Opinion / Politics

An Anti-Democratic Mafia Is Isolating Guatemala

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Friday, December 15, 2023
Vaclav Mašek Sánchez

Efforts to overturn the August elections have embroiled Guatemala in the worst political crisis of its already tumultuous postwar era. With the country severely isolated in the hemisphere, democracy must be safeguarded to avoid the social, economic, and migratory consequences reserved for full-fledged pariah states.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office has spuriously alleged voter fraud and fabricated cases against the party that won the presidential election, Movimiento Semilla. Attorney General Consuelo Porras' repeated attacks against the vote are triggering the most condemnation against Guatemala’s government since at least the 1993 constitutional crisis known as the autogolpe (self-coup) or Serranazo, when former president Jorge Serrano Elías suspended the constitution and dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court before fleeing to Panama.

In an international clarion call to stop the coup efforts, last week the U.S. revoked the visas of two-thirds of Congress, businessmen, and their families, the European Union promised “targeted restrictive measures” against those responsible, and the OAS invoked the Inter-American Charter in calling for yet another emergency mission this year to Guatemala. Yet this seems to be only the beginning of a slippery slope to the international pariah status reached during the scorched-earth military campaigns of the genocidal Lucas García and Ríos Montt governments in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Rising diplomatic tensions with the United States, by far Guatemala’s largest trade partner, and the potential of commercial sanctions from the European Union, have put the ruling coalition at a geopolitical impasse: great power realignment appears impossible, given deep-rooted commitments with Western liberal democracies and the Washington Consensus.

But looking for real or symbolic support beyond Washington or Brussels —whether in Moscow, Beijing, or even Riyadh— is out of the question, unless the ruling coalition agrees to pursue a 180-degree turn in its foreign policy agenda. Under Alejandro Giammattei’s outgoing administration, the most populous Central American nation and largest economy in the isthmus has been waving the flags of Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel. This incoherent position —purporting to support democracy abroad but attempting to subvert it at home— leaves Guatemala in an awkward spot on the world stage.

The geopolitical crossroads derived from the ongoing constitutional crisis pose a fundamental question: are democratic values respected in Guatemala, or is the state’s mask finally off, and the posturing revealed as empty lip service to the international community?

Protestors in front of the Public Prosecutor
Protestors in front of the Public Prosecutor's Office denounce judicial interference with the electoral process in July 2023. Photo Víctor Peña

Overcoming these challenges would require profound changes to Guatemalan authorities’ public-facing political discourse since the state’s actions to delegitimize the elections under a false discourse of sovereignty appear abhorrent on the world stage. Although the coup attempts appear to be failing and time is running out before the inauguration on January 14, suppose the ruling coalition accelerates its democratic backsliding. If a power transfer does not occur, the government could be forced to circumvent possible economic sanctions and dramatically switch its long-standing geopolitical partnerships.

In any case, Guatemala’s only viable future is for President-Elect Bernardo Arévalo to assume office and for the commitments to democracy —at home and abroad— to be formally reaffirmed. Otherwise, Guatemala, like neighboring Latin American nations Nicaragua and Venezuela, will become an outcast to the international community.

But a month before the power transition, the Public Prosecutor’s Office is trying to stay the course. There are widespread concerns that a successful coup might occur if other top authorities decide to play along, but the Constitutional Court’s order this Thursday that all elected authorities take office was certainly a promising sign.

Nonetheless, should the Attorney General continue these efforts before or after inauguration, visa revocations may not be enough to stop the crusade. Sanctioning two-thirds of the 160-seat unicameral legislature is an indictment of Guatemalan lawmaking writ-large, but escalation into the trade sphere would be Washington’s logical next step. How many of these members of Congress —and sanctioned private sector players— have assets in the U.S. that could, in the future, be frozen if they consummate efforts to overturn the election?

A Better Fit?

Giammattei, alone on the international stage but insisting that he is a statesman, has bristled at these sanctions, repeatedly complaining of “foreign intervention in internal affairs.” After the U.S. Treasury placed Magnitsky sanctions on December 1 on his closest operator, Miguel Martínez, he decried “media manipulation of some members of the United States Government against Guatemala to the detriment of a good bilateral relationship.”

But those arguments appear to have gained little traction. Consuelo Porras is conducting a coup in “real-time,” the Uruguayan ambassador to the OAS told the Permanent Council on December 12. He added: “If the Guatemalan Chancellor has to show up here nine times (...) it is because there is something going on, and things aren’t going very well.”

Perhaps the coup plotters —a diverse group of emerging and traditional elites composed of an amalgam of former military intelligence veterans, fascist oligarchs, entrepreneurial narco-affiliates, and conservative members of the land-owning criollo class— believe that authoritarian rulers would be more natural partners to the anti-democratic mafia. Pivoting away from the West and toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China might fit Guatemala’s autocratic governance nature, where a coalition dictatorship has co-opted democratic institutions and is orchestrating a coup through lawfare.

Although some coup-enabling Congresspeople have gone as far as posting online about a bill that seeks commercial engagement with Russia in the aftermath of the visa cancellations, it is hard to measure where the real geopolitical loyalties of U.S.-sanctioned legislators lie. However, on the world stage, Giammattei’s actions have been firmly aligned with the U.S., showing reason for skepticism about any facile swapping of allegiances. He has expressed support for the war of Russian aggression in Ukraine by personally visiting Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

Both outgoing and incoming presidents reaffirmed their support for Taiwan’s right to self-determination and traveled to Taipei with a delegation. Taiwan is a long-time ally and a close humanitarian partner that set up a diplomatic mission in Guatemala far earlier than neighboring allies in Central America and provided training for government troops during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war (1960-1996).

Taiwanese authorities assert that any pivot to the People’s Republic of China would be read as a deep betrayal. Honduras cut ties with Taiwan in March, leaving Guatemala and Belize as the island nation’s last allies in the isthmus. Even so, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has “expressed hope that Guatemala's ongoing controversy over its newly elected leader will be resolved peacefully, days after prosecutors there tried to prevent President-elect Bernardo Arévalo from taking office next month.”

The Israeli government has expressed no such misgivings. Giammattei has voiced his solidarity with Benjamin Netanyahu and his “deep commitment” to Israel. Like his predecessor, disgraced former comedian Jimmy Morales, Giammattei’s administration pursued a foreign policy agenda run by Evangelical conservatives who facilitated the move of the Guatemalan Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, two days after the Trump administration did so. The Arab League severed ties with Guatemala over its U.S.-backed diplomatic decision.

Guatemala has provided Israel with consistent ideological backing, particularly on important U.N. resolutions: from its 1947 decisive vote to partition Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state to the recent opposition against the humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

This close bilateral relationship is also found in the counterinsurgency campaigns. After the U.S. cut off military aid to Guatemala based on human rights violations committed by the military in 1977, in a move that many saw as becoming a proxy for the U.S., Israel began selling arms to the Guatemalan military government. By the 1980s, during the height of Rios Montt’s genocidal era, Israel had become the largest supplier of weapons, military training, and surveillance technology to the anticommunist dictatorship.

Economic Impacts

Undeniably, the political instability in Guatemala is having tangible effects. The events marking the 2023 “slow-motion coup,” in Arévalo’s own words, against the election results have imperiled the embattled nation’s macroeconomic stability —the ruling coalition’s favorite selling point to foreign investors and diplomats—  as bonds have slid since the August runoff.

On Monday, December 11, Guatemala faced the most significant drop in its dollar bonds among emerging-market nations due to efforts to challenge the presidential election outcome, potentially leading the country to be isolated internationally and losing its investor-friendly reputation. The rout came after prosecutors reiterated their calls, a month before inauguration, for the invalidation of Bernardo Arevalo’s election victory.

The U.S. relationship with Guatemala has become more prominent in the past decade due to shifting migration patterns, given the country’s role as both an origin for migrants and a transit point for others coming from farther south. Over 200,000 encounters with Guatemalans annually occurred at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021, 2022, and 2023. The country's structural inequality and political instability significantly drive emigration, disproportionately impacting Indigenous communities burdened by state abandonment and corruption. These Indigenous groups played a pivotal role in Arévalo's electoral win and have been staging protests and sit-ins outside governmental premises for over two months, advocating for a peaceful transfer of power.

Diplomatically, the ongoing coup attempt is threatening to send Guatemala forty years back in time, when our country held a uniquely infamous position among global human rights violators and governments failed to comply with the postwar democratic regime. The U.S., E.U., OAS, and Mercosur warnings aim to avoid that repetition of history.

Now is the moment for Guatemala to turn away from the legacy of authoritarianism, reject the ongoing coup efforts, and recommit to democracy — before we become an international pariah again.

Vaclav Masek Sánchez is a Guatemalan sociologist and columnist based in Los Angeles. Follow him at @_VaclavMasek on Twitter/X.

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