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Urban and Rural Guatemalans Find Common Ground in Fighting Corruption

A woman with a sign on her forehead
A woman with a sign reading “They resign now!” celebrates the resignation of Guatemala’s vice president in Guatemala City on May 9, 2015. © Jorge Dan Lopez/Newscom

When Guatemalans demonstrated on more than 20 Saturdays last year to demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, we were able to shake off a kind of paralysis that had for several decades allowed the economic and political elite to rake in obscene profits by plundering government coffers.

According to cases brought by the Office of the Public Prosecutor and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, while Guatemalans lived in a state of constant precariousness—without desks for our schools or medicine for our hospitals, for instance—government officials worked hand in hand with the corporate sector, including some banks, to embezzle millions of dollars.

When news of the corruption came to light in April 2015, a group of us who barely knew each other started the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Now). Some from that group then formed #JusticiaYa (Justice Now) to inspire others to investigate and report on what was happening in our country.

As we called for marches, we met many other people from both rural and urban areas who were making the same demands: that the president should resign; that the electoral law should be amended to change rules for political parties, increase the inclusion of minorities in elections, and regulate television time provided to candidates so that it is equal, among other issues; and that the judicial proceedings against Pérez Molina and Baldetti, as well as more than 200 political actors and businesspeople, should be allowed to move forward.

We succeeded. But even though we have a new president, Jimmy Morales, our work isn’t complete. We have to make sure the corruption doesn’t continue. So we joined with other groups—including student organizations—to create citizen assemblies and set shared goals. First we had to get to know each other, form bonds of trust, do what we call “weaving.” For example, one idea is to connect the recent discontent in urban centers with the ancestral resistance of the indigenous communities that has been going on for centuries in Guatemala. 

We are working on an initiative called Citizen Dialogues, in which, over the course of several days, rural and urban organizations describe their experiences to each other in search of areas of overlap throughout the country. The idea is to strengthen our capacity for empathy and action—something that was brought to the fore during the protests.

We see the massive demonstrations last year as a volcanic eruption. Before the lava begins to cool and harden, we need to mold it into something that will enable us to change the dynamic of power that remains concentrated in corrupt circles. To build a new society, we need to adopt new values. A paradigm has been disrupted: people will no longer tolerate illegal enrichment; they forcibly reject it. Starting with that act of bravery, we want to build, in the collective imagination, a country where all children can attend school, where no one dies from treatable diseases. A country that is a place of hope.

Plaza Publica and El Faro are grantees of the Open Society Foundations.

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