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Bernardo Arevalo: The Pact of the Corrupt "is Falling Apart" in Guatemala

President of Guatemala: "The political power no longer supports the Attorney General," but "she is shielded for the moment" because of her position

Guatemala's President Bernardo Arevalo de Leon poses during an interview with EFE on January 25, 2024, in Guatemala City, in an interview with EFE. // Photo: EFE/ David Toro

30 de enero 2024

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The president of Guatemala, Bernardo Arevalo, took office at midnight on January 14, after circumventing in the new Congress of the Republic “the last ambush of the pact of the corrupt,” which sought to derail his electoral mandate. After his first two weeks at the helm of the Executive Branch, Arevalo affirms that “the pact is falling apart. These networks no longer have control of certain key positions, so they are breaking down in an almost organic way. Although they still have positions of power, as in the case of the Public Ministry,” headed by Attorney General, Consuelo Porras.

The Attorney General, who was appointed by President Jimmy Morales and re-elected by Alejandro Giammattei, “no longer has the backing of the political power in Congress, she is a last bastion of these groups that have been using public institutions to carry out impunity and political persecution. But because of the regulations that define how appointments are managed, she is shielded for the moment,” admits Arévalo.


After Porras refused to meet with the president and give him a report on the performance of the Public Ministry in matters of human rights, freedom of expression, and the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, Arevalo summoned her to a meeting of the Council of Ministers to be held this Monday, January 29, which she is obliged to attend by law, but everything indicates that the confrontation between the Attorney General and Arevalo's government will continue in the next two years.

In an interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL, Arevalo explained his strategy to fight corruption starting with the control of the national budget, the Executive Branch, and the execution of works within the State, to redirect those resources toward public investment in development plans, “focused on the poorest areas of the country, in medicine, hospitals, schools, and roads.” “The most urgent thing is the fight against corruption, but the most important thing is the fight for development, and the fight against corruption is aimed at allowing public institutions to start working again,” he pointed out.

In a regional environment of authoritarian governments and deterioration of democracy in Central America, Arevalo considers that there are no “political conditions to work on a rethinking of integration,” due to the contradiction that exists between some governments of the region “with the Tegucigalpa Protocol, which establishes that the countries that are integrated in Central America are democratic in nature,” and, therefore, he proposes to advance on issues of economic integration with the other governments in trade, and in technical and service areas.

I asked him if it was possible to advance the political integration of Central America with the totalitarian dictatorship of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua operating with impunity. “That is why we have said that progress in political integration is going to be very complicated and that the emphasis has to be, consequently, on progress in economic and social issues,” said Arevalo.

Protestas en Guatemala
Protestas en Guatemala contra la fiscal Consuelo Porras. // Foto | Archivo | Agencias

The Confrontation with the Attorney General’s Office

On January 14 you took office as president of Guatemala after an intense process of attacks and threats that you described as a coup d'état in slow motion. Is that coup intention still in place now, during your first days in office, or has it been defeated?

The coup intention in the classic sense has stopped, simply because the intention was to try to hinder the ceremony of the transfer of power and the assumption of power by the new government in some way. They were trying to do so until the last minute. They failed, and we are already in the legitimate and full exercise of power. 

Now we will see if the Public Ministry, which is still in the hands of this network of actors linked to corruption, and who have been denounced internationally and nationally, decides to continue with these actions, but we will only see that in the future. 

You summoned Attorney General Consuelo Porras to a meeting. You asked her for a report on the performance of the Public Ministry regarding cases of human rights, freedom of expression, and the purchases of the COVID-19 vaccine and the Attorney General alleged that you do not have the authority to summon her to a meeting, nor did she answer you on those issues and said that she is not going to resign. What does this frontal challenge to presidential authority mean?

It means that the Attorney General does not fully understand what the framework for the functioning of institutions in a democratic republic is. What we have done is to remind her of the law, we have summoned her to a new meeting of the Council of Ministers for Monday, and we have cited the article of the Law where it is strictly established that she is obliged to attend these invitations.

But if past performance is any indication, one might assume that this is a confrontation that is going to continue. What consequences might it have for the normal actions of the Government?

We will see what happens as of Monday. She has stated that her actions are within the framework of the law. We have summoned her and given her a clear reference to the law that obliges her to be present and to participate in the discussion of these issues. We will see what happens on Monday.

The Attorney General was appointed by President Jimmy Morales and was reelected by President Alejandro Giammattei, who are no longer in power. Who is backing her today?

Today groups with political power do not support her. In the Congress of the Republic, she has no support. She is practically the last bastion of these groups that have been using public institutions to carry out impunity and political persecution. She has no political backing, but because of the appointments and the regulations that define how these appointments are managed, she is shielded for the time being. We will continue the work set forth, and we will identify the mechanisms to be able to face this problem in case she continues with this attitude.

Is this network of de facto powers, which in Guatemala is called the “pact of the corrupt,” a threat to your government? Does it have the strength to influence and block government actions in Congress and other areas?

No, in Congress they were not able to prevent the election of a Board of Directors with whom we will be able to work constructively. We have a president of the Congress who is a person who has expressed his interest in working constructively, for the needs of the population. They tried to set up an alternative board of directors that did not obtain the necessary votes. On the second attempt, they did not even try to run. So, it is a pact that is falling apart. They are in networks that, not having control of certain key positions, are falling apart in an almost organic way. And that is what we are seeing these days.

They are still problematic, they still have positions of power, as in the case of the Public Ministry, but it is a phenomenon that is already in a different stage from the one we were in before the electoral period.

But the deputies of your Semilla party have been stripped of their legal representation both in the congressional board and in the committees. How can you govern in a context of parliamentary minority and without any legal representation of your party?

The board of directors that was elected is the board of directors that was organized by the Semilla Movement, around an alliance on a legislative agenda. When the Constitutional Court said that there would have to be a new election, the election was repeated and the members of the Semilla Movement were simply replaced. The Board of Directors that was elected is the same as the one with which the Semilla Movement was elected, only without the Semilla participants.

The main slogan of your electoral campaign was the fight against corruption. You ratified this in your first speech, already as president in office. But how can corruption be dismantled if it is entrenched in some institutions and structures of the State? The Attorney General's Office, as you just mentioned, also in the Supreme Court of Justice and in other areas.

Corruption is a network of interests that works around the access to public funds either in the form of contracts, phantom positions and other series of corrupt actions. At this moment, when we have control of the national budget, control of the Executive Branch, control of the execution of works within the State and control of the appointments made in State institutions, the spaces are closed for this type of business and then the logic that keeps corrupt groups together disappears, which is the situation we are seeing at this moment. If a member of congress was elected with the expectation that someone was going to give them contracts for their companies or phantom positions for their followers, they have found that this is no longer what is happening. And then all this has a general impact on the system.

The Support of Indigenous Peoples, US, OAS, EU

The mobilization of the Indigenous peoples and their leaders gave you decisive support so that you could overcome the crisis and assume the presidency. Subsequently, they questioned the lack of inclusion of Indigenous professionals in your cabinet. Why this vacuum?

First of all, it is an issue that we ourselves pointed out and acknowledged when we presented the cabinet. I said that we were incredibly pleased that it was the first full parity cabinet, and, on the other hand, we said that we were still in debt because we had not achieved this better participation of indigenous professionals. We announced that this was an issue that we would continue to work on. The Indigenous Peoples also regretted this situation and indicated that they would be working with the Government to find a solution and that is what we are doing at the moment.

Today, at the level of vice-ministries, there are several appointments of Indigenous professionals, as in the case of the Minister of Labor, who is an Indigenous professional, people are appointed not because of a representation quota, but because they are highly qualified professionals. And these are the discussions we are having with the Indigenous movement.

The government of Jacobo Arbenz, who succeeded your father, Juan José Arévalo, was overthrown in 1954 by an armed conspiracy with the direct involvement of the United States and 70 years later your presidency has been supported by the U.S. government, by the Biden administration, to confront an attempted coup against you. What does this change in the relationship between the U.S. and Guatemala mean?

It responds to the change in the international context. At that time, we were in the middle of the 20th century, now we are in the 21st century. These 70 years have transformed the international scene. The Cold War, which was the dominant context at that time, has ended. We are now in another context where the United States and Guatemala, as nations, have a convergence around interests such as the preservation of democracy, the fight against transnational criminal activities, the search for solutions to joint problems and phenomena such as migration. Around all of this is woven this desire for a new relationship.

What impact does the political support that the United States has given to your proposals and to this process of change have on Guatemalan political life? For example, former President Giamatti has been sanctioned and hundreds of other former officials, including the Attorney General herself, Consuelo Porras, has been sanctioned. But, she is still in office, with all that power and authority.

The political process of defense of democracy in Guatemala has had international support, it is extremely broad. We have had support from different ideological orientations of governments in Latin America, in North America, and in Europe. The Organization of American States has been one of the scenarios where this convergence has been noted with unprecedented votes in the Permanent Council in terms of support for the process of democracy, of resistance and defense of democracy and the condemnation of the coup attempts that existed. The same in the European Parliament, with resounding votes, where there has been a convergence of actors. So, the international actors have been especially important, including the United States. 

Of course, it is the effort that we, the national actors who have converged around the defense of democracy, have been generating. And this support generates space that enables and amplifies local actors. And it is this wall-to-wall convergence, ranging from the Indigenous peoples to the private sector, which has been the reason the attempts to revert the electoral result have failed.

Bernardo Arévalo
Bernardo Arévalo, President of Guatemala // Photo: EFE. // Photo: EFE/ David Toro

Entrepreneurs and the fight against poverty 

The political majority that elected you expects changes in the corruption issue. Still, above all, they want an improvement in their living conditions, in the fight against poverty, and have enormous expectations of your government. What is the main objective in your first year of government regarding social and economic policy and how do you expect to achieve it? 

It’s clear to us that the most urgent thing is the fight against corruption, but the most important thing is the fight for development, and the fight against corruption is aimed at allowing public institutions to start working again. 

Since election time, we have put forth, for the Guatemalan people, a very concrete government plan that identifies the avenues we will be pursuing to achieve this transformation in the living conditions of the population, for which the fight against corruption is a necessary step. 

And that means recovering the role of the State in terms of guiding development and doing so through public investment, a significant investment of funds that previously went to corruption, funds that should have gone to medicines, hospitals, schools, and roads, and that ended up turning the people who participate in that network of corruption into multimillionaires. These funds will be translated into development plans, some focused on the country's poorest areas. 

And, at the same time, an effort to work with all the productive actors: small, medium, and large companies, to make the economy grow and create more jobs, so that the greatest possible number of Guatemalan men and women enter the economy. This includes groups of farmers who today are doing subsistence agriculture and who, with government support in these plans, will be able to become small agricultural producers, hopefully, many of them organized as associations. 

Does the private business sector, which has a decisive weight in Guatemala's economy, support or is it an obstacle to these projects and reform processes?

No, we have an ongoing dialogue with the private sector because, first of all, the private sector is also constantly affected by corruption. Secondly, we understand that the solution to the social problems of the country requires activation and growth of the economy and that the actors for the development of this economy are the business actors, large, small, and medium. We are not simply talking about large companies, but in general about the promotion through credit, through training of medium and small companies as well. So at this point, we have an open dialogue about how we can collaborate towards these objectives. 

Central America and democracy

In Central America, there are also hopes and expectations about the government you lead in Guatemala, in the midst of a wave of authoritarianism and deterioration of democracy in the region. What is your main policy concerning Central America on these issues and integration? 

On the issue of integration, we believe that in the absence of political conditions to work on the advancement and rethinking of integration, we will have to work at a technical level. At the technical level there is a lot of room for progress in areas such as trade, technical areas, in service areas, that is to say, in the economies, the people can be much more integrated if we are going to work in that direction.

In the area of political integration, we find it difficult, since in the constitution of the governments in the region there is at least a very clear contradiction with the Tegucigalpa Protocol, which establishes that the nature of the countries that are integrated in Central America is democratic. 

You said, as president-elect, that “Nicaragua is a pure and simple dictatorship,” is it possible to advance in this process of Central American political integration with a totalitarian dictatorship that operates with impunity in the region?

That is why we have said that progress at the level of political integration is going to be very complicated and that the emphasis has to be consequently on progress in economic and social issues. 

Can journalists and justice operators who had to go into exile due to the political persecution of the previous government now return to Guatemala with security guarantees? 

Regarding everything that depends on the actions of the Executive, they can be fully assured that the Government of the Republic will not only not persecute them, but will even protect them and welcome them. However, today many of them are being prosecuted as part of this co-optation. In this situation, what we expect is that the judicial cases will be solved, over which we have no control because there is a full separation of powers as it corresponds to a democratic republican system. But the pressure of the Executive over the other powers to generate this persecution, which was the reason why this phenomenon occurred, has ceased and we hope that now the processes will be resolved in a normal way. 

The most emblematic case is that of a journalist who is not in exile but has been imprisoned for more than 500 days: José Rubén Zamora, the director of El Periódico, in a judicial process that has been questioned for violations of due process. Will he be able to recover his freedom? 

Again, this is a judicial issue, it is not a matter for the Government of the Republic. What we have done immediately after taking office, is to make sure that the conditions of harassment and torture that the previous government had subjected José Rubén Zamora to, cease immediately and that the most favorable conditions possible within the framework of the law are provided. This is our responsibility as those responsible for the penitentiary system while waiting for the case to be resolved before the courts, now that the government that was persecuting him has effectively disappeared.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.

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Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.

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