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Aldo Dávila set to be Guatemala’s 1st openly gay congressman

June 21, 2019

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Aldo Iván Dávila Morales is poised to take up a seat in Guatemala’s congress in January, making history as the first openly gay man elected to the country’s legislature. Proudly gay and living with HIV, the 41-year-old activist says the rainbow flag will not be his only cause. He intends to begin his congressional career with three main agenda points: Fighting endemic corruption, ensuring Guatemalans’ right to health care and defending human rights, with a focus on the LGBTQ community.

“I’m happy, with a lot of mixed feelings,” Dávila said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The worry is I’m putting myself in a snake pit. But at the same time I’m no slouch, and I’m ready and able to fight when it needs to be done.”

While it hasn’t been officially confirmed by electoral authorities, experts say Dávila’s left-wing Winaq party won four congressional seats in Sunday’s general election, and he is set to represent a Guatemala City district.

“People have to see me as just another citizen, since I was elected democratically,” Dávila said. Guatemala has taken baby steps toward guaranteeing LGBTQ rights, such as adopting measures to identify hate crimes against members of the community and allowing people to change their legal names and choose how they appear in photos on official IDs, which let transgender people better express their identity.

It remains a socially conservative society, however, with the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant faiths dominant. Prejudice and fears over HIV are deeply rooted, and LGTBQ people have historically been the targets of discrimination and sometimes assault, although such treatment is slowly becoming less socially acceptable.

Neither Dávila’s name nor photo was on the ballot — only the name of his party — and he didn’t emphasize his sexuality during the campaign. So Gabriela Tuch, a lawyer and former human rights prosecutor focusing on the LGBTQ community, said his election can’t be attributed to any significant shift in attitudes.

“It’s not that society has said, ‘A gay man, affirmative action, let’s vote for him,'” Tuch said. “He was favored by the votes and the position he was in. Now the challenge begins.” One of the congressman-elect’s first battles will be opposing a bill proposed by the conservative party that would criminalize abortion and codify into law that same-sex couples are barred from marrying or adopting children. He also intends to propose a new commission that would report and investigate all kinds of discrimination.

“You cannot be a spectator when your country is falling apart,” Dávila said. “You have to take a leading role.” That’s why Dávila was motivated to accept an offer to run for the party, founded in 2009 by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú.

Dávila lives in Guatemala City with his partner of 19 years and their gray Schnauzer, Valentino. Dávila said both inspire his activism and political participation. He said he considers himself lucky because he has the love and support of family members who were always open and accepting of his sexuality. His mother went with him to the country’s first Pride march in 2000.

Until recently Dávila was the director of Positive People, an organization supporting those living with HIV. He said that people have often come to him with complaints about discrimination, and that he himself was once dismissed from a job.

“Look, here are my diplomas and my trophies,” Dávila said. “But they fired me because they found out that I’m gay, and that’s how things are here.” Dávila said that when he was 22 he suffered from meningitis, which ultimately led him to discover that he had HIV. Today he is in good health, but he knows some may not understand how the virus is transmitted and may be afraid.

“It’s very hard, of course, that they’re not even going to want to sit next to me,” he said. “In this country people should no longer be dying of AIDS,” Dávila continued. “It’s the stigma and the discrimination that kill you, and the lack of medicine.”

José Arriaza, a 24-year-old who identifies as queer, said Dávila’s election gives him hope because he now sees himself being represented. Guatemalans will have to learn to accept diversity, he added. He “isn’t your typical privileged white man, like a majority of the congressmen nowadays,” Arriaza said. “For me he’s an example to follow, because he is someone empowered with ideals that help the community.”

Carlos Valenzuela, a 36-year-old openly gay business administrator, agreed. “It’s fantastic because what we most want is to feel represented,” Valenzuela said. “All minorities should be represented.” Dávila said his path was paved by Sandra Morán, the first Guatemalan lawmaker who openly identified as lesbian.

“She is a courageous woman who inspired me,” he said. But she didn’t have it easy, and was even insulted on occasion by some of her colleagues over her sexual orientation. Dávila, who said he’s been subjected to verbal abuse since he was young, is prepared to possibly go through the same thing.

“A worker at congress called me and congratulated me and told me to prepare myself,” Dávila said. “But I will try to not respond to the attacks.” “With all the homophobia there is,” he added, “they could even boot me from my seat.”

Dávila criticized those who have pushed legislation limiting sexual diversity rights and said he does not believe Guatemalan society will change its views in the short term. “We have to do a lot of work on educating, in demanding that the state be secular and for the church to stop intervening in things that don’t concern it,” he said. “We need to rule with the Constitution and not the Bible.”

Court orders Guatemala to let UN investigator enter

January 07, 2019

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A member of a U.N.-sponsored anti-corruption commission has been allowed into Guatemala by a court order after he was held for almost a day at the capital’s airport. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordered the government to admit Colombian Yilen Osorio, who was detained by immigration officials upon arrival at the airport Saturday.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has sought to end the commission known as CICIG, which has investigated Morales’ son and his brother. They deny accusations of corruption. Osorio heads an investigation of alleged bribery implicating the vice president of Congress and others. He also participated in a campaign finance investigation into the dealings of Morales’ political party.

Morales refused to renew CICIG’s mandate last year, and barred its chief from returning to Guatemala from a trip to the United States.

Guatemala court backs UN anti-graft chief against president

September 17, 2018

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — In a blunt rebuke to President Jimmy Morales, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordered that the head of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission be let back in the country two weeks after Morales barred him as he moved to defang the investigative body.

The unanimous ruling late Sunday by the court’s five magistrates marked the second time in as many years that the court has reversed Morales’ efforts to keep Ivan Velasquez out of Guatemala. The commission’s chairman has pressed a number of high-profile graft probes, including one pending against the president himself.

There was no immediate public reaction from the president. His spokesman, Alfredo Brito, did not respond to phone calls Sunday night seeking comment. Morales announced in late August that he would not renew the mandate of the commission for another two-year term, effectively giving it a year to wind down and end its activities.

A few days later the president said that Velasquez, a Colombian national who was in Washington at the time, would be prohibited from re-entering this Central American nation. Morales called him “a person who attacks order and public security in the country.”

Morales’ order touched off public protests in support of the body, and multiple appeals were promptly filed with the Constitutional Court. In issuing its decision, the court said its ruling must be obeyed and cannot be appealed.

Morales said earlier this month that he was “not obligated to obey illegal rulings,” which observers interpreted as a clear allusion to the court’s previous checks on his actions. Last year, Morales had declared Velasquez persona non grata and tried to have him expelled from Guatemala, but that move was blocked by the Constitutional Court.

Among the investigations that the commission, known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish, has brought in Guatemala was one that led to the resignation and jailing of former President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president. Others have ensnared dozens of politicians, public officials and businesspeople.

Morales is suspected in a case involving more than $1 million in purported illicit campaign financing. In August, Guatemala’s Supreme Court allowed a motion by CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors seeking to lift the president’s immunity from prosecution to go to lawmakers. If they approve it, he would be opened up to possible prosecution.

Morales denies wrongdoing, but critics have seen his effort to wind down CICIG and bar Velasquez as a maneuver to protect himself as well as relatives and associates also in the sights of investigators.

The president had asked the United Nations to designate someone to replace Velasquez, but the world body opted to keep him in charge for the time being, working remotely from abroad. The U.N. defended CICIG and its commissioner, saying the body has played “a pivotal role in the fight against impunity in Guatemala.”

Guatemala president shuts down UN anti-corruption commission

August 31, 2018

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales on Friday shut down a crusading U.N.-sponsored anti-graft commission that has pressed a number of high-profile corruption probes — including one pending against him over purported illicit campaign financing.

Speaking in front of civilian and military leaders as army vehicles surrounded the commission’s headquarters in the capital, Morales said he had informed the U.N. secretary-general of his decision to revoke the body’s mandate and “immediately” begin transferring its capacities to Guatemalan institutions.

The decision caps a long history of friction between the president and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or Cicig for its initials in Spanish. In August 2017, Morales announced that he was expelling the commission’s chief, Ivan Velasquez, but that move was quickly blocked by Guatemala’s top court.

At the time Morales declared Velasquez a persona non grata and fired his foreign minister for refusing to carry out the order to expel him, before later backing off and saying he would obey the court’s decision.

Morales accused the commission Friday of “violating our laws, inducing people and institutions to participate in acts of corruption and impunity,” and “selective criminal prosecution with an ideological bias.”

“Selective justice has been used to intimidate and terrorize the citizenry,” he charged. “Judicial independence has been violated, with the intention of manipulating justice, actions that attack the presumption of innocence and due process.”

The announcement was promptly met with criticism from human rights officials and advocates. “We sincerely regret the great mistake that the president made public in not renewing Cicig’s mandate,” Guatemalan human rights prosecutor Jordan Rodas said. “We are grateful for its valuable contribution in the country to the fight against corruption and impunity.”

Morales is suspected of receiving at least $1 million in undeclared contributions during the 2015 campaign. He has denied wrongdoing. Last week the Supreme Court allowed a request brought by Cicig and Guatemalan prosecutors to strip his immunity from prosecution to go to Congress for consideration. If 105 lawmakers vote in favor, it could open him up to investigation for possible illicit campaign financing.

“I think there’s a conflict of interest, and an attempt by President Morales to try to protect his own interests in light of the ongoing investigation and probe,” said Adriana Beltran, director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region.

Beltran said Cicig and Velasquez have made remarkable progress in strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala “despite constant attacks and efforts to try to undermine (their) work,” and that “there’s still much more that needs to be done.”

At least 12 military vehicles were outside the commission’s headquarters Friday, and Cicig spokesman Matias Ponce told The Associated Press that police and army vehicles intercepted a car carrying a team from the commission on a street in the capital.

Rodas called the deployment an “oversize and intimidating presence.” “It is an unnecessary military movement that reminds us of days past when there were coups, and now we are a democracy — nobody is above the law,” he said, adding that he would work to guarantee the safety of the commissioner and his team.

The commission’s work with Guatemalan prosecutors has led to high-profile graft probes that ensnared dozens of politicians and businesspeople and even led to the downfall of former President Otto Perez Molina and his then-vice president.

The military deployment came the same day a U.N. human rights team was expelled from the Central American nation of Nicaragua after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights published a critical report accusing President Daniel Ortega’s government of violent repression of opposition protests.

There was no immediate indication of a link between the two events.

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed from Mexico City.

Guatemala congress rejects lifting president’s immunity

September 12, 2017

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Lawmakers voted against lifting President Jimmy Morales’ immunity from prosecution Monday, hours after a congressional commission recommended the protection be withdrawn to open the way for a possible trial on campaign-finance accusations.

Congress voted overwhelmingly not to do so. But since the measure failed to meet a threshold of 105 votes either for or against needed to settle the matter for good, it now goes into a kind of dormant state and can be reconsidered in another session of congress.

Morales has been targeted by investigators amid allegations that about $825,000 in financing for his 2015 campaign was hidden and that other expenditures had no explainable source of funding. The president has denied any wrongdoing. He issued a statement Monday night saying that the congressional decision “demonstrates the democratic maturity” of Guatemala’s institutions.

Earlier Monday, Julio Ixcamey, head of the five-member commission of lawmakers, said it had found evidence of unregistered money in campaign funds. But he also said Morales “did not have a direct participation in registering funds and contributions.”

The investigation was conducted by Guatemalan prosecutors as well as Ivan Velasquez, the head of a U.N. anti-corruption commission that has been working in the Central American nation for a decade. Last month Velasquez and Guatemala’s chief prosecutor asked for the immunity attached to the presidency to be lifted in connection with the probe.

Two days later Morales sought to expel Vazquez from the country, but that order was swiftly overturned by the Constitutional Court.

Guatemala convicts ex-officer, paramilitary in slavery case

February 27, 2016

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — In a historic ruling, a Guatemalan court on Friday convicted a retired army officer and a former paramilitary for the sexual enslavement of women during the country’s civil war. It sentenced them to 120 years and 240 years in prison respectively.

The ruling was the first time a local court handed down a judgment for such crimes in this Central American country, which is seeking to address abuses committed during its brutal 1960-1996 civil war.

The retired officer, 2nd Lt. Esteelmer Reyes Giron, was found guilty of crimes against humanity for holding 15 women in sexual and domestic slavery and for killing one woman and her two young daughters.

Heriberto Valdez Asij, a civilian with military functions, was convicted for the same enslavement, as well as the forced disappearance of seven men. The 120- and 240-year sentences the men received are partly symbolic since Guatemalan law caps the amount of time anyone can spend in prison at 50 years.

The packed courtroom erupted in cheers and chants of “justice, justice!” when the ruling was read. “These historic convictions send the unequivocal message that sexual violence is a serious crime and that no matter how much time passes, it will be punished. It is a great victory for the eleven women who embarked on a 30-year-long battle for justice,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

During the trial, the victims testified to the abuse they suffered during six months in 1982 and 1983 at the Sepur Zarco military base in northern Guatemala. After the army entered their communities, the men were disappeared and when the women went to the military base to ask for them, they were raped and forced to cook and wash clothes for the soldiers.

During 20 hearings, 11 women from the indigenous Q’eqchis communities described how they physically and emotionally deteriorated while being raped and used as slaves for half a year. In court, many wore indigenous garb and had their faces covered.

More than 35 boxes of evidence were presented, including some with human remains and pieces of clothing. The remains were exhumed in 2012 by the Guatemalan Foundation for Forensic Anthropology. “We the judges firmly believe the testimony of the women who were raped in Sepur Zarco,” said Yassmin Barrios, chief judge of the court. “Rape is an instrument or weapon of war, it is a way to attack the country, killing or raping the victims, the woman was seen as a military objective.”

Moises Galindo, the defense lawyer for Reyes Giron, said the trial was a fabrication and that his client was never at the site of the crimes. “We are going to appeal. We are going to succeed in having this case thrown out,” Galindo said. “They should go to the location because the people of Sepur Zarco don’t say that all this happened there.”

But the judge said the accused couldn’t deny knowing about what had happened since they exercised control and power over the area. Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who was present at the reading of the judgment, said, “this is historic, it is a great step for women and above all for the victims.”

Guatemala was wracked by a decades-long civil war as the military battled a Marxist guerrilla force. According to the United Nations, some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared during the war.

Uncertainty in Guatemala as new president takes office

January 15, 2016

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — TV comic and political neophyte Jimmy Morales was sworn in as Guatemala’s president on Thursday amid uncertainty over how he plans to run the Central American nation beset by entrenched poverty, rampant corruption and violent criminal gangs.

Dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by wife, Morales received a hug from his mother and applause from friends and party members as he mounted the stage. United States Vice President Joe Biden met with Morales and the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras before the swearing in Thursday.

Biden congratulated Morales for his commitment to fight corruption. He noted that thousands of Guatemalans had gone into the streets to demand change and elected Morales to do the job. Morales petitioned Biden Thursday to add Guatemala to the list of countries granted temporary protected status, which provides its eligible citizens in the U.S. a degree of temporary protection from deportation and allows them to work and travel.

El Salvador and Honduras already have the status known as TPS. It is usually granted in cases in which the country is suffering from an armed conflict or natural disaster that makes it difficult to receive its citizens.

Guatemala has been beset by corruption scandals that forced President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president from office. Last year, the U.S. Congress approved $750 million in aid to the three countries contingent on their efforts to reduce migration to the U.S. and the factors driving it.

Morales has yet to say who will make up his Cabinet, and he already suffered one political setback when prosecutors formally asked for the equivalent of impeachment proceedings against an allied lawmaker suspected of human rights violations dating to Guatemala’s civil war.

“He is a president who takes office without a party, without well-qualified people he trusts and with a state apparatus that’s really in financial and institutional ruin,” said Edgar Gutierrez, an analyst at San Carlos University in Guatemala.

Morales won office in a runoff Oct. 25 after huge anti-corruption demonstrations. Perez Molina and his vice president are behind bars and facing prosecution, and the outsider’s triumph was seen as a punishment vote from an electorate that wanted a fresh break.

Two and a half months later, Morales’ most visible activities have included a tour of Central American nations and a visit to Guatemalan migrants’ advocacy groups in the United States. Gutierrez said the president-elect would have been well-advised to spend the last two months creating alliances to construct a government, “but he didn’t do that.”

Morales spokesman Heinz Heimann vowed that the incoming team will be of the high quality necessary to respond to Guatemalans’ needs and expectations. “There is nothing suspicious about our actions,” he told The Associated Press via text message. “The government reserves the right to give information in a pertinent manner to keep the people informed.”

Heimann promised the Morales administration will be marked by “strict adherence to the law” and called on different sectors of civil society to play a role in leading the country, but did not advance any more information on the new government’s plans.

Prosecutors last week moved to lift the immunity of office for Edgar Justino Ovalle, a lawmaker and adviser to the president-elect. He and others are suspected of human rights abuses during the 1960-1996 civil conflict when some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared, many of them indigenous Guatemalans slain in countryside massacres.

More than a dozen retired military figures were arrested in the same case. Many of them are members of a veterans’ group that supports the National Convergence Front, the party Morales ran with during the campaign. Ovalle is a party founder.

Although Morales has denied links to the former military officials, some say the allegations amount to a black eye for his new administration. “You can read it as saying: ‘Look, Mr. Morales, do a better job of picking your allies … because these are unqualified people who have serious accusations against them,'” Gutierrez said.

Biden is the highest-level Washington official to attend a Guatemalan inauguration in 30 years of civilian-democratic governments. Biden visited the country last year for talks with Central American leaders about a billion-dollar aid package requested for the region that aims to improve security and quality of life, and lower migration rates after the surge of unaccompanied minors showing up at the U.S. border.

Those impatient for reform have signaled they intend to hold Morales to his promises to clean up government. A public protest has been called for Saturday, just two days after the inauguration, to remind the new president of his campaign slogan: “Neither corrupt nor a thief.”

TV comic Jimmy Morales wins Guatemala presidential runoff

October 26, 2015

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — TV comic and self-styled outsider Jimmy Morales swept to Guatemala’s presidency on the back of popular anger against the political class after huge anti-corruption protests helped oust the last government.

Morales, who is to assume the presidency Jan. 14 and has never held political office, said he would get right to work with a transition team to study economic issues and work on development-oriented government policies.

“It is not I who declare myself the winner but rather the people who have done so,” said Morales, 46, who starred in the comedy “Moralejas.” Morales claimed victory late Sunday and his runoff opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres, conceded defeat after official results showed him winning around 68 percent of the votes with 97 percent of polling stations tallied. Election officials were expected to give a final count Monday.

“We recognize Jimmy Morales’ triumph and we wish him success,” Torres said. “Guatemala has serious problems, but the people made their choice and we respect it.” Hundreds of Morales backers gathered at his party headquarters, where a “banda” musical group played while they waited for the candidate.

“It is a historic vote,” said supporter Israel Orozco. “It is a response by the people to ratify hope for change.” The runoff was held a month and a half after President Otto Perez Molina resigned and was jailed in connection with a sprawling customs scandal. His former vice president has also been jailed in the multimillion-dollar graft and fraud scheme.

Though the protests have died down since Perez Molina’s resignation, many Guatemalans remain fed up with corruption and politics as usual, and Morales will face pressure to deliver immediately on widespread demands for reform.

“The important thing is that the next government avoids corruption,” said Alexander Pereira, an insurance salesman who was the first to vote at one polling place. “I hope that the next government really makes a change. We had an achievement in kicking out the last government.”

Election officials reported preliminary voter participation figures as a little above 50 percent, down from 71 percent in the first round. “The abstention and apathy catch one’s attention. We were looking at a proposal of more of the same or the other proposal which doesn’t exist,” political analyst Roberto Wagner said, referring to the platforms of Torres and Morales. “Citizen pressure will be important for changing the structures” of power.

Morales and Torres were the top two vote-getters in the first round Sept. 6, when presumed front-runner Manuel Baldizon finished a surprising third — a result considered to be a rejection of Guatemala’s political establishment in the wake of the corruption scandal.

The protests began in April after the scheme involving bribery at the customs agency was unveiled by Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N. commission that is investigating criminal networks in the country.

Investigators first targeted former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader of the scheme, and then Perez Molina. Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, who replaced Baldetti as vice president after she resigned, assumed the country’s top job upon Perez Molina’s departure from office.

Morales, like Torres, promised during the campaign to keep Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a key figure in the investigation, and the U.N. commission in place. He also vowed to strengthen controls and transparency, saying in a debate this past week that the government has controls and auditing powers at its disposal.

“All the elements for auditing available to the presidency and vice presidency are going to be put to work,” Morales said. Election officials and international observers said the vote came off without violence.

“They were very calm elections,” said Juan Pablo Cordazzoli, chief of the Organization of American States observer mission. “There were no serious incidents like in the first round.”

Next Guatemala president must respond to restive populace

October 23, 2015

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A TV comic and a former first lady will vie for Guatemala’s presidency Sunday, and the winner will face a tide of public anger at politicians that already drove the last elected president and vice president from office in disgrace.

The country will have either its first female president or its first political neophyte in the office. Whichever it is, the victor will have to respond quickly to demands for deep reform, said Alejandro Maldonado, who took over as interim president after Otto Perez Molina swapped the presidential palace for a prison cell Sept. 3.

“The new government will have a year before the people fill the plazas, streets, avenues and highways in social protest,” Maldonado said during a recent speech to business executives. “And it could once again be successful.”

In Sunday’s presidential runoff, comedian Jimmy Morales, who boasted of his outsider status on the campaign trail, faces Sandra Torres, a businesswoman and longtime political party operative who in a previous campaign divorced former President Alvaro Colom to try to get around a rule barring presidential relatives from seeking the office.

An opinion poll released Wednesday gave the advantage to Morales with 67 percent voter preference, compared with 32 percent for Torres. The survey published by the newspaper Prensa Libre was conducted Oct. 9-14 by ProDatos O and had a margin of error of three percentage points.

If that trend bears out, it would be a continuation of the citizens’ revolt that made Morales the surprise top vote-getter in the election’s Sept. 6 opening round, when Guatemalans punished establishment favorite Manuel Baldizon, the 2011 runner-up who campaigned on the slogan, “It’s his turn.”

The protests began in April after a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal involving bribery at the customs agency was unveiled by Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N. commission that is investigating criminal networks in the country.

Investigators first targeted former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader of the scheme, and then Perez Molina. Morales and Torres have jockeyed to position themselves as the anti-corruption candidate.

Both promise to keep Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a key figure in the investigation, and the U.N. commission in place. Morales vows to strengthen controls and transparency, while Torres would ask the U.N. body for help conducting a government-wide audit.

“From the get-go we must combat corruption at its core,” Torres told The Associated Press, offering the “testimony of a life’s work.” “You can’t talk about transparency if you’re not transparent,” she said.

Morales said in a debate this week that the government has controls and auditing powers at its disposal. “All the elements for auditing available to the presidency and vice presidency are going to be put to work,” he said.

But many are skeptical that either candidate will truly work to root out entrenched corruption and find honest public servants to form a government. “I’ve seen the forums and debates and I’m not convinced,” said Oneida de Bertrand, a homemaker who took part in the protests. “They say what we all know about how the country is, but when it comes time to make proposals they don’t say how. And the worst part is neither one has said who will be in their Cabinet.”

With Baldizon out of the race, the country has broken a cycle of four straight elections in which the previous runner-up won. While the protests focused on corruption, for many they also came to encompass broader demands for profound change in a country with chronic issues of poverty and inequality.

Guatemala also struggles with gangs that buy influence in government and dominate many aspects of society and it has one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Observers note that the country’s institutions remain dominated by the same political parties and many of the lawmakers elected in September are products of the system that the protests sought to upend.

The new legislators have “the same tricks” as always, said Eduardo Stein, a former vice president and political analyst. He said the next president will have to deal not only with a short-fused populace but also an underfinanced state due to poor budget management. Nonetheless, he sees a moment of historic potential for reform.

“We are facing an extraordinary and unique opportunity to take great steps in the quality of our society,” Stein said. Renzo Rosal, another analyst, was more pessimistic, saying the candidates’ proposals are merely cosmetic.

“What they have done here is build up a retaining wall for the (people’s) demands,” Rosal said. “The arrival of a new government is the perfect disguise to make us believe that … will be different, but they won’t.”

Guatemalans vote for new president amid corruption scandal

September 07, 2015

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — An uncomfortable challenge confronted Guatemala’s presidential candidates on Sunday: trying to win the votes of a nation that has put the last elected leader in court custody.

Most are old-guard candidates picked to run before energized prosecutors backed by a mass anti-corruption movement toppled the previous administration. Many voters are so skeptical that they campaigned for the election itself to be postponed to give them a new crop of choices.

Leading in most polls with roughly 30 percent backing is Manuel Baldizon, a wealthy 44-year-old businessman and longtime politician. His running mate is accused by prosecutors of influence trafficking, but as a candidate enjoys immunity from prosecution.

Guatemalans were also voting for vice president, members of Congress and the Central American Parliament, and local authorities for municipalities nationwide. Polls closed in the early evening. In the presidential race, Baldizon’s most competitive rivals were television comedian Jimmy Morales, who has never held elective office, former first lady Sandra Torres and Zury Rios, the daughter of a former dictator accused of genocide.

If none of the 14 candidates reaches 50 percent, a runoff will be held Oct. 25. A key question is the level of protest vote in the face of a corruption scandal that has forced President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign. Both are currently in custody, accused of being involved in a customs kickback scheme.

Activists urged voters to go to the polls wearing black clothes of mourning, abstain or cast null ballots. On the streets, it’s hard to find a campaign poster that hasn’t been covered with insults. Tens of thousands had joined demonstrations asking for the vote to be postponed.

Baldizon, who finished second in the last presidential race, initially campaigned on the slogan “It’s his turn” — a reference to the fact that the last four elections have been won by the previous runner-up. It struck many critics as a display of what’s wrong with the country’s politics. At protests, demonstrators have chanted: “It’s not your turn.”

Baldizon has acknowledged Guatemalans’ disgust with crime, corruption and impunity. His campaign website vows a “modernization of the democratic state” to reform government and combat poverty and social inequality.

But after Baldizon’s campaign blew past the legal ceiling on electoral costs, he ignored orders to stop spending. Morales, 46, boasts of his outsider status and says he is part of the uprising against corruption. He has promised greater transparency, including media review of government contracts.

Torres, 59, divorced former President Alvaro Colom ahead of the last presidential race to try to get around rules barring presidential relatives from running, but was still ruled ineligible. A businesswoman and longtime political party figure, she is proposing a coalition government to respond to the concerns of outraged citizens.

Rios, 47, is the daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who faces charges of crimes against humanity for killings by security forces during his 1982-83 regime. She emphasizes her experience from 16 years in Congress, where she promoted laws against discrimination and drug and human trafficking.

One of the first to vote was President Alejandro Maldonado, who was vice president before he swore in to office this week after Perez Molina’s resignation. He said it was citizens’ responsibility to vote, and then for elected officials to live up to their duty.

Businessman Salvador Paiz said the political crisis touched off by corruption scandals will encourage the public to keep a close eye on the next crop of elected officials. “I see a government that is going to be much more monitored by Guatemalan society, and I think that’s great. … Today we Guatemalans are coming out with courage to denounce acts of corruption,” Paiz said.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana said authorities had received about 1,200 complaints related to the election, including the burning of some ballots in the municipality of Patzun, north of the capital.

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