In 1996, UN-sponsored peace accords ended 36 years of civil war in Guatemala. While democratic progress has been made in the last two decades, political corruption and organized crime have proved to be major obstacles. Weak institutions, extreme concentration of wealth and one of the highest homicide rates in the world have further exacerbated Guatemala’s problems.
In 2015, corruption scandals sparked unprecedented street protests and shook Guatemalan politics to its core. The president, vice president and other high officials were jailed, and the Guatemalan Congress was jolted into a process of reform. In early 2016, legislation to end corruption and improve transparency and accountability was adopted in a flurry of activity, giving voters hope that their voices had been heard. However, progress has recently stalled over judicial reform and changes to the constitution.
At the invitation of the Guatemalan Congress, the House Democracy Partnership (HDP)-a bipartisan commission of the U.S. Congress that provides technical assistance to 20 parliamentary bodies around the world-shared ideas on tackling reform agendas with members and staff. The mission was jointly supported by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Brad Smith, a 40-year veteran staffer in the U.S. Congress and a founding member of the HDP, helped lead the delegation. Joining him were Mark Epley, Counsel to Speaker Paul Ryan, Courtney Kum, legislative assistant to Rep. Steve Knight, Maureen Taft-Morales of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Scott Nemeth of IRI and Jerry Hartz of NDI.
Courtney Kum, legislative assistant to Representative Steve Knight, shares best practices for constituent outreach.
Oscar Chinchilla, President of the Guatemalan Congress and the leader of its Board of Directors, welcomed collaboration and the technical assistance offered by HDP. He expressed enthusiasm on behalf of the leadership of Congress to enact good laws and continue reform, even while taking action on the major challenges of Guatemala pertaining to education, malnutrition, jobs, judicial reform and protecting human rights. He noted the valuable work that HDP’s partners, NDI and IRI, have done in training many young Guatemalans and urged support for Congress in its push for reform. President Chinchilla began his own career in politics as an intern more than a decade ago.
The HDP delegation stressed that all democracies face challenges. Democracy can be a messy process and voters have high expectations, making it difficult to achieve meaningful results. During discussions, several important needs emerged in the Guatemalan context, including:
- Restoring public trust through ethics reform in the wake of major corruption cases;
- Building consensus among fractured parties weakened by political scandal;
- Increasing institutional memory and respect for professional staff to improve preparation of legislation;
- Establishing an institution similar to CRS to provide research assistance and digitized information;
- Effective communications to build connections with voters at a time of national mistrust and uncertainty - a problem faced by democracies around the world.
The Guatemalan Congress has already made some significant progress in transparency within the last year. Modernization initiatives are underway to set up a searchable website for the Congress, to establish electronic systems to pay congressional wages and to increase oversight, regulations and legal compliance. In addition, the Guatemalan Congress is launching a TV channel in order to make plenary and committee proceedings transparent and open to the public. Overall, everyone acknowledged that democratic reform is still moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. Partnership and exchange with HDP was overwhelmingly and positively received.
Maureen Taft-Morales describes the role of CRS in providing technical analysis, objective information and the preservation of institutional memory in the U.S. Congress.
A major challenge to reform are the lingering effects of the civil war, which still haunt families of the disappeared, generate mistrust and inhibit political agreements. A staffer noted that no one is rewarded for effective leadership, and they are often attacked from existing power structures who oppose change. Those who embrace reform can face personal threats of violence, including to their families. Courageous party leaders who take on such risks and push reform deserve the full support of the international community.
One participant observed that reconciliation from the civil war has never really occurred and that unless Guatemala deals with its past, it will continue with distrust and violence in its future.
The HDP mission builds upon the long-term bipartisan work of IRI and NDI in Guatemala. Since 2012, IRI and NDI have been working in partnership with the Congress to strengthen the capacity of the legislature and civil society organizations to develop priority legislation, including reforms guiding the political and electoral system, improve transparency in government and strengthen the Guatemalan Congress’ internal operations and procedures.