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Central America, in Brief: A national strike shook Guatemala last week following the removal of a top anti-corruption prosecutor. In El Salvador, while walking a precarious fiscal tightrope, Nayib Bukele handed a rare olive branch to civil society groups critical of his administration.
A Revival of the Guatemalan Spring?
An Indigenous-led national strike filled town squares and paralyzed highways across Guatemala last Thursday, marking the most turbulent anti-government protests since the 2015 Guatemalan Spring that ousted then-President Otto Perez Molina from office. Protestors from across Guatemalan society called for the resignation of current President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras.
The removal of top anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval on July 23 “compounded two other main sources of discontent fueling the strike,” writes El Faro’s Roman Gressier: broader attacks against independent players in the justice system and the government’s embattled response to the pandemic.
El Faro chronicled the strike as protestors shut down Calle Martí, a heavily-transited commercial thoroughfare in Guatemala City, and made their way to the seat of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Read our dispatch.
Sandoval filed an injunction against his removal on Monday, calling on the Supreme Court to reverse the decision. Opposition parties in Congress filed a separate injunction against the removal last week, as well as articles of impeachment against Porras.
#URGENTE Juan Francisco Sandoval presenta en CSJ amparo contra la fiscal general Consuelo Porras, por haberlo destituido ilegalmente del cargo de jefe de la FECI. Pide a los magistrados que revoquen la decisión de Porras que lo removió sin un procedimiento administrativo previo. pic.twitter.com/phXZ4vpsO9
— Alexander Valdéz (@J_AlexValdez) August 2, 2021
On the day of the strike, Porras tweeted out a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserting that the demonstrations could culminate in “criminal conduct such as disrespectful, offensive, defamatory publications, as well as inciting a national strike.”
Just hours later, State Department special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga reiterated U.S. criticism of the Sandoval affair: “The public protests today against the removal of the prosecutor against impunity reflect the deep importance of the role of Central American citizens in good governance.”
The day after the strike, seven influential diplomatic corps in North America and Europe condemned the removal as “part of a pattern of instability and institutional weakening,” calling on the government to respect judicial independence.
#Guatemala | La comunidad internacional condena la destitución del Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad (FECI), Juan Francisco Sandoval, y expresan "este hecho se percibe como un patrón de inestabilidad y debilitamiento institucional. pic.twitter.com/HRh7oLmaYW
— El Faro (@_elfaro_) July 30, 2021
Amid the turmoil, a lingering question is whether the demonstrations will propel civil society toward an even more ambitious agenda than that of 2015: in the words of the Maya Poqomam Ancestral Authority, “the creation of a popular, plurinational constituent assembly.”
An Olive Branch to Civil Society in El Salvador
President Nayib Bukele called a meeting with civic organizations on Friday, in a rare space for dialogue after months of public sparring and the installation of a congressional commission to allegedly investigate the funding of “façade NGOs.”
Attendees told local media that the major achievement of the meeting was that Bukele recognized the harm his public chastising of civil society has been causing to public discourse. He also allegedly promised to put an end to his adversarial stance.
Sources familiar with the meeting say the move was the result of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland’s visit to the country in early July, as well as U.S. Embassy efforts to nudge Bukele toward more open democratic dialogue. Foreign Relations Minister Alexandra Hill, who attended the meeting, will arrange a follow-up session with the attendees as part of a new initiative to create a permanent space for dialogue.
NGOs have repeatedly condemned Bukele’s rapid consolidation of political power—particularly in the judiciary, when the Nuevas Ideas-controlled legislature removed the attorney general and Supreme Court magistrates in May. Bukele went as far as telling members of the international diplomatic corps who challenged the removals that they hadn’t spoken with “the real civil society” in forming their opinions.
This precedent has stirred skepticism that Bukele is committed to changing tactics, prompting members of the NGOs in attendance to defend their participation in the talks.
“It’s not naivety, and the skepticism is understood. Civil society was consistent and reiterated the setbacks to democracy,” tweeted Javier Castro, director of the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES). “All spaces should be used to seek to revert this situation. Doing nothing is not an option.”
No es ingenuidad y se comprende el escepticismo. La sociedad civil fue consecuente y reiteró los retrocesos en la democracia y todas las preocupaciones. Ante la grave realidad, deben usarse todos los espacios para buscar revertir la situación. No hacer nada no es opción.
— Javier Castro D (@jcastrodl) July 31, 2021
The current thaw comes as aspects of the Bukele administration’s governance appear to have affected the country’s international credit rating amid debt restructuring talks with the IMF. The same day as the meeting, July 30, the bond credit rating company Moody’s announced it had downgraded El Salvador’s credit rating to “B3,” labeling Salvadoran debt obligations “speculative and subject to high credit risk.”
The company cited “the deteriorating predictability of institutions and government policies, weak policy effectiveness and the government’s relatively large share in the country’s total external debt” as reasons for the downgrade. El Salvador has now received its lowest credit rating since debt negotiations stalled in the Assembly in 2017.
El Salvador’s debt has significantly grown under Bukele, who took office in June 2019. This June, after the new legislature controlled by Bukele’s party approved a spate of new international loans, national debt eclipsed 90 percent of the value of annual gross domestic product up from 70 percent in December 2019.
The Moody’s report also cited the government’s recent decision to make Bitcoin legal tender and to withdraw from its agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador as the moves “reflect weakened governance in El Salvador, raising tensions with international partners —including the United States (Aaa stable)— and jeopardizing progress toward an agreement with the IMF.”
In recent weeks, the Salvadoran government has tried to switch attention to its security strategy known as Plan Control Territorial and to a controversial Bank of America report that predicts GDP growth for El Salvador at 12 percent this year.
And, in a final major headline from El Salvador this week, former Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén was granted citizenship in Nicaragua, where he had recently fled.
Sánchez Cerén stands accused of illegally receiving $530,000 while Vice President under President Mauricio Funes, the latter of whom escaped to Nicaragua in 2015 to evade arrest on embezzlement charges and received citizenship in 2019. Sanchez Cerén was one of 10 former officials of the Funes government criminally accused of corruption-related crimes on July 22. Five of them were arrested that day, and the others remain at large.
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