Central America / Politics

Giammattei Maneuvers to Avoid OAS Condemnation of Election Interference

Unusual coordinated international pressure has secured promises that Guatemala’s August 20 run-off election will be held. But while Giammattei wins time at the OAS, lawfare against Semilla continues; Arévalo warns that prosecutors are poised to escalate actions against the party.

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Friday, July 28, 2023
Roman Gressier and José Luis Sanz

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“Guatemala is an ally in the defense of democracy,” said U.S. Ambassador William Popp during his Senate nomination hearing three years ago, in July 2020.

Four events in Washington on Wednesday debunk that assertion: a National Press Club event denouncing the one-year imprisonment of journalist José Rubén Zamora; an OAS discussion of a resolution against judicial interference in the Guatemalan election; an Atlantic Council forum where presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo denounced escalating lawfare against his Semilla party; and new sanctions talk in the Senate hearing on the appointment of Popp’s replacement.

Every day the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office gives fresh reasons for concern. On Thursday, the office investigating Semilla used that case file to demand that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) hand over the names of vote counters, effectively reopening the flank of the baseless claim of “fraud” in the first round —the Supreme Court and three international missions backed the TSE vote certification three weeks ago— and signaling that the political dispute will continue beyond the August 20 run-off.

Following a July 14 bipartisan, bicameral statement from Congress condemning prosecutors’ effort to suspend Semilla, the Wednesday Senate hearing confirmed that Democrats and Republicans share concern over the election meddling.

In keeping with the State Department ban on U.S. travel for a prosecutor and judge involved in the actions against Semilla, Biden’s ambassador nominee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tobin Bradley, promised the Senate to “support the use of all tools that Congress has provided us to hold corrupt actors accountable.”

Career diplomat Tobin Bradley during a Senate hearing on his nomination as ambassador to Guatemala, held on July 26, 2023.
Career diplomat Tobin Bradley during a Senate hearing on his nomination as ambassador to Guatemala, held on July 26, 2023.

But it also became clear, amid Guatemala’s deepest democratic crisis in three decades, that President Alejandro Giammattei has retained the ear of key GOP congresspeople.

At the hearing, Democrat Tim Kaine blamed the attacks on Semilla on “an effort by the existing government to block one of the candidates.”

Republican Bill Hagerty called Giammattei “a great friend of the United States.” He later said: “I’m concerned that the Biden administration has created the perception that it’s picking sides in Guatemala’s presidential election.”

“While concerns about corruption and election integrity are understandable, if you’re confirmed, I hope you recognize Guatemala’s importance for critical U.S. interests and work to maintain the longstanding relationship with whichever candidate wins,” Hagerty added.

Kaine countered that “we [the U.S.] don’t have a favorite”. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said on Thursday that he spoke with Arévalo and opponent Sandra Torres “to reinforce U.S. support for Guatemalans’ right to elect their leaders.”

Inundated by international criticism for the persecution of anti-corruption judges and prosecutors, and dogged by allegations of bribing the electoral authorities, Giammattei has proved apt at casting criticism and visa revocations as a partisan agenda, even accusing Popp last year of plotting with Indigenous leaders to “topple” him.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the committee, bought those arguments, accusing Biden alongside colleague Mike Lee of “inappropriate influence” in opposing the reappointment of Guatemala’s U.S.-sanctioned Attorney General Consuelo Porras. Rubio was absent on Wednesday.

“The governing elite in Guatemala have made a strong lobbying effort in the United States to influence members of Congress and others to defend positions that are indefensible,” argues Manfredo Marroquín, head of the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International. “If they lived here in Guatemala, I don’t think they could say such things.”

Jordán Rodas, one of the three vice-presidential candidates excluded from the elections, and exiled anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval spoke with Rubio’s staff on Thursday afternoon to court his influential voice in the GOP. Rodas claims the mood of the virtual meeting was “fairly receptive.”

A rare consensus

Where an international baseline position is taking hold is in the OAS Permanent Council. Colombia and Antigua and Barbuda led efforts with Canada, Chile, and the U.S. to invoke the Inter-American Charter on Wednesday in a proposed resolution against Guatemala.

At the last minute, Giammattei averted the resolution by inviting Secretary-General Luis Almagro to visit Guatemala City. The trip is scheduled for Monday.

Two weeks ago, under this intense scrutiny, the president promised that the run-off and January 14 transfer of power will take place, but doubts have persisted.

On Wednesday the head of the OAS mission lamented that “the pressure on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has been maintained.” He condemned prosecutors’ raids on the TSE and on Semilla as “actions [that] only obstruct the democratic process.”

Minutes earlier, Guatemala’s Chief TSE Magistrate Irma Palencia denounced before the Permanent Council ongoing judicial action against the vote certification and the electoral tribunal itself, “derived from the rejection of the results by some partisan contenders.” 

“It’s essential that Guatemalan state institutions adopt measures of correction, protection, and guarantee in favor of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal,” she said.

President Alejandro Giammattei casts his vote on June 25, 2023. Asked about allegations that he bribed the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, he only responded: “Lies shine through while the truth prevails.” Photo Víctor Peña/El Faro
President Alejandro Giammattei casts his vote on June 25, 2023. Asked about allegations that he bribed the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, he only responded: “Lies shine through while the truth prevails.” Photo Víctor Peña/El Faro

The ambassador of Uruguay denounced an “extreme judicialization” of the elections. “We’re very concerned. It’s not common for the members of the Permanent Council to find a degree of convergence.” The representative of Mexico added that her country is “convinced that the will of the Guatemalan people will prevail over the pressures of groups of power.”

Countries interpreted Giammattei’s invitation to Almagro as a concession —the visit was one of the proposed OAS resolution’s requests— and agreed to postpone a vote.

The United States took Giammattei’s maneuver as a win. “Conceding the trip is an important first step. But recall that the proposed resolution is still on the table,” Frank Mora, U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, told El Faro English. “That there is a consensus in such a polarized environment as this one in the region is important for the hemisphere, for the OAS, and for democracy.”

But some Guatemalan civil society observers fear it is no more than a play by Giammattei for time. ”It’s in Almagro’s best interest to leave a clear message and not try to get along with God and the devil, with the government and the rest of society,” said Marroquín.

“He [Almagro] is making the right choice in coming,” former Guatemalan president Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1991) told El Faro English. “What’s important right now is for his presence to guarantee that the government respects the results presented at the polls.”

Persistent fears

The same day that Giammattei invited Almagro, Bernardo Arévalo told the Atlantic Council in a video call that “our big concern is that the authorities are not relenting in their attempts to persecute us politically. Actually, we understand that they are planning to scale [them] up.”

“The reason we were unable to be present with you today in Washington, D.C., is precisely because we were informed of the possibility of between 12 and 16 arrest warrants that were supposed to be issued against members of our party in an escalation of the political persecution that we’re suffering. A political persecution that is blatantly illegal.”

24 hours later, his opponent, Sandra Torres of the UNE party, traveled to Washington for her own Atlantic Council interview and tried to keep all of her doors open: “If the other party has an issue of criminal law, that needs to be separated from the administrative process of the Tribunal, and their situation needs to be clarified. They need to answer for the 5,000 forged signatures and for the dead people on their rolls.”

A centerpiece of Torres’ campaign since the June 25 election is her assertion that Arévalo represents a perverse international ‘2030 agenda’ looking to impose progressive causes. But perhaps it was to be expected that in D.C. she stressed curbing migration, the promise of a near-shoring law similar to initiatives in Mexico, and “closer ties” to the U.S.

“The run-off campaign is a 45-day period, but the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has only given us three weeks,” she complained, sidestepping the fact that her party signed onto the baseless demand for a vote recount, postponing the certification of results by almost three weeks. “We don’t want electoral fraud,” she echoed.

Cerezo, the former president, said that “obviously some government officials have sought to annul the Semilla party, which is the most characteristic opposition party in existence right now in the country. But they’ve done [Semilla] a favor by putting them in the eye of voters, which could play in their favor at the end of the electoral process.”

This article first appeared in the July 28 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America. 

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