Guatemala: Coffee, Cardamom and Contrasts

Political outsider Jimmy Morales leads the polls ahead of Guatemala's second round of presidential elections October 25. (Photo: FCN)

Guatemala’s peaceful anti-corruption protests bring down a government.


The aroma of cafe and cardamom in the air has been filling my lungs, raising the heart beat and reigniting my passion for Latin America since my arrival in Guatemala. I find the political discussions in the cafes hotter than coffee and spicier than cardamom.  The topic is the contrast between the two candidates for the second round of presidential election to be held on October 25; Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian and a political outsider, vs Sandra Torres, a former First Lady and political insider. 

Jimmy Morales, who had played the role of a presidential candidate in one of his comedy shows, threw his hat in the ring, in the same way as every Tom, Dick and Trump join the Presidential race in US. He had no chance since the well-known political candidates from the traditional parties and oligarchies were leading in the opinion polls. His luck changed when the politicians got a bad name after the customs scandal which led to the jailing of the President of the country just before the election. He got the maximum votes in the first round of the elections on September 6. 

The Guatemalans can't stop laughing, recalling the old spicy jokes of Jimmy Morales.  At the same time, some don't know whether to laugh or cry when Morales seriously repeats his campaign slogan ni corrupto ni ladron (not corrupt nor a thief). Some Guatemalans believe when Morales says, “for twenty years I have made you laugh. Now I promise I won't let you cry.”

Sandra Torres, on the other hand, had acted out a real life political comedy in the 2011 elections. The Guatemalan constitution prohibits the immediate family members of the President of the country from contesting in the elections to prevent dynastic succession . But Sandra, the wife of the former President Alvaro Colom (2008-11) wanted to succeed her husband and divorced him to circumvent the constitution. She said,  “I am divorcing my husband but I am getting married to the people. I am the only woman to get divorce for her country.”  The Guatemalan people, used to manipulative politicians, thought that she might get her way, with the help of friendly judges. But the supreme court, in a strong show of independence, disqualified her at that time. Now, of course, she is entitled to contest. 

Guatemala is one of the countries notorious for impunity. Political leaders and military officials have generally got away with corruption and human rights violations. So when the customs scandal involving  the President surfaced in April, many thought that the corrupt would go unpunished this time too. But the investigating agency showed a remarkable courage and made public proof of bribes shared by corrupt officials. The Congress acted swiftly by removing the Presidential immunity forcing him to resign. He was arrested and put in jail immediately.  This was unprecedented and historic. (More on this here)

What is even more interesting is that the people have used peaceful protests to bring down the government in Guatemala, a country known for violence and one of the highest murder rates in the world. The protestors had continued the agitation relentlessly and fearlessly for six months from April to September. When President Perez's supporters tried to prevent the entry of congressmen to vote in the resolution on presidential immunity, the agitators formed a human wall to let the entry of deputies into the Congress building. The success of the courageous Guatemalan people in bringing down a sitting President on corruption charges has made them as heroes for people in other Latin American countries who have been protesting against corrupt governments.

The investigation agencies and the agitating public got crucial support from the courts, the business community and the members of the Congress (including those belonging to President Perez's party) who passed a unanimous resolution withdrawing Presidential immunity. Such collective, united and unprecedented action against a powerful president is a lesson to others in power in the region.

While the contrasts mentioned above are recent, here is a permanent and historic one. Native Indians constitute around sixty percent of the population. But they have been systematically discriminated and kept outside political and economic power since the Spanish colonial days. Around eighty percent of them are poor. Over one hundred thousand Indians were killed and many were tortured and made to disappear during the bloody civil war from 1960 to 1996. The Guatemalan military and right wing death squads were responsible. But the criminal perpetrators have got away. The Indians are yet to get justice, democratic inclusion and opportunities for development. They have been inspired by Evo Morales, a native Indian President of Bolivia since 2006 and his success in emancipating and empowering the Indians. But Guatemala has not got so far any Indian leader of the calibre of Morales. Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan Indian woman activist for the rights of Indians and who won Nobel Prize in 1992, contested the elections in 2007 and 2011 but with poor and discouraging results.

Guatemala has the biggest economy in Central America but the contrast between the rich and poor are glaring. Two percent of the population control over 75 percent of the cultivable land. The government collects one of the lowest taxes in the world and spends the least on poverty-alleviation, health care and education. However, since 2008 the government has initiated a conditional cash transfer program called as mi familia progresa (my family progress) to provide financial handout to the poor. Sandra Torres ran this program and used it to create a constituency of the poor, as was done by Evita of Argentina.

The small Guatemala has beaten the big India to become the largest producer and exporter of Cardamom. In 2014-15 Guatemala produced 30,000 tons against India's 20,000 tons. The Indian cardamom producers complain that they are being hurt by illegal import of low cost Guatemalan cardamom sometimes.  While India has been a cardamom exporter for several hundred years, Guatemala started production after the first world war when a German coffee planter brought the Indian seeds to Guatemala. The Guatemalans export almost all their cardamom production since the local consumption is insignificant, unlike India which consumes a major part of the production.

Here is something India, the land of many political dynasties, could learn from the young Guatemalan democracy.  Article 186 of the Guatemalan constitution prohibits the President's relatives ' within four degrees of consanguinity and second degree in-laws' from contesting for Presidential post. The Indian democracy would certainly become more inclusive and better if the constitution is amended to include this article.

R. Viswanathan is a Distinguished Fellow of Latin America Studies at Gateway House (Indian Council on Global Relations ). From 2007 to 2012 he served as India’s Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. That followed three years as Head of the Latin America Division in the Ministry of External Affairs of India and as Ambassador to Venezuela (2000-2003) and  Consul General of India in Sao Paulo (1996 to 2000).