Guatemala, you see, has something priceless to teach us – (1) a contemporary and stirring example of how impunity in government wrongdoing can be stopped, and (2) an instructive precedent of how the immunity of a president can be legally removed.
This should lift up the spirits of those among us who feel that we Filipinos have been tied up in a straitjacket by the Aquino administration.
This should inject new life into the National Transformation Council — the bishops, jurists, journalists, citizen activists, business leaders and technocrats constituting it — which of late seems gravely in need of transformation itself.
And this should serve notice on President Aquino and his administration who think they enjoy both impunity and immunity while in office.
While our attention was fixated on the traffic at EDSA and the five-day rally of Iglesia ni Cristo members there; while Europe was reeling from the flood of migrants from the Middle East; while all this was taking place and at virtually the same time, seismic change was taking place in Guatemala, the second largest country in Central America, after Mexico. The event flew under the radar, local media failed to report it.
Reports from the New York Times
I would have missed the story, too, if I did not come across the reports in the international New York Times. In two enlightening stories, reporters Azam Ahmed and Elizabeth Malkin reported the following from Guatemala City:
On Thursday, August 27, President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala was sent to jail just hours after tendering his resignation as president on August 26.
The decision to jail Mr. Pérez Molina highlights the seismic change that has been sweeping through Guatemala after corruption accusations were first made in April. It is dramatic validation of a growing street demonstration movement demanding Molina’s ouster and prosecution.
You would think that Molina’s jailing after resigning was already spectacular, but what happened next was just as stunning.
On Tuesday, September 1, Guatemala’s Congress voted to strip President Molina of his immunity from prosecution, a decision that acknowledged the outpouring of citizen demands for an end to entrenched impunity. The vote was 132-0.
NYT reported: “The 132-0 vote was the culmination of a tumultuous five months since prosecutors revealed the existence of a customs fraud ring in April, describing how officials received bribes in exchange for discounted tariffs, a scheme that effectively stole millions from the treasury.
“As rain fell over Guatemala City, jubilant crowds outside Congress after the vote shouted, “Yes, we could!”
We can understand their elation. For much of Guatemala’s violent history, marked by dictatorship, coups, military repression and civil war, these scenes of power being held accountable have been unimaginable: a president forced to resign, forced to sit in open court to hear charges leveled against him and ultimately spend the night in a prison, and then being stripped of his immunity.
The stunning changes in Guatemala happened in the span of just five months and were brought to a climax over a period of five days this August and September.
Guatemalan transition process
Until things unraveled, said NYT, “Mr. Pérez Molina had given no indication that he would go gently. Over months, street protests grew to include tens of thousands of citizens demanding that he step down over accusations that he played a major role in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme. But still, the president — who was the military’s negotiator during talks to end the nation’s bloody 36-year civil war — denied wrongdoing and refused to leave office. But just before midnight on Wednesday, August 26, Mr. Pérez Molina filed his resignation, saying he would “face justice and resolve my personal situation.”
His vice president, Alejandro Maldonado, was sworn in as president on August 27, after Congress voted to accept the resignation. Mr. Maldonado demanded the resignations of top government officials. His term will end in January 2016, with the inauguration of the winner of elections scheduled this September.
NYT concluded its report, saying; “The congressional vote does not remove the president from office, and several steps remain before Mr. Pérez Molina would face trial. First, a criminal court judge must rule that he is not fit for office and that a trial should proceed.
“But removing the president’s immunity has enormous symbolism in a country long divided by class and race and where impunity for the powerful was the rule in a system fueled by corruption.”
Significantly, the case against Pérez Molina was brought by a United Nations-backed commission of independent prosecutors that has been working alongside the Guatemalan attorney general’s office for almost a decade.
We can also end impunity and immunity
At this point, readers are surely wondering what relevance these events in Guatemala have to the Philippines.
I can think of the following:
First, we are in a similar situation where an incompetent and lawless government needs to be held to account. Despite rulings by our Supreme Court and formal hearings that have found President Aquino accountable, we can’t move forward in forcing his resignation. He is even plotting to have his clone elected next year.
The clear constitutional remedy – impeachment – has been closed to us by Congress because of the shameless leadership of Speaker Felicano Belmonte and Senate President Franklin Drilon.
Second, a system of selective justice reigns in the country under Aquino. A political justice department works only to indict the president’s political opponents. His allies and cronies are exempted from being held accountable for their misdeeds.
Third, Guatemala’s example shows that the system of impunity for administration officials and politicians can be broken, when the people agitate for it.
Fourth, the immunity of President Aquino from prosecution is not sacrosanct. It can be challenged. In fact, there is no provision for presidential immunity in the 1987 constitution.
The Guatemalan congress removed immunity for its president. Not a single legislator sided with Mr. Perez Molina. Why not here too?
Our Congress is clearly the key to shedding the straitjacket we are caught in. the people must start demanding that Belmonte and Drilon rise to their responsibilities. Or else we will hound them during their reelection bids in 2016.
Guatemala has two Nobel laureates
The final lesson from Guatemala is a humbling one.
At this point, Guatemala already has two Nobel laureates under its belt: (1) Nobel literature prizewinner Miguel Angel Asturias, who addressed the place of the Indian in national life; and (2) Nobel Peace Prizewinner Rigoberta Menchú, who was awarded the prize in 1992 for her efforts to bring international attention to the government-sponsored, US-backed genocide against the indigenous Guatemalan population.
All we have is an aspiring Nobel laureate in President Aquino, and a failed bid by his mother Cory.
Guatemala may be a small country compared to the Philippines. Its land area is 108,000 sq. km, compared to our 300,000 sq. km. It has a population of 15 million compared to our 102 million.
Guatemalan history is majestic. It originally formed part of the Mayan civilization that flourished until the 10th century, and was brought to ruin in the 16th century when Spain embarked on her conquest of the Americas. It was also at about the same time that Spain discovered and then took possession of the Philippines.
As it happens, Argentina the country in the famous song is currently on the ropes because of its failing economy.
In contrast, Guatemala’s prospects are bright today because Guatemalans have found the courage and the imagination to change their present and their future.
So let us salute Guatemala.