The political crisis currently unfolding in Guatemala reads like the script of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. The Economist even quipped that it was like something out of Gabriel García Márquez’s novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold. But this is far from magical realism; in fact, it was the virtual reality of interactive networking websites – collectively labeled by some "Web 2.0" – that may have brought a presidency to its knees.
Rosenberg's posthumous video announcing his death.
Guatemala has been in turmoil since a posthumously released video of murdered attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg surfaced in which he implicates President Álvaro Colom and other high-ranking government officials in his eventual assassination. Rosenberg was gunned down while riding his bike on a busy avenue in Guatemala City on May 10. At Rosenberg’s funeral the following day, at least 150 copies of the 18-minute video were distributed to those in attendance. Recorded four days before his murder, the video shows Rosenberg calmly speaking into a microphone stating, “If you are hearing this message, it is because I, Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, was assassinated by the president’s private secretary, Gustavo Alejos, and his partner Gregorio Valdez, with the approval of Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom [i.e. the First Lady].”
In the video Rosenberg exposes corruption in Banrural, a state-owned development bank. He implicates Colom and a number of associates in the murder of whistleblower Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie. Rosenberg, who had been investigating Musa’s murder, claims that he is going to be killed because of his ties to Musa.
Khalil Musa was the owner of the textiles company Lacetex and a former board member of the national coffee producers association (Anacafe). According to Rosenberg, Musa had been offered a position as director of Banrural – the state development bank – which he turned down because of widespread corruption. In the video Rosenberg maintained that Musa was killed over his refusal of the position and fear that he might publicize Banrural’s role in money laundering, embezzlement, and financing shadow companies set up by drug traffickers.
Colom's critics: "I am Rodrigo. We want justice." (By James Rodríguez/mimundo.org)
After being released to the media, Rosenberg's video spread virally on YouTube, inciting widespread protests online and in the streets. On May 17, some 40,000 Guatemalans took part in protests in the capital city; the crowds were divided between Colom supporters and those calling for his resignation. As a Flickr website hosting photos of the marches reported, “Guatemala marched and protested against all the corruption and injustice our country seems to be plagued with. We don't want anything else but to apply justice fairly to whoever breaks the law, no matter if it's a citizen or a President.” The next day, a group of lawyers presented congress with a petition signed by 35,000 Guatemalans calling for Colom and his private secretary to be stripped of immunity and investigated.
Technology has played a central role in the current political crisis, from Rosenberg’s so-called “pre-death tape” to the use of social networking sites to organize protests and disseminate information about Rosenberg and government corruption. President Colom has been harshly curtailing freedom of speech and cracking down on the spread of the Rosenberg tape in an attempt to gain control over the way that technology is being used as a tool for mobilization against his administration. After the Rosenberg video went viral on the Internet, street vendors in Guatemala City began selling the “pre-death tape.” Guatevision, a TV channel, recently reported that at least one vendor – and possibly more – have been arrested by police for selling the video and charged with “sedition” and “inciting panic.”
Microblogging network Twitter has also been central in organizing people, making it a target for government surveillance and suppression. On May 14, three days before the national protests, police raided the home of Jean Anleu, known as “@jeanfer” on Twitter, for tweeting about the Banrural scandal. Anleu was accused of “inciting financial panic” related to a tweet he posted two days earlier that read: “The first action people should take is to remove cash from Banrural, and make the corrupt people's bank go broke #escandalogt.” (Escandalogt is a tag used to reference the murder of Rosenberg and the Banrural scandal.)
Word quickly spread about Anleu’s arrest and supporters created a blog with information about his case. The site has also been asking for donations via PayPal to help Anleu pay his $6,000-fine and legal fees. Although Anleu was released and is now on house arrest, his detainment was the catalyst for what some are calling Guatemala’s “Twitter-Revolution.”
Guatemalan Twitter users have been retweeting Anleu’s original message and using the tag #escandalogt to make the information about the Rosenberg case and the Banrural scandal “a trending topic,” or one of the most-tweeted about topics on the site. At the May 17 protests, some participants wore white, taped their mouths shut, and carried signs scrawled with “I don't talk, I Twitter” and “We are all @jeanfer” in support of Anleu.
Some Twitter uses have been posting slogans such as “Twitteros! Unidos! Jamas serán vencidos!" (Twitterers! United! Will never be defeated!) and “Twitteo por Gaute” (Tweet for Guatemala). Someone has even created a phony Banrural Twitter account, which utilizes the #escandalogt tag, and post tweets like the following: “Understand, we are superior to you, you are only slaves to our power” Others have even suggested "Google-bombing" the Banrural website in order to make its ties to corruption explicit. A Google bomb takes advantage of the search engine’s algorithm to influence the outcome and ranking of retrieved search results. Political activists have used Google bombs to express discontent with politicians in the past; for example, prior to 2007 a search for "liar" would yield results for Tony Blair and "miserable failure" would lead with the White House's biography of George W. Bush.
Political turmoil has continued since the May 17 protests. (By James Rodríguez/mimundo.org)
While Twitter has been essential in organizing people and disseminating information, some are cautioning fellow Twitteros in Guatemala to be careful about what they tweet since the police are clearly monitoring social networking sites. Caution has turned to rumor as users are tweeting that the military and police are hunting down Twitteros, or that arrests are ongoing.
Although events are still unfolding, the current technology-based protest movement gives us much to consider about the future of Latin American social movements, how they are enacted and what they look like. The current mobilization of wide cross-sections of Guatemalan society through sites like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook shows the organizing potential for sites commonly thought of as “time wasters.” These sites have allowed for the rapid transmission of information and created vital forums to express concern about the current political situation in which Guatemalans are enmeshed. And they have also allowed for the virtual – yet still significant and active – participation of Guatemalans in the diaspora.
“Twitter-Revolution” was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek observation about the large role that an unlikely source was playing in the current political upheaval. And yet, it has proved to actually be an apt term for what is occurring not just in Guatemala, but also around the globe.
The youth protests that rocked Greece in December similarly utilized technology. Evgeny Morozov on news site openDemocracy wrote that the Greek protestors use of the Internet gave "rise to a new global phenomenon – the 'networked protest.' " Guatemalan events can be viewed in this light. Morozov then added, “While it was not for the first time that the Internet has made the planning and the execution of the protest actions more effective, it was probably the first time that an issue of mostly local importance has triggered solidarity protests across the whole continent, some of them led by the Greek diaspora, but many of them led by disaffected youth who were sympathetic of the movement's causes.” The use of social networking technologies has been instrumental in spreading the word about protests and has kept them in the news at home and abroad.
In a recent interview with ColorLines Magazine Brandan “B-Mike” Odums of 2-Cent Entertainment, a group of young Black media makers in New Orleans that create activist videos, said: “Other generations marched, and we march too. But in this age we have a whole new range of weapons." He continued, "I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would want to be on YouTube, to have his speeches distributed that way. Malcolm X would love to make mixtapes.”
Although youths are consistently depicted as apathetic and wasting time on the Internet, they are in fact building rich social networks and creating affinities that can easily be mobilized into social action. Guatemala’s Twitteros are one more example of what a youth led, post-civil rights, twenty-first century social movement looks like.
¡Que viva la twitter revolución!
Marisol LeBrón is a NACLA Research Associate and writes about pop culture for her blog Post Pomo Nuyorican Homo. She is a doctoral student at the Program in American Studies at New York University.