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Guatemala’s anti-corruption leader-to-be could be prevented from taking office, deepening migration concerns for US

Guatemala's anti-corruption leader-to-be could be prevented from taking office, deepening migration concerns for US
Guatemala's President-elect Bernardo Arévalo waves to supporters. Orlando Estrada/AFP via Getty Images

Guatemala is in the midst of a democratic crisis so severe that it may prevent the new president from taking office, as planned, on Jan. 14, 2024.

On Dec. 8, 2023, prosecutors and the Guatemalan Congress called for the nullification of the election results. A few weeks earlier, the attorney general’s office in Guatemala tried to remove President-elect Bernardo Arévalo’s immunity from prosecution. The attorney general alleged that the center-left politician, who won the election on an anti-corruption ticket, made posts on social media in 2022 that encouraged students to occupy the country’s public university. In an unprecedented attempt to prevent him from assuming power, officials accused Arévalo of complicity in the takeover of the university, illicit association and damaging the country’s cultural heritage.

During the presidential election in September, the Public Ministry raided electoral offices. These actions “appear to be designed to overturn the will of the electorate and erode the democratic process,” concluded the Organization of American States, a group that represents 35 countries in the region and promotes human rights, fair elections, security and economic development.

These developments follow a democratic backslide in Guatemala that has been going on since 2019, when the government expelled an anti-corruption commission backed by the United Nations.

Ordinary Guatemalans, meanwhile, are fed up with rampant corruption and electoral interference. On Oct. 2, 2023, thousands of protesters filled the streets of Guatemala City and blockaded more than 100 roads and highways to demand respect for the election. The demonstrators represented a broad cross-section of urban and rural society, including both Maya and non-Indigenous communities.

As a professor of history who studies social movements in Latin America, I see the current climate of protest as part of a long history of instability and political mobilization in Guatemala. As in the past, these anti-democratic actions will likely lead more Guatemalans to migrate to the United States.

Crowd of protesters waving Guatemala flag
Protesters demand the attorney general’s resignation on Oct. 9, 2023, in Guatemala City.
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Civil war and kleptocracy

Guatemala’s recent past is marked by violent political unrest and activism.

Between 1960 and 1996, the country endured a bloody armed conflict between leftist insurgents and the army. About 200,000 Guatemalans were killed – most of them from the Indigenous Maya population.

The armed confrontation, which was rooted in land conflicts and opposition to the military dictatorship, led to mass mobilization in favor of fair working conditions and democratic rule.

Guatemala’s democracy in the post-1996 years was marked by neoliberal policies that favored free market economics and privatization. It also saw the rise of a cadre of careerist politicians who, in the words of the jailed journalist Rubén Zamora, created a “kleptocracy.” This system hinged on corrupt political dealings, nurtured criminal activity and perpetuated high poverty levels.

Guatemalans have taken an active – perhaps even activist – posture toward the kleptocracy.

In 2015, they took to the streets en masse to protest government corruption. Their mobilization bolstered the actions of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, a U.N.-backed body tasked with investigating and prosecuting crime and strengthening Guatemala’s judicial system.

The commission’s probe led to the prosecution of Guatemalan officials for corruption, including former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti. However, the government expelled CICIG in 2019. In response, the Guatemalan public accused political elites, high-ranking bureaucrats and business leaders of forming a “pact of the corrupt” to thwart the fight against corruption.

Anti-corruption candidate’s surprising win

Guatemala’s 2023 general elections were held amid this fragile political climate.

In the weeks leading up to election day, the constitutional court, on what critics say were questionable grounds, disqualified two rising political outsiders: Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous leftist candidate, and Carlos Pineda, a conservative businessman and populist who gained a large following on social media.

This judicial meddling in the electoral process, however, opened the way for another political outsider, Bernardo Arévalo of the left-of-center Seed Movement party. An increasing number of Guatemalans, including young voters, saw Arévalo and his anti-corruption platform as an alternative to establishment candidates such as former first lady Sandra Torres, who led most polls in the weeks before the election.

The election results sent shock waves through the political system. Arévalo received 11.8% of the general vote, second only to Torres’ 15.9%. Because no candidate received a majority, a runoff election was held on Aug. 20. Arévalo won handily with 58% of the vote compared with Torres’ 37%.

Arévalo is not a political neophyte. He has served as a diplomat and currently occupies a seat in Congress. He is also the son of Juan José Arévalo, the country’s first democratically elected president.

Guatemalans take to streets

After the election, political elites, including members of Torres’ National Unity of Hope party and President Alejandro Giammattei’s Vamos party, alleged – incorrectly, it turned out – that the electoral software had favored Arévalo’s candidacy. They attempted to stop the results from being made official.

More consequently, the Public Ministry, led by Attorney General Consuelo Porras, accused Arévalo’s party of using false signatures during its registration process. It contended that up to 100 out of the 25,000 signatures required for registration were falsified. On July 21, one month before the runoff election, Public Ministry officials raided the Seed Movement’s headquarters and asked a judge to suspend the party.

Despite Arévalo’s resounding victory on Aug. 20, the Public Ministry continued to try to suspend his party. On Sept. 29, it took the unprecedented action of raiding the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the highest electoral authority.

Disgusted by this interference in the electoral process and fearful over the prospect of a coup, Guatemalans took to the streets. The protests that began on Oct. 2 brought the country to a standstill for more than 10 days and united the urban and rural population.

Echoing a long-standing history of Indigenous activism in Guatemala, prominent Indigenous groups such as the Peasant Committee for Development and the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán played a vital role in the protests. Indigenous people, who make up nearly half of Guatemala’s population, face high poverty rates, poor access to health care and environmental degradation of their lands caused by mining and hydroelectric projects.

For many Indigenous voters, the election interference highlighted the relationship between government corruption and their socioeconomic inequality. The central role of Indigenous communities in the protests signaled a new grassroots movement with the potential of replicating the multiracial and multiclass coalitions that had emerged during the armed conflict in the 1970s.

Key driver of migration

U.S. officials and agencies report that political corruption in Guatemala is a root cause of migration. In 2023, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 200,000 Guatemalans trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Guatemalans themselves understand all too well how kleptocracy reinforces the country’s social ills. They realize that democratic backsliding not only may prevent Arévalo from assuming the presidency, but it can also rob their communities of resources needed to strengthen health care, improve education, create jobs, reduce malnutrition and fight climate change. Without these improvements, many will continue to migrate, despite the many perils of doing so.

The Conversation

Bonar Hernández Sandoval does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.