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Guatemala’s High-Stakes Electoral Contest Grinds On

Ricardo Zuniga

U.S. Institute of Peace

Dec 6, 2023

Uncertainty will have significant implications for peace and prosperity.

Guatemala’s fragile democracy faces its greatest test since the end of the conflicts in the late 20th century. Ongoing efforts to impede or derail the transfer of power to the newly elected president of Guatemala put at risk the country’s security, social and economic development, and international relationships. This will encourage large numbers of Guatemalans to continue to flee their country.

The stream of high-level U.S. visitors to Guatemala, including the December 3-4 visit of Under Secretary of State for Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose Fernandez, underlines fears in Washington that Guatemala is on the cusp of a political disaster with long-lasting economic consequences. Such a devastating outcome can still be avoided if enough Guatemalans from across the political spectrum set aside their differences and establish a common front against this threat to their future.

The surprise victory of center-left Semilla party candidate Bernardo Arévalo in runoff elections in August—and the resonance of Arévalo’s anti-corruption message—made clear voters’ desire for a forward-looking, reformist agenda. Even citizens and organizations worried about Arévalo’s vision accepted the outcome of the country’s most closely observed election in history. Unfortunately, a small number of corrupt actors and fanatics seek to keep Guatemala trapped in a polarized bubble by preventing the peaceful, orderly transition to a new government in January 2024. If successful, this small group could set back the country’s development for years, isolating Guatemala at the very moment it should be competing for a favored position in an era of rapidly shifting supply chains and booming investment in North America.

The Roots of the Crisis

The current crisis centers around efforts by Guatemala’s Public Ministry (or Public Prosecutors’ Office) and Attorney General Consuelo Porras to disrupt the transfer of power to President-elect Arévalo and perhaps prosecute Arévalo, members of his team and elected Semilla legislators. Using techniques like those employed by the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua, the Public Ministry and a team of allied judges have methodically attacked the legitimacy and very legality of the president-elect’s party. The Public Ministry’s latest ploy involves an effort to link Arévalo and his running mate to protesters who briefly occupied a university in Guatemala City to protest irregularities around the election of that university’s rector. They hope to parlay Semilla expressions of support for the protesters — who were charged and jailed — into a withdrawal of the immunity enjoyed by Arévalo as president-elect.

These efforts by the Public Ministry to use selective, sometimes far-fetched, legal theories to attack Arévalo have drawn widespread condemnation both within Guatemala and the international community. Indeed, the Public Ministry is itself accused by critics of acting outside the margins of the law, and well outside Guatemala’s institutional process. In particular, the Public Ministry’s September 30 ransacking of Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal and seizure of ballots and its refusal to abide by the rulings of the country’s Constitutional Court demonstrate the rogue nature of the Public Ministry leaders and a few judges working in concert with them.

Widespread Condemnation of Anti-democratic Actions

The Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, the European Union (EU), Canada and international figures from across the political spectrum have denounced the actions of the Public Ministry. The United States swiftly enacted visa restrictions on figures known to be acting in support of the irregular and anti-democratic actions by the Public Ministry. On December 1, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against Miguel Martinez, a former Guatemalan official personally close to President Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei, under the Global Magnitsky Act for his role in “widespread bribery schemes.” This action matters because Martinez is viewed as a key behind-the-scenes player working in concert with the Public Ministry against Arévalo. Efforts by members of the Public Ministry to denounce criticism as interventionist and against Guatemala’s sovereignty — a well-worn, but occasionally successful, tactic in that country — appear to be making little headway beyond a small circle of ideologues, such as figures associated with the polemical Foundation Against Terrorism.

What’s at Risk

Many Guatemalans rightly perceive that an undemocratic outcome to the crisis could easily condemn the country to years of isolation and international ostracism. Guatemala, alone among Central American economies, is approaching investment-grade status just as international trade patterns are shifting in ways that would reward Guatemala’s market-friendly reputation, its location near the largest markets in the world and its free trade agreement with the United States. Guatemala is well situated to absorb some of the foreign investment pouring into North America, driven by de-risking from China and U.S. industrial policy. These advantages could be wiped out by the increased political and reputational risks associated with the irregular, arbitrary and politicized actions of Guatemalan prosecutors and judges. International ratings agencies would have to factor in state capture of Guatemala’s courts and other institutions by unpredictable figures hostile to the rule of law, triggering a cascade of negative outcomes such as potentially increased borrowing costs for Guatemala.

The Private Sector’s Stand

Guatemala’s private sector is not monolithic. Some trade and industry groups have taken strong public positions critical of the Public Ministry, despite skepticism regarding Arévalo’s economic and social agenda, which they may view as favoring social development and redistribution over pro-growth strategies favorable to the private sector. While some businesspeople may have favored Porras and the Public Ministry’s efforts to punish anti-corruption judicial operators associated with prior efforts to promote transparency, even these leaders balk at the anti-democratic actions taken by the Public Ministry against a duly elected leader and fear the potential costs to Guatemalan interests if Arévalo is blocked from power.

However, some of the same business leaders whose long-term interests could be harmed if the Public Ministry undermines Guatemalan democracy are hedging against the possibility that the Public Ministry will, in fact, succeed. They fear they will be left facing a hostile judiciary and prosecutorial service free of institutional or legal constraints. Some in the private sector may even hope the Public Ministry will hamstring Arévalo, nominally preserving Guatemala’s democracy while leaving Arévalo weak and unable to implement an agenda they view as harmful to their interests. Neither perspective accounts for the substantial costs that would be borne by Guatemalan citizens — and Guatemalan businesses — if the country’s institutions seem to favor impunity over the rule of law and if its judicial institutions are perceived as being in the hands of rogue operators.

The Way Forward

There is a way forward. Guatemalans who favor democracy, rule of law and transparency are stronger than they may perceive. They may not agree on much beyond the desire to live free of the fear generated by years of judicial intimidation and disgust with the corruption that saps the country’s vitality. But they likely also favor a government that tries to unite, not divide, Guatemalan society.

These pro-democracy Guatemalans enjoy the strong support of the international community, which must continue to demonstrate its solidarity. Clear, unequivocal and unified opposition to the Public Ministry’s destabilizing efforts by Guatemalan social and private sector organizations — backed by the OAS, the United States, the EU and the United Nations — could tip the scale and put the country on a path toward prosperity and growth. Failure to act will leave Guatemalans stuck in an authoritarian past most hoped they had left behind.

Ricardo Zúniga is a senior advisor with the Latin America program at USIP. He is also the former principal deputy assistant secretary and special envoy for the Northern Triangle in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the State Department.

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