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World & Nation

Guatemala, simmering with discontent, shows little enthusiasm for the presidential election

Anti-Morales protesters in Guatemala City
Opponents of President Jimmy Morales demonstrate in Guatemala City on Thursday.
(Esteban Biba / EPA/Shutterstock)

Four years ago, Guatemalans went to the polls with jubilation.

Widespread street protests had just forced the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina, who had been accused of graft by a pioneering anti-corruption body.

A record number of voters turned out to elect Perez’s replacement: a well-known television comedian named Jimmy Morales, who had vowed to continue fighting corruption.

But this weekend, as Guatemalans head back to the ballot box to choose the successor to the termed-out Morales, the mood among voters is downright bleak.

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“Many of us thought there would be a change, but there wasn’t one,” Nimsi Abac, a 20-year-old medical student in the northern border town of La Mesilla, said Friday. She plans to boycott Sunday’s presidential runoff.

A series of recent political developments has eroded optimism here, deepening voter distrust in the country’s elected leaders and sparking concerns among some that Guatemala’s democracy may be at risk.

The election process has been marred by controversy, and there has been little enthusiasm for the two finalists — former First Lady Sandra Torres, of the center-left National Unity of Hope party, and Alejandro Giammattei, with the right-wing Vamos party.

Also fueling mass skepticism has been the performance of Morales, once a source of hope, but now, for many, a symbol of disappointment.

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Instead of fighting corruption, Morales has dismantled the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as the CICIG.

He began his assault on the anti-graft body after it implicated him and several family members on allegations of illegal campaign financing. As time has gone on, he and his allies in Congress have pulled out all stops to impede the body’s work, accusing the commission of being politically motivated. Earlier this year, for example, they sought to impeach judges on the country’s highest court who had previously ruled in favor of the commission.

Morales has shown repeated disregard for the country’s democratic institutions. Last month, his government defied a high court ruling when it agreed to a controversial “safe third country” accord with the U.S., a move that could force tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador to seek refuge in Guatemala instead of in the United States.

Many believe the presidential election was flawed from the start, when several popular leading candidates were disqualified by electoral officials.

One of them, former Atty. Gen. Thelma Aldana, had led multiple high-level corruption investigations, including the one that landed Perez and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, in jail.

Aldana, who says the claims of financial impropriety used to disqualify her were fabricated, was the only major candidate who vowed to reinstate the anti-graft commission.

The first round of voting on June 16 drew a dismal turnout, and no candidate won a majority.

The top two finishers, Torres and Giammattei, will go head-to-head on Sunday. Both are veteran Guatemalan politicians who have made multiple previous unsuccessful bids for the presidency.

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“Most people don’t trust either of them,” said Claudia Escobar, a former Guatemalan appellate court judge. “There is a sense that both of them will take the same path as so many previous Guatemalan leaders and use their position to steal for themselves.”

Torres, who served as first lady during the presidency of Alvaro Colom until their 2011 divorce, has sought to appeal to rural voters with her promise to aid agricultural regions hurt by falling coffee prices and the effects of climate change.

She was recently accused by the anti-corruption commission of receiving $2.5 million in illicit campaign contributions for her unsuccessful 2015 presidential bid. Torres denies those allegations.

Giammattei has sought to win over urban voters with a pledge to militarize public security to reduce crime. The former director of the country’s prison system was investigated in the extrajudicial killings of several prisoners, but the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Neither candidate has called for the anti-corruption body to be reinstated, although both have expressed reservations about the third-country agreement that Morales’ government agreed to last month.

Major questions remain about how such a deal would be carried out; Trump has said it would require asylum seekers transiting the Central American country to make their claim in Guatemala instead of in the U.S.

On Thursday, a delegation of congressional Democrats touring Central America said one thing was clear: Guatemala does not appear to have the resources to handle a surge in asylum applications.

“My personal position is that Guatemala is in no way capable of being a [safe] third country,” said U.S. Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), speaking in Guatemala City with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.

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Torres, who was born in Guatemala, has criticized the Trump administration for helping to destabilize the Central American nation by pushing for the third-country agreement and not doing more to defend anti-corruption efforts.

The U.S. helped create and fund the CICIG more than a decade ago, and President Obama put diplomatic pressure on previous Guatemalan presidents to support the commission’s efforts.

The Trump administration, however, responded with ambivalence as Morales first expelled the commission’s leader and then decided to end its mandate altogether.

Such ambivalence is shortsighted, said Jo-Marie Burt, a Latin American studies professor at George Mason University. A recent increase in emigration from Guatemala is proof that government corruption has direct consequences for countries such as the United States, she said.

“The surge of migration you’ve seen in the last couple of years is absolutely related to the lack of governing of the Morales government,” she said. “This is a country that’s been absolutely abandoned by its leaders.”

Times staff writer Linthicum reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Averbuch from La Mesilla.


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