Perspectives January 25, 2024
Guatemalans Have Spoken: They Choose Democracy
Guatemalan citizens have entrusted newly elected president Bernardo Arévalo with responsibility for dismantling vast corruption networks and restoring faith in government. The road ahead is long, but there is reason for hope.
In the later months of 2023, Guatemalans witnessed a political saga that would decide the future of their democracy. Since the first round of the June 2023 general election, citizens have unequivocally expressed their desire to live in a corruption-free country, where public institutions act upon democratic values. The unforeseen triumph of progressive candidate Bernardo Arévalo marked a historic moment: the victory of a political outsider defied what was supposed to be an orchestrated electoral outcome in favor of candidates backed by the ruling elite. Overcoming a slew of undemocratic attacks on his candidacy and later on the transition of power, he was sworn in on January 15.
The deep roots of Guatemala’s corruption networks
While Arévalo’s election offers reason for hope, he faces a long and difficult path toward restoring faith in state institutions. In recent years, Guatemala’s sociopolitical landscape has been controlled by an alliance of powerful political, economic, military, and organized crime groups commonly known as the “pact of the corrupt,” whose selfish aim was to maintain their own power over the country. Arevalo captured the national sentiment as a political outsider and a champion of anticorruption initiatives. He promised to combat poverty. He vowed to embrace transparency and fight corruption, and to refuse alliances with the traditional political establishment.
The message was resonant in Guatemala, where over the past two decades anticorruption efforts have oscillated between hopeful progress, and frustrating setbacks. After a period marked by sluggish growth and low trust in the government, in 2006, the independent International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established. It quickly began collaborating with national institutions to investigate and prosecute criminal organizations and their collusion with the state. The joint efforts of CICIG and local anticorruption institutions produced results: corruption networks were exposed, alongside their links with business leaders, senior politicians, and high-ranked officials, including former presidents. The resignation and arrest of then President Otto Pérez Molina (2012–16) in 2015 marked a crucial moment in Guatemala’s fight against corruption. CICIG also supported the investigation of crimes committed during the civil war, particularly against Indigenous and marginalized communities.
However, progress ground to a halt when President Jimmy Morales (2016–20) refused to renew the CICIG’s mandate in 2019 and ordered them to leave the country. Since then, judicial independence has been seriously eroded, and anticorruption advocates have been harassed by elites and targeted in politicized prosecutions. During the mandate of President Alejandro Giammattei (2020–24), the alliance of political, economic, and military figures further entrenched a system of impunity and corruption, with ties to organized crime and capable of obliterating any opposition. This alliance expanded its influence over all institutions of the state and repressed journalists, human rights defenders, and judicial professionals, often to the point that they were forced into exile.
In this context, the 2023 electoral process offered Guatemalan citizens an opportunity to interrupt a prolonged period of democratic erosion and closure of civic space. Arévalo was perceived as a candidate outside the corrupted alliances that had undermined Guatemalan democracy for decades, with voters placing confidence in his promises to combat corruption and restore the balance between the different powers of the state.
The pivot toward democracy
In July 2023, days after Arévalo’s first-round upset, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court suspended the election results after a group of defeated conservative parties complained of irregularities, without presenting evidence. It led to a partial recount that did not alter the results. After Arevalo won 58 percent of the vote in the second round, he and his Movimiento Semilla party faced political and judicial persecution aimed at undermining their electoral victory and obstructing a transition of power. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, led by Attorney General Consuelo Porras and her deputy, Rafael Curruchiche (both of whom face US sanctions for obstructing justice and shielding political allies), again questioned the validity of the elections, investigated Movimiento Semilla for allegedly forging signatures during its registration, and tried to strip political immunity to open criminal investigations against Arévalo and his political movement. These measures triggered massive peaceful mobilizations throughout the country, mainly led by Indigenous peoples, and strong condemnation from democratic states. This resounding demand to respect the Guatemalan vote warded off what was for all practical purposes an attempted coup.
Despite the attempts to prevent Arévalo from taking office, the democratic and orderly transfer of power prevailed in Guatemala. Just past midnight on Monday, January 15, after a nearly 10-hour delay and several last-minute attempts by the outgoing Congress to obstruct the constitutionally mandated transfer of power, Bernardo Arévalo was finally sworn in as president of Guatemala.
The long road toward reform
Arévalo’s presidency is a first step toward restoring trust in the institutions of a country with a long and complex history of corruption and elitism. Arévalo is the most reform-minded president since democracy was restored in Guatemala in 1996 after a long civil war and military rule. While his presidency brings hope to Guatemala citizens and a sense of relief to democracy supporters and human rights defenders, his will to dismantle injustice and corruption that mars the country’s public institutions needs to be met by willful cooperation and tempered with realistic expectations.
The powerful networks of corrupt politicians, criminal groups, and business leaders who have infiltrated and co-opted institutions through convoluted schemes took years to amass power. Undoing the harm will also take time, especially because the Arévalo government seeks to do so through avenues respectful of due process, rule of law, and the separation of powers. Furthermore, the Movimiento Semillia party holds a minority of seats in the legislature. This means it will be difficult to push forward fundamental reforms. Several public institutions, including the Public Prosecutor’s Office, remain co-opted.
As Arévalo works to realize his campaign promises, it’s imperative that the new government continues to listen to the social base, especially Indigenous peoples that made his election possible. The decriminalization of human rights defenders, journalists, judicial operators; protection of freedom of expression and association; as well as the safe return of those forced into exile will be key factors to sustaining the trust thus far placed in Arévalo. Civil society and human rights defenders should be allowed to effectively monitor the state’s commitments and hold it accountable for the protection of rights.
The fight against corruption will inevitably have to include other demands, such as policies that foster inclusive economic development, and account for the rich cultural, ethnic, and social diversity of the country. It is also crucial to guarantee the restoration of the division and independence of the state’s powers, especially ensuring that the judiciary returns to guaranteeing justice rather than being a tool for criminalizing opposition. The international community, for its part, should continue to provide support for the new government and condemn any future attempts to undermine the Guatemalan people’s fundamental freedoms.
In most instances, recent months’ peaceful protests did not imply support to Arévalo or Movimiento Semilla. Rather, they were a strong and broader call to respect electoral results and defend democracy and its institutions. The citizens of Guatemala proved their trust in democracy, and affirmed they will be vigilant and continue advocating peacefully for a corruption-free country. Now, it falls upon President Arévalo and his cabinet to uphold the responsibility they have been given.