On Facebook and streets, Guatemalans demand president's resignation

Protesters hold the national flag and shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, in downtown Guatemala City, May 30, 2015. — Reuters pic
Protesters hold the national flag and shout slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, in downtown Guatemala City, May 30, 2015. — Reuters pic

GUATEMALA CITY, May 31 — Guatemalan protesters took to the streets yesterday calling on President Otto Perez Molina to resign following scandals that have already brought down his central bank chief and key cabinet members.

Protesters chanted “el pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” (the people united will never be defeated) banged drums and sang the national anthem on a march from the National Palace in Guatemala City to the nation’s Supreme Court.

“We are sick of the corruption. These ministers are the worst ministers we’ve ever had. We need reform,” said Alejandro Enes, a 45-year-old heart surgeon toting a sign that said, “out with the corrupt officials”.

In what he termed a symbolic act, salesman Julio Garcia, 68, wielded a toilet plunger.

Recent scandals have seen Guatemala’s central bank chief Julio Saurez indicted for fraud, the vice president Roxana Baldetti resign and various cabinet members quit or be fired. Civic leaders, including 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, the country’s professional association of attorneys and the Center for the Defense of the Constitution called this week for Perez Molina to follow.

“Democracy is collapsing and therefore Otto Perez Molina must resign,” Marco Sagastume, the head of the Guatemala’s attorneys association, told reporters this week.

More than 30,000 registered on Facebook for yesterday’s event, called “Resign Now Otto Perez Molina”.

The gathering followed one earlier this month when an estimated 60,000 protested across the Central American nation, population 14.6 million.

Cabinet exodus

The scandals have cast a pall over a US$54 billion (RM197.537 billion) economy that serves as a key gateway between Latin America and the US—for goods, immigrants and illegal drugs. Bordered by Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala’s principal exports include coffee, sugar and gold.

The crisis is paralyzing the government ahead of presidential elections planned for September. In May alone Perez Molina has fired or accepted the resignations of his vice president, tax chief, two energy ministers, security minister, environment minister and head of intelligence.

Perez Molina, 64, hasn’t been accused of wrong-doing. He has said he will finish his term and dismissed rumors that the elections would be scrapped. He said he welcomed a call by the association representing the agriculture, commerce, industry and financial chambers to return public funds it said have been improperly used.

Totally false

“It’s good that the different sectors want to draft proposals and want to find solutions to meet the demands of the Guatemalan population,” Perez Molina, a former general who helped broker an end to Guatemala’s civil war in the 1990s, told reporters on May 28. “Recommendations are welcome. This is a job for all Guatemalans and not just the president.”

Perez Molina has called claims that his cabinet is falling apart “totally false.”

Arguably the biggest blow came with the May 26 indictment of Suarez and 16 others for fraud in an investigation into a US$15 million contract for blood dialysis services issued by the Social Security Institute. As central bank chief, Suarez sits on the board of the institute. He has said he is innocent and that the board didn’t have administrative authority over the contracts.

Increasing risk

Should Perez Molina step down, 79-year-old vice president Alejandro Maldonado would take office. Maldonado, a judge on the Constitutional Court until this month, ran unsuccessfully for president twice in the 1980s.

The size of yesterday’s protests may signal whether Perez Molina can hang on to finish out his term in January.

“If protests continue and intensify over the next weeks, there’s an increasing risk that he’ll have to step down,” said Risa Grais Targow, a Latin American analyst for Eurasia Group, which analyzes political risk.

“The guys who are with him now could say, ‘You know, just step down a few months early, that’s the only way to resolve this’.” — Bloomberg

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