Guatemala is full of sublime volcanic geography, rich Maya culture – and some of the world’s most sinister politics.
Politically motivated murder is so commonplace in Guatemala that a foreign diplomat once quipped that even drunks watch what they say about the issues.
What happened Sunday, though, is no joke: By a landslide, Guatemalans chucked their political establishment and elected a TV comedian – Jimmy Morales – as their next president.
Morales is hardly a polished statesman. But for Guatemalan exiles like Coral Gables Spanish teacher Ingrid Robledo and Miami periodontist Bernardo Villela – who fled their homeland a generation ago to escape certain assassination – the election signals a positive sea change. Not just for Guatemala but for Central America, whose crushing poverty and violence are driving the U.S.’s most recent immigration crises.
“I think there’s a chance now,” says Villela, “for rule of law to emerge in Guatemala.”
“I want to believe,” says Robledo, “that something positive is going to happen to Guatemala now.”
That’s not a small declaration for a woman who knows just how darkly negative things usually turn out in Central America’s most populous nation.
In 1979 Robledo was a 24-year-old Guatemala City law student and pregnant with her first child. But Guatemala was deep in a civil war that would kill 200,000 people – and anyone like her who criticized the military’s regime’s brutality, especially the routine murders of college professors, was a target.
"Back then, and maybe still now, if you were able to think, you were a dangerous person," she says. "And they got rid of you." –
One day Robledo found out she was on a list of people the army wanted to “disappear.”
“I was scared like I never felt it before," says Robledo. "Every single day there was at least one person that got killed on the streets just to teach the rest of the people a lesson.”
Robledo and her husband bolted for Miami. Today she’s on the Governance Board of Florida’s teacher’s union. And she's still speaking her mind. This year she made an impassioned speech against Guatemala’s epic government corruption during a demonstration at the Guatemalan consulate in Miami.
Villela in 1980 was a dentistry professor in Guatemala’s central highlands. But when he complained about the arbitrary arrests of university colleagues, he got ratted out.
“They said,” Villela recalls, “that out of every three persons, two were informants to the army.”
Villela was now on a list – and he and his family were on the next flight out of Guatemala.
“After I left,” he says, “another two persons were killed from that list.”
Today Villela is a leading Guatemalan expat working to bring his birthplace out of the political dark ages.
That’s still a large project: Guatemala’s civil war ended 20 years ago, but political murders remain common. Even worse is drug gang violence, which is what most drives Guatemalans out of their country today. Increasingly they’re coming to South Florida, where they find work in agriculture and tourism.
So why the optimism now?
For one thing, says Villela, Guatemalans seem to have stopped informing and started marching.
“We’ve had corruption and impunity for the last 50, 60 years,” he says. “Now citizens finally went to the streets and they protested. They’re saying, ‘We are tired of what is going on.’ ”
In fact, their demonstrations brought down a president. In the most recent corruption scandal, high-ranking officials – including President Otto Pérez – allegedly took tens of millions of dollars in bribes from businesses hoping to evade customs taxes.
Thousands of Guatemalans kept hitting the streets until Pérez resigned last month. They were driven by exasperation but also by social media – and unusual support from Washington. President Barack Obama is on a drive, in fact, to increase aid to promote less crooked government throughout Central America.
Pérez denies taking bribes, but he’s facing a trial. Either way, Robledo says anyone who leads Guatemala from now on will face unprecedented public scrutiny.
“This is a fragile democracy,” she admits. “But in the back of their mind they know that people have changed – that now we are going to have accountability, and we could go back to the streets and force them to get out.”
And that, she adds, includes Morales.
His campaign motto was, “Neither corrupt nor a thief.” And his outsider status does reflect a tectonic shift. But Morales brings his own problems. His TV show often hurls racist insults toward Guatemala’s Maya Indians, and he’s supported by many of the same army officers who once terrorized the country.
Robledo says that reflects Guatemala’s urgent need to develop new leadership – and that in turn requires tackling one of its biggest problems.
“We need to educate our people.”
To do that, Guatemala needs to stop driving out good teachers like her.