• Corruption in Zambia: 42 fire trucks for $42m

    By Teldah Mawarire and Laura Miti

    The African Union (AU) will host a heads of state summit in Mauritania on June 25, under the theme Winning the Fight against Corruption: A Sustainable Path to Africa's Transformation. Zambia's President Edgar Lungu will also be at the summit, showing support for its cause. Yet on the very same day his country will be moving further away from the anti-corruption ideals of the AU. As Lungu sits down with other African leaders to talk about possible ways to eradicate corruption, six Zambian activists will sit in a dock in Lusaka to be prosecuted for protesting against corruption.

    Read on: Al Jazeera

  • CZECH REPUBLIC: ‘We believe that the new government will defend democratic principles’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent Czech elections with Marie Jahodová, Executive Director ofMillion Moments for Democracy, a civil society organisation working to support democracy in the Czech Republic and Europe by fostering civic participation, the accountability of elected representatives and democratic debate.

    Marie Jahodova

    What were the conditions for civil society and media freedoms in the run-up to the October 2021 election?

    One of the key factors influencing media freedoms in the Czech Republic is the distortion of the media market and limited access to information. This is mainly caused by the fact that billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns 30 per cent of the private media market, according to calculations by the European Federation of Journalists.

    The other defining factor is that public service media (TV, radio and press agency) are steered by media councils: the Czech Television Council, the Czech Radio Council and the Czech Press Agency Council. Council members are nominated and elected by simple majority by the Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. Yet in the past four years the majority in the Chamber of Deputies was held by Andrej Babiš’ party ANO (‘Yes’), communists and the far-right Svoboda a přímá demokracie (Freedom and Direct Democracy) movement. Therefore, when voting for new councillors took place, non-democratic nominees were easily elected and the independence of the public service media was significantly harmed. For that reason, one of the most important tasks for the new democratic government will be to redesign media councils and reform related laws.

    Conditions for civil society were also hardened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizen engagement became more difficult, as people could not gather in larger groups and organising protests and mass demonstrations became impossible. For that reason, we at Million Moments switched towards online events and interactions as much as possible. For example, as strict pandemic-related restrictions were in place, we organised an online demonstration and happenings in public space that did not involve the presence of many people.

    The crucial problem, both in the election campaign and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, has been disinformation. And our organisation has had to deal with disinformation quite often as well.

    How has civil society organised against corruption, and what has been the official response?

    As a part of civil society, we have organised a number of protests and happenings focusing mainly on our fundamental topics, such as conflict of interests of government officials, the need for an independent justice system and the importance of free and independent public media.

    Additionally, we have held events commemorating victims of COVID-19 in the Czech Republic, including one in which we placed white crosses on Old Town Square. By doing so we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the pandemic was mismanaged by the then-government. In other words, the events we organised last year were not focused solely on political corruption, although this is still our long-term topic. 

    Andrej Babiš never gave us any official answer. His inaction is consistent with the fact that dialogue between his government and civil society was always non-existent, and Babiš never supported it. Civil society was repeatedly underestimated and made fun of by both Prime Minister Babiš and President Miloš Zeman. Hundreds of thousands of protesters were called names such as ‘Prague Café fans’ and ‘uneducated kids only undermining the prime minister’s legitimate seizure of power’.

    It is not surprising that Babiš did not like our critical voice pointing at his enormous conflicts of interest, corruption, intent to abuse the public service media and other abuses his government was responsible for. The only ‘answer’ ‘Babiš gave was the often-repeated claim that all of it was a hate campaign against him led by the media and the opposition.

    What impact did the Pandora Papers have on the election?

    The Pandora Papers named Babiš among those keeping assets and spending millions through shell companies in tax havens. Unfortunately, no sufficient data exist to measure the impact of this on the election results. Some people think that the revelation of the Pandora Papers was a decisive moment in the election campaign, yet no hard data proving it are available. As far as we can lean on known figures, the Pandora Papers had no impact on Babiš’ electorate, whose preferences stayed about the same as before the Pandora Papers affair.

    On the other hand, these revelations might have influenced a number of non-voters. Many people who had not planned to vote in the election may have changed their mind after the Pandora Papers came out. This year’s participation rate was five percentage points higher than in the previous election, held in 2017. This increase, especially among young voters, was a very important factor playing in favour of democratic parties in the election. In terms of timing – they were published just a couple of days before the election – the Pandora Papers had the potential to influence the results.

    What were the other key issues during the election?

    The main topics in the election campaign were the COVID-19 pandemic and related precautions, state capture by Andrej Babiš, who was in power for eight years, and the ongoing decrease of trust in politics and politicians.

    The main narrative used by members of the democratic coalition was that we needed change, that we had had enough of an oligarch as Prime Minister, and we wanted to see no more billions flowing illegally into politicians’ businesses.

    On the other hand, Babiš’ party, ANO, used disinformation tactics to defame the Czech Pirate party, which had a very high preference in the pre-election polls in the spring of 2021. For that reason, ANO considered it the biggest competitor and used disinformation to slander it, which significantly harmed its electoral results.

    What are civil society’s hopes for the new government?

    We hope that the new government will defend democratic principles and lead a dialogue with civil society. Dialogue with civil society has in fact already begun, even in a public way. This is definitely a good sign for the future. After many years of rejection, not only our organisation but civil society in general really appreciates that the new Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, seems open to responding to questions and addressing the possible concerns of civil society.

    We do realise though that the new government will not have an easy job, as it came to power at a challenging time. It will need to resolve a difficult economic situation – both the public debt and the national deficit are currently at the highest level in our history – and the pandemic crisis and all the problems linked to it.

    What else needs to happen to strengthen democratic freedoms and root out corruption in the Czech Republic?

    The new government must get rid of the people connected to Andrej Babiš’ company, Agrofert, who are currently employed in public administration. This is an important long-term task.

    There are also other big challenges awaiting the new government, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office law reform, which could strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and the amendment of the law on conflicts of interest. It’s also necessary to replace some of the members of media councils who are still connected to non-democratic political parties that seek to undermine the credibility of public media. Politicians must also promise to fight disinformation effectively.

    And let’s not forget the Capi Hnizdo affair – allegations of European Union subsidy fraud – in relation to which Babiš has been under prosecution for more than four years already. A resolution of this case should not be postponed again. The investigation needs to move forward and the court should deliver its verdict. Otherwise, it will be a very bad signal for Czech civil society, especially in view of the upcoming presidential campaign.

    Civic space in the Czech Republic is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Million Moments for Democracy through itswebsite or itsFacebook orInstagram pages, and follow@milionchvilek and@m_jahodova on Twitter. 

  • ECUADOR: ‘Democracy has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow’

    MauricioAlarconSalvadorCIVICUS speaks with Mauricio Alarcón Salvador, executive director of Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (Citizenship and Development Foundation, FCD), about the elections that will be held in Ecuador on 20 August, the eruption of political violence and organised crime and the implications for civil society and the future of the country.

    FCD is an Ecuadorian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes and defends the rule of law, democratic principles and individual freedoms and encourages citizen participation, social control, transparency, open government and public innovation.

    Why is Ecuador facing general elections only two years after the inauguration of a new president?

    We will have new elections because the current president resorted to the mechanism known as ‘mutual death’, established in the constitution since 2008. This allows the president to dissolve the National Assembly on various grounds. It is known colloquially as ‘mutual death’ because ‘killing’ the legislature also causes the ‘death’ of the executive. In May this year, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly because, in his opinion, it had caused a serious political crisis, in the context of an impeachment trial against him based on accusations of corruption in his close entourage. The use of this mechanism allows the president to continue governing briefly without Congress but requires both legislative and presidential elections to be called within a short period of time to elect those who will complete the ongoing term. That is why the National Electoral Council called for presidential and legislative elections to be held on 20 August. Those elected in this vote will stay in power for approximately 18 months, the length of the current term remaining, which will end in May 2025.

    How has civic space evolved under this government, and what are the prospects for the future?

    For the little more than two years that this government has been in office, the situation of civic space has not changed much from the previous period. While it is true that the Organic Law on Communications was reformed to provide greater guarantees for freedom of expression and press freedom, the hostile environment against the media and journalists remains unchanged. The main aggressor may no longer be the president, but the notion persists that some people have the right to silence others just because they think differently. The climate of censorship and self-censorship hasn’t changed.

    Nor have the regulatory conditions under which CSOs operate. Although the authorities no longer persecute or intimidate them, the regulations that enable them to do so remain in place. No progress has been made towards the adoption of an NGO law fully guaranteeing freedom of association.

    Finally, as regards freedom of peaceful assembly, protests in June 2022 highlighted the weak character of the procedures available to authorities for guaranteeing it. There is still much work to be done in this regard and the challenge ahead is enormous.

    CIVICUS, an organisation of which we are members, has been key in making the situation of civic space in Ecuador and its evolution visible in recent years.

    Are the conditions for clean and transparent elections in place?

    At FCD we believe that general conditions exist for a clean and transparent electoral process. The National Electoral Council that is in charge of this process is the same that organised the presidential vote in 2021 and local elections a few months ago. These were processes that, generally speaking, have been commended by electoral observation missions. There are some pending issues to be resolved, mainly regarding the financing of politics, but in terms of the organisation of the process we are confident that everything will go well.

    As civil society, we would have liked to collaborate much more in supporting these elections, but this process came about unexpectedly and the organisations that usually take part have not been in a position to implement all our initiatives. Nevertheless, national election observation will be carried out and we have conducted campaigns to promote informed voting: we have published background information about the candidates and their government plans, and we have even monitored, albeit in a limited way, issues related to political financing. The challenge is enormous, but we are confident that we are doing our part to strengthen an extraordinary electoral process that we never saw coming.

    What are the key campaign issues?

    What we’ve seen these past few weeks is an apathetic campaign, very weak on proposals. Candidates seem to be fully aware that what is being elected is a transitional government that will last a few months, and they are not giving it due importance. Little has been said about fundamental rights and freedoms in a context where security is the main focus of public attention. This is of great concern to us, because in the face of the critical situation of insecurity at the national level, people demand quick solutions regardless of whether their implementation violates rights and freedoms. Regarding security, for example, several candidates have referred to the use of force outside of what is established by basic rights and international standards in force in Ecuador and the region.

    Unfortunately, it is difficult for a situation as serious as the one Ecuador is going through to be resolved in such a short period of time as the one that will be afforded to the future president. The main concerns of Ecuadorians are centred on insecurity, the economic crisis and corruption. It is hoped that the new government will act on these issues by listening to people and putting an end to the arrogance that has characterised the outgoing government. Although time is short, the transitional government should establish basic lines of action, either for continuity through the next period or so that whoever comes to power in 2025 will have a basis for doing so.

    How does the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio change the political scenario?

    Political violence is nothing new in Ecuador: in recent elections there have been candidates who experienced threats and attacks, which in some cases have cost them their lives.

    However, this is the first instance in a long time that a presidential candidate has been the victim of an assassination. The conditions under which the attack on Fernando Villavicencio occurred are revealing. He was a candidate with a risk assessment of over 95 per cent, who had police protection and had been denouncing constant threats against him.

    This affects not only the electoral landscape but also Ecuador’s democracy itself, which has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow. If the proper institutions act in a timely manner and not only prevent events like this from happening again, but also manage to put an end to the prevailing impunity, we will end up strengthening a weak democracy that has been crying out for help. For this to happen, there is much work ahead, focused on coordinating efforts between public institutions, civil society, the private sector and political actors in ways that put the country ahead of any particular interest.

    What international support does Ecuadorian civil society need to continue doing its work?

    After what has happened in recent years, the starting point would be to ensure that international cooperation does not abandon Ecuadorian civil society. Cooperation institutions must also understand that although it is more profitable – at least in terms of communication – to save the environment, protect species or support community development, it is key to maintain support for organisations and initiatives working for democracy and civic space, because no other initiative would be viable without these.

    The international community must keep its eyes on Ecuador and look for local allies to fight back against the democratic setbacks we are experiencing. A joint effort is needed to strengthen civil society as a fundamental pillar of democracy.

    Civic space in Ecuador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with FCD through itswebsite orFacebook account, subscribe to itsYouTube channel and followfcd_ecuador on Instagram and@FCD_Ecuador and@aiarconsalvador on Twitter.

  • EL SALVADOR: ‘The president’s aim is to concentrate power’

    CIVICUS speaks with Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption in El Salvador, about the political situation since President Nayib Bukele’s party won the February 2021 legislative election.

    Eduardo Escobar

    Do you think that democracy and the rule of law are being eroded in El Salvador?

    We should first ask ourselves whether El Salvador ever had a full democracy with the rule of law. If we reduce democracy to its electoral dimension, we could say that the will of the people has been respected and elections have become the only road to power. Despite some irregularities, we have had democracy in that sense. Since 2009, some progress was also made in terms of the balance of powers: we got an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, an independent Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and a prosecutor’s office that was striving to do its job.

    Thus, when Nayib Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. President Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association. In the context of the pandemic, the government illegitimately and unconstitutionally violated the freedom of movement. What little progress had been made was completely lost.

    After the legislative elections held on 28 February 2021, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the attorney general’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.

    Have the opposition or civil society been able to do anything about recent changes?

    The opposition was not smart. Until May 2021 it held an absolute majority in the legislative assembly but failed to take advantage of it. Opposition parties didn’t think they needed to hurry because they never thought they would lose. Now they have become irrelevant. Their presence is merely testimonial because the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority. The opposition is limited to making statements and peddling proposals that everyone knows will not prosper.

    Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. It is not that in the past every civil society proposal was approved – in fact, they were often not even discussed – but there were certain thematic areas where civil society participation was vital to pass a law. That is over: now only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.

    President Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption programme. Has there been any progress in this regard?

    The instrumentalisation of the issue of corruption was one of the bases of Bukele’s victory; his campaign slogan was ‘give back what you stole’. The issue of corruption is broad and complex, but that slogan was clear and precise, and appealed to many people. But it was only a campaign strategy.

    Once in power, he deactivated all existing anti-corruption mechanisms, disregarding IAIP resolutions, preventing audits by the Court of Auditors of government ministries, denying the prosecutor’s office access to public bodies involved in corruption cases, and finally removing the prosecutor and imposing one of his unconditional supporters, who even has legal complaints filed against him. We have no way of knowing the government’s expenditure, particularly those related to the pandemic. The administration has been so opaque that we don’t even have reliable data on how many people were infected with COVID-19, how many were hospitalised and how many died. The government does not provide information, it hides it. And when there are revelations or allegations of corruption, it attacks and defames the whistle-blower.

    How has this situation affected Acción Ciudadana’s work?

    Acción Ciudadana promotes political reform, transparency, accountability, citizen participation and the fight against corruption and impunity. Hence, much of the work we do is monitoring: we monitor political financing, internal political party elections and electoral propaganda; the work of the attorney general’s office, transparency in public administration and obstacles to access information; and the functioning of institutional mechanisms for the prevention, detection and punishment of corruption.

    To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. For example, the law establishes that information on travel by public officials must be public; however, the government has decided that this information is to be kept confidential for seven years. In this particular case there has been some pressure in the media and on social media, and the government changed its criteria and now withholds this information for up to 30 days after each trip, supposedly to protect the security of the concerned official. This is still illegal.

    When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened. For example, some political parties – starting with the ruling party – do not hand over their financial information to us. We have repeatedly denounced this to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for almost three years, but the Tribunal does not accept our complaints. So when a party does not provide us with information, we no longer appeal to the Tribunal, and when faced with an unconstitutional law, we no longer appeal to the Constitutional Chamber.

    We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes. For example, we found that in the 2019 presidential campaign a company donated US$1 million to the Grand Alliance for National Unity, Bukele’s electoral coalition, and in 2020 the government awarded that company a public-private partnership contract to manage and expand the airport. We see this as a case of conflict of interest, but we cannot take the issue to the prosecutor’s office or the Court of Auditors and ask them to investigate.

    President Bukele seems difficult to classify ideologically. What is his programme?

    If I had to classify the president’s party, I would say that it is a catch-all party, without an ideologically defined political project. Until he was expelled in 2017, Bukele belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and he portrayed himself as a revolutionary leftist who embraced Hugo Chávez and spoke of social justice. Then, as president-elect, he gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the USA, and he couldn’t have sounded more neoliberal. He has always claimed that the issues that need solutions were not a matter of ideology, and Nuevas Ideas was set up with the logic that everyone could fit in it, regardless of whether they were on the left or on the right. And that’s how it has been; there’s a bit of everything in there.

    Bukele does not have an ideological programme; his aim is to concentrate power. He can take right-wing or left-wing measures, but not because he has one ideology or the other, but because it happens to be what benefits him the most. For example, most of the pension system in El Salvador is private and he will probably nationalise it, not because he believes that this essential public service should be managed by the state, but because the Pension Fund moves millions of dollars, and the government wants to get its hands on it because it is short of resources, in debt and without further sources of funding, since the possibility of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund has just collapsed. Of course, privatisation is being presented as an act of justice towards pensioners, who receive miserable pensions. Based on this measure, an outside observer might think that his is a leftist government, but this is not an ideological measure, but rather one made out of convenience. The government is driven by the pursuit of political and economic gain, which is why it often appears erratic or improvised. There is no vision to guide the government’s planning.

    What are the causes of the protests currently faced by the government?

    The protests that began in early September erupted in reaction to the adoption of bitcoin as an official currency alongside the US dollar. Many people who support and value Bukele have opposed this measure, because they thought it could adversely affect them. This is the first government measure that has been widely rejected, and I think it was not only because of opposition to the cryptocurrency, but also because of the way decisions are being made, in the absence of sufficient information, debate and participation. Bukele made the announcement of this measure at an event in Miami on a Saturday, and the following Monday the bill was submitted to Congress. By Tuesday it had been passed. Everything was resolved in three or four days, amid total secrecy.

    Unfortunately, the reaction on this issue has been an exception, possibly because it is a subject that many people don’t understand much about, which causes fear. Generally speaking, most people applaud the president, his handling of the pandemic and his Territorial Control Plan, which is a strategy for militarising citizen security. This is because the narrative constructed by the government has been successful. For example, when the judges of the Constitutional Chamber were dismissed – a manoeuvre that civil society denounced as a coup d’état – the government said that the corrupt had been thrown out and many people believed it. There were people who came out to protest, not only from organised civil society, but also citizens in general, but they were a minority. It is difficult to counter the official narrative.

    What support does Salvadoran civil society need to be able to play its full role?

    It is quite complicated. Journalists manage to get information leaked to them and get their stories out, but we are not journalists. To get the information we need to play our accountability role we look for it on institutional portals and make information requests. Any effort to get public institutions to disclose information a bit more would help us.

    We also need support in terms of personal and digital security, as well as in the area of communications, because evidently civil society has not been able to communicate our messages adequately and we have not been able to build an alternative narrative to the official one.

    Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Ciudadana through itsFacebook page and follow@CiudadanaAccio1 and@esec76 on Twitter. 

  • GUATEMALA : « Les manifestations reflètent à la fois l’organisation sociale et l’autonomie des citoyens »

    Sandra MoraenCIVICUS parle des récentes manifestations au Guatemala avec l’activiste pour les droits des femmes et des personnes LGBTQI+ Sandra Morán Reyes. Avec une longue histoire d’expérience dans les mouvements sociaux, Sandra a été l’une des co-fondatrices du premier groupe de lesbiennes guatémaltèques et l’organisatrice de la première Marche des fiertés du Guatemala, qui s’est tenue en 1998 à Guatemala City. En 2015, elle a été élue députée nationale et est devenue la première députée et politicienne homosexuelle à être élue à une fonction d’élection populaire dans l'histoire de son pays, d’où elle a promu diverses initiatives en faveur des droits des femmes et des minorités sexuelles.

    Dans quel contexte les manifestations de novembre 2020 ont-elles eu lieu, et comment ont-elles commencé ?

    Un nouveau gouvernement a été inauguré en janvier 2020, et peu après, nous nous sommes retrouvés confinés en raison de la pandémie. Mais en mai ou juin, certains de nos camarades ont recommencé à descendre dans la rue, en partie pour critiquer l’attitude du gouvernement face aux besoins de la population, alors que les effets de la crise générée par la pandémie commençaient à se faire sentir. Soudain, des drapeaux blancs sont apparus, dans les rues, sur les portes des maisons, et entre les mains des personnes et des familles dans les rues ou sur les seuils des portes. Au moyen de ce drapeau blanc, les gens indiquaient qu'ils n'avaient pas assez à manger, et des actions de solidarité ont commencé à se mettre en place, notamment sous la forme de soupes populaires, inexistantes auparavant au Guatemala. Il y a eu un grand mouvement de solidarité entre les gens. Alors que les organisations se consacraient à servir leurs membres, les citoyens ont fait de grands efforts pour apporter un soutien individuel. Il est devenu habituel pour chacun de sortir dans la rue afin de faire profiter les plus démunis de ce dont il disposait. Cela s'est ensuite répété à l'égard de ceux qui ont été touchés par les ouragans et se sont retrouvés sans rien.

    Au niveau de l'État, de nombreuses ressources ont été allouées pour atténuer les effets de la pandémie, mais ces ressources n’ont pas été distribuées à la population dont les besoins sont restés insatisfaits, de sorte que la question que les gens ont commencé à se poser était de savoir « où était l'argent ».

    Depuis 2017, nous dénonçons ce que nous avons appelé le « pacte de corruption », qui liait des fonctionnaires, des hommes d’affaires et même des représentants de l’église, unis pour la défense de leurs propres intérêts. En 2015, après six mois de manifestations de masse soutenues, le président et la vice-présidente se sont retrouvés en prison, mais les gouvernements qui leur ont succédé ont fini par réaffirmer le même système. Le gouvernement du président Jimmy Morales a unilatéralement mis fin à l’accord avec la Commission internationale contre l’impunité au Guatemala, et le gouvernement actuel du président Alejandro Giammattei, dans la foulée du précédent, a davantage développé son contrôle de la justice, du Congrès et de toutes les institutions de l’État afin de pérenniser la corruption comme forme de gouvernement.

    Les effets du manque d'attention portée aux conséquences de la pandémie et des ouragans Eta et Iota, qui ont frappé en octobre et novembre, ont été aggravés par les attaques contre les fonctionnaires du ministère public qui luttent sans relâche contre la corruption. Le mécontentement s'est accru progressivement jusqu'en novembre, date à laquelle le Congrès a approuvé le budget national pour 2021. Il s’agissait d’un budget très conséquent - le plus élevé dans l’histoire du pays - qui comportait des traces évidentes de corruption, notamment dans le domaine des contrats d’infrastructure, où se concentre l’essentiel de la corruption, mais sans aucune attention pour la santé et l'éducation dans le contexte de la pandémie. Les coupes budgétaires ont même affecté le programme national de nutrition, dans un pays qui connaît un énorme problème de malnutrition infantile. Cela a été la goutte d'eau qui a fait déborder le vase. Des personnes qui ne sont normalement pas enclines à protester- un chef cuisinier professionnel, un artiste, de nombreuses personnes reconnues dans divers domaines - ont commencé à écrire sur les réseaux sociaux et à s’exprimer contre cette décision. C’est ainsi qu’a été convoquée la première manifestation, et soudain, nous étions 25 000 personnes dans la rue, en pleine pandémie. 

    À cette époque, toutes les restrictions pour les déplacements et les réunions avaient été levées, mais la pandémie se poursuivait et le risque de contagion était toujours présent. Personne n’avait prévu une manifestation aussi massive, et pourtant elle a eu lieu. Les manifestations étaient initialement pacifiques, mais dès la seconde, on a constaté des actes de violence et de répression. Un petit groupe a mis le feu au siège du Congrès, un événement qui fait toujours l'objet d'une enquête. Cet événement a été utilisé pour justifier la répression : gaz lacrymogènes, passages à tabac, arrestations et détentions. Lors d’une autre manifestation, un bus a été brûlé. De notre point de vue, ces actes de violence ont été instigués pour justifier la nécessité d’un contrôle policier accru et d’une éventuelle répression des manifestations.

    L’appel à la mobilisation a-t-il été lancé exclusivement par le biais des réseaux sociaux ? Qui s’est mobilisé ?

    Des appels ont été lancés par le biais des médias sociaux, en direction des classes moyennes principalement, mais les mouvements sociaux et les autorités indigènes ont également fait entendre leur voix. Ces derniers ont joué un rôle de plus en plus important ces dernières années et, dans le contexte de cette crise, ils ont publié une déclaration proposant un conseil gouvernemental réunissant les quatre principaux peuples qui composent le Guatemala - Maya, Xinka, Garífuna et Mestizo - pour ouvrir la voie à une assemblée constituante. Ils ont visité des territoires et travaillé à la formation d’alliances, mais c’est la première fois qu’ils entreprenaient des démarches auprès du gouvernement national, car jusqu’alors ils n’avaient d’autorité que sur leurs territoires. Le rôle qu'ils ont joué est important car l’oligarchie a toujours redouté un soulèvement indigène. Tout comme ils ont été émus par le fait qu’en 2019, la candidate à la présidence du Mouvement populaire de libération, un parti fondé par le Comité pour le développement paysan (CODECA), est arrivée en quatrième position. Une femme maya, une paysanne, peu scolarisée, est arrivée en quatrième position, et cela les a secoués.

    Quatre acteurs ont été mobilisés : les peuples indigènes, les femmes, les jeunes et ce que l’on appelle les «  communautés en résistance » - des communautés locales, généralement dirigées par des femmes, qui résistent aux méga-projets d’extraction sur leurs territoires. Les dernières manifestations ont également mis en évidence les résultats de l'unité nouvellement atteinte du mouvement étudiant universitaire : à partir de 2015, les étudiants de l’Université San Carlos de Guatemala, l’université publique, ont défilé aux côtés de ceux des deux universités privées, Rafael Landívar, l’université de la classe moyenne, et l’Universidad del Valle, l’université de la classe plus riche. Le slogan avec lequel l’université publique défilait, « USAC, c’est le peuple » s’est donc transformé en « Le peuple, c’est nous » à partir de cette convergence. Il s’agissait d’un événement historique qui marquait le retour des étudiants universitaires organisés au sein des luttes populaires.

    Le rôle de la jeunesse est également visible dans le mouvement féministe, car il y a beaucoup de mouvements de jeunes féministes. En particulier, le collectif Mujeres en Movimiento se distingue comme une initiative influente des féministes universitaires. Les organisations travaillant sur le thème de la diversité sexuelle ont également été présentes, et très actives en ce qui concerne la dénonciation des féminicides et des meurtres de personnes LGBTQI+.

    Ces groupes ont été rejoints par une classe moyenne appauvrie par les graves conséquences de la pandémie. Il y avait beaucoup de personnes issues de la classe moyenne dans les manifestations, et de nombreux « cols blancs ». De nombreuses personnes qui n'appartenaient à aucune organisation ou collectif autochtone, d’étudiants ou de femmes sont sortis de leur propre chef, mues par un sentiment de ras-le-bol. Ainsi, les manifestations de novembre 2020 reflétaient à la fois l’organisation sociale et l’autonomie des citoyens.

    Que demandaient les citoyens mobilisés ?

    Malgré le fait que de nombreux secteurs se soient mobilisés et que les revendications se soient multipliées, la liste des réclamations a été classée par ordre de priorité. Bien que chaque secteur ait présenté ses propres revendications, ils se sont tous ralliés autour de quelques revendications majeures. La principale demande consistait à demander au président d'opposer son veto au budget. En effet, ce qui a déclenché la mobilisation, c'est l'impudence d'un Congrès qui a élaboré un budget qui ne profite manifestement pas aux citoyens du Guatemala mais à son propre intérêt, celui d'alimenter la corruption. Les manifestations ont remporté un succès immédiat, puisque quelques jours après l’incendie du bâtiment du Congrès, celui-ci a fait marche arrière en annulant le budget qu’il avait approuvé. Parallèlement à l’annulation du budget, la demande d’un budget répondant aux besoins de la population a été formulée, mais elle est toujours en suspens.

    Suite à la répression des protestations, la démission du ministre de l'intérieur est devenue une réclamation majeure, mais celle-ci n'a pas eu lieu, et ce haut fonctionnaire reste en fonction. La démission du président a également été exigée mais n'a pas eu lieu non plus.

    Enfin, la proposition d'une nouvelle Constitution, qui est à l'ordre du jour des mouvements sociaux depuis plusieurs années, a été soulevée à nouveau. En 2015, lors des grandes manifestations qui ont conduit à la démission de l’ensemble du gouvernement, les mouvements sociaux ont constaté que la corruption n’était pas seulement le fait de quelques individus, mais que le système entier était corrompu, et qu’un changement systémique était par conséquent nécessaire. Les organisations des peuples autochtones et paysannes ont élaboré une proposition de changement constitutionnel, basée sur leur demande de reconnaissance des peuples autochtones et la création d'un État plurinational qui leur donnerait de l’autonomie et un pouvoir de décision.

    D’autres groupes ont des propositions moins abouties. J’ai été membre du Congrès jusqu’en janvier 2020, et à l’époque, j’ai travaillé avec des organisations de femmes, considérant que cette situation pourrait se produire et que nous devions être prêtes. Nous avons lancé le « Movimiento de Mujeres con Poder Constituyente » afin de formuler une proposition de Constitution nouvelle  selon la perspective des femmes dans toute leur diversité.

    Quels sont les principaux changements que vous proposez ?

    Notre Constitution a été rédigée en 1985 et comporte une importante section relative aux droits humains; elle inclut la figure de l’Ombudsman, qui était une innovation à l’époque. Mais les droits humains y sont abordés selon une perspective individuelle ; les droits collectifs et les droits des peuples sont absents, tout comme les droits des femmes et des personnes LGBTQI+. Et les innovations les plus avancées en matière constitutionnelle, comme les droits de la nature, sont également absentes. Notre proposition est une proposition politique pour l’émancipation des peuples, des femmes et de la diversité sexuelle. Elle repose sur l’idée d'une économie de la vie, qui place la communauté au centre, et sur une économie féministe qui réorganise le travail et les activités liées aux soins.

    Pensez-vous que les protestations vont continuer ?

    Oui, les protestations vont se poursuivre. Avec les célébrations de fin d’année, il y a eu une démobilisation, mais ces jours-ci, on a su que le CODECA va de nouveau descendre dans la rue. Le CODECA est une organisation qui travaille normalement seule, elle ne se coordonne pas avec d’autres mouvements sociaux, mais elle a une grande capacité de mobilisation. S’ils retournent dans les rues, ils ouvriront une nouvelle étape de manifestations.

    En ce moment, le ministre des Finances élabore un nouveau budget. Il reste à savoir quel montant sera investi dans la santé, l’éducation et la relance de l’économie, mais aussi ce que l’on entend par la « relance de l’économie ». Jusqu’à présent, l’accent a toujours été mis sur les investissements privés internationaux, qui ne font que générer des opportunités pour une intensification de l’exploitation et des méga-projets. Les revendications des populations rurales, paysannes et des peuples autochtones, vont donc continuer à se faire entendre dans la rue.

    Pour l’instant, il s’agit d'un appel sectoriel, et pas d’un appel général aux citoyens. Mais iI n’en faudra pas beaucoup pour relancer la protestation citoyenne, car suite aux manifestations de novembre, le président a fait un ensemble de promesses qu’il n’a pas tenues. Le premier anniversaire de son gouvernement a eu lieu le 14 janvier 2021 et les niveaux de soutien qu'il reçoit sont extrêmement faibles. Le Congrès a lui aussi une faible légitimité, étant donné le nombre de députés qui composent le « pacte de corruption », un nombre suffisant pour détenir une majorité ordinaire permettant de faire passer des lois.

    Cependant, les gens peuvent avoir peur de se mobiliser parce que nous avons un pic d’infections de COVID-19. Ainis, un autre obstacle à la continuité des mobilisations est l’absence d’un leadership unifié et le fait que la coordination soit limitée.

    L’espace civique au Guatemala est classé « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
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  • GUATEMALA: ‘Criminal law is being used as a weapon of political persecution’

    ClaudiaGonzalezCIVICUS discusses corruption in Guatemala and the criminalisation of anti-corruption activism with Claudia González, former member of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Virginia Laparra’s defence attorney.

    Virginia Laparra is a former prosecutor of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) who has recently been unjustly sentenced to four years in prison. The #LibertadParaVirginia (#FreedomForVirginia) campaign is mobilising in response.

  • GUATEMALA: ‘Our democracy is at risk in the hands of political-criminal networks’

    Picture4CIVICUS speaks with Evelyn Recinos Contreras about Guatemala’s general elections – where a candidate promising reform has surprisingly made the second round of the presidential race – and the prospects for democratic change and opening up civic space.

    Evelyn is a former investigator for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and former advisor to the Attorney General of Guatemala. She is currently living in exile because of her human rights activism.

    What is the state of civic space in Guatemala?

    Civic space in Guatemala is under serious threat. To understand this better, one must understand that, as a consequence of armed conflict, the social fabric is broken. There is hardly any grassroots citizen engagement to speak of. The sectors that for decades served as an engine of social change, such as teachers, trade unionists and high school and public university students, have been irreparably affected by the violence.

    Of these, probably the only grassroots sector that remains organised is Indigenous Mayan peoples, who fight for the defence of their territory and natural resources. In addition, in urban areas, civil society human rights and pro-democracy organisations have organised their work around strengthening democratic institutions, with much emphasis on the issue of justice.

    It is precisely these sectors that are once again being hit by authoritarianism and state violence. In the interior of the country, thousands of community leaders are being criminalised and entire communities are subject to arrest warrants and threatened with criminal prosecution. A similar situation is experienced in urban areas, where the justice system has been captured by political-criminal networks that use state platforms to fund their criminal endeavours and intimidate justice operators, human rights defenders and activists who fight for human rights and the strengthening of civic space and democracy.

    Networks of corruption and impunity affect the democratic space, as evidenced by the fact that people such as Thelma Cabrera of the People’s Liberation Movement were prevented from registering as candidates and participating in the elections.

    What are the causes of Guatemala’s democratic erosion?

    Democracy in Guatemala is being eroded by political-criminal networks that have taken over institutions and use them for their own benefit rather than the wellbeing of the public and the strengthening of democracy. But it has been a gradual and almost imperceptible process. Several key institutions have been weakened, such as the National Civil Police, which is in charge of two main tasks: crime prevention and the maintenance of citizen security, and collaboration in criminal investigations. For years, civil society worked with police commanders to build an institution at the service of democratic security, so that its work would serve to produce a civic space in which citizens could enjoy their fundamental rights and live a dignified life free of violence. But since 2017 we have seen the institution weakened, with commanders being dismissed and resources being misused.

    Similar problems can be found in the judiciary. High courts have not followed their normal process of renewal: they have not held elections for new magistrates. In addition, the last two elections they held were denounced and investigated for acts of corruption. The Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been weakened by a policy of criminal prosecution and criminalisation of justice operators, which has also meant the sidelining of investigation of crimes against life, violence against women and property crimes, which hit citizens hard. Rates of violence and insecurity in Guatemala are almost as high as in countries undergoing internal armed conflicts.

    Do you think that the anti-corruption struggle has failed in Guatemala?

    It is very difficult to provide an absolute answer to the question of the success or failure of the fight against corruption in Guatemala. I think the cases that were brought to trial were supported by evidence and due process was respected. In that sense they were successful. But this was only part of the fight against corruption, because the law provides a limited platform. The damage to society had already been done and resources had already been lost.

    The fight against corruption is only truly successful when there is a level of social involvement that leads to scrutiny of public officials and a sustained demand of accountability. Sadly, we are not there yet.

    For those who have been involved in the fight against corruption, the negative consequences have been obvious. Prosecutors, judges, human rights defenders, activists and community leaders are being persecuted on unfounded charges and pushed towards exile. This sends a strong message of fear to Guatemalan society. But I am convinced that the struggle does not end here. We deserve a country where we can all live in freedom and dignity. The Mayan people have been resisting for more than 500 years, so I think they are our best example to follow.

    Do you think a positive change could come out of this election?

    I believe there is hope. People have shown they are tired of the same murky forces that for years have embodied voracious economic interests that exploit peoples and territories and are characterised by discrimination, double standards and structural violence.

    The fact that one of the contenders in the runoff is the Semilla party, born out of the anti-corruption protests of 2015 and bringing together many people who have never participated in political parties before, is evidence of a desire for change. People rejected the usual political actors who represent archaic economic interests and embody authoritarian and corrupt forms of politics.

    For change to really materialise, we need the international community to turn its eyes to Guatemala. The risk to our democracy at the hands of political-criminal networks must not go unnoticed. We need the international community to draw attention to and speak out about the situation in our country, because the violation of the human rights of Guatemalans affects our shared humanity.

    Civic space in Guatemala is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

  • GUATEMALA: ‘The protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy’

    Sandra MoraenCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Guatemala with Sandra Morán Reyes, an advocate of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. With a long history of participation in social movements, Sandra was one of the co-founders of the first Guatemalan lesbian group and the organiser of the first pride march in Guatemala, held in 1998 in Guatemala City. In 2015, she was elected as a national congressional representative, becoming the first gay congresswoman and politician to be elected to popular office in the history of her country. From that position, she promoted various initiatives to advance the rights of women and sexual minorities.

    What was the background to the November 2020 protests and how did they begin?

    A new government was inaugurated in January 2020, and soon after that we found ourselves locked up because of the pandemic. But by May or June some of our colleagues started to take to the streets again, partly to criticise the government’s attitude towards the needs of the population as the effects of the crisis generated by the pandemic began to be clearly seen. Suddenly white flags started to appear on the streets, on house doors and in the hands of people and families walking the streets or sitting in doorways. With the white flag people indicated that they did not have enough to eat, and solidarity actions began to take place, for instance in the form of soup kitchens, which did not previously exist in Guatemala. There was a great movement of solidarity among people. While organisations were busy attending to their own members, citizens made great efforts to provide person-to-person support. It became common for people to go out into the streets to give a little of what they had to those who needed it most. This was then repeated regarding those who were affected when hurricanes hit and lost everything.

    At the state level, a lot of resources were approved to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, but these resources did not reach the people and the needs of the population remained unmet, so the question that people began to ask was, ‘where is the money?’

    From 2017 onwards, we started denouncing what we called the ‘corrupt pact’ that brought together public officials, businesspeople and even church representatives in defence of their own interests. In 2015, after six months of sustained mass demonstrations, the president and vice president ended up in prison, but the governments that succeeded them ended up reaffirming the same old system. The government of President Jimmy Morales unilaterally ended the agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and the current government led by President Alejandro Giammattei, following on from its predecessor, has made progress in controlling the judiciary, Congress and all state institutions in order to sustain corruption as a form of government.

    The effects of the lack of attention to the impacts of the pandemic and of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in October and November 2020, were compounded by attacks on the officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office who continue to fight against corruption. Discontent continued to accumulate until the early hours of November 2020 when Congress approved the national budget for 2021. It was a very high budget – the highest in the country's history – and it included obvious pockets of corruption, especially in the area of infrastructure contracts, which is where the bulk of corruption takes place, but paid no attention to health and education, in the context of a pandemic. Budget cuts even affected the national nutrition programme, in a country that has a huge problem of child malnutrition. That was the last straw. People who are not normally prone to protest – a professional chef, an artist, many well-known people in different fields – started writing on social media and expressing anger against this decision. That’s how the first demonstration was organised, and suddenly we were about 25,000 people out there, in the middle of a pandemic.

    By that time all restrictions on movement and gatherings had been lifted, but the pandemic was still ongoing and the risk of contagion was still there. No one foresaw such a massive protest, and yet it happened. The demonstrations were initially peaceful, but already during the second one there was violence and repression. A small group set fire to the Congress building, an event that is still under investigation. This was used to justify the repression: teargas, beatings, arrests and detentions, something that had not happened for a long time. In another demonstration, people set fire to a bus. From our perspective, these acts of violence were instigated to justify the need for more police control over demonstrations and ultimately the repression of protests.

    Was the call for mobilisation made exclusively through social media? Who mobilised?

    There were a series of calls through social media that appealed above all to the middle classes, but social movements and Indigenous authorities also made their calls. Indigenous authorities have played an increasingly important role in recent years, and in the context of this crisis they published a statement in which they proposed a governing council of the four main groups of peoples who make up Guatemala - Maya, Xinka, Garífuna and Mestizo - to pave the way for a Constituent Assembly. They have been visiting territories and working to form alliances, and this was the first time that they have made steps towards the national government, as for now they have only had authority within their territories. The role they have played is important because the oligarchy has always been afraid of an Indigenous uprising; that fear is what moves them, just as they were moved by the fact that in 2019 the candidate for president of the People's Liberation Movement, a party founded by the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), came in fourth place. A Mayan woman, a peasant, with little schooling, came in fourth place, and they found that very upsetting.

    Four main actors mobilised: Indigenous peoples, women, young people and what are called ‘communities in resistance’ – local communities, generally led by women, who are resisting extractive mega-projects in their territories. The latest demonstrations also evidenced the results of the newly achieved unity of the university student movement: from 2015 onwards, students from the public university of San Carlos de Guatemala marched together with those from the two private universities, Universidad Rafael Landívar, of middle-class students, and Universidad del Valle, which caters to the upper class. The motto under which the public university used to march, ‘USAC is the people’, turned into ‘We are the People’ as a result of this convergence. This was a historical event that marked the return of organised university students to popular struggles.

    The role of young people can also be seen within the feminist movement, as there are many young feminist movements. In particular, the Women in Movement collective, a very important expression of university-based feminists, stands out. Sexual diversity organisations have also been present, and have been very active in denouncing femicides and murders of LGBTQI+ people.

    These groups were joined by a middle class made impoverished by the severe impact of the pandemic. There were many middle-class people, many white-collar workers and professionals, in the demonstrations. Many people who did not belong to any Indigenous, student or women’s organisation or collective went out on their own, moved by the feeling of being fed up. Thus, the November 2020 protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy.

    What did the mobilised citizenry demand?

    Despite the fact that several sectors mobilised and many demands accumulated, there was an order to the protests’ petition list. Although each sector had its own demands, they all rallied around a few major ones. The key demand was that the president should veto the budget, since what triggered the mobilisation was the impudence of a Congress that made a budget that was clearly not to the benefit of the citizens of Guatemala but to their own, to feed corruption. The demonstrations were an immediate success in that regard, since a few days after the Congress building was burned, Congress backed down and annulled the budget it had previously approved. Along with the withdrawal of the budget, the protesters’ demand was the drafting of a new budget that would respond to the needs of the population, but this demand is still pending.

    Following the repression of the protests, the resignation of the Minister of the Interior became a key demand, but this did not happen and this public official remains in office. The president’s resignation was also demanded but did not take place.

    Finally, the demand for a new constitution, which has been on the agenda of social movements for several years, was raised again. In 2015, during the big demonstrations that led to the resignation of the entire government, social movements assessed that corruption was not only the fault of some individuals, as we had a corrupt system and therefore a change of system was needed. Indigenous and peasant organisations have their proposal for constitutional change, based on their demand of recognition of Indigenous peoples and the establishment of a plurinational state that would give them autonomy and decision-making power.

    Other groups have more embryonic proposals. I was a member of Congress until January 2020, and when I was still in Congress I worked with women’s organisations, thinking that this situation could arise and we had to be ready. We started the Movement of Women with Constituent Power to develop a proposal for a new constitution from the perspective of women in all our diversity.

    What are the main changes you propose?

    We have a constitution that was drafted in 1985 and it has an important human rights component; it includes the office of the Ombudsman, which at the time was an innovation. But human rights are approached from an individual perspective; collective rights and peoples’ rights are absent, as are the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And so are the most advanced innovations in constitutional matters, such as the rights of nature. Ours is a political proposal for the emancipation of peoples, women and sexual diversity. It is based on the idea of an economy for life, which puts the community at the centre, and on a feminist economy that reorganises work and care tasks.

    Do you think the protests will continue?

    Yes, the protests will continue. With the year-end celebrations came demobilisation, but in recent days it has become public that CODECA has decided to take to the streets again. CODECA is an organisation that normally goes out alone, it doesn’t coordinate with other social movements, but it has a great capacity for mobilisation. If they go back on the streets, they will open a new phase of demonstrations.

    Right now, the Minister of Finance is drawing up a new budget, which in a month’s time will have to be discussed again in Congress. It remains to be seen not only how much will be invested in health, education and economic revival, but also what they think ‘economic revival’ actually means. Until now the emphasis has always been on international private investment, which only generates opportunities for greater exploitation and mega-projects. A bill has been proposed to promote family farming; there is no way it can be passed. So the demands of rural populations, peasants and Indigenous peoples are going to continue to be expressed on the streets.

    For the time being, this is a sectoral call, not a broad call to citizens. But it will not take much to revive citizen protest, since after the November demonstrations the president made a series of promises that he has not kept. The first anniversary of his government was 14 January 2021 and the levels of support it receives are extremely low. Congress also has little legitimacy, given the number of representatives who are part of the ‘corrupt pact’, which is large enough to hold an ordinary majority to pass legislation.

    However, people may be afraid of mobilising because we are at a peak in COVID-19 infections. And another obstacle to the continuity of the protests is the absence of a unified leadership and the fact that coordination is quite limited.

    Civic space in Guatemala is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
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  • GUATEMALA: ‘These elections are key because they give us a chance to take a different path’

    JordanRodasCIVICUS speaks with Jordán Rodas Andrade about Guatemala’s general elections – where a candidate promising reform has surprisingly made the second round of the presidential race – and the prospects for democratic change and opening up civic space.

    Jordán Rodas is a lawyer specialising in constitutional guarantees and fundamental rights, transparency and anti-corruption. In addition to being a university professor, in 2015 he was elected vice-president of the Guatemalan Bar Association and between 2017 and 2022 he was Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman. In exercising this role he was repeatedly criminalised and threatened, as a result of which he had to go into exile.

    How have civic space conditions changed in Guatemala in recent years?

    In recent years there has been a very worrying deterioration of civic space in Guatemala, which has worsened under the current president, Alejandro Giammattei. His predecessor, Jimmy Morales, a comedian-turned-president, left very bad practices in place, but these reached extreme levels under Giammattei.

    In recent years, many human rights defenders, land rights defenders, journalists and justice defenders have had to leave our country, forced by a hostile climate of persecution and criminalisation. This closure of spaces and the absence of an independent press have produced fertile ground for the advance of an authoritarian regime. These elections are key because they give us Guatemalans a chance to take a different path for the good of our country.

    What drove you into exile?

    In my five years as prosecutor, I was criminalised with 18 pretrial proceedings, all of which were rejected. It is exhausting to have to constantly defend yourself against such a succession of spurious accusations. Then I had eight requests for removal from office by members of congress, in addition to a crippling financial suffocation.

    Above all, I have witnessed the weakening of justice. Many had to take the difficult decision to leave the country to save their lives, their freedom or their integrity. Among them are Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), Erika Aifán, an independent judge, Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez and many others who in one way or another touched the heartstrings of political and economic power.

    It is no coincidence that behind the persecution of justice operators and journalists is often the Foundation Against Terrorism, directed by business leader Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, who has been accused by the US government of acts of corruption and acts against democratic institutions. This organisation was a plaintiff in the criminal proceedings against Virginia Laparra, former FECI prosecutor in Quetzaltenango, who has been in prison for more than a year and who should never have been detained for denouncing cases of corruption of a judge. Whistleblowing is not a crime anywhere in the world.

    The same organisation criminally prosecuted José Rubén Zamora, the founder of newspaper elPeriódico, one of the government’s main critics who for years has denounced corruption. Zamora was recently sentenced to six years in prison for several alleged crimes, including money laundering. This sent a very serious message against press freedom. The independent press has had to self-censor and yet it continues to fight this battle.

    I was still in Guatemala when Zamora was captured, and so I decided to distance myself. I left in August but returned in December, by land, to participate in the assembly of the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), which proclaimed Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous Maya Mam woman, as its presidential candidate and myself as its vice-presidential candidate. Four years ago, the MLP came in fourth place, but in a context of social malaise in the face of corruption and thanks to its opening up to mestizo people – people of mixed European and Indigenous heritage – I thought it had a good chance of entering the second-round race.

    But my successor in the prosecutor’s office filed a spurious complaint against me, as a result of which our presidential ticket was blocked. I was systematically refused information about the content of the complaint. In other words, this was used to take us out of the race. Since then, I have continued the struggle from exile. This may not be what you want, but it is what you have to do.

    Under what conditions would you decide to return to Guatemala permanently?

    I was just talking about this last week following a work meeting with the Guatemalan state mediated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). I have been the beneficiary of a precautionary measure from the IACHR since 2017. These measures establish that the state has the obligation to ensure and guarantee a person’s life, integrity, security and liberty, and in my case the state of Guatemala has not complied with it. In order to return, I would need as the minimum that the state does not persecute or criminalise me.

    There are currently two accusations against me, one filed by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and another by the Comptroller General’s Office. I have no official knowledge of what the accusations are because I don’t have access to the documents; I have requested them through access to information requests. But it seems to me they are related to the fact that in my declaration of assets I said that I had handed over on 20 August, which is when my constitutionally established term ended, but I left the country on 18 August, leaving the deputy attorney general in charge, as the law dictates. In other words, there was no falsehood or crime. This case is under reserve, and I have asked the state, as a sign of goodwill, not to extend this reserve but to hand over a copy of the complaint so I can defend myself, and to guarantee my life and safety, and that of my family in Guatemala.

    Has the fight against corruption in Guatemala failed?

    The fight against corruption has not failed, but it has stalled as a result of a well-thought-out strategy of a corrupt alliance of political officials and private sector actors.

    However, today more than ever I hope that we will learn the painful but positive lessons from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which I believe has more lights than shadows. I hope that from that learning we can, sooner rather than later, take up the fight against corruption again.

    International support will continue to be indispensable because our justice system is very porous, permeated by organised crime and lacking institutionality. Three of the nine magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice and several other judges and judicial officials are on the US State Department’s Engel List of people who have committed acts of corruption or have participated in actions to undermine democracy in their countries. Members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal have been accused of falsifying their doctoral degrees to get elected and the Human Rights Ombudsman was Giammattei’s human rights officer in the prison system at the time he launched ‘Operation Peacock’, a police operation that resulted in a massacre and eventually cost Giammattei 10 months in prison, but also launched its presidential bid. Hence the trust that exists between these two officials.

    But it is clear that people are tired of all this and they showed it at the ballot box on 25 June, when they said no to a return to the past and yes to a proposal that sends a message of hope for the fight against corruption. This was clearly put by the candidate who represents this hope, Bernardo Arévalo, who made it to the second round against all odds.

    Do you consider these elections to have been free and competitive?

    The presidential election was not free and competitive, because a fair election requires not only that there be no fraud on voting day, but also that a series of elements are present throughout the process, from the moment the elections are called. The election was called on 20 January, and on 27 January the state closed the door on us and prevented our participation. Not only did this violate our right to stand for election, but it also restricted citizens’ right to have a full range of options.

    In reaction to this exclusion, Thelma Cabrera called for a null vote, and numbers don’t lie. The null vote actually won, with 17 per cent, a higher share than that received by the candidate who came first, Sandra Torres, who got around 15 per cent. People are clearly fed up.

    The unfairness of the competition also manifested itself in the official party’s handling of public resources and the government’s extremely close relationship with some Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates.

    But the fact that Bernardo Arévalo managed to enter the second round is, alongside the mass of null votes, blank votes and abstentions, a sign of enormous rejection of the system. I have high expectations for the second round, in which I hope that the Guatemalan people will participate massively and take advantage of this opportunity to choose a better future.

    What would Guatemala’s new government need to do to put the country back on the road to democracy?

    Above all, the anti-corruption message must be accompanied by real action. Revenge against justice operators must stop, the rule of law must be restored and the freedom of the independent press must be guaranteed.

    The new president should form a cabinet inclusive of progressive sectors. He should convene political parties, social forces and Indigenous peoples’ movements to jointly make a proposal that ensures public policies benefit those most in need.

    The new government should totally dissociate itself from the malpractices of the past and be very careful about power’s temptations. Its responsibility to those who have placed their trust in it must prevail. There will be temptations along the way, so it is essential that it place its bets on people who are ethical, capable and consistent with the values projected in the electoral campaign, as people voted for them because they recognised them first and foremost as an honest party. Bernardo is surely the most interested in honouring the legacy of his father, former president Juan José Arévalo. His government could become a third government of the revolution, taking up and improving on the great achievements of that democratic springtime that took place between 1944 and 1955.

    Civic space in Guatemala is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Jordán Rodas through his Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow him on TikTok and Twitter.

  • HAÏTI : « La communauté internationale ne s’est jamais attaquée aux causes profondes de la crise »

    NixonBoumbaCIVICUS s’entretient avec Nixon Boumba, militant des droits humains et membre du Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Collectif pour la justice minière en Haïti), sur la situation politique en Haïti après l’assassinat du président Jovenel Moïse. Formé en 2012, le Collectif pour la justice minière en Haïti est un mouvement d’organisations, d’individus et de partenaires de la société civile haïtienne qui font pression pour la transparence et la justice sociale et environnementale face à l’intérêt international croissant pour le secteur minier haïtien. Il sensibilise les communautés touchées aux conséquences de l’exploitation minière dans cinq domaines : l’environnement, l’eau, le travail, l’agriculture et la terre.

  • HAITI: ‘The international community has never addressed the root causes of the crisis’

    NixonBoumbaCIVICUS speaks with Nixon Boumba, a human rights activist and member of Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Haiti Justice in Mining Collective), about the political situation in Haiti following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Formed in 2012, Haiti Justice in Mining Collective is a movement of Haitian civil society organisations, individuals and partners pushing for transparency and social and environmental justice in the face of growing international interest in Haiti’s mining sector. It educates affected communities on the consequences of mining in five areas: the environment, water, work, agriculture and land.

  • MALAWI: ‘The tactics used by the current administration are the same used by its predecessors’

    Michael KaiyatsaCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Malawi with Michael Kaiyatsa, Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR).

    CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.

    How has the situation in Malawi evolved since the 2020 elections?

    Malawi held a presidential election in June 2020 because the 2019 election was annulled on the basis that there were massive irregularities and the court ordered a rerun. The 2020 election was won by the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera.

    During the campaign, Chakwera said that if elected, he would address some key issues, including corruption in the public sector. It was the perception of public opinion that corruption was on the rise and the previous administration had not done much to tackle the problem. Chakwera promised to introduce reforms to seal all loopholes allowing for corruption and to improve the judicial system so corruption cases would not be ignored.

    However, once in power it didn’t look like these changes were effectively being implemented. As usual, the first year people gave the new administration some time. The president kept on making the same promises but made very little actual progress. 

    The second year continued in the same way and Malawians started to lose patience. People started to take their discontent out to the streets. The economic situation in Malawi also kept getting worse, with costs of living skyrocketing every day and a rise in unemployment. People looked back at campaign promises and compared them to their reality, and frustration arose.

    I wouldn’t say all campaign commitments were just empty promises and lies, because there were issues the government attempted to address, but progress has been slow. For instance, they promised to increase funding for the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and ensure its independence. Funding for the ACB increased significantly, and a new law was eventually passed to amend the Corrupt Practices Act, removing the requirement of the ACB director to seek consent to prosecute corruption cases. They promised to set up special courts to prosecute corruption cases, and finally submitted a bill to amend the Court’s Act and make a provision for special courts.

    But they also promised to work to recover stolen assets and are moving at an extremely slow pace in this regard. And they also said they would create a million jobs for young people, which has never happened.

    What’s behind recent protests against the judiciary?

    Last year we started seeing lots of protests against corruption and impunity. There have been numerous cases involving government officials – including from the current administration – that have not been prosecuted. Investigations take years, and those involving senior government officials take the longest and rarely end in conviction. Recent ACB reports show that only 30 per cent of such cases have been concluded, and most of these date back to 2015.

    In sum, the wheels of justice are barely moving, and people have concluded that the government is pursuing selective justice. In a recent case, for instance, an 18-year-old man arrested for cannabis possession was prosecuted and given a sentence of eight years in prison, while people accused of serious crimes involving corruption are given three and four-year sentences, if anything at all. Ironically, before this case, a powerful business leader was accused of the same crime, marijuana possession, and was just asked to pay a fine. Such arbitrariness is pushing people to the streets.

    While selective justice is nothing new, this time around people want to hold the government accountable for the promises made on the campaign trail. As a result, pressure is also coming from the opposition to hold the government to account. When the current ruling party was in the opposition, they were the ones raising these issues. Now people are realising it is not any different from its predecessors.

    How have the authorities responded to the protests?

    The government has often tried to stop protests with the use of excessive force. Just recently, over 80 activists were detained and arrested. They were charged with holding an illegal assembly, although the constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly. Hours before these demonstrations started, some Malawians claiming to be from the business community requested the court issue an injunction to stop them. The injunction was granted late in the afternoon, so people gathered the next morning without knowing about it, and the police came in and started firing teargas, beating up people and arresting everyone they could.

    The tactics used by the current administration are the same ones used by its predecessors. The habit of getting last-minute injunctions isn’t new at all: this is what happened in July 2011, when the government got a last-minute injunction, people assembled without any knowledge of it and over 20 were killed by the police in the ensuing repression.

    What shocks me the most is the court’s interpretation of the meaning of the right to the freedom of assembly. The Police Act is very clear about what needs to be done if people stage a protest. It all starts with a notification to the authorities, but this is usually interpreted as people needing to obtain permission from the police, which is against what the law actually says.

    In the recent protest against the judiciary, we were told the demonstration would not proceed until the organisers provided a list with the protesters’ names, to be held liable if the demonstration resulted in damage to property. This is strange, as you cannot be sure who is going to attend a protest and how they will conduct themselves. It is not just the police but also the courts that are now asking for a registry of attendees, something that cannot be found anywhere in the law.

    How could the international community support Malawian civil society?

    Over the past two or three years, new civil society groups have emerged to defend human rights and economic justice, and are mobilising mostly through social media platforms and community radio, particularly in rural areas, issuing statements and calling people to the streets.

    Malawian civil society needs international protection. We need to be able to express ourselves and feel safe while doing it, so we need our international partners to send a message to the president, reminding him of his commitments and his obligations under the constitution. 

    We continue to experience the same challenges as in the past, despite the administration being a beneficiary of civil society mobilisation. In 2019 and 2020, when organisations like ours were protesting against electoral irregularities, the current authorities were by our side and supported our protest for democracy. But they are now doing exactly what they criticised when they were in the opposition, including by passing laws that restrict civil society, such as the recent NGO Amendment Act.

    Civil society also needs resources, including for legal representation. There are currently over 80 civil society activists under arrest, most of whom don’t have legal representation. As a result, they remain in custody awaiting trial. There’s no fair access to justice and they could be held indefinitely.

    Civic space in Malawi is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CHRRMalawi on Twitter.

  • Niger: CIVICUS welcomes release of human rights defenders

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS welcomes the decision by Nigerien authorities to release three human rights defenders after six months in detention. We now call on the Nigerien authorities to drop all charges against them. Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila and Maïkoul Zodi were among civil society members who gathered peacefully in Niamey, on 15 March 2020, to protest about corruption in the Ministry of Defence.

  • PANAMA: ‘Protests reflect structural inequalities and frustration at blatant corruption’

    Eileen Ng FabregaCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Panama with Eileen Ng Fábrega, Executive Director of the Panamanian Chamber of Social Development (CAPADESO). CAPADESO is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote social development in Panama. Its main aim is to highlight the contributions of civil society, strengthen civil society and foster alliances to influence public policies.


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