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Guatemalans Doubt Their Jailed President Will Be Held Accountable


Last Wednesday, the president of Guatemala resigned from office after months of demonstrations against him and his administration. The next day, now former President Otto Perez Molina, was charged with being part of a criminal organization. After his arraignment, he was escorted to a military prison. Today, new elections, which were already scheduled, begin.

To talk more about the events of the past few days, we're joined by Eduardo Halfon. He is a novelist who was born and raised in Guatemala. He joins us from his home in New York City. Thank you very much for talking with us.

EDUARDO HALFON: It's my pleasure, Linda. Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So when you heard that the president had resigned and then was in custody, what was your reaction?

HALFON: Surprise, really. This doesn't happen. And so there was an initial joy. And then comes the - what's going to happen now? Is the system going to be able to go through with this, because he's just charged right now?

WERTHEIMER: The evidence against ex-President Perez Molina is amazing and it is voluminous - more than 60,000 wiretapped phone calls, thousands of emails, strong evidence of his part in a customs fraud operation. With all that, do you think that the people of Guatemala really think that he'll be held accountable?

HALFON: I think there's a lot of doubt, just because we've been taught in the past to not trust this system. We're used to seeing people get away with it or leave the country. There are many ex-presidents who are no longer in the country. They just flee.

WERTHEIMER: They go to live with their overseas bank accounts or something.

HALFON: Exactly. There's one in Panama. There's one in Mexico. There was one in a U.S. prison, and so we're still doubtful.

WERTHEIMER: The elections start today, but many of the people who were protesting wanted that vote to be delayed. Other people say they plan not to vote, they'll just abstain. Can you explain why?

HALFON: I think it's just a feeling of frustration. The four candidates that are leading the polls are from the same political class. You know, one of them, Manuel Baldizon, who's been on top leading the polls, is an ex-military, millionaire businessman, owner of newspapers, and his vice president - running with him - is charged in money laundering.

WERTHEIMER: The people of Guatemala have been demonstrating against the president. There have been demonstrations. Tell us about those demonstrations. And what do you think they've achieved?

HALFON: Guatemalans don't usually protest in that fashion and in that volume. It was just amazing to see a hundred-thousand Guatemalans at the Central Plaza asking for the president's resignation. And this was all called for online. Journalists have to be careful in places like Guatemala, or they will be killed, or they will be disappeared.

But social and digital media have been getting so strong. One of - my favorite is Nomada. One very concrete example of what happened a few weeks ago is that the leading presidential candidate, Manuel Baldizon, went on CNN en Espanol and gave an interview making up things. The following day Nomada published a text titled "14.5 Lies In 7.23 Minutes On CNN." And they went point by point, lie by lie, unmasking him. Immediately, this guy dropped in the polls.

WERTHEIMER: Eduardo Halfon. He is a novelist who was born and raised in Guatemala. And his newest book, available in English, is called "Monastery." Thank you very much.

HALFON: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.