Guatemala: General Strike Looks to Take Down the President

August 27th will forever be a historic day in the minds of Guatemalans. Well over 100,000 people took to the streets across Guatemala in a day of national stoppage to demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina, and to demand the delay of upcoming elections.

All photos by Jeff Abott

August 27 will forever be a historic day in the minds of Guatemalans. Well over 100,000 people took to the streets across Guatemala in a day of national stoppage to demand the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina, and to demand the delay of upcoming elections.

The protest was a unification of rural and urban rage over the corruption scandal that has gripped the country since April.

In Guatemala City over 400 businesses, schools, universities, and Foundations closed their doors in solidarity on the day of the protest. In their press releases, they all affirmed that the president must resign.

In the indigenous western highland department of Totonicapán, over 5000 indigenous campesinos shut down the Interamerican Highway, along five other points around the department. The campesinos blocked all highway traffic, demanding the resignation of the president. This was just one of 25 points along important highways that campesinos shut down as part of the protest.

“We are here demanding that Otto Pérez Molina resign,” said Hector Gutierrez, the Vice-President of the 48 Cantones, the Indigenous Government of Totonicapán. “We are also demanding that the elections be delayed.”

There is a deep connection for the leadership of the Totonicapan between the protests and the Cosmovision of the Maya.

“Our Grand Fathers and Grand Mothers predicted thousands of years ago that this would occur,” said Gutierrez. “The 13th Baktun (the long term cycle of the Mayan Calendar) said that there would be changes to systems in the new cycle, and this is what we are demanding – changes.”

“It is time for the Mayan people to rise up” he added.

Residents of the department expressed similar frustration with the corruption in Guatemala, and connected it to their local situation.

“There was a horrible accident here last week, but the government has done nothing to improve this road,” said Marta Tzust, a resident of San Cristobal Totonicapán who attended the protest carrying a sign that read ‘I don’t have a President.’

“We are paying taxes, but this government continues to fail to do repairs,” Tzust added. “And Otto Perez Molina has been stealing money, all the while the road remains unrepaired, children are dying of hunger, and there is no medicine in the hospitals.”

Tzust also pointed out that residents along the highway had torn down or covered up political campaign signs during the protest.

There were some tense moments during the protest when workers from a nearby construction site refused to comply with orders from the 48 Cantones to stop working. The workers began to throw rocks at protesters when they arrived to try to forcibly stop construction at the site. Tension eased following calls for peace from the indigenous authority.

The action on August 27 was part of a three day General Strike called for by the 72 organizations that make up the Social and Popular Assembly, which formed shortly after protests began in April. The organizations re-affirmed their decision to hold the general strike following a televised message from the president in which he refused to resign.

“All (the President) has done is to deepen the crisis with his stubbornness to remain in office,” the Social and Popular Assembly, an organization of over 70 social organizations from across Guatemalan society, wrote in their statement to the press days before the protests. “He has no choice but to resign; any other way only deepen the conflict that Guatemala currently lives.”

Calls for the president’s resignation have come from across Guatemalan society. The day following the general strike the national papers la El Periodico declared on the front covers “I don’t have a President.”

Charges against the President

The escalation of the protests comes after the United Nations sponsored anti-impunity organization, International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, officially filled official charges against president Otto Pérez Molina. The charges link President Pérez Molina to criminal network, referred to as “the Line,” which stole millions from the Guatemalan tax collection agency.

CICIG and the Guatemalan Public Ministry concluded that the President had participated in the criminal network after reviewing documents and phone calls related to the case.

“Every reference to ‘1’ and ‘la 2’ in the case of ‘The Line,’ corresponded to Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti,” Ivan Velasquez of CICIG said at the press conference announcing the charges.

Through all this, the President Otto Pérez Molina has remained defiant. He has stated on multiple occasions that despite calls for his resignation, he will not resign the presidency.

In his first message following the filing of charges, which was pre-recorded and broadcasted on Guatemalan national television, Pérez Molina took the calls for his resignation as a personal attack, and continued to deny any connection to “the Line.”

Furthermore, he denounced CICIG, and referred to the calls for his resignation by members of the economic elite, as being part of “an interventionist strategy.”

But despite this, the Guatemalan congress voted unanimously on September 1 to strip the President of his impunity, opening the door to an eventual persecution.

The president’s misfortune doesn’t end there.

On August 22, 8 members of the cabinet resigned their positions, including the Minister of Education, Cynthia Del Águila, the Minister of the Economy, Sergio de la Torre, and Commissioner Juan Carlos Paíz all announced their resignation in a press conference. Luis Monterroso, the Minister of health, announced his resignation just hours before the President’s speech.

Just days prior, the former Vice-President, Roxana Baldetti, was arrested over charges related to the corruption scandal. She faces charges of “conspiracy,” “customs fraud,” and “passive bribery.”

On August 24, she went before Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, under heavy police protection. Judge Ángel Gálvez ordered for the former Vice-President to be transferred to the Santa Teresa women’s prison.

Calls for the Delay of Elections

Protesters have maintained a constant demand for the delay of the upcoming Presidential elections. They argue that in this current climate of crisis, they do not want or feel that legitimate elections can be held.

Their concerns are valid, and supported by findings by CICIG.

In July, the anti-corruption organization dropped a bombshell report detailing the presence of illicit financing in the campaign. They accused the major parties of all benefiting from money from lumber-traffickers, narco-traffickers, and both national and international business. Furthermore, they accused the parties of participating in the trafficking of influence.

Despite these revelations, the Organization of American States has stated that the September 6th elections must occur on time.

“(The OAS) reiterates its firm commitment toward the full currency of the democratic and constitutional framework,” the organization announced in its’ statement.  “To respect for the law, and full respect for all human rights, and to applaud the commitment of the Guatemalan Government toward the development of a free and transparent electoral process.”

But few view the elections as being a “free and transparent” process, especially given the reality that who ever lost the previous election seems to win the next election cycle.

Currently, actions are being planned for the day of the elections. Some are calling for another general strike; others are threatening to burn ballots. Whatever happens on September 6, for many, the elections are already a fraud.

Silences from the United States Embassy

Throughout the crisis, the embassy has maintained their support for the embattled president, leading many protesters to claim that the United States is meddling in Guatemalan politics once again. But since the announcement of charges against the President, the embassy has remained silent.

Early on in the crisis US Ambassador Todd Robinson appeared beside the embattled Guatemalan President to announce the United States plan to help “reform” and “modernize” the Guatemalan tax collection agency.

On July 6, Ambassador Todd Robinson visited the Guatemalan National Congress for a hearing on reforms to the country’s election and political party laws. He announced his intention to support the reforms.

But outside the congressional building, the ambassador was met by angry protesters, frustrated by the ambassador’s continued support for the Guatemalan president. The coalition of popular organizations chanted “We are not a North American colony,” as the ambassador was quickly rushed to an awaiting vehicle.

The ambassador has also expressed the United States’ dedication to supporting “governance.” But given the pending Alliance for Prosperity – a $1 billion dollar aid package to the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras that the Obama administration is looking to pass in congress to spur “development” and stop northern migration, the embassy needs to support “governance” – any instability in the region could threaten to derail the aid package.

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights, social moments, and issues related to education, immigration, and land in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. His work has appeared at Waging Nonviolence, Truthout, and North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo