Everybody has that one Facebook friend who just won’t stop posting their political opinions. This week, we talk to one of those Facebook friends, someone whose opinions got her into an enormous mess.
Be sure to check out the Radio Ambulante story that this story was based on: #RenunciaYa
Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.
Our ad music is by Build Buildings.
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt. So one of my Facebook friends is this guy, gonna call him Dave, who I haven’t seen in maybe 15 years. I think the last time we saw each other it was the 90s, and we were at a pop punk show. I haven’t talked to him since then. But every single day I watch him argue about politics with his Facebook friends. Trump, the troops, gun control, repeat. Nobody ever changes their mind. I watch it and I feel physically tired. I feel like I’m at someone else’s awkward family dinner but one that goes on infinitely. I was thinking about Dave recently because my newest Facebook friend, Lucia, is also somebody who gets into a lot of political arguments on Facebook. And recently, that kind of became a problem for Lucia. This is a story about the weirdest summer of Lucia’s life. I talked to her about it on Skype.
PJ: So I have a million questions…
LUCIA MENDIZÁBAL: Go ahead!
PJ: I guess the first thing is just like, before any of this happened, like if it’s okay, I just wanted to see your Facebook page?
LUCIA: Uh yeah. I have a lot of stuff… That’s my dog Benny. I have another one. She still looks like a puppy all the time.
PJ: She gave me a quick tour of her page: lots of funny memes from 9Gag, pictures of her grandson, and some Facebook games. For a while she got real into Farmville. She said she would end up running virtual farms alongside strangers in the Middle East.
LUCIA: But then, uh, it went crazy. There was people who get up and put their alarms set for 3 o’clock in the morning because if they didn’t, uh leave their crops, the crops will die.
PJ: Oh my god.
LUCIA: Yeah I know, people was crazy about that.
PJ: I want to be more judgmental about it, but I play this game that’s called Simpsons Tapped Out, which is just, it’s the same name, it’s just Farmville but the Simpsons, and I will sometimes pretend to go to the bathroom because I need to check on my crops.
TIM HOWARD: He means here at work, this is the first I’m learning about this.
PJ: That profoundly disgusted voice belongs to Reply All Senior Producer Tim Howard.
LUCIA: Haha, that’s crazy.
PJ: Lucia lives in the suburbs outside of Guatemala City. In real life, she runs this real estate business with her husband, and when she’s not doing that, or tilling crops in Farmville, she likes to hang out in this Facebook group called Politically Incorrect. She likes to argue with people there. About genetically modified foods, or taxes. It’s a good place to just go spar, even though the people there can be sorta quick to name call.
LUCIA: A lot of people will tell me, oh, you’re a communist, and other people, oh, you are from the ulta derecha, I don’t know how to say that…
TIM: Far right.
LUCIA: Far right.
TIM: Those are the opposite. Communist and the far right.
LUCIA: But you know, but when you’re talking with people that talk about middle ideas, then you must be from the far right. And vice versa.
PJ: Do people fight over the same things, time and time again, or is it whatever’s in the news that day?
LUCIA: Usually it’s about whatever is in the news, and usually it’s about the same thing. I don’t know if you know, but in Guatemala, we had a war, for 30 years.
PJ: Guatemala had a civil war that lasted for 36 years. Hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans were killed by the government. And this war ended pretty recently, like, 1996 recently. There hasn’t been a real thorough truth and reconciliation. And many people in the country just are not interested in talking about what happened.
LUCIA: A lot of people just don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to know about it, they don’t even want to hear about it. And I think that’s really twisted because we need to talk about it and we need to understand what happened and move forward.
PJ: When Lucia argues politics on Facebook, these are the politics she’s arguing. And talking about those kinds of things in public can still get you in trouble. I first heard about all the trouble that Lucia got into from a reporter named Luis Trelles. He reported about Lucia for Radio Ambulante. And the story starts with this big scandal in Guatemala.
LUIS TRELLES: In April of this year, a corruption scandal broke out, and it was basically called La Linea, which translates as “The Line.” It was a corruption scheme that involved customs officials asking for bribes in exchange for not collecting import taxes. And over twenty government officials were originally indicted. And the highest in the chain of command of these government officials was the personal secretary of Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
PJ: Roxana Baldetti is a former beauty queen turned conservative cable news correspondent turned politician.
[Clip of Baldetti]
PJ: Luis says that Guatemalans are used to corruption, but Baldetti is on whole other level. At one point a Guatemalan newspaper reported that she and her husband had 13 million dollars in assets. They had a private helicopter and five properties, which was many multiples more what a politician’s salary should have been able to afford. In response, that reporter was banned by the courts from being near the Vice President. And the thing that really drove Lucia crazy about Roxana Baldetti wasn’t the corruption. It was that whenever she got called out in public about it, she would tell these lies and the lies didn’t even make sense. Like at one point she was accused of looting an environmental fund.
LUCIA: And she said, “I swear, listen, I swear I didn’t steal one red penny from Guatemala. And I swear it on my mother’s life, who is dead.”
PJ: So she was really saying like, if I’m lying may my mother die, and she didn’t think anyone would check?
LUCIA: Yeah, exactly, “I swear on my mother’s life, who is dead.”
PJ: So, the La Linea scandal happens, and even though people are used to bad behavior from Baldetti, this scandal feels worse. In Lucia’s facebook group, Politically Incorrect, there are people who are so fed up that they say that they might just void their ballots in the next election as a protest. Which Lucia thinks is pointless. So she gets on her computer, and tells people what she thinks they ought to do.
LUIS: She immediately gone on her Facebook page and started ranting, and saying that you know, she called for the country to go and protest in front of the government palace.
PJ: Can you read me the post?
LUCIA: Yeah, if you give me one minute I will search it.
[Lucia reads post in Spanish]
PJ: I asked Lucia to translate her note in real time for me, and she gave it a shot.
LUCIA: If ever in Guatemala needed that everyone go out to the streets for the return of the millions that they have stolen, it is now. Hah! I wrote that like I was Yoda.
PJ: So Lucia gives her post a Yoda-like name.
LUIS: Something along the lines of, “Protest to get Vice President Roxana Baldetti to resign.” It was like the worst name ever. It was like the most boring terrible name ever for a demonstration.
PJ: Had you ever tried to do anything like this before, like had you ever tried to stage a protest?
LUCIA: Of course not! No way.
PJ: Lucia told me that she figured that somebody who actually knew how to do these sorts of things would see her Facebook post, and they’d come up with a real plan for a real protest. Which is not what happened.
LUIS: A newspaper picked up this Facebook event and ran it. And suddenly she has, within 48 hours, she has hundreds of people. Just confirming that they will be assisting the event.
PJ: And this is where Lucia starts to get pretty worried. In Guatemala, it can be very dangerous to protest against the government. In 2012, demonstrators gathered on a highway to protest high energy prices. Seven people were shot and killed, many more were wounded. It seems almost certain that the military, who was at the protest, fired on the crowds. But the President said that the soldiers weren’t carrying guns. The protesters, he suggested, probably fired on themselves. That was his statement. That incident happened in a rural area, and Lucia knows that the government tends to be more violent towards rural, indigenous people than city people. But on the other hand, she’s demanding the Vice President’s resignation. So, she’s scared.
And she finds herself just refreshing the Facebook page, over and over, watching as more and more people share it, and realizing that this thing has taken on a life of its own.
LUIS: That week, it was thousands of people. Who were confirming that they would go to this demonstration. And it’s like 15 thousand, 20 thousand.
LUIS: And the bigger it gets, the scarier it gets for her as well.
LUCIA: And I remember calling my mother and said, “[gasp] Momma, I think I broke something.” And she says, “WHAT?” She said, “Okay, so maybe get together and get some help.”
LUIS: So she looks for help! And what she does is she recruits the son of a friend of hers, that she’s known since this guy was born, this guy is called Gabriel. And the first thing Gabriel does is say, we have to get rid of that name. “Demonstration to ask Roxana Baldetti to resign” is not going to cut it. So he comes up with a hashtag, and he comes up with a hashtag that is called Renuncia Ya.
PJ: Renuncia Ya. In English, “Resign Now.” Or, if you prefer:
LUCIA: Quit already!
PJ: Quit already.
LUIS: He says like, “This will catch on. Trust me.”
PJ: Gabriel and Lucia form a small team to turn Renuncia Ya into something more organized. The team’s half Lucia’s friends, half Gabriel’s friends. Two generations working together. Which Lucia said felt strange, because these kids didn’t remember Guatemala’s brutal civil war, the long, dark period that people don’t talk about much but that Lucia had to confront from literally the moment she was born.
LUCIA: My mother always tells this story that when I was born, it was midnight when her water broke. So she had to call the doctor and the doctor had to make arrangements with the government for some army cars to come into our house accompany my mother and my father to the hospital. Because otherwise if they would see you outside of your house, they would shoot you.
PJ: Oh my god.
LUCIA: No questions asked, just. That’s the Guatemala I was born into.
PJ: That past Guatemala has a way of popping up in the present. For instance, the man widely held responsible for the massacres, General Rios Montt, was tried for genocide in 2013. And during Montt’s trial, something unexpected happened. A former soldier was testifying that he and his troops had been ordered to burn down the villages of indigenous people, to cut off their tongues, pull out their fingernails, and later execute them. The soldier said that the orders had come from his commander, a man who since the war, has become very famous in Guatemala. The commander’s name was Otto Perez Molina. Baldetti’s boss. The President of Guatemala. Perez Molina denied the accusations, as he’s denied similar accusations of war crimes. But understandably, a lot of people fear him. And Lucia has now written a Facebook post directing everyone to go stand outside this man’s office, the Presidential Palace, and start screaming at the two of them. Lucia retroactively tried to make her Facebook presence anonymous. She took her profile picture down, she changed her name. But she was worried about the safety of the kids who were helping her.
LUCIA: They don’t know how dangerous it can be. So we sat down and we talk about it, said, okay, this can be dangerous.
PJ: What’s like the worst case scenario if you’re politically active?
LUCIA: To have your head blown in any street and then appear next day in the newspaper as one of the victims of violence.
TIM: Is that something that you were imagining? Did that feel like a real thing that could happen?
LUCIA: At the beginning, maybe not. Because I didn’t expect more than 50 or let’s say 350 people. But when we reached levels of thousands of people that said yes, we’re going to attend? At that time I was really scared. I was really worried. Not because of me. Like, I’m 53 years old, and I’m a grandmother as you have seen. And my daughters are both grownups. And I’m not ready to die. But my death is not something that I will avoid at all costs. Like for me it is more important for them to have a great country where my grandsons and granddaughters, if I ever get, will grow up, than my life. But I was afraid for the people that was with me, and I was afraid for the lives of my dear ones. I believe that people die whenever they are supposed to die. And I am convinced about that. So I said, if they’re gonna kill me, either way I was supposed to die that day, maybe in my bathtub or in my bed, I was supposed to die anyhow. I tell you, I’m crazy!
PJ: So, Lucia had learned something she’d never known about herself—that she was ready to die for the right cause. And she’d warned the younger people as well as she could. But now the Facebook page had begun to bubble with signs that this protest could still get very bloody.
LUIS: There are some voices that are starting to get rowdy inside of the event page. Some kids, apparently, who are like, we’ve got to go in there with our Molotov cocktails and our rocks and our bats, we’ve got to make some noise and we’ve gotta bring the government down, that kind of rhetoric.
PJ: The people who were calling for violence, they looked like they had fake accounts. They were all really new, and they didn’t have a lot of friends except for each other. Lucia was pretty sure that that meant there were people in the government’s propaganda wing. Which was extremely bad news. It meant that not only had the government noticed the protests, but that it was trying to push them towards violence. But what could Lucia really do at this point? If she canceled the event, people would still show up. So she called out the people who were threatening violence. She told everyone they were probably from the government, and to ignore them. And then, all she could really do is wait.
LUIS: She told me at one point that it’s like in cartoons, when a character is in a dark room and they light a match, and then it’s revealed that the room is full of dynamite.
PJ: After the break, Lucia, the lit match, and the Vice President.
PJ: Okay. So. April 25. Day of the protest.
PJ: Do you remember what kind of day it was outside?
LUCIA: It was a nice Saturday. The kind of Saturday you would choose to go to the pool and relax and do nothing
PJ: How were you feeling?
LUCIA: Scared to death.
PJ: She eats lunch with her mom. The protest is supposed to take place in the Plaza de la Constitucion, the main square in front of the government palace. It’s the center, all roads in Guatemala lead out from this one square. Lucia parks far away, in case the thing is packed, in case people do show up. And she starts walking in. And in her head, she’s picturing everything that can go wrong. An empty square, because nobody shows up. A square that is full, but either of protesters being beaten by cops, or protesters who are beating each other. From far away, she starts to hear yelling. People are flowing into the square. A small group of people stops at a nearby cafe trying to convince the patrons to come with them. Up close, it’s hard to even see the scale of the thing until a friend lets her into a nearby building, and they go upstairs.
LUCIA: We go up and I look out the window, and I, it was like, [gasps]! Like all you see was heads and sign and hats.
PJ: The National Palace is this concrete monolith. It’s all towering columns and high walls.The square in front of it is completely covered in protesters. They’re waving Guatemalan flags and their wearing its colors, blue and white. It’s hard to actually pick out any individuals, it starts to just look like one enormous, many-limbed organism that speaks in cheers and blaring horns.
LUCIA: I was in tears. I didn’t cry in that moment, but in my heart I was in tears of emotion. And even though I may say a lot of things that don’t sound like, “Oh, she’s all that,” at that moment I did thought: “I am all that!”
PJ: Luis says the crowd wasn’t just spectacular and large, it was diverse. It was made up of every kind of person.
LUIS: I mean conservatives, liberals, they really did what they wanted to do, which was gather people who were fed up with corruption
PJ: Luis says everybody was united by their utter disgust with Baldetti. So much so that they even all sing the national anthem.
LUCIA: And of course it was terrible.
PJ: Lucia says that there were so many people that they couldn’t actually get the song going in unison.
LUCIA: It sounded like waves, you know.
PJ: It was a cacophony, just all this joyful singing crashing against itself.
LUCIA: But it was so moving. And at that time, we did cry.
PJ: Lucia started to think about how Guatemala is seen in the world, as this violent, violent place, a place whose people kill each other.
LUCIA: And yet we were there, in peace.
PJ: It was like nothing she’d ever experienced. She found herself really listening to the words of the national anthem, hearing them freshly. There’s a line about how Guatemala had once achieved peace without violence. And that seemed possible again. They stood outside the palace for hours. But Roxana Baldetti was nowhere to be found. Lucia doesn’t even think she was in the palace that did. Baldetti didn’t show up for two weeks. And when she did, it was actually her boss, President Perez Molina, who made the big announcement.
LUCIA: She resigned! And that was most unexpected. Very welcome.
PJ: And how did it feel to watch that?
LUCIA: Uh, you’re going to think I’m crazy. Well, we already established that! I was happy but not surprised. It was the reasonable thing to be done. Like, If you prepare a cake and you beat it and you put it in the oven, you’re not really surprised when it comes out a cake, after an hour of being in the oven.
PJ: Right… But… I get pretty excited about cakes. When they’re ready to eat.
LUCIA: Yeah… yeah…
PJ: It wasn’t long though until Lucia found something that she really could get straightforwardly excited about.
LUCIA: It’s called escuchas, you know like when they hear the…
LUCIA: Yeah. Wiretaps, exactly. Where the president is giving instructions, not somebody else talking about him, but it was himself talking. And giving instructions.
PJ: Turns out, the same team of investigators who caught Baldetti also had tapes of President Perez Molina, incriminating himself in the La Linea scandal, that same customs scandal that had ensnared Baldetti.
PJ: And there’s actual, like, recording of this? Like you’ve heard this recording, people have heard this recording?
LUCIA: Yeah, everyone.
[sound of wiretaps]
PJ: The protesters went nuts.
LUIS: The group was like, we got the Vice President to resign, now we need to get the President to resign.
PJ: And so a whole new round of protests erupts, throughout all of Guatemala. It’s like wildfire. Every single weekend, there are people outside, waving signs, demanding that their president resign. But there’s a catch. Perez Molina just refuses to quit. And while the prosecutors have built a strong case, he can’t be arrested, because there’s this rule in Guatemala that the president is immune to criminal prosecution as long as he’s in office. The only way you can arrest a president is if Congress votes to strip him of his immunity. Which of course, has never, ever happened. It’s just an absurd pipe dream. But everything about the summer is absurd. The wave of protests that comes out of Lucia’s, it doesn’t stop, it gets bigger. And the investigators dig deeper. And the press doesn’t back off. And the pressure just builds and builds and then in August, there’s a general strike.
LUIS: Then a new hashtag came out, hashtag yo no tengo presidente, which means I don’t have a president.
WOMAN YELLING: Otto Perez Molina, renuncia ya!
PJ: The entire country comes to a halt, and even Congress can’t ignore it. They take away Perez Molina’s immunity. The vote’s unanimous.
LUIS: After that vote, he really has to resign. And that very same day he’s in prison, he’s in a holding cell as he awaits trial. In a day, in a single day.
PJ: Yeah. Yeah.
LUIS: It’s crazy. It’s crazy, I mean like, he was president in the morning and he’s in a jail cell by evening.
LUCIA: That day, that day I was, I think it was one of the happiest days of my life. Because for the very first time in my life, finally, justice had been served.
PJ: Did that ever seem possible?
LUCIA: No, actually, it didn’t. That’s why I was so happy. Every single one of the Congress that worked that day at the Congress and had to make the decision voted yes. I want to cry right now. I’m so overwhelmed and excited. It’s so nice. I’m crying but I’m crying of happiness.
PJ: Luis says that considering everything Lucia did, it’s really surprising that she hasn’t used Renuncia Ya as a springboard, like say into a political career.
LUIS: A different person would be running for president right now. If Lucia were a different person, she would be a total political rock star right now. But that’s not what she wanted, that wasn’t the point of it.
PJ: And what do you think it is, like why… I feel like a lot of people start out that way. And then, you know, you see things you can fix, but to do that you’re gonna have to make a deal with this person, and you know, like politics tends to corrupt very well intentioned people. Like what is it about her that she, I don’t know, inoculated herself?
LUIS: That’s a great question, and I think she’s always been very clear, I think she really, really dreams of a better Guatemala. A Guatemala where the hospitals work because the politicians aren’t stealing money. Where people are paying their fair share of taxes. I mean, she’s so idealistic. At some point she told me that she started putting out these Renuncia Ya hashtags which were like quit corruption, and quit smoking inside public places, and quit running red lights. It’s like that’s the kind of Guatemala she wants to live in.
PJ: Lucia is so busy imagining her grand vision for Guatemala that she doesn’t really worry about her role in it. Remember, she took away her picture and her name from her Facebook profile. Which meant that on the day of that big protest, when she was in a crowd of thousands of people who’d assembled because of her note, she was anonymous.
LUCIA: A really funny thing is that even though I had invited all my friends, very few people knew that I had been the one posting the event on Facebook.
PJ: What’d that feel like? To have that secret?
LUCIA: It was so much fun. In fact, was the greatest feeling of all. Like, I have a secret.
PJ: How did you not tell everybody?
LUCIA: I thought it was the proper thing to do. It was really fun, it was nice to have a secret. And I think if I tell the people what I did, it was like seeking recognition. I didn’t do it for that reason. I never did it for that reason.
PJ: So the obvious next question for both Lucia and Guatemala is the same: now what? It’s hard to say. But Lucia’s optimistic. Everything just seems so possible now. She gave me a quick update on what’s happened since the protest: Perez Molina is under house arrest, Baldetti’s been arrested too. Lucia’s not crazy about the new president, but she’s been paying a lot more attention to the judicial system, and she says she likes the judge who’s presiding over the Perez Molina trial. And as for her, she says she might want to teach a class on ethics now. She wants to spend some time with her kids. And she told me about this old saying.
LUCIA: I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but they say that you have to have a child, plant a tree, and write a book. So maybe I will write a book.
PJ: Have you planted a tree?
TIM: That’s what this whole story was, PJ! Where were you?
PJ: I thought it was a literal tree.
TIM: No, it’s better. Way better than a literal tree.
LUCIA: No but I did plant a tree! A real tree, not one but many. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with them.
PJ: On Lucia’s Facebook page these days, the cover image is a new hashtag. In big bold white letters, over a picture of everybody gathered in the square, it says, “Esto apenas empieza.” “This is just the beginning.”
PJ: If you’d like to hear Radio Ambulante’s Spanish language version of this story, you should check em out, they’re at radioambulante.org. We’ll have a link to it in the podcast description. Reply All is me, PJ Vogt, and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Kalila Holt. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks to Emily Kennedy, Francisco Goldman, Diego Alburez-Gutierrez, and Kate Saunders-Hastings. Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Matt Lieber is a spontaneous road trip. You can find more episodes at itunes.com/replyall. Our website is replyall.soy.