In October 2015, with Guatemala wracked by decades of poor governance, the aftermath of death squads and corruption, comedian and political neophyte Jimmy Morales won an astounding 70% of the vote in the final round of the presidential election. With no policy platform to speak of, Morales’s election was a protest vote against the establishment and an expectation of much better governance. There was one slogan that Morales employed during the campaign that struck a chord with Guatemalans: ‘Not corrupt, not a thief’.
It was a self-approbating tag that would hardly convince Guatemalans but so desperate they were for change they were prepared to take chance and test Morales. It has taken just under two years for Morales to be unmasked as the comedian that he is except that this is no laughing matter. Inevitably when the stench of corruption hits home, the mask slips from the best of the lot. Last week, Morales foolishly attempted to evict Ivan Velasquez, the Colombian Head of Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). This ground-breaking Commission, the only one of its kind then, had been established by the United Nations in 2007 with the intention of prosecuting corrupt Guatemalan public officials after decades of crooked leaders had eroded Guatemalan institutions, particularly its judiciary. The well-respected CICIG has had notable successes particularly in the so-called La Linea customs probe and the indicting of President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015 on corruption charges.
While on the campaign trail, Morales himself had championed the work of the CICIG, that is, until the Commission began investigating Morales’s son Jose Manuel and brother, Samuel and this was announced by Attorney General, Thelma Aldana. The brother and son are accused of facilitating false receipts which defrauded the national property registry. According to Reuters, Samuel Morales has admitted helping his nephew as a favour but denies any wrongdoing. While he stated publicly he wouldn’t interfere, Reuters reported last week that President Morales privately became embittered at what he considered the overzealous approach of the Commission. When his son and brother were arrested in January of this year, President Morales, who in his most popular sketch had played a Guatemalan cowboy who became President, set about with plans to evict Velasquez.
President Morales justified his bid to expel Velasquez on the grounds that he had overstepped his authority – conveniently overlooking that CICIG’s work had helped to bring charges against his predecessor, Molina. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres intervened in support of Velasquez and as a consequence, the President requested that Velasquez stick to CICIG’s initial mandate of dismantling paramilitary groups from the civil war. While the President was in New York, Velasquez moved to have the President’s immunity stripped over suspected illegal financing of his 2015 campaign. By the time the President returned to Guatemala he had decided that Velasquez would have to go.
He underestimated the cost of this course of action. There were vocal public demonstrations, Ministers of his government resigned in protest, the US, the EU and the UK strongly opposed the attempted removal and expressed support for Velasquez and to top it all off the Guatemalan constitutional court took up the matter and ruled against the President. After seeming to want to flout the court ruling, better sense prevailed and President Morales backed down though it seems that he and his convenient ‘allies’, who had been subjects of CICIG’s scrutiny have not backed down.
President Morales’s behaviour was yet again an example of politicians being absolutely untrustworthy in their mouthings and solemn campaign promises. It is a cautionary tale for jurisdictions like Guyana with institutions which have been severely weakened over decades. In many sectors of society there are frequent reports and allegations of corruption and malfeasance. Many of these are not properly investigated or the people with information and evidence are afraid to come forward.
The best way of preserving the public interest and battling corruption is to ensure strong institutions straddling every sector of society. These do not exist at this point in Guyana or are subject to the whims and fancies of the politicians. Blind trust in politicians is an invitation to disappointment.
With the advent of ExxonMobil and its retinue of stakeholders in the oil and gas sector – several of which have come under scrutiny over their international practices – Guyana is bereft of regulatory and watchdog bodies that are equal to the task.
While the conduct of its ministers and senior officials will continue to come under public scrutiny – particularly as it relates to ExxonMobil and the oil and gas sector – the APNU+AFC government’s responsibility is to ensure full and prompt disclosures about the deal and the urgent strengthening of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maritime Administration Department and anti-corruption institutions such as the Integrity Commission.