Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014) was arrested in Haiti by US drug agents, who have accused him of narcotics trafficking.

And now the social explosion may also spill over into El Salvador, where President Salvador Sánchez Cerén in April called out strike forces after two major rival street gangs began a new wave of violence, which many fear is leading to a re-militarization of the country.

Honduras and Guatemala are experiencing their own springs of discontent. The budding protest movements have been building up the tension in Central America, but at the same time could sprout the beginnings of a new era.

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