Guatemala is a nation with a bright tourism scene, but one that continues to struggle economically and politically. More than half its population is under the age of 25, with a similar proportion living below the poverty line. Gang violence and the still-unresolved aftermath of the civil war are countered by the boundless energy (if limited resources) of Guatemala's grassroots organizations. Successive governments may continue to make promises, but Guatemalans rely on each other to deliver solutions.
Neither Corrupt Nor a Thief?
Guatemala was ahead of the American curve when Jimmy Morales, a popular TV personality, was inaugurated as president in January 2016. He swept into power after the impeachment of former president Otto Pérez Molina on corruption charges, running on the slogan 'Ni corrupto, ni ladrón' (neither corrupt nor a thief).
The country has found the reality of the Morales government rather more sobering than its early promise. The evangelical president's close ties to the military – the core of Guatemala's political elite – has led to stagnation on human rights issues, including the paring back of the country's human rights commission and an unsuccessful attempt to expel the UN's top representative. After concerns about his own presidential campaign funding, Morales pushed Congress into passing a law granting him immunity from prosecution, and has proposed further amnesties for those convicted of illegal spending.
A Political Eruption
The national conversation dramatically switched its focus on June 3, 2018, when Fuego erupted south of Antigua. In the country's deadliest eruption since 1929, around 160 people were killed and thousands were left homeless. Across Guatemala, communities pulled together to collect supplies to help the victims, but foreign aid groups were only allowed restricted access to help. Protests later broke out over alleged mismanagement of relief funds as well as the wider governmental response to the eruption, further tarnishing the Morales administration in the eyes of many Guatemalans. Continued delays over the resettling of those displaced mean that Fuego is likely to cast a long shadow into the 2019 election season.
The Global Picture
Global policy continues to affect Guatemala, not least in its relationship with the USA. Jimmy Morales was the first international leader to follow Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, announcing that the country would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the city. Guatemala-Israeli ties have always been close, but the plan provoked condemnation from Arab states. The Middle East is an important market for Guatemala's cardamom exports, and threats of a boycott still hang in the air.
A particularly sensitive subject in rural Guatemala has to do with large (often foreign-administered) projects such as hydroelectric dams and mineral mines. Local indigenous organizations are currently campaigning against the International Development Bank–funded Pojom II and San Andres hydroelectric dams in northern Huehuetenango province, saying that it threatens local livelihoods as well as water supplies.
The Slow Road to Recovery
Despite the promise of the 1996 peace accords, the road to recovery from the civil war has been a slow and painful one. Official recognition of some atrocities has been an important step in the recovery process, however reluctant it appeared to some observers. Though President Morales has stated he does not believe the genocide in the Ixil Triangle ever took place, the exhumation of clandestine cemeteries used by the military to bury 'disappeared' dissidents continues, and in December 2017 172 newly identified victims were reburied in the area. More than 35,000 people remain missing, and the mandated reparation measures have never been fully put in place.
Some war criminals have been brought to justice. So far the heftiest penalty to be handed down was to ex-Military Commissioner Lucas Tecún, who was sentenced to 7710 years in prison. Former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was tried and convicted of genocide, but a later court ruling overturned the verdict. Despite his alleged senility, he is currently being retried.
Grass Roots Movement
In the face of official indifference and/or inability to deal with the country’s myriad problems, many community-based organizations and NGOs are moving in to fill the void. Large segments of the Guatemalan population have become active in volunteer work, focusing on everything from neighborhood watch–type programs in areas unpatrolled by police to larger efforts focusing on food security and housing for the poor.
The mass protests against the old Pérez Molina government and now the Jimmy Morales presidency, mainly non-politically aligned and organized chiefly through social media, have sparked a continued interest in politics among young Guatemalans, with alliances being formed from previously disparate groups, and a strengthening of civil society.