Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : August 20th 2015 Contents BG20 REGIONAL
BUSINESS GUARDIAN www.guardian.co.tt AUGUST 20 • 2015
Light from thousands of bamboo
torches cuts through the gath-
ering darkness in Tegucigalpa,
Honduras capital. The protesters
who carry them call their
demonstrations "marchas de las
antorchas" (torch marches). They have been
taking place weekly at dusk since May. Their
purpose: to rail against what participants see
as grotesque corruption at the highest levels
"We can t take it any more," said Yelso
Serna, a salesman who has marched three
In neighboring Guatemala the protests, and
the scandals that provoke them, are even bigger.
Every Saturday since April thousands have
poured into Constitution Square in Guatemala
City to demand an overhaul of the political
system, starting with the removal of President
Otto Pérez Molina.
The size and stubbornness of the crowds
in both countries has prompted some observers
to dub the protests a "Central American
spring" like the Arab revolts that toppled cor-
rupt Middle Eastern regimes in 2011. They
draw inspiration from Brazil, where hundreds
of thousands of people, enraged by a multi-
billion-dollar bribery scandal involving Petro-
bras, the state-controlled oil company, have
rallied to demand the resignation of President
Dilma Rousseff. They are expected to do so
again on Aug. 16.
In Guatemala and Honduras the protests
represent an "unprecedented social revolution"
against a grasping political class, said Paulo
de León, director of Central American Business
Intelligence, a Guatemala-based consultancy.
They may well bring change, but it is likely
to be more gradual and peaceful than the Arab
uprisings, which in most countries ended in
The trigger in both countries is revelations
that made corruption, long thought to be
inevitable, suddenly seem intolerable. In
Guatemala citizens were shocked into action
by the sleuthing of the International Com-
mission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a
United Nations-backed team that has been
investigating high-level criminality since 2007.
In April this year the commission reported
that officials in Guatemala s customs agency
had received millions of dollars in kickbacks
in exchange for reducing import duties for
companies, a scheme that Guatemalans have
dubbed La Linea (the line), after a telephone
hotline used by the miscreants.
The commission followed this by uncovering
fraud at the Social Security Institute. In July
it disclosed that money from drug trafficking
is financing political campaigns. Now, weeks
before a presidential election on September
6, it has alleged that the running-mate of
Manuel Baldizón, the candidate who had
seemed the most probable winner, used his
position as head of the central bank to protect
businesses that were laundering money.
The scandals, followed through by deter-
mined prosecutors, have led to a purge of top
echelons of government.
The heads of Guatemala s central bank and
the Social Security Institute have been arrested
and three ministers have been sacked. Vice
President Roxana Baldetti resigned after inves-
tigators fingered her former private secretary
as the ringleader of La Linea. Protesters are
now demanding the head of Pérez, although
he has not been directly implicated in the
In Honduras the spark was provided by a
local journalist, who revealed in May that the
ruling National Party had benefited from a
scheme to defraud the national health service.
Hondurans have known since last year that
health officials had been enjoying glitzy parties
and living in mansions.
Such lavish lifestyles were made possible
by some US$ 300 million in bribes paid by
suppliers of medicines and medical devices,
which were allowed to overcharge for them.
Now it transpires that shell companies involved
in the scheme funneled some of the cash to
the National Party. This took place while the
current president, Juan Orlando Hernández,
was still speaker of Congress.
Hernández has acknowledged that his party
received the money and has said that it should
be given back. He said that he had no knowl-
edge of the scheme. Hondurans are unim-
pressed. "Fuera JOH!" ("Out with JOH"), the
protesters shout, referring to the president by
his initials. They are demanding an anti-
impunity commission like Guatemala s.
Unlike the Arab regimes that were felled by
popular anger and civil war, the Central Amer-
ican governments now under fire are demo-
cratic, though imperfectly so. In Guatemala
Pérez, a former chief of military intelligence
during the government s brutal 36-year-long
war against leftist insurgents and indigenous
groups, cannot run in the election in Septem-
ber. He will step down as president in January,
if he is not pushed out first.
The scandals have enlivened the contest to
succeed him. They forced the candidate of
Pérez s party to drop out of the race, and now
they threaten to upset the candidacy of the
front-runner, Baldizón, a center-right politician
with populist leanings. This month Guatemala s
Supreme Court stripped Baldizón s running
mate of immunity from prosecution. If he is
forced out, Baldizón may be, too, because can-
didates may not run without a vice-presidential
partner. That would open the field to rivals,
including comedian Jimmy Morales, who is a
political neophyte and thus untainted by scan-
dal, and Sandra Torres, the ex-wife of a cen-
ter-left former president.
In earlier times Baldizón would have found
a way to win despite the scandal surrounding
his running mate, De León said.
"But in the current climate," he said, "the
outcome ... is uncertain."
Honduras electoral calendar offers voters
no possibility of near-term relief. Hernández s
term lasts until 2018, and he may run again:
In April the Supreme Court nullified a law
that prohibited presidents from serving more
than one term. Until the scandals erupted,
most Hondurans saw Hernández as a com-
petent economic manager and credited him
for a slight decline in the country s horrific
murder rate. With re-election now a possibility,
he has strong reasons to rekindle that pop-
Hernández is trying to placate the protesters.
He has called for "unconditional dialogue"
with them and has proposed a Honduran
"anti-corruption system" to crack down on
graft in politics and in the judiciary. So far he
has rejected the idea of an outside commission
like the Guatemalan commission, though, and
the U.N. is thought to be reluctant to set up
a separate commission for Honduras.
Some members of the United States Con-
gress, which is considering an aid package to
stem the flow of illegal migrants from
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, are
paying close attention to the protests, but they
are unlikely to demand a Honduran commis-
sion run by outsiders. The Senate Appropri-
ations Committee has proposed that part of
the aid should be spent on an anti-impunity
commission in Honduras, if one is set up.
The protesters may not succeed in sweeping
away the self-serving political elites in
Guatemala and Honduras, but at least they
have put them on notice. In Tegucigalpa, where
torches filled the air with black smoke, the
mood was festive.
"Already we ve achieved something," Serna
said. "They are paying attention."
@2015 The Economist Newspaper Ltd.
Distributed by the New York Times Syn-
A Central American spring?
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