Guatemalan Elites Turn on Democracy

Guatemala’s corrupt ruling class is trying to bring down president-elect Bernardo Arévalo, who takes office on January 14. The country’s democracy is at stake in the battle.

Guatemalan president-elect Bernardo Arévalo delivers a speech during the announcement of the members of his cabinet in Guatemala City on January 8, 2024. (Johan Ordonez / AFP via Getty Images)

Guatemala has been experiencing a slow coup since September 2023, when Bernardo Arévalo won the presidential elections. Led by a political and economic elite unwilling to renounce its hold on power, Guatemalan opposition groups are threatening to send the country down an authoritarian path.

Even during the holiday season, the coup forces have continued their attempts to destroy Guatemala’s fragile democracy. Now, as the time approaches for Arévalo to take office on January 14, the group often referred to as the pacto de corruptos or “pact of the corrupt” — made up of members of the three branches of government and the national business elite — has ramped up its efforts.

The Guatemalan military remains in the barracks for now. Instead, the fate of democracy in Guatemala is being fought out in the courts. Leading the way, the Attorney General’s Office, supported by the traditional political class, has spread false narratives of electoral fraud to not only discredit but attempt to legally annul Arévalo’s Semilla party. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has given Congress the green light to strip electoral officials of immunity, allowing them to intimidate and prosecute authorities responsible for legitimizing elections. Not only that, bogus arrest warrants are constantly being issued against journalists, students, activists, lawyers, and members of Semilla, creating a climate of intense fear throughout the country.

Three Decades of War

The “pact of the corrupt,” working in concert with the current administration of Alejandro Giammattei and the Attorney General’s Office, has violated basic democratic principles in hopes of keeping its hold on power. Alleging electoral fraud, the country’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), which answers to the attorney general, illegally removed ballots and voting certificates from the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (known as the TSE). It did so despite the TSE being the only entity in Guatemala invested with the authority to handle any electoral material or investigate claims of electoral violations. The intimidating measures of Attorney General María Consuelo Porras forced several TSE magistrates — who enjoy constitutional immunity from criminal charges like those brought against them — to resign or flee the country amid accusations of allowing the electoral fraud to occur.

More recently, on December 8, the Attorney General’s Office submitted the formal request to strip the president- and vice president–elect of legislative immunity, accusing Arévalo and his running-mate, Karin Herrera, of money laundering and falsifying signatures to officialize Semilla as a party in 2017. Then, on December 8, the special prosecutor of FECI, Rafael Curruchiche, called for the annulment of the electoral results, alleging voter fraud. This final, desperate attempt to prevent Arévalo from taking office proved to be a bridge too far, drawing high-profile criticism from governments and intergovernmental organizations.

Meanwhile, civilian voices defending the democratic process and denouncing corruption have been silenced with various forms of intimidation, including death threats and other persecutory practices that recall the country’s decades-long war of counterinsurgency. Dozens of journalists, students, academics, indigenous authorities, and activists have been criminalized, jailed, or forced into exile by government authorities. The cases against them range from sedition to fictitious charges of “malicious publication” brought against critical media outlets. For example, in May 2023, one of Guatemala’s most important newspapers, el Periódico, was forced to shut down after its director, José Ruben Zamora, was jailed on charges of money laundering.

On November 16, the Attorney General’s Office carried out thirty-one raids and issued twenty-seven arrest warrants against students, workers, university administrators, and professors for a litany of crimes connected to a university occupation that took place in 2022. The charges are for the alleged destruction of university classrooms, conspiracy, influence peddling, encroachment, and sedition. Six people were arrested, while the rest fled the country or went into hiding. Several members of Semilla, including the president, vice president, and congressmen-elect, only avoided arrests due to legislative immunity.

The warrants are connected to a case known as Caso Toma de la USAC, in reference to the 2022–2023 occupation of the country’s public university, Universidad de San Carlos. Echoing Guatemala’s authoritarian past, when the public university was labeled a “center of subversion,” the case aims to charge individuals — many of them tied to the Semilla party — of opposing or criticizing the highly irregular 2022 election of the current university president, Walter Mazariegos.

In July 2023, the United States included Mazariegos in its “Engel List” of figures “undermining democratic processes or institutions.” Notwithstanding, the Attorney General’s Office claims that those who questioned Mazariegos’ appointment or expressed sympathy for the occupation, particularly those affiliated with the Semilla party, constituted a “criminal network” and used the incident as a launching pad to propel their candidacies in the general 2023 elections.

The ongoing persecution and fearmongering of the attorney Ggneral is reminiscent of the country’s counterinsurgency war, when, between 1960 and 1996, the Guatemalan state and its security forces disappeared, assassinated, jailed, and forced into exile various opposition groups.

Indeed, the slow coup has brought to the surface a conglomerate of powers in Guatemala intent on maintaining their privileges at all costs.

International Sanctions as Deterrence

Thankfully, international reaction to the attorney general’s subterfuges has been swift. The United States, the European Union, the Organization of American States (OAS), and various Latin American presidents quickly voiced their concerns over the threat against the democratic process.

The United States was quick to denounce the December 8 attempts to annul the election results. Three days later, on December 11, the Department of State rescinded the visas of over three hundred Guatemalan citizens, including over one hundred legislators who voted in favor of stripping the electoral magistrates of their immunity. In an unexpected but laudable turn of events, powerful business magnates — some of the most vocal supporters of the coup — also had their visas annulled.

While the United States has not released a list of the sanctioned individuals, several of those affected by the annulments have taken to social media to voice their disdain for the measures, adopting pseudo-nationalist rhetoric to accuse the United States and other international entities of meddling in local affairs. The European Union has also threatened to impose sanctions on those individuals involved in the efforts to undermine the electoral results.

Considering the extensive history of US meddling in Guatemalan politics, it is ironic that without US intervention, the coup might have been successful. In hindsight, without official US sanctions and the cancelation of visas, the elections could very well have been overturned. Current president Alejandro Giammattei unwittingly confirmed as much by denouncing the “political intervention” of US government officials, claiming that the “international community threatened him in his home” to guarantee the transfer of power.

That said, US involvement remains a delicate and unreliable safeguard of democracy. For example, in 2018, amid citizen demands for some form of international action, the United States declined to intervene to guarantee that the UN-sponsored Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) continue operating in Guatemala. That decision allowed corrupt officials to regain control of the three branches of government, putting the country on the path to its current political crisis.

Naturally, US foreign policy is always calculated to serve national interests. The United States is intent on Arévalo taking office not because it believes his administration will be a continuation of the reformist government of his beloved father, Juan José Arévalo, or because he will carry out a second “democratic spring,” as some of his conservative detractors fear; the United States is supporting Arévalo because it does not want Guatemala to break away from a fragile liberal consensus and become another rogue nation like Nicaragua or, increasingly, El Salvador. The United States is less opposed to human rights violations than the refusal of national leaders to respect the “alternation of power.” That is why, as US congresswoman Norma Torres recently put it, “the peaceful transfer of power must be upheld.”

Moreover, Arévalo’s reputation as a progressive — relative to the conservatism of Guatemalan politics — does not in any way challenge US interests in the region. The centrist line of Arévalo is confirmed by the fact that he is backed by the OAS, an institution that has supported or turned a blind eye to the ouster of left-wing leaders throughout the region. Arévalo may be disruptive to the corrupt Guatemalan political elite, but he is a digestible figure for many in Washington and even for a handful of reformist members of the Guatemalan economic elite.

Arévalo’s centrist approach was made public with the recent announcement of his incoming cabinet, which includes politicians associated with previous administrations. Two of his appointees, the secretary of energy and mines and the secretary of infrastructure, are members of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), which represents the most powerful business families in the country. Despite promises of diversity, there was only one indigenous appointment, Miriam Roquel, who will be secretary of labor.

Indigenous Peoples as a Political Actor

The absence of indigenous representation in the cabinet is an affront considering the overwhelming support that indigenous communities gave to the incoming administration over the last several months. Indeed, while US involvement proved decisive, indigenous sectors, through the leadership of ancestral authorities, have been equally fundamental to the defense of democracy in Guatemala.

Beginning in September 2023, indigenous authorities led a nationwide strike accompanied by road blockades that paralyzed the country. Their actions, which resulted in astronomic losses for the business elite, eventually forced President Giammattei and the executive branch to walk back plans to steal the elections. For over one hundred days, a small indigenous resistance group has remained stationed outside the attorney general’s offices, its presence a testament to the commitment of some of Guatemala’s most excluded to defend threatened political institutions and liberal democracy.

Through their peaceful resistance in Guatemala City, the legitimacy of ancestral indigenous authorities has emerged even stronger than before. Their ability to unify and organize various regions and communities in nationwide marches is unlike anything Guatemala has seen since the 1970s. Their actions serve as a reminder that indigenous peoples are one of the bastions of resistance to neoliberalism in the region; it also showed that indigenous peoples in Guatemala and elsewhere are a diverse set of political actors, reflected in the fact that different regions and communities sent representatives to hold a seat at the table with members of the OAS, the United States, and the European Union.

Despite that, indigenous peoples were not central to any major political parties during the election, including Semilla. In a country where 44 percent of the population is indigenous, that speaks eloquently to just how undemocratic Guatemalan politics have become. In a press release following Arévalo’s cabinet presentation, members of the 48 Cantones — a long-standing indigenous organization that participated in the mobilizations — expressed that the incoming government “missed a historic opportunity to select an inclusive cabinet, which is vital for the implementation of public policies in line with the country’s cultural, social and linguistic conditions.”

Over three months of indigenous resistance serves as a reminder to the incoming administration that a truly democratic project requires the incorporation of indigenous peoples — and not just a single indigenous representative.

Next Steps

On the eve of Arévalo’s inauguration, it seems unlikely that antidemocratic sabotage will let up. Guatemala’s corrupt political and economic class still refuses to accept the loss of one of its most important institutions: the executive. The Attorney General’s Office continues to clog the courts with accusations against Semilla, and Congress has hinted that it will refuse to swear in the incoming president. In response, a January 10 US Senate resolution calls to “reassess all elements of United States foreign assistance and bilateral cooperation with the Government of Guatemala” in case of the failed transfer of power.

If and when Arévalo does take office, the Attorney General’s Office will remain susceptible to corrupt interests. The attacks against Arévalo and his party will continue for the foreseeable future, as the president is unable by law to remove the attorney general, who still has two more years in office.

Even with a new attorney general, the path ahead will not be easy. Since the removal of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity, the attorney general, Congress, and the judiciary are able to rely on completely legal means to justify repression against all political opposition. It remains to be seen whether Semilla’s political compromises and overtures to the economic elite — evident in Arévalo’s cabinet — will grant some room to achieve much-needed political reforms. The hope is that through internal and external pressure, Guatemala’s cycle of criminalization and violence can come to an end, and alternative visions of democracy, inclusion, and representation can emerge.