Corruption scandals roil Guatemala and Honduras

Massive corruption scandals in two key allies of the United States in Central America, Guatemala and Honduras, are producing large demonstrations calling for the resignations of the presidents of both countries.

In Honduras, a major scandal erupted when it was revealed that officials close to right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernandez had stolen money from the social welfare and health care budget and had surreptitiously given it to Hernandez’s political party, the National Party, for the purposes of winning the 2013 presidential elections.

At that time supporters of the runner up, leftist Xiomara Castro de Zelaya of the LIBRE party, had denounced the elections as fraudulent, and this new information supports that claim. Adding to the indignation is a decision by the Supreme Court, packed with Hernandez supporters, that Hernandez can run for re-election, which invalidates the Honduran constitution’s prohibition on second terms. When former President Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro’s husband, was overthrown in a military coup in June 2009, the pretext was that he was secretly planning to run for re-election. So large scale demonstrations are being carried out by LIBRE and its broad mass support base, demanding that Hernandez resign.

In Guatemala, the main scandal, called “La Linea,” has to do with bribery of officials by wealthy people and companies wishing to evade taxes and customs duties, as well as crooked subcontracting and other things. High ranking members of the government of the right wing president, General Otto Perez Molina, of the Patriotic Party, are facing prosecution. The vice president, Roxanna Baldetti, was forced to resign on May 8, and people in the president’s own office are also implicated. Perez Molina increased public alienation by appointing as the new Vice President a judge who had helped the former dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, evade punishment for genocide.

The networks that carried out the illegal acts go back decades and involve several former presidents (including Rios Montt), army officers, judges and many others. Many, including Baldetti’s personal secretary, are being prosecuted, but only because of independent investigations by the U.N. sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Honduras (population 8 million) and Guatemala (population 15 million) are two of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Both governments have imposed on their peoples neo-liberal policies of austerity, privatization and free trade, and have steered clear of the Bolivarian movement which has swept the region. In both countries, poverty has been rising and personal security has become increasingly shaky. Both presidents managed to get elected by promising a “hard hand” (mano dura) against criminals and especially drug traffickers. A particularly galling dimension of the scandal in Guatemala is that President Perez Molina had announced more budget cuts and austerity because tax collections were not bringing in enough money, and now it is revealed that a huge percentage of taxes on the rich were evaded in exchange for bribes paid to people in his government.

Some of the bribery appears to have involved foreign mining companies wishing to open operations in Guatemala, an especially touchy issue for rural indigenous populations which have been battling against polluting and exploitative extractive industries.

The developments in Honduras are likely to help the left, though there won’t be a general election there until 2017. One of the pretexts for Zelaya’s overthrow was a false claim that he planned to try to run for an illegal second term. What really frightened the Honduran elites and the United States government was that Zelaya was bringing Honduras into alignment with the Bolivarian group of left and left-center ruled countries, and specifically Cuba and Venezuela. When Zelaya was overthrown the other Latin American countries pushed to restore constitutional order and return Zelaya to power, but the United States created pressure to go ahead with a dubious election, which brought in right-wing president Porfirio Lobo. Under Lobo and Hernandez, Honduras has become a hyper violent state in which women, gay-lesbian-transgendered activists, ethnic minorities, peasant and labor leaders and political oppositionists are especially targeted for murderous attacks.

The left-wing LIBRE Party has been playing a major role in the anti-Hernandez demonstrations, and seems likely to gain traction from the disgrace of the Hernandez administration.

In Guatemala, which has general elections on September 6, the prospects for the left are murkier. In the last elections, in 2011, the indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, running as the candidate of the leftist URNG-Maiz party, got only 3.27 percent of the vote. The outgoing centrist president, Alvaro Colom, tried to run his wife, Sandra Torres, for president, under the banner of the National Unity of Hope Party. However, the Guatemalan constitution forbids spouses of incumbent presidents from qualifying as candidates. Colom and Torres tried to get around this by getting a divorce widely seen as fake. The courts disqualified Torres, and the Unity of Hope party ended up with no presidential candidate.

Whether any of the parties on the left or left-center can get enough traction by the time of the elections remains to be seen. At least 41 percent of the Guatemalan population is indigenous. This has led to discussion of a possible presidential candidacy Congressman Amilcar Pop of the leftist Winaq Party. Pop is a Q’eqchi Maya lawyer and defender of indigenous rights. However, it is not clear that such a candidacy would be viable with three months to go and with the indigenous electorate marginalized, by poverty and repression, from the process.

Meanwhile, demonstrations continue in both countries, advancing the demands for constituent assemblies to completely restructure the thoroughly compromised existing political institution.

Photo: Protesters gather outside the National Palace to demand the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala City, May 16. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.