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Ushering in a New Period: Bernardo Arévalo’s Opportunities and Challenges to Restoring Democracy in Guatemala

Having campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, who will take office on January 14, promises to bring much needed structural change to Guatemala. His government plan includes “restructuring the state” to combat corruption, safeguard democratic security, and ensure the equal application of the law across the country. The challenges facing his government are great but so too are the opportunities of a “new spring”, as many have called this period.

I. Opportunities

 1. Support from Indigenous groups

Bernardo Arévalo and Vice-president Karin Herrera from the Movimiento Semilla party won the presidential runoff election in August 2023 with 58% of the vote. This reflects widespread support for their promises and a clear demand for change, which is particularly backed by the country’s youth and indigenous groups.

During the five month transition, the incoming government has faced several attempts to overturn the election results and criminalize Movimiento Semilla. In light of this, Bernardo Arévalo’s swearing-in as president will be in large part thanks to the efforts of the country’s indigenous movements who have led historical protests since October 2, 2023, along with widespread international support.

The empowerment of indigenous peoples has been critical as they have remained historically marginalized. Groups such as 48 cantones and indigenous authorities from the municipalities of Sololá and Nebaj have slowed down the progress of the Attorney General’s Office’ (MP) attempts to impede Arévalo’s presidency. It is citizen resistance that has managed to keep democracy afloat. The 48 Cantones have repeatedly stated that they are not protesting on behalf of a political party, they are solely there to defend democracy.

In order to reverse the breakdown of rule of law and re-establish democratic norms in Guatemala, Arévalo’s collaboration with civil society will be essential. His administration will need to work closely with organizations, indigenous communities and authorities to re-open spaces that have been closed in recent years and address deep-seated issues that impact Guatemala’s most marginalized peoples.

 2. Engagement with the private sector 

Although the private sector has been accused of being part of the democratic backsliding, some actors have expressed interest in collaborating with Bernardo Arévalo’s “new vision for development”. So far, Arévalo has taken advantage of this interest. In response to the nationwide protests and blockades and as a measure to facilitate effective dialogue between indigenous and business leaders, he launched the “Acción para la Democracia” agreement, never before had the indigenous authorities reached an agreement with the private sector. Later on, the primary business association, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations, CACIF (Spanish acronym), released statements calling for a democratic and effective transition of power.

In addition, during Arévalo’s first international visit to the United States since his victory, he met with business leaders who are members of the Partnership for Central America (PCA), to explore areas for collaboration aimed at promoting inclusive economic growth in Guatemala which could help curb migration. 

These efforts should be able to ensure that all sectors are promoting inclusive and transparent practices and enable Arévalo to implement policies that foster entrepreneurship and sustainable development across all economic sectors.

 3. Strong support from the international community 

Support from the international community has been crucial for ensuring Arévalo’s ability to take office, as it provides legitimacy to his leadership and confidence in Guatemala’s democratic processes.

Following the electoral victory, the Movimiento Semilla party has consistently engaged with the Biden administration and U.S. Congress, affirming Arévalo’s commitment to collaborative efforts to promote democracy, development, and good governance. The U.S. government has demonstrated its support -among other actions- by sanctioning relevant anti-democratic actors threatening Arévalo’s inauguration and sending diplomatic envoys, such as Under Secretary José Fernández and Assistant Secretary Brian Nichols, to Guatemala. Similarly, in December, a bicameral congressional delegation led by Senator Tim Kaine visited Guatemala to display U.S. support for Arévalo and to meet with the private sector, elected officials, indigenous groups, and civil society leaders.

The European Parliament and the European Union, have also shown their support by calling for sanctions and publicly condemning an attempted coup, as well as calling on Guatemalan authorities to defend the electoral process. Additionally, the OAS has adopted two resolutions and the UN has repeatedly condemned anti-democratic practices and called for a peaceful transition of power. With continued support, these international bodies may serve as a platform to advance Arévalo’s agenda.

II. Challenges:

The path forward for Bernardo Arévalo and Movimiento Semilla will not be easy. Guatemala has become what is known as a kleptocratic state as politicians in association with corrupt elites have used political power to expropriate the wealth of the people. Embezzlement or misappropriation of government funds at the expense of the broader population has been the norm. Some of the challenges facing the incoming government include:

 1. Addressing organized crime and drug trafficking 

Organized crime’s power has grown considerably in recent years and has infiltrated state institutions at the local and national levels. According to the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), many areas of the country, especially along Guatemala’s borders, are under the influence of drug trafficking organizations. The Guatemala judiciary and the Attorney General’s Office have failed in prosecuting and tackling this regional issue, and the cases where those responsible have been held accountable have been in large part due to U.S. assistance. For example, the Department of Treasury sanctioned Los Huistas and exposed their linkages with Mexican criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel. Similarly, in February 2023, a federal judge in San Diego, CA, sentenced a Guatemalan drug kingpin to over 17 years for drug trafficking.

In Guatemala, organized crime has controlled key institutions such as the ports, as demonstrated in several corruption scandals involving bribes. This phenomenon can be addressed not only through criminal justice, but also through good governance. Therefore, Arévalo will need to use his executive power to dismantle criminal structures in order for his government to be effective. One way of doing this is to create best practices for government procurement and contracting, as well as to promote open government and increase transparency in the use of public funds.

The fight against corruption requires a comprehensive approach to organized crime and drug trafficking. With a coherent anti-drug policy, good practices in public administration, and regional collaboration with neighboring countries like Mexico and Honduras, Bernardo Arévalo could begin a process of purging the institutional system controlled by organized crime.

 2. A divided Congress

Without a majority in Congress, implementing Arévalo’s platform will likely be an uphill battle. In the general elections, held on June 25, right-leaning establishment parties won a majority in Congress, with President Giammattei’s party VAMOS winning the most seats. These parties, which also include UNE and Valor–whose presidential candidate was the daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt –have a history of making alliances to safeguard their resources and privileges. Arévalo has expressed confidence in his ability to form coalitions and has assured supporters that he will be able to work with a divided Congress to usher in a period of reform. In the event that Arévalo attempts serious reforms to restore democracy in Guatemala, he will need to ally with Congress and promote initiatives to remove obstacles in the judiciary.

Although Movimiento Semilla’s status as a party is permanently suspended, legal challenges are pending to be resolved. It is important to note that the Constitutional Court issued a resolution that guarantees the swearing in of the elected members of Congress, including the 23 members of Movimiento Semilla, and therefore it protects their capacity for congressional work, to join committees, or be part of the Board.

 3. Continued Attacks of Attorney General Consuelo Porras against Movimiento Semilla

In Bernardo Arévalo’s own words, the attacks led by the Attorney General’s Office (MP) under Consuelo Porras have become a “coup d’état”. Those actions jeopardized not only the transfer of power on January 14, 2024 but also threatened the future of the Movimiento Semilla administration. In the context of a profound deterioration of the rule of law, the MP has launched a series of legal actions against Movimiento Semilla that, if left unresolved, could generate a governance crisis and limit the implementation of Arévalo’s government plan. Actions to criminalize Bernardo Arévalo and other members of the party could continue, including stripping them of their immunity.

The lack of checks and balances on the Attorney General’s actions, which have ultimately broken the law and constitutional order, are a serious obstacle. According to the Guatemalan Constitution, the President has the power to remove the Attorney General but a special law regulates that Porras must be convicted in court. Therefore, the only competent authority to stop the Attorney General’s abuse of power is the Constitutional Court.

The alteration of the constitutional order in Guatemala generated by Porras is a serious threat to governance, stability, and peace. The Democratic Charter defines the essential elements of representative democracy in very specific terms, including “constitutional subordination of all state institutions to the legally constituted civilian authority”. Having the authority, the Constitutional Court, however, has not fulfilled its role by stopping the Attorney General’s Office from electoral interference. Its resolutions have been ambiguous, inconsistent, and vague.

Recommendations for the international community

As Arévalo takes office, the U.S. government and other members of the international community should work to support his administration’s efforts to promote human rights and provide his administration with technical assistance to combat corruption, drug trafficking, and impunity.

One priority should be to seek protection mechanisms and support the reversal of attacks against independent justice workers, the independent press, and human rights defenders. The U.S. government should also encourage the establishment of initiatives to support the Arévalo government in addressing corruption, measures to create conditions for the safe return of exiled justice workers, and the immediate release of those unjustly imprisoned such as anti-corruption journalist José Rubén Zamora.

Read WOLA’s summary of Movimiento Semilla’s government plan: 10 Semillas para recuperar el futuro.