Guatemala’s new president, the comedian—Morales’ Morality Campaign

Beginning in April, Guatemala’s streets swelled with massive weekly protests calling for two goals: for President Otto Perez Molina to step down, and to end political impunity and corruption, two traits with entrenched legacies in Guatemala. Both the people and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed investigative committee which began work in Guatemala in 2006, sought to cast a glaring light on corrupt political practices.

“I’ve made you laugh for 20 years. I promise that if I’m president, I won’t make you cry.” Photo Credit: Associated Press
“I’ve made you laugh for 20 years. I promise that if I’m president, I won’t make you cry.” Source: Associated Press

In the case known as La Línea, CICIG investigated the highest echelons of the Guatemalan government and discovered that President Molina led a fraud ring involving 20 or so top politicians and customs stations across the country. The customs stations accepted bribes from importers in return for reducing the amount of customs duties paid. These bribes translated into around a quarter million dollars each week for the fraud ring, in a country where most citizens lack access to even primary public services. Following CICIG’s revelations, Molina’s vice president Roxana Baldetti was arrested on corruption charges, while Molina refused and then eventually acquiesced to public demand for his resignation. Both are in jail awaiting trial, and elections for Molina’s replacement were scheduled for September.

Even though this public foray into prosecuting corruption yielded tangible results and is a major improvement from a couple decades ago—when the military regime brutally executed thousands of protesters in the streets—corruption still may not be so easily rooted from Guatemalan politics. This is evidenced by this year’s presidential candidates.

The leading candidate in the summer months, Manuel Baldizón, is also being prosecuted for corruption, and his running mate is embroiled in a money-laundering case. The party Baldizón represents, Lider, has resisted efforts to strip Molina of his immunity. However, in August, Guatemala’s Supreme Court removed Molina’s immunity, allowing prosecutors to bring formal charges. Only then did Baldizón realize he couldn’t ride Molina’s coattails into the presidency.

Cue spotlight on Jimmy Morales, a comedian with no political experience who announced his presidential candidacy in April just as the protests were gaining traction. His anti-corruption campaign had an apt slogan: “Ni corrupto, ni ladrón,” which translates to “Neither corrupt, nor a thief.” According to Morales, in addition to his political outsider status, this caption helped build popular trust for Morales and belief that politics was not synonymous with corruption.

Morales is a familiar face to the public, having co-starred with his brother Sammy in the weekly TV sketch comedy “Moralejas” (Cautionary Tales) for the past 20 years. However, his only political experience is as an unsuccessful mayoral campaign for the city of Mixco in 2011, in which he won 13,000 votes in a town of 700,000 people.

Morales’ campaign manifesto was only six pages long. His known policy stances are socially conservative, anti-corruption and pro-education. In line with his anti-corruption reforms, he promised to extend the CICIG mandate to six years, increase funding for the justice ministry, make government spending more transparent and audit government agencies. Along with many Guatemalans, Morales opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and decriminalizing drug use. His education reforms are endearingly quixotic: He wants to give a smartphone to every child and hold teachers accountable for work attendance by tagging them with GPS trackers.

The fact that a political outsider can make up for an exceptionally nebulous campaign platform with his comedian bravado and still win the presidential election with nearly 70% of the popular vote is telling of the dismal state of Guatemalan politics. Although these reforms are promising, some experts remain dubious of the political capital Morales can develop to tackle these issues. Hugo Novales, a political analyst at Guatemala’s Investigation and Social Studies Association, acknowledged Morales’ popularity and empathetic abilities towards the people, but stated that it remained to be seen if he could transform his popularity into a political agenda.

Experts and common people alike are also worried about Morales’ affiliation with the military, which has a long and atrocious history of human rights abuses in Guatemala, in particular during its civil war from 1960 to 1996. The party Morales represents, the National Convergence Front (FCN), was formed in 2008 by former military officers. Although Morales denies that the military has exerted influence on his campaign, military officers have showed up at Morales’ political events. Even if Morales isn’t the FCN’s puppet, it’s possible that, in order to pass legislation and prevent political gridlock, he may have to lower his anti-corruption flag to curry favor with congressmen that are less amenable to anti-corruption reforms.

According to Columbia University scholar Christopher Sabatini, there is an inherent problem with anti-corruption movements because it’s “never clear what it leads to in terms of a policy prescription.” For now, it seems unlikely that Morales and his idealism will be taken seriously by the Guatemalan political establishment. Even if Morales can develop the political clout to advance his agenda, his government may have neither enough taxpayer dollars to pay for increased judicial and educational oversight nor the expertise needed to create a balanced budget. The Guatemalan people might enthusiastically support the concept of Morales’ ideas, but will they be willing to pay higher taxes?

Morales starred in Cautionary Tales for two decades. Hopefully, his presidency will not serve as a cautionary tale to the Guatemalan people to avoid electing political outsiders in the future.