‘A technical coup’: Understanding Guatemala’s political unrest

Bernardo Arévalo’s election threatens the corrupt establishment. President Giammattei’s government is retaliating with judicial persecution.

On September 30, Guatemala ended its “independence month” in grief. A black ribbon hung on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s front door, as Guatemalans do when someone dies. ​​This time, the ribbon marked the mourning not of a person, but of democracy disintegrating.

The day before, the unimaginable had happened. Police and staff from the Public Prosecutor’s Office arrived at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s headquarters, many arriving in unregistered vehicles with their faces covered. They forced their way into the facilities and took dozens of ballot boxes from the recent elections. 

The boxes contained votes confirming that progressive candidate Bernardo Arévalo had won the elections. Arévalo is set to become president of Guatemala on January 14, 2024. He promises to confront those who have ensured impunity and coopted the institutions for decades. But corrupt officials, politicians, and business leaders have launched unprecedented political persecution that threatens to prevent him from taking office.

“We lost control of the ballot boxes. They took most of them with the official results,” Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrate Blanca Alfaro told media that day, in tears. 

It wasn’t the first time the Public Ministry had moved against the electoral process. Two weeks earlier, the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI, by its Spanish initials) raided the facilities where the votes were located and counted the votes by hand. 

On August 20, Bernardo Arévalo and Karin Herrera of Movimiento Semilla, a young progressive party with a modest campaign, amazed Guatemala by winning the country’s presidential elections.

The victory of a revitalizing force that distanced itself from the status quo was a dramatic upset for the Central American country’s political establishment. The government is facing serious corruption accusations, and hundreds of prosecutors, journalists, and members of the judiciary have been slapped with politically-motivated lawsuits. More than a dozen of them are now in exile

By this point, persecution had already started. After the first round, members of the parties that were knocked out called for the votes to be re-counted, claiming there had been fraud. But on July 11, official results confirmed Arévalo’s place in the runoff. 

The next day, the FECI secured a judge’s order to request the suspension of Semilla, claiming the party had forged signatures during its registration process. The charges and the attempt to suspend his party put Arévalo’s participation in the run-off at risk. 

According to constitutional lawyer Sara Larios, the illegal move to suspend the party was the first decisive action signaling a “break of the constitutional order” or, in other words, a “technical coup.

The charges were led by Attorney General Consuelo Porras and FECI head Rafael Curruchiche. Both are on the United States’ Engel List of corrupt and anti-democratic actors.

Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal said they would not comply with the order to suspend Semilla, since candidates and parties have legal immunity during the electoral process. Moreover, legally, judges do not have the power to suspend a political party. Only the Supreme Electoral Tribunal can do so.

But attacks on Arévalo intensified when he won the run-off. Both the losing party and the ultra-conservative groups linked to the current government claimed that the vote had been fraudulent. The government provided no substantive evidence for its accusations. But the narrative served to justify what came next, according to Larios.

The raid on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal at the end of September and the seizure of the ballot boxes confirmed the assault on Guatemala’s electoral process.

Curruchiche, the FECI head, claimed the seizure of the ballot boxes and electoral records was a response to citizens’ electoral fraud accusations and “had nothing to do with Semilla.”

According to Semilla deputy-elect Andrea Reyes, since the investigation into forged signatures was transferred to FECI, they have been denied access to the case file 31 times, which “undermines their defense process and highlights the attempt to undermine the electoral process.” 

Recently, FECI also requested the removal of Semilla deputy Samuel Pérez’s legal immunity over a tweet criticizing a Constitutional Court resolution paving the way for security forces to evict protests.

The people respond

On October 2, Indigenous leaders and ancestral authorities called for an indefinite national strike. Hundreds of thousands of people joined. The country was paralyzed for more than a fortnight, with around 200 blockades, massive demonstrations, and peaceful protests demanding the resignations of Porras and Curruchiche.

One week later, President Alejandro Giammattei agreed to a meeting with indigenous leaders, mediated by Organization of American States representatives, to discuss ending the crisis. But Giammattei argued that he didn’t have the authority to sack Porras, and the sides didn’t reach an agreement. Despite no reports of significant incidents, Giammattei also described the protests as “violent” during a televised speech.

Larios pointed out that while the president cannot fire Porras, he could ask her to resign if he had the political will.

Although many blockades have been lifted, resistance continues in various parts of the country.

Who is behind the persecution?

FILE PHOTO: Guatemala’s Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras speaks during a meeting with the Nominating Committee for the election of the Attorney General, as part of the process for the appointment to the attorney general position, for which she is seeking re-election, at the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, Guatemala April 6, 2022. REUTERS/Sandra Sebastian/File Photo. Cover image: A man pours a liquid on a burning barricade, as part of the national strike. REUTERS/Josue Decavele

“Deep economic and financial power relations are co-opting the judicial powers and the Public Prosecutor’s Office to destabilize democracy as a modern method of coup d’état,” said Carlos Raimundi, Argentina’s representative to the Organization of American States, in the session held on September 18 to discuss the situation in Guatemala. Several countries at the meeting condemned what was happening.

In 2022, after a widely criticized and irregular process, Giammattei chose Porras for a second term as Attorney General. Giammattei has been hit by multiple corruption accusations during his presidency, including a COVID-19 vaccine scandal and an incident in which he received bribes from Russian businessmen hidden in a rolled-up carpet. None of these allegations have progressed within Porras’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the “carpet case” was closed.

According to Larios, the Supreme Court of Justice and the Constitutional Court also bear responsibility, as they have not issued resolutions to halt the coup. Known as the “corrupt pact”, these institutions are “threatened by Arévalo taking office,” she said.

What happens now?

Porras cannot legally be fired. She can only leave her position by resigning. Reyes, the Semilla deputy-elect, considers this unlikely, since she has resisted both international pressure and the strike.

In the worst-case scenario, Arévalo could be prevented from assuming the presidency. Reyes says that Semilla has received leaked information that the Public Prosecutor’s Office may open a new case against Arévalo that would prevent him from taking office. In that case, Congress would appoint an interim president in his place.

 In August, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted Arévalo and Herrera precautionary measures after learning of an alleged assassination plot.

If Arévalo does assume the presidency, Semilla’s suspension could mean its deputies lose benefits such as voting on the budget and holding the presidency of Congress, which would make governing “very difficult,” Reyes said. 

Economist Jose Castillo explains that although Arévalo’s election opens the prospect of building regional alliances, the persecution against him has put the country in a difficult position. The reality is that what happens in a small country like Guatemala has few direct consequences in the region.

“The United States is exerting significant pressure, because if things continue this way, migration will not stop,” he said. “They are taking political actions, such as revoking official visas, but it is difficult to halt trade, for example, and that also doesn’t exert much pressure on those behind the coup.”

The danger, then, for a small country like Guatemala is that it may lose its democracy in full view.

On November 2, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal certified the election results, meaning the suspension of Semilla took effect. At the time of writing, Semilla had not been formally notified of the suspension. For now, despite the political persecution against them, Bernardo Arévalo and Karin Herrera are due to take office starting on January 14. And in the streets, resistance continues.


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