Latin America

Guatemala: Stubborn Stain of Corruption

Women protest corruption in Guatemala City, March 20, 2002 (Photo: AFP).  

Public confidence in the administration of President Alfonso Portillo has eroded steadily as allegations of government corruption have multiplied in recent months, raising fears that Guatemala’s 1996 peace accord and fragile democratic institutions could be undermined by heightened political confrontation and violence. Recent action by the Bush administration to deny visas to several of Portillo’s closest political and security advisers has sent a clear message that U.S. support for further international assistance to Guatemala will be conditioned on concrete steps to eradicate official corruption.

“Disgust is the least that we are feeling at the form in which society has been devalued, sinking in the plague of corruption that is not limited to the boundaries of the public sector but advances by giant strides due to the almost total absence of ethics in human relations,” La Hora of Guatemala City (April 4) lamented in an editorial. “It has been aptly said for many years that each people has the government that it deserves....Whether by sin of action or omission, Guatemalans have gone on tolerating the construction of a system that favors and encourages influence trafficking and flouting of the law with impunity.”

Reports in the Guatemalan and Panamanian press linking Portillo, Vice President Juan Francisco Reyes, and several other high government officials to offshore companies and bank accounts in Panama have drawn official denials and countercharges that the allegations are part of a coordinated opposition effort to destabilize and overthrow the Portillo regime.

Héctor Mauricio López Bonilla, a retired military officer and public relations consultant singled out by the administration as an alleged architect of “destabilization,” retorted in a column in Guatemala City’s Prensa Libre (April 4) that the government has responded to charges of corruption with “evasion, ridicule, or indifference....One always finds a justification for misconduct and arbitrariness....The country is sinking beneath the pressure of a partisan clientelism in which its leaders exercise unbridled power over the resources that belong to the nation.”

The assassination of a leading opposition figure, the kidnapping and subsequent release of the nation’s central bank president, and a flurry of anti-Portillo street demonstrations during March further deepened political tensions. Columnist Alejandro Giammattei argued in Prensa Libre (April 4), “It is necessary to maintain moral legitimacy to govern....If democracy is to elect government officials so that they can do as they wish, and one must remain complacent at the looting of the country and even be thankful that something is left..., then I do not want to live in that democracy.”

But Oscar Clemente Marroquín, columnist in La Hora (April 13), cautioned that escalating pressure on Portillo to stand down offers no guarantee that a new regime would bring an end to decades of official corruption. “For years we have been betting that the country will improve with a change of government, but experience shows that it is absurd to believe that substituting the personalities signifies the abolition of the old ills,” Marroquín wrote.