Will Spring Return to Guatemala?

When Bernardo Arévalo won the presidential elections, it seemed that Guatemala was taking the first step towards a new political spring.

Photo: EFE / Confidencial

Photo: EFE / Confidencial

25 de diciembre 2023


When Bernardo Arévalo, candidate of the Semilla Movement, won the presidential elections on August 20, it seemed that Guatemala was taking the first step towards a new political spring. With an anti-corruption discourse, Arévalo based his campaign on the need to implement policies that would strengthen Guatemala’s weak democracy, affected by scandals and political persecution against public employees and activists working on anti-corruption, human rights, and environmental issues. His victory at the polls marked a turning point in the traditional way of doing politics in the Central American country and evidenced the voters’ rejection of the Guatemalan political establishment, embodied in the figure of the former first lady, Sandra Torres.

Nevertheless, things were not going to be easy for Arévalo and his party. Just three days after the second round of the presidential elections, the Public Ministry asked Congress to suspend the Semilla Movement Party. On August 28, the party was provisionally suspended by a judicial decision, and on September 1, Arévalo denounced a coup attempt to prevent him from assuming power. This would only be the beginning of a battle that comes in the run-up to the inauguration, scheduled for January 14. Thus, last December 8, the Attorney General’s Office of Guatemala made a new attempt to reverse the electoral order, presenting the results of an investigation accusing the newly elected president and his party of having committed acts of corruption in the constitution and financing of the party. In addition, it was stated that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal carried out illegalities in the electoral process in which Arévalo won the presidency of the Republic.

Arévalo and part of the international community have been quick to react to the latest developments. The president-elect has once again spoken of a coup d’ État and even the Organization of American States (OAS) has described the latest actions as a coup attempt in the Central American nation. However, beyond the crisis and its attack on democracy, the Guatemalan experience highlights some risks faced by weakly institutionalized regimes: the resistance of ruling parties or coalitions to accept defeat, the perversion of institutions to put them at the service of the elite in power’s interests, the abuse of legal instruments, the criminalization of the opposition or singling out actors or institutions that fail to be co-opted by the regime.

Nonetheless, this is not all. What is happening in Guatemala also shows the perverse use of the media and social networks in politics. Although theory tells us that the media play a key role in democracy, both in terms of the transmission of information, political socialization, and control of power from the side of public opinion, in its worst version they contribute to disinformation, manipulation, and singling people out. In this sense, the traditional media linked to the Guatemalan elite have performed direct attacks against the Semilla Movement and Bernardo Arévalo. Fake news has ranged from saying that the president-elect is a Uruguayan citizen and cannot assume the presidency, to accusing him of being a “Castro-Chavista” and a promoter of a globalism that threatens traditional values.

The situation in Guatemala is complex. The weakening of institutions, impunity for acts of corruption, social tension, and the persecution of leaders and parties are just a sample of the obstacles facing the Central American country. This political and institutional crisis directly affects democracy and the human rights of the population, and highlights the need to put an end to any undue and arbitrary interference of power. The OAS, the National Business Council of Guatemala, multiple social organizations, and a broad majority of citizens have raised their voices to demand an end to the persecution of Arévalo and respect for the electoral results.

The success or failure of all these actions depends not only on the transfer of power but also on the safeguarding and regeneration of the institutions after years of corruption and impunity. However, the acceptance of Arévalo’s victory is only the first step on a long road. For the new government to initiate a process of regeneration, it is necessary to reposition the political and economic elites, who must decide if they are on the side of democracy or if they prefer to maintain their benefits, derived from the cooptation of the institutions. Along with this, the efforts of civil servants and public officials in the fight against corruption and arbitrariness are essential. Finally, the responsible role of the media and civil society organizations. Perhaps, in this way, spring will return to Guatemala.

*Originally published by Latinoamérica21

Translated by Havana Times.


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Mélany Barragán

Cientista Política. Profesora de la Universidad de Valencia (España). Doctora en Estado de Derecho y Gobernanza Global por la Universidad de Salamanca. Especializada en élites políticas, representación, sistemas de partidos y política comparada.