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World

The Transparent Congress

In the wake of Guatemala's corruption scandals, the people want greater transparency. Angel Ramírez and his organization Congreso Transparente are lobbying for more openness and accountability in Congress.

"It's a special feeling," says Angel Ramírez, "when our information is finally posted online and we watch it go viral." Only a week has passed since the Guatemalan Congress passed its new electoral law and Angel Ramírez has familiarized himself with every detail. It wasn't an easy task. His organization, "Congreso Transparente" (or "Transparent Congress"), made it its mission to find out how individual Members of Congress voted on the various articles of the new law. Because the information wasn't available on the official Congress website, Angel Ramírez and his colleagues combed through each individual website of the 158 Members of Congress for their voting information - and that, for every one of the 89 articles of the law.
The data that Congreso Transparente ultimately published on its website takes only a few minutes to click through, but it's the product of two weeks of painstaking work by the organization's three full-time employees and three part-time researchers. The results were posted on Facebook in the form of an Excel document. But why go through all this trouble?
For a transparent Congress

I believe in Congress. (photo: Vera Freitag)

"I believe in Congress"

"It's so that every Guatemalan citizen can see how their representatives voted," says 25-year-old Ramírez. "We're making this data accessible and easy to understand. That's a basic pre-requisite for civil participation."
Ramírez has been executive director of Congreso Transparente, which was founded in 2011, for two years now. The activities of the non-governmental organization (NGO) are guided by the principles of open government, which means the opening of government and its institutions - in this case of Congress - to public scrutiny. Congreso Transparente concentrates on three main activities to achieve its goals.

Firstly, it gathers information about events in Congress, such as the political activities of congressional representatives. Secondly, Congreso Transparente organizes workshops, particularly in rural areas, that focus on open government. And thirdly, the organization works directly with the Members of Congress themselves. Congreso Transparente offers suggestions on how to improve the political process and advises congressional representatives on how to make their work more transparent. With support from DW Akademie, the NGO now plans to expand its work to include Guatemala's local governments.
Congressional insider knowledge

Ramírez knows his way around Congress. And so he should, because after graduating with a degree in politics he worked as an advisor to a congressional representative. When changes to the legislature resulted in a reshuffling of Congress, Ramírez quit his advisory role and took over as executive director of Congreso Transparente, where he'd previously only helped out. His congressional experience was, of course, invaluable for his work with the NGO. "I know which delegates are influential and I understand the politics that play out behind closed doors," says Ramírez. "That helps us classify our information about congressional activities."
Congreso Transparente wants to educate Guatemalans to think critically and ask questions. How is public money being used? How are individual delegates voting? After the turbulent events of the past year, these issues are especially important in Guatemala.

In 2015, there were months of protests in Guatemala against corruption. (Photo: Vera Freitag)

In 2015, there were months of protests in Guatemala against corruption

In September 2015, then-president Otto Fernando Pérez Molina announced he was stepping down, following months of pressure and mass demonstrations. After lawyers submitted evidence of his involvement in numerous corruption and smuggling rings, Congress voted to lift his immunity from prosecution. Today, Pérez Molina is in detention awaiting trial. But the plan to hold new elections shortly after his resignation provoked a fresh wave of protests. "Yo no voto" ("I'm not voting") chanted the demonstrators, who first wanted to see a complete overhaul of the corrupt political system. Transparency International ranks Guatemala 128th out of 168 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index. Ramírez is convinced that the only way to fight corruption is to improve transparency and civil participation.

An access to information law - great...or not so great?

On paper it looks like it's all taken care of: access to information in Guatemala is guaranteed under the Constitution via the access to information law, which was adopted by Congress in 2008. But the news portal, Plaza Pública, reports that only 46 percent of government institutions in Guatemala are not meeting their obligations to disclose information as stipulated by the law. Politicians are deliberately withholding information, says Ramírez, whether it's because they simply have no idea how to make it public or for other reasons best known to themselves. Then again, much of the data may no longer exist, simply because nobody bothered to save it until now. Or if it does exist, it's usually hard to access because of inefficiency and lack of coordination between different administrative departments. Another problem, says Ramírez, is that the data is often very complex. "Just consider the work we had to do to find out how delegates voted on reforms to the electoral law...! They all talk about transparency, but what it also entails is simplifying access to information!"

Angel Ramírez attending a workshop (photo: Vera Freitag)

Angel Ramírez attending a workshop

Since the events of 2015, there's been a lot of interest in the work of Congreso Transparente. "There are many new citizens' initiatives that come to us wanting to know how their representatives voted on specific issues," explains Ramírez. Many NGOs also use the data, and there's a whole pool of journalists, including data journalists, who work together with the organization. For Ramírez, it means that he has to be in a dozen places at once: at conferences, meeting with activists, on the phone with journalists, holding talks with Members of Congress...

Ramírez believes in the power of political institutions. Congress is where all the visions that people have of Guatemala come together. That's why he feels it's so important that this institution be improved. Angel Ramírez hopes to become a Member of Congress himself one day, and topping his agenda is - of course - freedom of information. "I would push for the creation of an independent body to facilitate free access to information."

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