Retail Democracy in Guatemala

So my intention in starting a blog was to write in it at least once a week (I know all my readers await my posts with bated breath). However, I’ve been going back and forth a bit with USAID because there is a possibility that the powers that be need to approve my blog posts.  But I figured I might as well forge ahead, while the situation gets resolved.

Last week I posted an editorial written by friend of mine that I found quite provocative (Spanish readers can find the article here) in Facebook.  I would like to consider that piece in more detail here.  Essentially, the author goes through a list of the shortcomings of Guatemala’s democracy, including:

  • Unaccountable congress in which legislators change parties frequently and where private interests are at the heart of the legislative agenda
  • The new head of the congress, who has clear ties to the country’s economic elite
  • The new human rights ombudsman, who negotiated his election with political parties and surely has favors to pay back, and has taken no action in the wake of the massacre of campesinos by the military during a protest in Totonicapan in October

This is clearly just a sample of Guatemala’s democratic deficits and dysfunctional public institutions.  The author could have gone into the corruption of public servants, the ineffectiveness of the justice system, or the complicity of elements of the security sector in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings.  Yet the few examples provided are enough to remind any reader familiar with the Guatemalan context of the superficiality of country’s democracy.  Retail democracy, according to the author, is not the selling of democracy so much as it is the treating of the state as a business that exists for the private benefit of those elected or appointed to be its custodians.

The author laments that Guatemalans complain of the situation in which their country languishes, but do not set foot out the door and become part of the change.  He cites movements against austerity in Spain and of students demanding public education in Chile, and correctly points out that citizens must safeguard democracy, rather than leaving that most important of tasks up to the government (particularly governments enmeshed in the very democratic shortcomings elaborated earlier).

The solution to democracy’s problems, it has often been said, is more democracy, and often more participatory democracy.  That is what the author is arguing.  Citizens must participate in order for democracy to function.  Fair enough.  But how?

Lets look at some recent examples of citizen participation in Guatemala over the past couple of years and see if they represent a nascent movement that might address the country’s flawed democracy.

  1. Totonicapan campasino movement.  The protests during which 7 campesinos were murdered were rejecting constitutional reforms proposed by President Otto Perez Molina.  One of the reforms would change the way electricity is billed.  The protesters claimed it would raise electricity prices.  It seems that there exists a potent and capable organization of communities in Totonicapan, with the capacity to turn out thousands of members, as was well demonstrated by the protests of the constitutional reforms and the subsequent protest of the killings, in which thousands descended on the capital.  Yet there are also accusations that the movement was manipulated by opponents of the government, seeking to scuttle the reform proposal and thus weaken the president politically.
  2. Broader campesino movement.  The National Coordinator of Campesino Organizations (CNOC) has organized several marches on the capital to highlight the desperate plight of the country’s rural indigenous poor.  They have succeeded in maintaining dialogue with the current administration and keeping important items, such as a rural development law proposal, in the spotlight.  Concrete results have not been as forthcoming, but CNOC seems to realize gains will only be realized if they continue to press their case (though without blocking highways, as other movements, including the Totonicapan protests, have done).
  3. Cristina Siekavizza movement.  Cristina, from a well-off family in Guatemala City, disappeared from her house in 2011.  Her husband, who also disappeared along with the couple’s 2 young children, is widely assumed to have murdered her. After Cristina’s disappearance, a movement formed to pressure the government to solve the case and bring her husband to justice.  The core of this movement is made up of Cristina’s family and friends, from Guatemala’s middle and upper classes, who have maintained the visibility of Christina’s case and continued to demand justice.
  4. Rosenburg Murder protests.  Thousands of young people took to the streets of Guatemala City in 2009 to demand the resignation of then-president Alvaro Colom in the wake of the death of a prominent lawyer, who left a video message days before his death claiming that the president was responsible.  This bizarre case (Rosenburg actual hired hitmen to kill himself; an excellent article about the story can be found here) involved elements of Guatemala’s far right, intent on removing the only “leftist” leader the country has seen in the past half century.  The protesters, the vast majority of whom represented the country’s middle and upper classes, were clearly duped and politically manipulated.  Yet there antipathy for the then-government was real and seemingly primarily based on the then-presidents stated agenda to focus on the country’s rural and indigenous poor, thus making him a leftist (apparently owning a number of low-wage maquila garment-assembly factories does not bar one from being considered a leftist).
  5. Mining rejection referendums.  Over the past half decade or more, dozens of communities in Guatemala have held community referendums, sanctioned in the municipal code, to reject mining (and also large-scale hydroelectric) activities in their areas.  In almost all cases, 90% or more of those who participate in such plebiscites vote against mineral extraction.  Communities have cited concerns about groundwater contamination and not receiving any benefits from the millions of dollars such mines produce every year (Guatemala collects one of the lowest rates of tax on mineral extraction in the region, possibly in the world).  The central government has ignored these referendums.  In some cases this has led to protests and blockages of the mining sites.  Local residents have blocked the entrance to  one gold mine near Guatemala City for months, claiming that the benefits promised by the mining company were siphoned off by corrupt community and political leaders.

What, if anything, can we learn from these different citizens movements that have arisen in Guatemala in recent years?  The first is that there do exist circumstances under which Guatemalans will take to the street and raise their voices.  In most of the cases above, the issue at hand relates directly to the quality of life of those involved in the movement or protest.  In the other cases it was the death of a loved one, and subsequent impunity, or latent anti-Colom sentiment that found an outlet in the accusations against the then-president.

The second lesson is that middle and upper class individuals are more likely to form spontaneous movements, whereas the poor often need some kind of organizational base to generate and maintain citizen involvement.  This  lesson is neither surprising nor new.  Yet it does focus attention on the need to strengthen organizations working to mobilize those with legitimate grievances, but less capacity to participate.

Third: movements are prone to political manipulation.  The Rosenburg death was orchestrated by anti-government elements and the subsequent protest utilized by the opposition, both with the intent to weaken, if not overthrow Alvaro Colom.  In the Totonicapan protest, it seems that a legitimate movement was somewhat manipulated by opponents of the government, again with the objective of weakening the president.  In this case, it is unclear what, if any, complicity community/organizational leaders had in this manipulation, but in any case it leads to another point.

Fourth.  Movements need to be accountable to their base.  Historically, organizations in Latin America have been hierarchical and leaders have been authoritarian.  Unfortunately, this legacy persists, and even organizations espousing egalitarian ideals and authentic democracy fall into this trap.  When transparency and accountability mechanisms within a movement or organization are weak or nonexistent, the possibility of manipulation or corruption increases substantially, benefiting a few leaders at the expense of other members.  (This point applies universally in Guatemala, as many community organizations face the same challenges)

Fifth, and finally, Guatemalan governments are not particularly responsive to citizen’s movements.  If we leave aside the Rosenberg protests, which unraveled as facts about the case emerged, the remaining 4 movements have little to show for their efforts.  The constitutional reforms are moving ahead (if haltingly), the rural development law and other proposals have yet to materialize, Christina’s killer remains at large, and mining operations have expanded at an ever-quickening pace.

Why have these organizations and movements struggled to achieve their explicit goals?  Does this imply that such efforts are in vain?  To address the second issue first: no, clearly not.  The pressure generated by these movements has resulted in some gains.  The Justice for Cristina movement led to the arrest and charges of obstruction of justice of Christina’s husband’s mother, a former head of one of Guatemala’s high courts.  This was no mean feat.  Some of the mining protests have kept mines shut down, keeping money out of the pockets of owners and politicians alike and (hopefully) making a negotiated arrangement more likely (especially in the wake of the Totonicapan massacre, which led to a ban on military involvement in protest activities).

Yet, there is an important caveat.  Only the anti-mining referendums have used a legal mechanism to channel their demands (however ineffective this has been).  The other movements have indeed taken to the streets, but have not generated the number to paralyze a country, such as recently demonstrated in Spain and Argentina, or even give vote-conscious politicians pause for thought.  One key difference, between the aforementioned countries and Guatemala, in the former, powerful unions were involved in the protests.  Guatemala lacks such unions (the most visible is the teachers union, which is a textbook, pardon the pun, case of the capture of an organization by corrupt and unaccountable leaders).  The CNOC is not a union per se, but rather a federation of organizations, which can mobilize thousands, but not hundreds of thousands.

In each of these cases (again, leaving out the Rosenberg protests), the government has made symbolic (and perhaps even authentic) efforts to listen to protesters’ demands, but ultimately, has not felt compelled to take significant actions.  Why?  It is the difference between the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the United States.  The former took to the streets, and stayed there, the latter took to the polls and elected dozens of law makers.  In Guatemala, diverse protests and movements have not made meaningful political alliances that would allow their demands to be more meaningfully considered within the states decision-making apparatus (in either the legislative or executive branches).  Opposition leaders have been glad to utilize movements and then discard them, but have made little effort to bring protesters into the party as constituents.  This is due to the weak and fragmented nature of the political party system in Guatemala, in which parties are built around money and personality, rather than any policy platform, much less explicit ideology (though the overwhelming majority of Guatemala’s 2 dozen or so parties are clearly to the right of the political spectrum, representing the interests of their financial backers).  Thus, citizen’s organizations and movements have few possibilities of channeling their participants’ votes in way that would generate the changes they are seeking.

Political parties and elections are the primary means of translating popular demands into policy and holding governments accountable in most democracies.  In Guatemala’s case, both components of this mechanism are dysfunctional and must be strengthened.  Citizen’s movements and organizations would be wise to press for the passage and implementation of the current reform proposal for the country’s Political Parties and Elections law, which could be an important, although likely modest, step forward.  Citizens must also take advantages of organizations like Accion Ciudadana, which trains volunteers to monitor congresspersons’ votes so that they can be held accountable.  Other transparency efforts might diminish the public money channeled into vote buying schemes, thus forcing political candidates to address meaningful issues in order to win political support.  Increasing use of social media, while not making a (second) Guatemalan Spring likely, does present an opportunity to build awareness and strengthen participation of young people (with the Rosenberg case again serving as an important warning of potential manipulation).  Finally, strong citizens movements must be internally democratic, instituting mechanisms of accountability and inclusive decision-making, if they are to remain credible and effective.

To conclude, I will mention that is is the urban popular classes that perhaps lack a clear movement or organization that might serve to channel their interests.  And it was likely to this population that my friend was speaking in his editorial when he urged greater participation.  This points back to Raj Desia’s work on the political agency of the urban poor, which I reviewed last month.

Citizen’s efforts must take place both within and outside of the democratic system, and must use varied strategies, both protest and collaboration, in order for meaningful change to result.  Movements should also look at avenues for action at the local level as well, particularly on issues such as mining or development.  In sum, more Guatemalans do need to step out into the street if their country is to become more democratic, but the capacity of democracy-seeking organizations and movements must be built and strengthened as well, if citizens are to have a mechanism to channel such participation that is (reasonably) free of manipulation and can enhance the agency of individuals to be instruments of change in the public arena.


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