Tens of thousands of Guatemalans and Hondurans have taken to the streets in recent months to protest government corruption and multimillion dollar embezzlement of public funds, calling for an end to impunity and resignation of presidents who’ve seen what remained of their credibility dealt a heavy blow by massive scandals.
But while some have hailed the moment of popular discontent as a “Central American spring,” others remain cautious about overestimating the potential of broad and politically sporadic movements to achieve any lasting structural change.
In both countries, the constitution of the new popular movements has been novel. In a show of social mobilization not seen since the 1940-50s “democratic spring” in Guatemala and the 2009 post-coup national resistance movement in Honduras, middle class and urban outrage has brought new forces to the streets.
But what will come of these movements, and whether they will live up to the moniker of a “spring” in the region remains to be seen.
Guatemala: “They robbed us of everything, including our silence”
While many Guatemalans have long suffered the effects of economic inequality and lack of resources, waves of corruption scandals in various public institutions that began to surface in April have mobilized people across demographic and class lines with initial outrage giving way to broader demands.
Effectively what we are feeling and living is a revolutionary moment.
“Effectively what we are feeling and living is a revolutionary moment,” Guatemalan feminist artist and activist Sandra Moran told teleSUR. “There is revolutionary energy, there are revolutionary ideas, there are revolutionary proposals, but I don’t know if we will achieve making the change that’s needed.”
Movement demands initially focused heavily on the resignation of former Vice President Baldetti and President Perez Molina. The Guatemalan government hoped Baldetti’s resignation would assuage the budding popular movements shining a spotlight on corrupt officials.
But Guatemalans continued to take to the streets, taking up the cheer “this has only begun” alongside placards bearing slogans like “no more corruption” and “resign now”. Independent investigations led by the U.N.’s anti-impunity body CICIG are still uncovering the details and extent of the corruption, believed to directly implicate Perez Molina as its mastermind.
With the CICIG’s mounting evidence fanning the flames of the movement, demands began incorporating calls for other reforms, namely the postponement of the upcoming general elections and an overhaul to laws governing elections and political parties.
All the while, the movement has brought together activists across generations, as well as introduced new forms of political expression through art and other actions.
As Bridget Brehen of the Guatemala solidarity organization NISGUA told teleSUR, the major involvement of the urban middle class is a notable turn in the historic organization of Guatemalan social movements.
“Struggles for justice for crimes of the past and to defend lands and territories against resource extraction have been a strong current of resistance in Guatemala and led by primarily by directly impacted Indigenous and rural communities and leaders,” Brehen explained. “The CICIG-led investigations unearthed a level of corruption in public institutions that had not previously been known and that impacted large swathes of urban-based Guatemalans.”
While indignation took these middle classes to the streets, Moran explains that a deeper analysis of core issues has been key to expanding movement demands.
“In the second phase the social movements united with proposals that this crisis wasn’t just an institution, but of a state co-opted by mafias and used in favor of small groups, therefore it’s a crisis of the state,” said Moran, active in Mesoamerican Women in Resistance, among other movements. “To change this, then, we must make root changes which involves refounding the state.”
But despite the energy and urban involvement, the struggle to achieve the revolutionary potential of such widespread outrage is a major challenge in the face of a political stronghold unlikely to cede power easily. In Guatemala, this is the new age of a decades-old power struggle that has seen progressive and revolutionary alternatives crushed by repressive and U.S-backed military governments.
Tens of thousands of protesters demanded the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala City, May 16, 2015. I Photo: Reuters
And the links between the current crisis and historically longstanding political and economic injustices in Guatemala are palpable.
“The powerful actors in modern Guatemalan politics are many of the same individuals and structures responsible for carrying out vast human rights abuses during the internal armed conflict and for pushing forward an economic development model that prioritizes natural resource exploitation over Indigenous and community rights,” said Brehen. “These links are particularly salient in the case of President Otto Pérez Molina, who is implicated in human rights abuses related to his participation in the Ixil genocide.”
President Perez Molina, a former general trained at the infamous U.S.-based School of the Americas, is accused of committing various human rights abuses during the country’s 36-year internal conflict, such as carrying out scorched earth campaigns during the 1980s under former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who still evades justice.
But Perez Molina refuses to resign and still enjoys immunity from trial, while the vice presidency was filled by U.S. Embassy ally Alejandro Maldonado, a constitutional judge who played a key role in overturning the guilty verdict against Rios Montt for genocide.
Elections are impending and the calls for deep reforms needed to tackle political abuses remain unanswered in Congress. As Guatemalans rally under the banner “in these conditions, we don’t want elections,” resolving the historic crisis of the state and democracy in a way that benefits Guatemalan people, will remain a key challenge.
“The central [question] is what forces will resolve this moment,” said Moran. “The traditional oligarchy aligned with the gringos, the emerging power alliance with organized crime, or the people and their organizations that seek refoundation and revolutionary change.”
But certainly the U.S. would not support more radical changes, which is why the current dispute is who defines what is happening.
While the popular desire for change has been mobilized, the risk of the movement being reduced to a campaign to root out corruption without addressing underlying structural issues looms large.
The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has itself vowed to join in the fight against corruption, calling for increased government “transparency.” Though anti-corruption sentiments can be shared by neoliberal forces based on corruption’s market inefficiency, such reforms will not bring structural change.
“The United States is supporting because the fight against corruption and the fight against drugs is on its agenda,” said Moran. “But certainly the U.S. would not support more radical changes, which is why the current dispute is who defines what is happening.”
Honduras: Corruption and impunity in post-coup politics
Meanwhile, Hondurans launched a new “indignados” movement and a weekly tradition of torch-lit marches through the capital Tegucigalpa and other cities every Friday night after scandals implicated the ruling National Party in a multimillion dollar scandal in the social security institute came to light.
"The country is waking up. This new generation does not tolerate corruption and impunity any longer," indignados movement member Ariel Varela, who was recently quoted in the Guardian hailing the movement as a “Central American spring,” told teleSUR.
Varela pointed to scandal after scandal as proof of the institutionalization of corruption in Honduras, and the resolve of this “new generation” to stand up and say “no more.”
Thousands of Hondurans participate in torch-lit marches to protest government corruption and demand the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez. I Photo: EFE
For Karen Spring, Honduras-based coordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network, labelling the movement as a “spring” and saying that Hondurans have now “woken up” is a peculiar characterization for the post-coup moment in Honduras.
“It’s unclear why the leaders of the indignados movement would call this a ‘spring’ since Hondurans and specifically, indigenous, Afro-indigenous, campesinos, women, and the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) have been on the streets and in their own territories demanding a transformation and refounding of Honduras through a Constituent National Assembly since the 2009 military coup,” Spring told teleSUR.
The constitution of the most recent Honduran “awakening,” however, has been different than that of the post-coup resistance or longstanding social movements. Now, corruption is striking a chord with the urban middle class mobilized by concern for the rule of law, not solidarity with radical frontline struggles.
Varela explained that a combination of factors, including middle class “fears of unemployment, security problems, the lack of government credibility, the climate of corruption,” as well as the recent elimination of presidential term limits, led to an “explosion of outrage in the country.”
Protesters have called for the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, investigations and jail time for those responsible for fraud, and increasingly, establishment of an International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras, known as CICIH, to lead independent investigations into corruption cases.
The indignados movement do not have a structural analysis that examines corruption and impunity in the context of neoliberalism.
Alongside the marches, more than 20 activists also staged a 40-day hunger strike against corruption, which Spring says tried to push the movement to adopt a more structural critique. But in recent weeks, as the strong call for the resignation of the president has become quieter and more radical demands remain on the sidelines, the movement’s pressure for CICIH has come to the forefront.
For Varela, the establishment of CICIH is key to the fight against corruption, which he sees as the underlying cause of poverty in Honduras. Through CICIH, Varela says, the fundamental aim is for justice to be served to the perpetrators of fraud, enabling national development by cracking down on corrupt officials.
While these popular goals have mobilized a diverse alliance ranging from right to left-wing political parties, students, resistance activists, and middle class urbanites, among others, Spring argued that “the indignados movement do not have a structural analysis that examines corruption and impunity in the context of neoliberalism, the power of the Honduran elite, and the role of the U.S. and allies in Honduras.”
She said that corruption is linked to the post-coup consolidation of political and economic power in Honduras that has driven inequality. “For that reason, their demands are not ‘radical’ enough to get to the root of the corruption problem,” Spring added.
Varela claims that small victories have united the country that he says was “divided by ideology, by political parties, by social classes,” and that political allegiances aren’t a question when protesters take to the streets under the rallying cries of CICIH and “Fuera JOH,” or “out with Juan Orlando Hernandez.”
But while this broad-based social unity is heralded as an achievement in itself, the National Front of Popular Resistance movement in the wake of the coup, united under more coherent ideological and class politics, fought for much deeper demands, namely national refoundation through a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Not only does this limit the indignados’ potential for reform, but it also makes the movement in its current form suitable fodder for supporters of the status-quo, further preventing its radicalization.
Corruption and impunity are necessary in seeing that the interests and continued domination by the Honduran elite.
“Since the post-coup marches in the few years after the coup were not deemed legitimate by the U.S. and the Honduran elites, it is suspicious that the right-wing media, the oligarchs, the U.S. are now calling the torchlight marches and actions of the indignados movement legitimate, peaceful and democratic expressions of outrage via these weekly protests,” said Spring.
So while the establishment of CICIH would likely prove valuable in rooting out some officials guilty of fraud, as has undoubtedly been the case with CICIG in neighboring Guatemala, claims that CICIH can address corruption as an isolated issue miss the structural character of impunity.
“Corruption and impunity are necessary in seeing that the interests and continued domination by the Honduran elite, transnational companies, the international financial institutions, and the U.S. and Canadian governments continue unabated,” said Spring, pointing to sweeping privatization process in Honduras, including in the social security institute where millions were embezzled.
“Unfortunately, the dominant discourse of this movement is not discussing or being critical of the neoliberal model,” said Spring.
Harnessing revolutionary potential beyond anti-corruption
As long as demands stay focus solely on anti-corruption, a demand both the political left and right wing can get behind, these movements will remain largely unthreatening to the status quo. The challenge for movements in both Honduras and Guatemala is to leverage this moment of popular mobilization to move the countries toward deeper demands for fundamental, refounding change that addresses the underlying structural crisis of the state, rather than focusing on a the issue as a few “bad apples” to be purged.
However, as U.S. vested interests in suppressing left alternatives in the region and business elites aim to retain and consolidate political power, this an extremely difficult challenge for social movements. As more radical elements of these movements attempt to bring structural analyses and demands to the forefront, mainstream, middle class sensibilities drive the movement discourse.
And as liberal and reformist demands enjoy an outlet in the press and at least nominal support from international and U.S. institutions, more revolutionary demands are once against sidelined and silenced.
As of yet, talk of a revolutionary Central American spring may be premature.