A long history of military dictatorships, brutal civil war, and generalized violence fueled by drug cartels and gangs effectively silenced the people of Guatemala for decades. This prolonged period of civic inaction has resulted in widespread feelings of resignation and cynicism that have allowed the status quo to perpetuate itself. That all changed recently, as a citizen movement has taken to the streets amid growing feelings of indignation prompted by the country’s rampant corruption and impunity problems.
Last month, the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), exposed a massive corruption network – involving more than a dozen high-ranking government officials – set up to defraud the state of customs revenues. (prosecutors estimate the amount at US $120 million.) The news rocked the Central American nation, rightfully sparking a feeling of outrage and indignation among Guatemalans.
What began as a call for action on social media by a group of youth has quickly materialized into a series of mass non-violent demonstrations. These protests have quickly scaled up -- the last ones drawing 60,000 people -- bringing together a broad swath of Guatemalan society, which has a history of deep division. Indigenous and mestizos, young and old, rural and urban people have converged to demand an end to the corruption. For the first time in decades, public and private university students have unified and began working together.
The mounting grassroots pressure has already forced the resignation of Vice President Roxana Baldetti whose private secretary has been accused by prosecutors of being the ringleader of the exposed corruption ring. Rather than placating demonstrators, the move galvanized their resolve to pursue deeper change. The emerging citizen movement took the resignation as a first victory and celebrated it in the streets by passionately chanting “yes, we did!” and “this is just the beginning” in the streets amid signs reading, “resign already,” alluding now to President Otto Pérez Molina.
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With an impending general election in just four months and no clear anticorruption candidates emerging the big question in people’s heads now is what’s next. This Guatemalan civic reawakening has already caused such a disruption that what was politically unfeasible, if not impossible, a month ago doesn’t seem far-fetched anymore.
Emboldened with a newfound political self-respect, Guatemalans must now find ways to keep this momentum going and seize the unique opportunity they themselves created by pushing for significant reforms to the system that can ameliorate the country’s chronic case of corruption in both the government and the corporate sector and ensure transparency moving forward. In doing so, the movement will have to articulate a clear propositional agenda. This won’t be hard, a wide collection of anticorruption measures have already began to surface including deep reforms to the system. These measures include reforming the electoral system, government contracting law, establishing a meritocratic civil service, abolishing bank secrecy, among others.
While there is no exact formula for social change, the most long-lasting and transformational social change has historically occurred when social movements are able to align three essential components: an engaged grassroots base, political opportunity, and organizational infrastructure. The emergence of these key components working together can often determine whether a movement will achieve significant change or fizzle out. The first two conditions are clearly surfacing in Guatemala but the movement currently lacks robust infrastructure.
Guatemalans can look to other social movements from across the world for valuable lessons. A timely example of strong organizational infrastructure can be found in Spain’s 15-M anti-austerity movement, which emerged from the public discontent resulting from the prolonged economic crisis. The movement initially manifested itself through massive demonstrations in public squares four years ago and has since evolved to become the third political force in Spain, as evidenced by gains made during its recent regional and municipal elections. Anti-evictions activist Ada Colau -- an M-15 movement leader -- won the mayoral race in Barcelona. The movement-backed Madrid mayoral candidate came in strongly in second and could become the city’s mayor if she can negotiate an alliance with other parties.
M-15 has managed to sustain its grassroots energy by building effective infrastructure that simply did not exist a few years ago. They built this infrastructure around a neighborhood assembly model that organizes and engages people through weekly meetings while continuing to use social media as a key communications tool.
Guatemalans and other leaders from around the world shouldn’t underestimate the importance of organizing infrastructure. M-15’s example should both inspire and agitate the leaders of movements around raising the minimum wage, BlackLivesMatter, and others in the US toward developing solid infrastructure and meaningfully engaging in the electoral process. Some US-based groups are already doing it.
National People’s Action Campaign (NPAC), for example, has reoriented its staff, its seventeen state network, and its focus toward becoming active players in elections. They are advancing a new Movement Politics orientation to build people-led organizations that they hope will change the shape of electoral politics in the US. NPAC is building infrastructure as part of their long-term strategy to transform the economy by : 1) Using a visionary “People and Planet First” platform centered around advancing the interests of people and planet before corporate profits, 2) Building volunteer-based electoral programs that stimulate civic participation, and 3) Establishing grassroots candidate pipelines that lead from people-powered organizations into elected office. Over the next ten years they aim to win more and deeper structural reforms by using the infrastructure they have built.
Guatemala’s new civic movement has enormous potential that extends far beyond solving the issue of corruption (Guatemala is the #10 most unequal country in the world based on the Gini index) but it will have to build organizational infrastructure that generates mechanisms for articulation and coordination necessary to maintain its momentum. If Guatemalans can sustain their current energy they may just hold the key to solving more of their country’s pressing social-problems.