What do Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych and Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina have in common?
Answer: All three were deeply corrupt presidents ousted by peaceful, democratic grassroots movements, despite aggressive, often violent efforts to remain in power.
Not long ago, leaders of those movements gathered at Washington’s U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) to share their experiences—and to inspire like-minded activists in other countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe that are ruled by authoritarian regimes.
For those who couldn’t make it, the title of the Oct. 23 event says it all: “To curb corruption and violence, engage the grass roots: Policies and programs can do more in sync with local movements.”
Bill Taylor, executive vice-president at USIP, emphasized right from the start that the United States is certainly no exception when it comes to abuse of power.
“We Americans have our own problems with corruption,” said Taylor, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, and an expert on the Middle East.
Of course, corruption is a relative term, and the perception of corruption varies greatly from one country to the next. According to Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, Denmark and New Zealand tied for the title of cleanest country on Earth, both scoring 90 on a zero-to-100 index. They were followed by Finland (89), Sweden (88), Switzerland (86), Norway (85), Singapore (84), Netherlands (83) and Canada (82). The United States, with a score of 74, ranked 18th on the list—right behind Austria and just ahead of Ireland.
At the bottom of the barrel were five failed states whose awful scores on the TI 2016 index should surprise no one: Yemen (14), Syria (13), North Korea (12), South Sudan (11) and Somalia (10). Sadly, two-thirds of the 176 countries and territories in the latest index fall below the midpoint, with the global average score a paltry 43 out of 100.
“In too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity,” said José Ugaz, chair of Transparency International.
USIP senior fellow Shaazka Beyerle agrees.
Moderated by Philippe Leroux-Martin, director of USIP’s rule of law, justice and security program, the panel featured three activists: Idrissa Barry of Burkina Faso, Taras Shevchenko of Ukraine and Lucía Mendizábal of Guatemala. Here are their stories:
Burkina Faso: Idrissa Barry
Idrissa Barry is a founding member of Burkina Faso’s La Balai Citoyen (Citizens Broom) movement. The editor-in-chief of Mutations—an investigative journal in the capital city, Ouagadougou—he helped launch the movement in response to efforts by President Blaise Compaoré to remain indefinitely as the leader of this landlocked, Colorado-sized West African nation of 19 million.
“Our symbol is the broom, because you can find a broom in every house—and we wanted to sweep away bad governance,” explained Barry, speaking in French through an interpreter. “We had a president whose regime had been around for 26 years. That presidency was remarkable for its bad governance and corruption. Sometimes there was political violence and murder. And that president was trying to modify the constitution in order to stay in power even longer.”
Balai Citoyen, which was co-founded by two musicians in July 2013, eventually merged with other political movements into a unified grassroots effort to prevent Compaoré from running again.
“We, the youth of Burkina Faso, decided to request that the constitution be respected,” he explained. “To us, the most important thing is respecting the constitution, which was adopted by all the people.”
“We decided we would not be a part of that new government or congress, because we knew the situation was not yet completely stable. It was important to make sure we still have a civil society that was completely independent and available to watch over the whole process, to make sure the elections were free,” said Barry. “We were right in doing so, because later in September, there was an attempted coup by the former government’s security forces. We had to rally people again to resist that attempt. People came out with their bare hands against the security forces. A dozen people died and many people were injured, but at least we were able to save democracy in Burkina Faso.”
Since then, the country’s political situation has stabilized. In November 2015, voters elected Roch Marc Christian Kaboré president with 53.5 percent of all ballots cast.
“We got a law passed against corruption, and a law allowing us free access to documents after a year of fighting to obtain that access,” Barry said. “We were also successful in getting a law in place that protects people who advocate for human rights.”
Ukraine: Taras Shevchenko
Joining USIP via Skype from his home in Kiev was Taras Shevchenko, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law.
Shevchenko was one of thousands of young people sick and tired of the endemic corruption Ukrainians had to endure under President Viktor Yanukovych, who had been elected president in February 2010 but was removed from power four years later following the popular Euromaidan uprising.
Shevchenko said things had deteriorated drastically since the so-called “Orange Revolution” of November 2004, when thousands of demonstrators occupied Kiev’s Independence Square following presidential elections tainted by massive corruption, voter intimidation and electoral fraud.
“At that time, people supported Yanukovych. After he won, people thought, ‘OK, we did our job,’” he said. “But the Maidan revolution in 2014 didn’t really support any candidate. Nobody was thinking about who would become the next leader of Ukraine. In fact, people are actually motivated to follow the government, monitor what they’re doing and engage in anti-corruption initiatives.”
After the 2014 revolution, Shevchenko and his fellow Euromaidan activists co-founded the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), a coalition of 73 NGOs that develops, promotes and implements reforms. It has advocated more than 100 laws. He’s also helped draft numerous legislative acts, including the Access to Public Information Law.
Despite Russia’s 2004 annexation of Crimea and an ongoing separatist war in eastern Ukraine fueled by Kremlin propaganda, Shevchenko said the focus remains on getting rid of corrupt officials and ending impunity.
“Ukraine is still quite corrupt, but a lot has changed,” he said, explaining that the enthusiasm of public protests has been successfully channeled into institutions with rules and expertise. In many cases, civil society is now stronger as an institution than most political parties.
“We cannot expect foreign countries to come and reform our state,” he said. “We’re not waiting for donors to make reforms. We’re really thankful for their support, but we understand it’s the job of the Ukrainian people to reform their own country.”
Guatemala: Lucía Mendizábal
Founder of the #RenunciaYa movement, businesswoman Lucía Mendizábal decided she was fed up with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the country’s vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Together with half a dozen of her friends, she formed an online protest group that eventually brought both leaders down—without a single violent incident.
CICIG, a United Nations-backed anti-corruption agency, that linked Pérez Molina, Baldetti and other high-ranking politicians to an enormous corruption ring involving customs fraud, illegal kickbacks and a secret phone line called “La Linea.”
“Every time an investigation got too close to power, they had to stop it because these people were protected by law and could not be investigated,” she recalled. “People commit crimes but they never see a day in court.”
On April 16, 2015, Mendizábal created an event on Facebook inviting her friends to go downtown and demand Baldetti’s resignation.
“I said to myself, ‘if we get 350 people, that would be very successful,’” she recalled. “People started saying, ‘Yes, I’m coming.’ I remember that when were at 1,000, I started asking friends to join me. One friend said, ‘let’s use the hashtag RenunciaYa’—and that’s how we became a movement.”
But nobody in the group knew much about politics.
“I was in real estate and another worked in a bank. We didn’t quite know what to do, and we were very scared. But it started growing and growing, to the point that 10,000 people showed up on April 25. It was amazing,” said Mendizábal, adding that despite their fear, “as long as we were peaceful, there was nothing they could do.”
Energized by their success, Mendizábal and her fellow activists began demanding the resignation of Pérez Molina too. On Aug. 27, more than 100,000 people took to the streets throughout Central America’s largest country—the largest mass political protest in Guatemalan history.
The following month, CICIG unveiled recordings of phone conversations that directly linked both Pérez Molina and Baldetti to the customs scandal. Within 24 hours, the president had resigned; the next day he was put in prison.
“I believe the State Department, through [then U.S. ambassador] Todd Robinson had a big role in this,” Mendizábal said in answer to a question on how influential the United States was in ending the crisis. “At some point, we felt the American government was behind Pérez Molina, but then something happened, and the government realized it didn’t want anything to do with him. I have no proof of this, but I believe they had a big role in convincing him to resign as well.”
For her efforts, Mendizábal was included in CNN’s list of nine women who changed the world in 2015—alongside such luminaries as former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi; U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bade Ginsburg and British pop star Adele.
Yet Mendizábal herself warns much remains to be done back home. And for that, she said, Guatemala will need help from groups like USIP.
“In Guatemala, the whole system is corrupt. We have corruption in the courts, in Congress, in the presidency and in the lower ranks of bureaucracy, because it’s not always the higher ranks that are corrupt. We need to change the law—and it’s not easy for us to press for that if we don’t have organized civil society or international aid helping us.”