Democracy is at risk in Guatemala, but there is still hope

The political elites are trying to prevent the inauguration of the president-elect in January 2024 at all costs

By Sanne Weber and Marlies Stappers. Published 12-20-2023 by openDemocracy

Bernardo Arévalo de León, President Elect of Guatemala, and Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General. Photo: OEA – OAS/flickr/CC

Guatemala’s political future is uncertain since the elections in August, when opposition candidate Bernardo Arévalo won in a surprising landslide. Tensions are rising as 14 January, the date that Arévalo is meant to take office, is fast approaching.

Corrupt political elites are trying hard to prevent his presidency. Yet there has also been unprecedented support for Arévalo from the international community, Guatemala’s economic elite and the majority of the Guatemalan people.

Backlashes to surprising opposition win

Few people had expected Bernardo Arévalo, the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president Juan José Arévalo, to win the 2023 elections. The victory of Arévalo, an anti-corruption leader, is telling of the public frustration with the systematic corruption that has characterised Guatemala over the last years.

Corruption has worsened since President Giammattei came to office in 2020 and has tried to preserve elite power. In this he is aided by Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who has adopted a strategy of using the law as a political weapon to prevent investigations into high-level corruption. Over 50 independent justice actors in Guatemala have been criminalised and many forced into prison or exile, based on fabricated accusations.

Arévalo and his vice-president Karin Herrera are the latest targets of this strategy. Arévalo’s promises to tackle corruption and restore the rule of law are a threat to Guatemala’s political elite. Again, the justice system is being weaponised, this time to prevent the transition of power in January 2024. As a first step, Arévalo’s young opposition party Semilla has been suspended – a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court.

In addition, Attorney General Porras has filed two – unfounded – indictments against Arévalo and Herrera, including one for alleged money laundering and fraud. It is now up to the Supreme Court of Justice to decide whether these accusations provide sufficient grounds for stripping Arévalo and Herrera of their immunity.

The magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, who had long outlasted their term, were hastily replaced. Out of the 13 new magistrates, 10 have faced public accusations of corruption in the past. There is a real risk that these magistrates uphold the investigation into Arévalo and Karin Herrera, paving the way for their arrest and detention. Congress would then appoint an interim president and the country could descend into a crisis of ungovernability similar to that of Peru.

Another strategy to prevent the transition of power is the cancellation of the elections, due to alleged election fraud. Although the Electoral Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has upheld the election results, their offices have been searched four times with official election documents and records being taken. Congress has recently stripped four TSE magistrates of their immunity. Most TSE magistrates have now fled the country, making a new decision about the election results uncertain.

More hopeful, however, is the position of the Constitutional Court, which has ordered Congress to ‘guarantee the effective inauguration of all elected officials in the 2023 electoral process’. The Attorney General’s Office however keeps insisting that the election is ‘null and void’.

Peaceful popular protest

These moves against democracy, described as a coup by lawfare by many, have not gone by silently. On 2 October, the national Indigenous authorities called for a national strike. This led to massive protests, with thousands of protestors demonstrating for weeks in front of the government palace and blocking roads throughout the country.

Indigenous authorities, the main leaders of their communities in majority Indigenous territories, have played a central role in defending the election results. In spite of historical discrimination against them, including acts of genocide during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict and more recent evictions and assassinations, Indigenous peoples have opted for non-violent protest. Their peaceful resistance has turned them into moral leaders of the societal opposition forces, and provides a beacon of hope for the country.

The Indigenous communities have been joined in their struggle by a coalition of more than 35 Guatemalan civil society organizations committed to defending democracy and human rights, the Alliance for Reforms (AxR). The Catholic Church too has publicly criticized the government and Attorney General. Together, they call for the resignation of the Attorney General and other corrupt prosecutors and judges.

More surprising, and demonstrating the wide resistance against the weaponization of law to undermine democracy, was a statement by Guatemala’s economic elite on Friday 8 December. United in the business association CACIF, the business elite is generally seen as closely connected to the political elite. This time, CACIF distanced itself from the attempts to prevent the political takeover. Instead, their statement recognised that Arévalo and Herrera should take office, and that actions which contravene the official election results are anti-democratic.

International support

This social movement has received widespread support. The international community, not always very vocal to criticise the government of Guatemala, has voiced serious concerns. The Organisation of American States has strongly condemned the investigations into Arévalo and Herrera and declared that the political persecution by the Attorney General’s Office violates the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The United States had already condemned the ongoing dismantling of the rule of law. In September 2021 the State Department included several Guatemalan officials in the so-called ‘Engels list’ of undemocratic and corrupt actors. These individuals, including Attorney General Porras, are ineligible for visas and admission to the United States. Following

the latest attempts to obstruct the democratic process, the US extended the visa restrictions to nearly 300 Guatemalans, including over 100 members of Congress, as well as private sector representatives.

United Nation’s High Commissioner of Human Rights Volker Türk also strongly condemned the judicial harassment and intimidation against elected officials and electoral officers. The European Union for its part vehemently condemned the attempt to annul the elections, which were considered transparent by the EU Election Observation Mission.

In a rare show of moral condemnation, a European Parliament resolution condemned the attempt at a coup d’état, calling on the European Council to immediately adopt targeted restrictive measures, like asset freezes and travel bans, against those responsible. The strong coordination between the UN, US, EU and OAS is not often seen. This united opposition could have an important preventive effect.

Maintaining the momentum

The fact that the population, the business elite, and the international community are united in their opposition against the coup, gives some hope to save Guatemala’s democracy. These three important sectors should maintain their position not only until Arévalo can hopefully take office on 14 January, but also from that moment onwards.

If anything has become clear in the last months, it is that after years of systematic dismantling of the rule of law and the co-optation of key political and justice institutions, there is no easy future for democracy in Guatemala. Arévalo will need all the support possible to undo the harm and restore justice, rule of law and democracy.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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