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Politics for the history books: Brazil and Guatemala, the battle for Democracy

by Helmer Velásquez

Executive director of CONGCOOP, Guatemala.

Two countries, located on opposite ends of the continent show two realities, two political processes that –except for the obvious differences- reflect societies crossed by the same battle: The battle for democracy. What these two countries have in common is that the causes argued are the same: corruption and political abuses of rulers; however, the motivations and the ends are opposite, while the methods are similar. In Guatemala, the President and Vice President were prosecuted with the blessing of Parliament. No senior businessman was indicted. In addition to the judicial process, there was a wide social mobilization. The whole thing resulted in the resignation and imprisonment of the rulers.

However, political democracy in Guatemala is far from being achieved; long hours of social mobilization lie ahead if political reform is to be achieved. The political establishment -parties and institutions- though shaken by the wave of social outrage, have not essentially changed. The Parliament, which had emerged in the 2015 electoral process, was established in January 2016 and continues to operate with unethical ways of doing politics. For example, the proposed reform of the Electoral Law and Political Parties System is being tailored “to fit the old political practice”, despite social pressures. Politicians did not learn the lesson. They are still guided by the old -anti- paradigm: change, so that everything remains the same. Entrepreneurs –conservative for the most part- kept a complicit silence.

A (poorly structured) political party reached the Presidency of the Republic, favored by citizens’ votes, right in the middle of the crisis of legitimacy of the political system (second half of 2015); it nominated a comedian as a presidential candidate, with no government program and a single slogan: “neither corrupt nor thief”…all of which was enough to succeed. In that doubtful scenario, a national strategy for inclusive development is yet to be advanced, including, among other issues, expanding the incorporation of children into the education system, and improvements in the coverage and quality of the health system. Rural development is not on the agenda. In short, the economic system has not moved one iota, and no evidence of a transformation appears on the horizon.

On the other end of the spectrum, peasant and social organizations continue to have the initiative in the struggle for transformation. Right now, the People’s Social Assembly leads another struggle: eleven days marching from the countryside to the city, vindicating the human right to water, against the theft of rivers (change of course) in favor of agro-industrial estates; for access to land and ensuring sustainability of ancestral territories against the systematic appropriation by national and transnational corporations.

The same elements seem to combine in Brazil. However, the goal of deposing the President does not seek to expand democracy, as in the case of Guatemala; in Brazil, the cause is marked by a strategy to restrict democracy. While corruption is a common element and is also at the center of the upheaval, President Dilma Rousseff, the first woman President of Brazil, is notoriously not part of the corrupt plot and has not grown rich illicitly. However, the parliamentary process was initiated with that argument, and with the express purpose of ousting her.

Unlike Guatemala, the matter here shows other motivations and goals that give Rousseff’s impeachment the features of a conspiracy, the reason being that she is the leader of a political party placed to the left. Her presidency, with a clear program for social reform, is heir to the legacy of President Lula, even though it was not furthered during Rousseff’s administration. As a result, large corporations seek to slash the political symbolism that instills the Workers’ Party and in passing, reverse the gains that social mobilization and the Brazilian political exercise have achieved in terms of democratic expansion in that country, and -above all- wipe out the “bad example” that the Workers’ Party may mean for other countries in Latin America.

The Brazilian political process resembles forms of political action that Latin Americans thought they had gotten past, and whose ultimate goal was always to overthrow governments which -because of their autonomy from the old oligarchic leaderships- “must” be replaced in the administration of the state. So, beyond the similarities between the events in Brazil and Guatemala, it is obvious that these two countries, plus Venezuela and Bolivia, are the scene of a fierce battle for democracy, between the old and new orders.

In this sense, the task of the peoples of Latin America is to deepen and expand democracy; never to weaken, and much less reverse it. It is time to consolidate what has been achieved –at a high cost for the popular and social sectors of our countries-, bridging the gaps of popular participation in the exercise of government, and transcending economic democracy in favor of life with dignity and sovereignty for our peoples.