Guatemalans took to the streets for the fourth consecutive Saturday on December 12 to protest corruption and demand the president’s resignation. Days earlier, Indigenous, campesino, student, and religious movements in the Social and Popular Assembly (ASP) kicked off a National Strike (#ParoNacional) to call for a constitutional assembly (#AsambleaConstituyente). The ongoing protests come after discontent erupted on November 21 (#21N). Congress had passed a 2021 budget that slashed funds for food security and anti-corruption efforts and increased congressional perks amid a humanitarian catastrophe caused by two hurricanes and Covid-19. But the budget is just the tip of the iceberg.
The same week, Congress, dominated by a right-wing alliance commonly known as the Pact of the Corrupt (#PactoDeCorruptos), packed the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, outrage over the lack of transparency in the distribution of relief funds in the wake of Hurricanes Eta and Iota reinforced similar concerns about Covid-19 assistance. The protests not only speak to the population’s rejection of the current administration. They are also an indictment of endemic corruption, the most galling symptom of the unmitigated failure of free market democracy to deliver on the basic needs of the majority and to maintain functioning institutions and the rule of law.
Hashtags like #EsElSistema (It’s the system) crystallize the widespread understanding that corruption is about more than individual politicians. The call to “Quemarlo todo” (Burn it all down) likewise encapsulates a structural critique. This cathartic goal was partially realized when the door to Congress went up in flames on the first day of protests (#21N). Rumors circulated that the National Police had intentionally left Congress unprotected to justify a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations. Shortly after, police fired tear gas into large crowds gathered in the Parque Central and arrested 43 demonstrators and journalists. Two protestors lost eyes due to teargas canisters fired at close range.
#10D— Red de comunicadoras indígenas Jun Na'oj (@RedJunNaoj) December 10, 2020
Este jueves 10 de diciembre las calles de la Ciudad de Guatemala estuvieron llenas de estudiantes, autoridades indígenas y ancestrales, mujeres mayas, campesinos y campesinas, entre otros.
Les compartimos algunas fotos de quienes exigen un #EstadoPlurinacionalYa pic.twitter.com/mLro6GIb2u
Indigenous and peasant movements extend the critique of corruption to encompass the entire political economic order rooted in the violent exclusion and exploitation of the Indigenous majority. The ASP is calling for a multisectoral constitutional assembly to establish a plurinational state with Indigenous territorial autonomy, and to break with racist, patriarchal patterns that subvert democracy. Their calls echo demands made in the anti-corruption protests of 2015 as well as recent events in Chile. As indignation reverberates across Guatemala, the ASP demands an end to Guatemala’s “corporate-military democracy.”
Guatemalan democracy fails by design to meet the needs of the poor majority, creating a foothold for corrupt parties while draining the government of legitimacy. Amid such destitution, unabashed corruption made underlying frustration and dissent boil over. Resignations are warranted, but they will not break the cycle of corruption.
A Corrupt Democracy
The latest protests in Guatemala mark a continuation of the 2015 anti-corruption uprisings that toppled President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. President Jimmy Morales, who won the 2015 elections on an anti-corruption platform, dismantled the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose investigations fueled the protests and landed Pérez Molina and Baldetti behind bars for corruption. Meanwhile, conservative legislators leveled questionable charges against anti-corruption prosecutor Thelma Aldana, disqualifying her from the 2019 presidential race. With the leading candidate off the ballot, ultraconservative Alejandro Giammattei won the election in a runoff.
Anti-corruption protesters now want to unseat Giammattei, but they also recognize he is just one face of an unresolved structural problem. Guatemalans from all walks of life blame corruption for a host of social problems, such as crumbling infrastructure, traffic jams, a collapsed public health system, widespread malnutrition, environmentally harmful extractive industries, and thickly polluted rivers and streams. Many see corruption as the main obstacle to development, as a barrier to a functioning state, and as evidence of governmental indifference, as reflected in the hashtag #NoNosPela (They don’t care about us).
The disconnect between corrupt politicians and ordinary people was on full display when conservative congressperson Rubén Barrios insulted protestors by calling them “Comelones de frijol” (Bean eaters). Defiant Guatemalans embraced the populist slogan of #FrijolerosUnidos. Endless bean memes and images circulated on social media and someone cooked a giant pot of beans next to a Mayan ceremonial circle in the plaza where protesters gathered.
The basis of the power of Guatemala’s corrupt political class lies in its ability to win elections by eliminating challengers and providing—on a zero-sum basis—urgently needed goods and services to communities systematically impoverished by the exclusions of free market democracy. Guatemalan democracy was assembled during a brutal counterinsurgency in the final decade of an armed conflict that took the lives of 200,000 civilians, most of them rural Mayas. The goal of democracy from the perspective of the army planners was not to channel the political desires of the Indigenous underclass, but rather to complete the counterinsurgency. During the transition to peace, rhetoric of a multicultural democracy aimed to manage the integration of Indigenous citizens with newly recognized rights into a political economic order founded on their collective dispossession. Constitutional reforms to implement the 1995 Agreement on Identity and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, (AIDPI) which rebel forces and the government signed as part of the peace process, were voted down in a referendum in 1999.
The agreement called for constitutional reforms to redefine the Guatemala as a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multilingual nation, and to recognize, protect, and promote Indigenous languages, spirituality, and authorities; access to communication; and communal land rights. The agreement stopped short of recognizing multiple sovereign nations. The referendum’s defeat—a symptom of the forces it was trying to reform—was part of a decades-long conservative project to dismantle the core components of the already limited accords.
The peace process was the political component of the transition to neoliberal policies of resource extraction, free trade, and privatization—the benefits of which have eluded the most vulnerable, who directly bear the harms. Policymakers hailed the rise of extractive development—metals mining, hydropower, expanded agrarian monocultures, timber operations, and ranching—as a lever of needed foreign investment that would bring jobs, reduce poverty, and support green energy. But these kinds of projects have further concentrated land, removed it from subsistence production, and contaminated or strained regional water systems. Numerous local resistance movements in “defense of territory” decry the extractive economy as as a corrupt assault on Indigenous rights and territories. These groups aim to halt extractive projects and foreground Indigenous authorities and cosmovisions. In the vision of a plurinational state some movements are now promoting, which is directly informed by these struggles, autonomous Indigenous governments would make decisions about the development of their territories.
This perfect storm of poverty, landlessness, decrepit institutions, lack of environmental planning, the abandonment of rural communities and subsistence agriculture, and the spread of extractive development combined to make hurricanes Eta and Iota full blown humanitarian catastrophes. The hurricanes destroyed homes, infrastructure, and crops, augmenting the food security crisis. Alta Verapaz, where deforestation to plant African palm has reduced the capacity of soils to absorb rainfall, suffered extreme flooding. By excluding longstanding demands for land reform and integrated development, market democracy enabled these tragic outcomes.
Disrupting the Cycle of Corruption
Guatemala’s market democracy was founded on genocidal violence that murdered successive generations of political leaders and shut down dissent. Powerful actors routinely deploy violence against land rights activists, water defenders, and human rights activists. Violence is intrinsic to Guatemalan democracy and imposes the system of inequality and dispossession that political parties then exploit.
In the shadow of violence, electoral politics in rural communities focuses on the distribution of minimal state funds for development projects. In strict clientelist fashion, only party affiliates receive projects (or public sector employment). Since the state provides meager budgets to municipalities, the result is a fierce competition for scarce resources among poor villagers who are often divided between over a dozen parties, most representing competing sectors of the oligarchy. Local candidates make numerous promises they invariably break. As engines of self-interest, deception, and mistrust, elections erode local solidarity and organizational capacities. Most villagers see all parties as equally corrupt and opposed to their interests, but they have difficulty refusing their offerings.
A plurinational state holds the promise of breaking the cycle. Social movements propose a constitutional assembly with the participation of Indigenous governments and popular sectors to write a new constitution and to ratify a new social pact. This is similar to the constitutional assembly in Bolivia after the election of Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution enshrined decolonization as an explicit goal, recognized Pachamama as a living being with rights, and guaranteed shared decision-making. However, Bolivia’s “plurinational” constitution preserved the sovereignty of the liberal state and the MAS continued extractive development, albeit with significant redistribution to the poor.
In Guatemala, the economic vision shared by advocates of the plurinational state encompasses the conception of food sovereignty promoted by the transnational social movement La Vía Campesina, as well as Indigenous rights and cosmovisions, reflected in the Mayan concept Utzilaj K’aslemal (living well). In addition to recognizing the substantive autonomy of Indigenous governments and instituting electoral reforms, a plurinational state could embrace an economic model similar to the proposed Integrated Development Law 4084, a framework rooted in the 1995 AIDPI and the 1996 Agreement on Socioeconomic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation and developed through civil society dialogue. The proposal, introduced in 2009, is designed to benefit “the rural population living in poverty and extreme poverty, with priority on Indigenous peoples and peasants with insufficient or unproductive land or who are landless; Indigenous and peasant women; permanent or temporary employees; artisans; small rural producers, rural micro and small business owners.” Such a policy would redistribute land to small farmers and provide technical assistance, training, credit, and commercialization assistance. The business sector has blocked 4084 citing its implications for private property as unconstitutional. A constitutional assembly could expand on 4084 to make a robust vision of food sovereignty blended with Indigenous values the economic model of the plurinational state.
Water rights and water autonomy are also central concerns for advocates of a plurinational state. A constitutional assembly could enshrine the collective human right to water and follow Indigenous cosmovisions to recognize water as a sacred and living being with rights; strengthen democratic and decentralized water management by recognizing the sovereignty of Indigenous governments; establish infrastructures to protect the hydrological cycle and guarantee access and treatment; create rules to prevent overuse, privatization, and contamination; and promote the restoration of damaged water systems.
No measures would go further to reduce rural poverty and the food insecurity wrought by Covid-19 and the hurricanes than this kind of comprehensive rural reform. A transition to integrated development would also produce numerous environmental benefits, significantly mitigate the water crisis, and help protect rural communities from the ravages of climate change. Moreover, the demand for Integral Development is arguably the strongest anti-corruption measure available. Addressing the needs of rural Guatemalans outside of clientelist networks would reduce the leverage of corrupt parties. On a different level, a new development model would ameliorate what many Indigenous and rural Guatemalans see as a foundational corruption: an unequal regime of private property rooted in colonial dispossession.
After years of missed opportunities, the time may have arrived for a plurinational constitutional assembly. However, achieving such a major transformation will require social movements to put aside their divisions and communicate the concrete benefits of these changes to poor communities. It will also require significant support from urban ladinos, many of whom are skeptical about rural movements. Yet anyone serious about ending corruption or protecting democracy should support longstanding rural demands. Refounding the state will require ladinos to accept Indigenous leadership and to recognize that their fates are intertwined.
Many ladinos are looking to Indigenous movements for a model of a more just and sustainable future. Student organizations from Guatemala’s major universities have aligned with the ASP, indicating deep shifts in the urban ladino political and environmental consciousness. For example, the recent announcement of a plan to expand the elite shopping district of Cayala into 150 neighboring acres of privately owned forest land known as El Socorro met opposition from the Movimiento Ecológico Estudiantil (university student ecological movement), ladino scientists and engineers, politically engaged academics, and environmental lawyers. Their campaign, #SOSElSocorro, cites weaknesses in the environmental impact analysis and the effects the proposed project will have on endangered species and the delicate water recharge system serving the thirsty capital. Many of these young environmentalists have felt disappointed since gaining their first taste of politics in the 2015 uprisings and have since taken inspiration from the territorial defense movement. They see each new advance in environmentally damaging development through the lens of looming climate chaos. Informed by ecological science, they also recognize this project as contributing to a future landscape filled with dead lakes, fewer trees and species, water shortages, polluted rivers, and particulate-thick air.
The fight for a plurinational state and the battle against corruption are connected. The #21N protests, like other popular marches and protests before them, represent the true spirit of democracy in Guatemala, far more than the results of corrupt elections. Breaking the grip of counterinsurgent democracy requires a transformation of the state and the development model along the lines laid out by Indigenous and campesino struggles. The slogan “Nos tienen miedo porque no temenos miedo” (They fear us because we are not afraid) suggests a shift in dynamics around violence that opens space for these changes. What is needed is unity, and for urban ladinos to understand that in order to end corruption, they need to recognize their interdependence with the Indigenous majority and embrace the plurinational state.
Nicholas Copeland is a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech. He is the author of The Democracy Development Machine: Neoliberalism, Radical Pessimism, and Authoritarian Populism in Mayan Guatemala (Cornell 2019) (download free PDF) and is a member of the Guatemalan Water Network (REDAGUA).