Voting Corruption Out of Office in Guatemala

It hasn't come to this, yet.

Photographer: RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

The candidates for the next president of Guatemala aren't exactly paragons of virtue. Even the "outsider" winner of the election's first round on Sunday -- a comedian named Jimmy Morales who ran under the slogan "Not corrupt, not a thief" -- has dubious ties to military hardliners.

Corruption is endemic in Guatemala, as demonstrated by the scandal that just last week cost former President Otto Perez Molina his office. Whoever the next president is, he or she will need ample help -- and stiff encouragement -- to fight it.

In the biggest current scandal, more than 20 officials and businessmen have been arrested for defrauding the national tax agency and customs office of more than $100 million in revenue. Perez Molina has been accused of netting $3.7 million in bribes, charges he has denied.

It's not as if there's much tax revenue to begin with. As a percentage of gross domestic product, Guatemala actually takes in less money than almost any country in the world -- one reason it can't provide security to its citizens, or help the half of its population that lives in poverty. Addressing that fiscal weakness was supposed to be part of the 1996 peace accords ending its civil war, but no real progress has been made. In fact, the last attempt at tax reform, in 2012, relied heavily on an increase in customs taxes -- which officials promptly looted.

Guatemala's people deserve credit for helping to force Perez Molina from office. Yet outside intervention is critical to curbing such corruption, which eats up as much as 6 percent of the nation's budget. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known as CICIG) is a potential model for other nations facing such entrenched misconduct. Sponsored by the United Nations and supported by the U.S., it was a driving force behind the investigation that resulted in the arrest of Perez Molina and others in his administration.

Guatemalans have less than seven weeks before the presidential election runoff on Oct. 25. Although the choices facing voters are imperfect, the coalition that ousted Perez Molina has a chance to push the caretaker government of President Alejandro Maldonado to adopt a minimum agenda for reform. It's not too much to ask, for instance, that Guatemala pass a law barring those convicted of corruption from holding public office.

The U.S. has a special role to play in helping Guatemalans meet this challenge. Not only is it implicated in some of Guatemalan history's most bitter chapters, but it also stands to gain from helping to build a country from which Guatemalans don't want to emigrate. To its credit, U.S. diplomacy persuaded Perez Molina to extend CICIG's mandate. Now a U.S. aid package for Central America has the potential to provide critical assistance to Guatemalan institutions and communities in dealing with drug gangs, cops on the take, and crooked politicians -- that is, if the U.S. Congress will fund it.

Guatemala's government may have a long way to go, but its citizens are pushing it in the right direction. A firm but generous helping hand can help them get there.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.