In Guatemala, a Presidential Transition or a “Slow-Motion Coup”?

˙ Voces

When Bernardo Arévalo won a landslide victory in Guatemala’s runoff presidential election on Aug. 20, it was the first time in memory that people took to the streets to celebrate an election result. Against all early expectations, the 64-year-old sociologist, former diplomat and son of the country’s historically most revered president had won 58 percent of the vote on the promise of ending the deeply entrenched corruption that has dominated Guatemalan politics and government for decades.  

Since the Aug. 20 election, however, the public jubilation has turned to anger and indignation as corrupt judicial authorities from the current government have taken unfounded legal action against the president-elect, his political party, and the nation’s top electoral authorities. These actions have provoked widespread protests and cast doubt on whether the new president will be allowed to take office in January 2024 and whether his party’s 23 elected legislators will be able to exercise their full rights in Congress.  

In what Arévalo has denounced as a “slow-motion coup,” prosecutors from Attorney General Consuelo Porras’s office have tried to suspend the president-elect’s political party, Semilla, on the spurious grounds of irregularities in the party’s creation and registration in 2016. Aided by police, her agents have raided the offices of both Semilla and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which oversaw the election and certified its results. In the most recent raid, on Sept. 29, agents seized boxes of certified vote tallies from the Tribunal, scuffling with two of its magistrates and other staff who tried to stop them from breaking the chain of custody of electoral materials. Porras and her prosecutors have accused the tribunal’s magistrates of criminal conduct and have asked Guatemala’s Supreme Court to lift their immunity from prosecution.  

Few think that Porras is acting on her own. Current President Alejandro Giammattei is widely believed to approve her actions or even to be the driving force behind them. Giammattei, after all, appointed Porras, despite a pattern of judicial misconduct that landed her on the United States’ “Engel List” of corrupt and anti-democratic actors in Central America. Among the victims of her past misconduct are more than two dozen former prosecutors and judges who were investigating cases of corruption, who are now either in jail or living in exile in the United States and other countries. 

Arévalo and his party have responded to Porras’s attacks with carefully crafted legal appeals of their own, including most recently an injunction asking the Constitutional Court to reverse her recent actions on the grounds that they are illegal. In support of the injunction, thousands of Guatemalans demonstrated in front of the courthouse, among them the country’s leading Catholic Church authority, Cardinal Ramazzini, and notable indigenous and civil society leaders. Protesters carried placards and shouted chants demanding the resignation of Porras, her prosecutors, and the judge who has rubber-stamped her judicial moves. Days later, Arevalo’s supporters expanded their protests across the country, blocking key highways and again calling for Porras’s and her allies’ resignation.  

The growing crisis could be resolved by the courts, but so far that has not happened. The Constitutional Court, which clearly has the authority to stop Porras, sought opinions from the Supreme Court and appellate courts and then ruled against Arévalo’s injunction. The Supreme Court, as of this writing, had not yet ruled on Porras’s request to lift the immunity of electoral authorities on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.  

The courts’ actions (and inaction) have aggravated the political crisis and are a major disappointment to pro-democracy Guatemalans. But they are not a surprise. More than half the judges on the Supreme and Constitutional courts are widely considered to be part of the so-called “Pact of the Corrupt,” which also includes Giammattei, many if not most members of Congress, and organized criminal networks. Indeed, the fact that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has risen to the occasion and resisted efforts to undermine the electoral results has surprised pro-democracy sectors—and raised hopes that the high courts would follow suit.   

Arévalo has sought and received considerable international support for his electoral victory. The US Government has strongly denounced the efforts to undermine the election outcome, and key officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and USAID Administrator Samantha Powell have met with Arévalo in Guatemala, Washington or virtually. The European Union has issued a strong statement in support of Arévalo and his electoral victory. The Organization of American States (OAS) has also taken Arévalo’s side, albeit diplomatically, issuing a declaration that calls on Porras to halt her campaign of harassment and urges Giammattei to ensure a smooth and timely transfer of power. Unlike Porras, who is already subject to US sanctions as an Engel List designee, President Giammattei has not been formally sanctioned or even openly criticized by the US, most likely because there is no direct evidence (at least, no evidence the US wishes to make public) that Porras responds to his orders. 

At his visit to the Wilson Center last week, Arévalo was asked by a moderator if he believes he will be inaugurated come January 14, 2024. The president-elect responded with confidence that, yes, absolutely, he will become president on that day. For his supporters and sympathetic observers, it is difficult to imagine otherwise. The problem is it is also difficult to imagine just how the current political crisis will be resolved.  

Clearly, the hopes of millions of Guatemalans hang in the balance. But regional interests are also at stake. Corruption, crumbling rule of law, and the flouting of democratic rules have weakened Guatemalan institutions and to some degree discouraged both domestic and foreign investment, making the country less livable and compelling more people to emigrate. The United States and other democratic countries in the region recognize that a less corrupt, more democratic, and more prosperous Guatemala would be a much better neighbor and economic partner. But they also seem to grasp that morally it would be a tragedy of historic proportions if an Arévalo presidency—and the unique opportunity it presents to build a better Guatemala—were allowed to be swept aside by a corrupt and amoral few. 

Francisco Villagrán de León served as ambassador of Guatemala to the United States, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Canada and Germany.

Bernardo Arévalo, President-elect of Guatemala, delivered keynote remarks at the VIII Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala on November 9, 2023.


Bernardo Arévalo, President-elect of Guatemala, to Deliver Keynote Remarks at the Inter-American Dialogue’s Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala

What Will Arévalo’s Presidency Mean for Guatemala?

Elections Series – Making Sense of Guatemala’s Upcoming Elections

Suggested Content