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How the Biden administration helped avoid a coup in Guatemala

Mary Beth Sheridan & Nic Wirtz

Washington Post

Jan 12, 2024

After a reform-minded professor won the presidency of Guatemala — one of the Western Hemisphere’s most notoriously corrupt countries — governments around the world watched the fallout with alarm.

Guatemalan authorities seized ballot boxes on dubious claims of fraud. They tried to dissolve the party of the winner, Bernardo Arévalo, and investigate him criminally. With months to go before he took office, the beleaguered president-elect warned of a “slow-motion coup.”

On Sunday, Arévalo is to be sworn in, in what could be a turning point for a nation that’s hemorrhaged migrants to the United States. He’s reached Inauguration Day in large part because of the determination of Guatemalan citizens fed up with corruption. But U.S. diplomats played a key role, in one of the Biden administration’s most aggressive campaigns to shore up democracy in the hemisphere.

Behind the scenes were career U.S. bureaucrats with decades of experience in Latin America — the sort of briefcase-toting professionals who melt into the crowds on the D.C. Metro. They targeted Guatemalan politicians and influential business people with a blizzard of sanctions, stern public statements and quiet arm-twisting. “I don’t think we would have made it if the U.S. didn’t get as involved as they did,” said Dionisio Gutiérrez, one of Guatemala’s richest business executives and an outspoken critic of corruption.

The Washington Post interviewed 11 current and former U.S. officials, as well as analysts and business people in Guatemala, to understand the Biden administration’s maneuvering. Several people spoke on the condition of anonymity due to diplomatic sensitivities.

With grim predictions of waning U.S. influence around the globe — due to China’s rise and America’s own political dysfunction — Guatemala may emerge as a rare success in promoting democracy.

That such an effort occurred in Guatemala is particularly remarkable. In 1954, the CIA backed a coup to oust the country’s democratically elected leftist president, Jacobo Árbenz. President Ronald Reagan praised a military dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who was later convicted of the genocide of Indigenous people allegedly sympathetic to Marxist-led guerrillas. (The conviction was eventually overturned; he was being retried when he died in 2018.)

Guatemala’s outgoing president, Alejandro Giammattei, has responded to the recent pressure by protesting foreign interference in his country’s affairs. “The countries of the European Union jumped all over us, the big bosses of the North [United States] jumped all over us,” he said in a speech on Monday He denied a coup had been in the works.

U.S. officials say that averting a meltdown in Guatemala was critical. The Central American country is a major transit route for cocaine and irregular migrants. The Biden administration had watched democracy crumble in Nicaragua and El Salvador and feared the trend was spreading, said a retired U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in the region.

An accidental presidential victory

Almost no one expected Arévalo to win the presidency. The 65-year-old professor, member of an anti-corruption party, was polling around 3 percent before the first round of elections in June. Guatemala has long been ruled by a political class steeped in corruption, with ties to drug-traffickers and influential business leaders. Electoral authorities disqualified several outsider candidates before the vote. Arévalo apparently wasn’t deemed a threat.

Then he scored a stunning second-place finish, buoyed by a campaign by TikTokers and young people. Arévalo cruised to victory in the August runoff, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

“The [Biden] administration made quite a dramatic turn and saw they had a real opportunity, a golden opportunity” to work with an elected leader regarded as honest, said Eric Olson, a Central America expert with the Seattle International Foundation. “They pulled out as many of the big guns as they could.”

A procession of senior State Department officials visited Guatemala to show support for Arévalo. President Biden praised his victory. The Pentagon, recognizing “the importance of maintaining democracy and stability in Guatemala,” kept up “a steady channel of communication with Guatemalan military and defense leaders,” Daniel Erikson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere, told The Post.

The European Union and Organization of American States, which had monitored the election, also demanded the results be respected. Yet days after Arévalo’s victory, court authorities suspended his party, Semilla (Seed), on allegations of fraud. Investigators from the attorney general’s office raided the national electoral authority, seizing boxes of vote tallies. Prosecutors began a series of attempts to lift Arévalo’s immunity, so he could be criminally charged.

As the prospects for a democratic transition dimmed, an unlikely new political force burst onto the scene. The country’s long-suffering Indigenous communities declared a nationwide strike in early October, blocking roads and halting commerce. “It scared the crap out of some people in the private sector,” said Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala hosted talks between the Indigenous groups and business leaders, who pledged to respect Arévalo’s victory. Yet the drama wasn’t over.

On Nov. 30, the congress — dominated by the governing party — stripped the immunity of four of the nation’s top electoral judges, prompting them to flee the country. The move was seen as an effort to install judges hostile to Arévalo’s election, culminating in a legal “coup.”

The next day, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped stiff penalties on Miguel Martínez, a Giammattei confidant and former official, accusing him of “widespread bribery schemes.” (Martínez called the charges “spurious.”) Treasury applied the Magnitsky act, which freezes the target’s U.S. assets and makes it difficult to deal with banks. Guatemalans were dumbfounded; Martínez is seen as practically a member of the president’s family.

“It was a signal that the gloves were off regarding Giammattei,” McFarland said.

U.S. senators face ‘a train wreck’

Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who chairs the Senate’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee, was planning to travel to Guatemala once Arévalo had settled in as president. But Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) urged him to move up the trip. “[They] said to me, ‘Hey, if we wait that long, he might not get into office,’” Kaine said in an interview.

In a Dec. 8 meeting, the U.S. lawmakers pressed members of Giammattei’s cabinet to guarantee a democratic transfer of power. The Guatemalans agreed. But an hour later, a prosecutor declared the results of the August election “null and void.”

“We really felt like we were there trying to interrupt a train wreck,” Kaine said.

The State Department came out swinging, announcing it was canceling visas for nearly 300 Guatemalans. They included around two-thirds of the members of congress and some hard-line business executives.

The measures were a game changer, said Estuardo Porras-Zadik, a progressive Guatemalan businessman. “The people who have their visas revoked are put into a box marked ‘corruption’ — of acting against democracy,” he said. “Their kids are being affected.”

“The U.S. had never acted this way before,” said Quique Godoy, an analyst. Indeed, Guatemala had developed close ties to the administration of Donald Trump, which remained largely silent as Guatemalan authorities shuttered a high-profile anti-corruption commission that had received millions of dollars in U.S. funding.

Human rights advocates say the Biden administration’s efforts in Guatemala, while admirable, are at odds with some of its actions elsewhere — notably, in neighboring El Salvador. U.S. officials have publicly praised relations with the government of President Nayib Bukele, even as he’s led a crackdown on gangs widely criticized for its brutality.

“They seem to think it’s not worth fighting with him over anything, because he’s popular,” Olson said. (A senior State Department official said the administration had been “clear in private and public about our concerns.”)

The U.S. policy in Guatemala wasn’t without risks. Giammattei was so incensed he considered kicking out the top American diplomat, Charge d’affaires Patrick Ventrell, according to the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora.

The policy was carried out by Ventrell and a group of other veteran Latin America hands, “a team that knew one another, that had a lot of confidence in each other,” said Ricardo Zúniga, a former U.S. envoy to Central America. Among the key figures was Brian Nichols, the State Department’s top Latin America official.

Nichols “was supportive of taking risks to support democracy,” Zúniga said. “They don’t always pay off.”

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