Opinion / Politics

One Month Remains for Guatemala to Preserve Its Democracy


Thursday, December 7, 2023
Álvaro Montenegro

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In what remains of 2023, Guatemala is locked in a tight race between democratic values and authoritarianism. The coming weeks will determine whether there is a change in governance toward transparency and against corruption or whether a dictatorship is installed. The party poised to take power, Movimiento Semilla (the “Seed Movement”), the Indigenous authorities who have led two months of social mobilization, and the international community are the chief actors who thus far have staved off a coup d’état.

President Alejandro Giammattei and his stalwart Consuelo Porras, the attorney general sanctioned for corruption by the United States, have done everything in their power to block Bernardo Arévalo from being duly sworn-in on January 14. They do so perversely because, while everyone knows their true intentions, they take cover behind a smokescreen of due process, legality, and separation of powers. Their endgame is to bring down the presidential election and appoint someone aligned with the criminal networks who refuse to relinquish control of the state.

The movement seeking to steal the elections has made its play, employing multiple strategies through the institutions under its thumb, like the Public Prosecutor’s Office, to brazenly mount cases —in the style of Nicaragua— in an effort to defenestrate Arévalo and Vice President-Elect Karin Herrera. Arévalo neither has ties to criminals nor took money from drug traffickers; on the contrary, he comes from a new party that emerged from the 2015 anti-corruption protests. He is prepared to govern, has an unblemished record including doctoral studies in the Netherlands, and is the son of Juan José Arévalo, considered the best president in Guatemalan history.

The most recent attack against Arévalo was a new case launched on November 17 against 27 people for alleged damages to the property of the public San Carlos University, when it was occupied last year by students and professors following a fraudulent rector election rigged by Giammattei. It turns out that tweets of support for the university resistance movement were enough for prosecutors to accuse Arévalo, Herrera, multiple Semilla legislators, former legislative candidate Marcela Blanco, and other university professors and activists of damaging national patrimony. Citing this case, the Attorney General asked Congress to strip Arévalo and Herrera of their immunity from prosecution.

This judicial charade, designed to weaken the president-elect, could lead to the announcement of more cases. The Guatemalan Congress, the other actor involved in the coup efforts, recently approved a budget designed to hamstring the incoming government and stripped the Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates of their immunity, leading four out of five of them to flee the country, for fear of arrest.

Giammattei and his romantic partner, Miguel Martínez, were the chief actors who convinced a two-thirds majority of Congress to support these initiatives. The next day, December 1, the U.S. Treasury imposed Magnitsky sanctions placing Martínez —the focal point of government corruption who last month negotiated the sudden election of a Supreme Court that had overstayed its term by four years— on its global financial blacklist. This places Giammattei, who months ago said he would “give [his] life” for Bernardo Arévalo to be sworn in, squarely at the center of the coup strategy.

The coup has not succeeded thanks to the unprecedented mobilization led by Indigenous authorities, who have remained outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office since October 2, and the forcefulness of the international community, led by the United States, OAS Permanent Council, European Union, and observation missions. Three days ago, 17 OAS diplomats issued statements condemning the “escalation” seeking to undercut the electoral process in Guatemala by revoking the immunity of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, a move paving the way to name substitutes who would strike down the election results. After U.S. Ambassador Francisco Mora proposed the discussion of a new, more strongly worded resolution invoking the Inter-American Charter, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro cynically retorted that “this is the most peaceful transition of power in history.”

Today, December 7, Arévalo and Indigenous leaders convened a march from the Supreme Court to the Public Prosecutor’s Office to defend democracy. The president-elect has also organized a dialogue with the ancestral authorities and business groups —ranging from the most conservative, like CACIF, to the most democratic, like the National Business Council (CNE)— to seek off-ramps from the crisis. CACIF businessmen have maintained their alliance with Consuelo Porras by declining to ask for her resignation (she recently closed a case in their favor, for illicit campaign finance) but have made certain public concessions by stating that there should be a transfer of power, while avoiding mentioning Arévalo by name.

These diverse actions, combined with an active citizenry in the streets and on social media, have for now managed to curb Giammattei’s strategy. But still over a month remains to preserve democracy.

In the coming weeks a U.S. Senate delegation is expected to visit the country, and the Biden administration could possibly sanction more corrupt actors. The OAS will hold another session to address Guatemala, and the E.U. is taking up more serious talks of issuing its own corruption sanctions. Arévalo and Semilla continue to make public denunciations and work within Congress to stop the coup.

The Guatemalan public must remain alert, critical, and vocal on social media, attend demonstrations, and keep alive the permanent protest outside the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in order to defend democracy, ensure the swearing-in of the elected leaders, and fan the hope of a new government that eschews corruption.

Álvaro Montenegro is a journalist and co-founder the #RenunciaYa movement, later renamed #JusticiaYa, which played a central role in the protests that led to the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. He is seeking his LL.M. from American University in Washington, D.C.

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