On Monday, 2 September 2019, Guatemalan police executed a warrant for the arrest of Ms. Sandra Torres on charges of illicit and unreported campaign financing. Her arrest came just a few days after losing the immunity granted to presidential candidates in Guatemala. The presence of the press on the daytime raid amplified the spectacle of the former first-lady’s arrest at her lavish home in Zone 15 of Guatemala City. The announcement that she would be put in pretrial confinement in the Mariscal Zavala detention center to prevent her from fleeing the country was, unlike her arrest, a surprise. Zavala Prison is located on a military base and has become the home of dozens of powerful former officials, judges and politicians convicted of corruption and abuse of power, including ex-President Otto Pérez Molina. Ms. Torres will certainly be in infamous company as she prepares for the trial she calls a political maneuver.
Sandra Torres has had a unique political career to say the least. She was Guatemala’s first lady during the term of her then husband, President Álvaro Colom from 2008 to 2012. She attempted to succeed her husband by running for his office in 2011, but was disqualified by the courts in accordance a constitutional provision barring immediate family members of the President or Vice President from running for those positions. Later that year she divorced Colom in order to be eligible for the office and tried again in 2015; a race she lost to current President Jimmy Morales. It was during these earlier campaigns that she built a reputation as a champion for rural and indigenous Guatemalans, a base that served her well during the 2019 election. Again she came in second but only after she forced a runoff against the eventual winner, Alejandro Giammattei.
Official certification of Giammattei’s electoral victory marked the end of Torres’s immunity and just days later, a judge issued the warrant for her arrest. Some see Torres’s detention last Monday as a bold strike against a common flaw in Guatemalan politics: the secret financing of candidates by anonymous donors. In the case of Ms. Torres, she stands accused of accepting more than USD $3.6 million of illicit funding associated with her 2015 campaign. The history of those charges however, could be their undoing.
The investigation that resulted in charges against Sandra Torres and four of her colleagues was a joint effort of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), an anti-corruption agency intended to work with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG); a United Nations body given a mandate by the Guatemalan legislature in May 2007 to investigate and prosecute “illegal and clandestine security bodies that commit crimes against fundamental human rights.” During its twelve-year mandate, CICIG made great strides in prosecuting organized criminals and violations of rights. Its investigators prosecuted 96 cases involving everything from murder of journalists to environmental fraud and pollution. The vast majority of these cases, including the one against Ms. Torres, were referred through FECI for prosecution by the Public Ministry.
Seen as effective and good for Guatemala, CICIG’s mandate was renewed five times until the office made the fatal mistake of investigating President Morales himself. He subsequently blocked further renewals leaving CICIG’s mandate to expire last Tuesday, the day after Ms. Torres’s arrest. Perhaps recognizing its mandate was nearing an end, CICIG filed the case against Torres in April 2019 after she had already began her campaign. Extraordinarily, the complaint noted that as a candidate for President, she was already immune from prosecution. Now that CICIG’s mandate has indeed expired, FECI is left to prosecute an already sensitive case without a co-plaintiff.
The health of Guatemala’s electoral system hangs in the balance. Prior to the end of its mandate, CICIG seemed to have worn out its welcome with some of the country’s power brokers. Though President Morales and President-elect Giammattei have stayed relatively silent on the arrest of their former opponent, neither was supportive of CICIG’s mandate and are unlikely to view Torres’s arrest as good news for the status quo. Their willingness and ability to influence the outcome of her trial however will depend on their calculations of the political costs involved.
Morales will likely leave it to Giammattei who will have to balance the popularity of both CICIG and Ms. Torres among rural and indigenous Guatemalans, against the temptation to let her take the fall. Doing so could expose anonymous donors that are so influential they still remain anonymous despite all the legal attention the case has brought to their donations. Though the rural poor have some impact on security and electoral success, Giammattei managed to win the Presidency largely without their support in the first place. Campaign donors on the other hand, are likely to be in command of Guatemala’s rapidly developing economy. A defensive move by either constituency could cause a great deal of trouble for the new administration which will have to tread very carefully to find a workable cure for Guatemala’s electoral illness.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC which now has a presence in Guatemala City.
In the last three years, Presidential politics brought a series of changes to Latin America that seem to signal a shift away from the ideology of the Left. Though the shift is not (yet) a region-wide trend – Maduro, Ortega, Morales, and others still hold leftist power – it is significant enough in the large southern economies to raise eyebrows in Caracas, La Paz, and other left-leaning capitals. Recent Presidential elections in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are noteworthy, not just for their potentially large economic impacts on Latin America, but because the voters there cast off their left-leaning leadership despite their own dark memories of right-wing governments.
Though the shift may be a response to socialist governance that struggles with corruption and effectiveness, it follows a global rightward trend energized by a populist desire for something different. The most recent election results were disappointing for incumbents in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru. Most of those went to right-of-center candidates and some represented a complete ideological about face. Whether driven by ideology or simply voter frustration with those in charge, a change is in the air in Latin America and it does not look good for the Left.
Kirchner Leads the Way
The electoral downfall of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is an example of voter frustration with an incumbent. The wife of former President Nestor Kirchner, Cristina inherited his political identity as Argentina’s Peronist candidate, a reference to the popular President Juan Peron and the political movement he inspired. Considered the dominant political ideology in the country’s modern history, Peronist candidates have won nine of Argentina’s last 12 elections. Cristina’s “accession” to the Presidency as supported by her husband, entrenched the “Kirchner Clan” in Argentine politics in a manner reminiscent of some of the worst aspects of Peronism (the heavy-handed Peron was also succeeded by his wife). Cristina’s penchant for glamour and graft further entrenched the Kirchners in the economy, society, and courtrooms of the country.
One can clearly see a return to the Right in Chile with the end of Michelle Bachelet’s Socialist Party administration and the re-entry of rightist ideologue Sebastián Piñera in 2017. The case of Mrs. Bachelet is similar to that of Mrs. Fernández in that both were the first female leaders of their countries and both came from leftist political parties. The similarities end there, however. Mrs. Bachelet is not part of a family dynasty or the embodiment of a cultural-political movement like Peronism. In the comparatively healthy political environment in Chile, she has traded the Presidency with her right-wing rival for the last 16 years.
At the beginning of her first administration – 2006-2010 – Bachelet had a very high approval rating. Chilean voters had elected her with 53.9% of the vote; giving her a healthy seven-point margin and control of 12 of the country’s 13 regions. Her 2014 election was even more convincing when she won an astonishing 62% of the votes; setting up her second administration with a solid mandate for a more progressive program. Among her most notable achievements were the abortion law; the enactment of a union civil law; and the enfranchisement of Chileans abroad. Chilean Presidential politics is a balancing act between Left and Right however and the center-left political group she represented was no longer welcome in Chile. Whispers of corruption began to erode her still great popularity.
Brazil provides another example of the shift from Left to Right. In an ideological continuation of rule by the left-leaning Partido de los Trabajadores (PT), Dilma Vana Rousseff won the presidential election in 2010. Though she commanded only a narrow 51.64% of the vote, the win was seen as significant for PT which ruled in Brazil for the preceding 13 years. Rousseff, the first female President of Brazil, hoped to emulate her former boss, President Lula da Silva whom she served as Chief of Staff and Minister of Energy. At the time Lula left office, he was the most popular politician in Brazilian history, enjoying approval ratings of 80%. Like Kirchner however, Rousseff’s corruption prevented her from capitalizing on the widespread popularity of her predecessor. In 2016 she was impeached by the Brazilian Senate for violating fiscal rules and removed from office.
Evo Morales Ayma has been the President of Bolivia for a record 13 years. He became the country’s first indigenous leader when he was elected in 2005 with 53.7% of the vote. His reelection in 2009 with 64% of the vote signaled that Bolivia had moved firmly away from the non-indigenous, largely right-wing politics of its past. When he won again in 2014 with 61.3% of the vote he seemed unstoppable. His affinity for Venezuela’s socialist icon, Hugo Chavez, was a cause for concern throughout the hemisphere and particularly in Washington which believed they presented an alternative form of left-wing governance that threatened the established order on the continent.
Morales’s political machine appears to be losing momentum, however. Perhaps sensing danger in the state of post-Chavez Venezuela, the Bolivian electorate is expressing a desire for change. The shift in opinion was evident in the results of a referendum on presidential term limits that would abolish term limits and allow Morales to run again in 2019. Not only was this his first electoral defeat in a decade, but it was a clear rejection of his continued leadership of the country.
End of the Left?
Latin America has a long and difficult history of abuse at the hands of right-wing governments, a fact that makes the rightward trend of electoral politics there a somewhat surprising development. Corruption has played a big part as leaders from both Left and Right have been found guilty of using their positions to benefit themselves and their cronies but it is the Left, which held the majority of Presidencies in the region for the last 15 years, that is receiving the brunt of voter frustration.
The failure of the socialist dream in Venezuela is also having far-reaching consequences with well over a million Venezuelans fleeing privation and despair in what used to be the region’s wealthiest nation. The significance of the exodus cannot be lost on voters struggling to reconcile their fears of a right-wing resurgence with their frustration over systemic left-wing corruption. Though it may be too soon to declare the end of the Left, there is a clear desire for change that will leave its mark on elections in 2019.
 Kirchnerism is poorly defined and probably cannot be considered a political movement in its own right. It can probably best be described as an extension of the heavy-handed left-wing political philosophy of Juan Peron.
Ligia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and is a regular contributor to The Affiliate Network.
On Christmas morning 2017, protesters filled the streets of Lima, Peru in opposition to a controversial decision made by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (known locally as PPK). His pardon of former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori—a deeply divisive figure in Peruvian political history—inspired the manifestations that disturbed a holiday hiatus in the characteristic buzz of the capital city. Kuczynski responded to the protests with a television address, advocating for reconciliation towards the polemic former ruler and his violent past. Kuczynski’s decision leaves the citizens of Peru struggling to reconcile the surprising influence the Fujimori family still commands in Peruvian politics and a recently elected President who campaigned, then and now, on national unity.
In a region with a rich history of such transgressions, the pardon of a human rights abuser is certainly controversial and President Kuczynski is in no position to take political risks. Just three days prior to granting Fujimori’s pardon, Kuczynski himself narrowly escaped impeachment on corruption charges associated with an $800 million bribery scandal involving the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. As a result, his approval rating is at a historic low (19% as of February 11, 2018). The pardon also forced him to reshuffle nine of his cabinet ministers into an aptly named “cabinet of reconciliation,” which he hopes will repair his party’s relationship with the Peruvian people in the coming months—an outcome easier said than done. Swelling street protests suggest Peruvians believe Kuczynski’s humanitarian impulses are a cover for what is actually a political survival deal to co-opt the powerful opposition. Obtaining a Presidential mandate in this manner has become an even greater point of civil contention than the actual pardon of Fujimori.
Sins of the Father
At the time of Fujimori’s election in 1990, Peru was in a state of national crisis. Guerilla terrorist groups were waging a violent insurgency and the economy was suffering from debilitating hyperinflation. Acting quickly and boldly, he instituted drastic measures to stabilize the economy and combat the insurgency. Under pressure and seeking to maintain his political freedom to maneuver, he staged a coup of his own government in 1992 with support from key military leaders in order to rewrite the constitution and purge his political opponents. The memory of the infamous purge elicits one of two responses from Peruvians: some demand justice for friends and loved ones that disappeared during that time, but many others welcomed the coup, viewing the government’s tactics as necessary to stabilize the country’s economy and bring an end to the terrorism.
Despite the lives Fujimori took, his children—son Kenji, a Congressman, and daughter Keiko, head of the main opposition party, Fuerza Popular—are the former president’s political legacy. But they are now a family divided. During Kuczynski’s impeachment proceedings, Kenji led a group of opposition lawmakers in abstaining from the impeachment vote, allowing Kuczynski to keep his seat long enough to enable the pardon of the elder Fujimori. This came as a blow to Kenji’s sister Keiko, that had just lost the 2016 presidential election to Kuczynski by a razor-thin 0.12% margin. In response, Fuerza Popular officially expelled Kenji and his allies, enforcing party discipline but destroying its simple-majority in Congress. Though Kenji and Kuczynski publicly deny accusations of quid pro quo, Reuters reported on January 26 that a back channel deal had been negotiated between them months earlier.
Pardon Me Too
Though the corruption allegations against President Kuczynski have not yet been proven, and his impeachment proceedings were politically driven, the charges against him are still troubling. Having run for President on an anti-corruption platform, he was quick to deny allegations that his private company, Westfield Capital, received any payments from Odebrecht. However, he now acknowledges Westfield was paid $780,000 between 2004 and 2006 while he served as Minister of Economy and Finance and later, Prime Minister. The shifting stories coincide with his reversal on the issue of Alberto Fujimori’s pardon and erode the credibility of his claims of innocence. Still worse, his rhetoric in response to calls for his resignation make him appear both desperate and despotic; he insists his removal from office would “disrupt political and economic stability” in Peru.
Moreover, Kuczynski boldly declared during his 2016 campaign there would be no pardon for the elder Fujimori. His righteous “unity” campaign platform narrowly won him the presidency, but nevertheless left his agenda vulnerable due to a lack of congressional support. Even in the wake of Keiko Fujimori’s presidential defeat – and before the fallout with her brother weakened her position – her Fuerza Popular opposition still held a commanding 71 of 130 congressional seats. Kuczynski’s questionable pardoning of Alberto Fujimori, be it a desperate act of self-preservation or a stroke of ambitious genius (or both), has secured Kuczynski’s presidency and weakened the opposition’s hold on Congress. Whether this was truly the result of a secret deal or just sibling rivalry, it set the stage for the next move against him. A new opposition – sans Kenji but now with some disgruntled former Kuczynski allies upset over the Fujimori pardon – has pledged a new impeachment proceeding when Congress resumes in March. Whether they have enough votes to be successful this time remains to be seen.
Last year, public polling indicated that up to 60% of the population favored pardon of Fujimori. Even after the pardon was granted, public polling indicated 50% of Peruvians still support Fujimori’s release. Presidential pardons are often controversial, but in this case the high-profile act of clemency faces international human rights scrutiny. The President that was supposed to represent stability instead wielded the pardon as a blatant tool of political manipulation—to the detriment of democracy. President Kuczynski will struggle to regain his reputation as a stabilizing political figure, and a shifting opposition will continue to maneuver against him, keeping the political focus on scandals and political controversy rather than on the much-needed and noble goal of national reconciliation. For the time being, whatever initiatives Kuczynski attempts, he will do so with the legal mandate of President of Peru, but without the pardon of the people.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Major John “JB” Boswell is a U.S. Air Force Intelligence Officer with deployments and operational experience in Afghanistan, South Korea, Hawaii, and Germany. He is currently a graduate student in History at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima.