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The Lawfare Podcast: A Victory for Guatemalan Democracy

Quinta Jurecic, Vaclav Masek, Jen Patja
Monday, February 12, 2024, 8:00 AM
What happened after the presidential elections in Guatemala?

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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On January 15, Bernardo Arévalo took office as the new president of Guatemala. The transfer of power had been far from assured: after Arévalo triumphed in August elections as an anti-corruption reformer, Guatemala’s political elite did their best to throw legal obstacles in his way and prevent him from taking power. His presidency represents a stunning victory for Guatemalan democracy, which has long been under threat. But there are plenty of difficulties still ahead.

To catch up on what’s been happening in Guatemala, Lawfare Senior Editor Quinta Jurecic spoke with Vaclav Masek, a Guatemalan sociologist and columnist. They discussed how Arévalo triumphed, the significance of his victory for Guatemala and the region, and what all this might tell us about the ability of democracies to resist authoritarian backsliding around the world.

If you’re interested in more on Arévalo, you can also listen to Quinta’s conversation from August with Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez about the election and Arévalo’s victory.

Click the button below to view a transcript of this podcast. Please note that the transcript was auto-generated and may contain errors.

 

Transcript

[Audio Excerpt]

Vaclav Masek: The Ministerio Público, which is the public prosecutor's office, has been conducting this lawfare, persecuting candidates and the extreme judicialization of the elections was the culmination of these eight years of democratic backslide. So Bernardo Arévalo comes as this beacon of hope, and Guatemalans turn to him in the second round in an overwhelming fashion. He wins by over 25 points difference and over a million votes. So it is very clear that this marks a new era for Guatemalan politics. It is a watershed moment.

[Main Podcast]

Quinta Jurecic: I'm Quinta Jurecic, a Senior Editor at Lawfare, and this is the Lawfare Podcast, February 12th, 2024.

On January 15th, Bernardo Arévalo took office as the new president of Guatemala. The transfer of power had been far from assured. After Arévalo triumphed in August elections as an anti-corruption reformer, Guatemala's political elite did their best to throw legal obstacles in his way and prevent him from taking power. His presidency represents a stunning victory for Guatemalan democracy, which has long been under threat. But there are plenty of difficulties still ahead. To catch up on what's been happening in Guatemala, I spoke with Vaclav Masek, a Guatemalan sociologist and columnist. We discussed how Arévalo triumphed, the significance of his victory for Guatemala and the region, and what all this might tell us about the ability of democracies to resist authoritarian backsliding around the world. If you're interested in more on this topic, you can also listen to my conversation from August with Manuel Melendez Sanchez about the election and Arévalo's victory.

It's the Lawfare Podcast, February 12th: A Victory for Guatemalan Democracy.

Vaclav, thank you so much for joining to talk about what has been a very, very busy period in Guatemalan politics. This past August, the country elected a new president, Bernardo Arévalo. He was sworn in as president on January 15th. That sounds pretty standard, but in fact it was really far from certain that Arévalo would take office at all. What's been happening over the last few months in Guatemala?

Vaclav Masek: Hi Quinta, thank you for having me. And tumultuous is the word that I have been using to characterize what's been going on in Guatemala. We had a transition period that was marred by lawfare, name drop. But I think since the transition of power actually took place in January 15, let's start from there. It was supposed to be on January 14th on Sunday, but despite his opponent's efforts to derail the transition, Bernardo Arévalo de León was finally sworn in as Guatemala's president in the early hours of that night. It was a chaotic inauguration that was delayed for hours by a last ditch attempt by Congress to weaken his authority. Bernardo Arévalo de León is known to the international press as an anti-corruption crusader and he won the elections in August as you mentioned by a landslide and it was the first election since the return to democracy in 1985 in which the winning party did not have any clien-to-list networks.

It was after nine hours after his inauguration was scheduled to start that Bernardo Arévalo took the oath as the president, replacing conservative politician Alejandro Giammattei, whose government has been engulfed in corruption scandals. And in this latest, in a series of legislative setbacks triggered by opponents underscored the challenges that Arévalo is facing as a leader of Central America's most populous nation, to which he has pledged to bring sweeping reforms and tackle the rising cost of living and violence, which are the key drivers to migration to the United States. Arévalo's opponents in Congress already moved to try to handcuff him by approving a budget late last year that would severely limit his ability to spend on health care and education, which are two of his priorities.

But finding resources to spend is just one of the many difficulties that Arévalo is facing. More urgently, he faces multiple challenges from Guatemala's entrenched establishment, which has aimed to quickly cripple his ability to govern. Guatemala is a country of 18 million people and Arévalo has faced steady opposition from established political parties, such as the ones that represented the outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, and his victory has been, many attempts to undermine his victory. So we're seeing how prosecutors and courts have been poised to stifle the winner's ability to govern.

Even since the beginning of the election, which were marred by questions of electoral integrity because we saw how three prominent candidates were disqualified from running, Arévalo emerged as this dark horse running on a progressive anti-corruption platform with his party Movimiento Semilla. And he quickly rose to the spotlight in this surprise first round second place finish in June. And after that victory in June, where he moved to the second round, which I initially said that he won in a landslide, lots of legal trouble started to emerge. Within days of his surprising first round achievement, a Guatemalan court agreed to suspend the results of the vote pending a review. The results were upheld, but Movimiento Semilla, his party, faced a suspension after prosecutors alleged it had improperly gathered signatures to register it as a political party. And thereafter, from June to January 15th, we saw many attempts to undermine. As I said, it's been a lawfare textbook definition to the point that the international community had to come out to issue sanctions. We saw the largest mobilization in defense of democracy that the hemisphere has seen in this century. I'm a sociologist of social movements and I have been amazed to see that it was the indigenous peoples of Guatemala who actually led this call to action to defend the people's vote.

So it might seem like a little bit convoluted because it is, and especially because it has taken a long time for him to assume office. And as I recently argued, in an opinion editorial for El País, the newspaper in Spain, Arévalo is not going to have a honeymoon period. As I said, the 18 million Guatemalans, half of which are of a voting age, are sick and tired of the current dominant coalition and the political elite. So the stakes are really high, especially given the immigration issues that are now being put on the table in another election, which is the U. S. election happening in November. The president, the newly elected president, now inaugurated, Arévalo, is going to have to deal with a lot of moving parts.

Quinta Jurecic: That's a great overview and I want to make sure that we dig into a lot of the different things that you've set out on the table there. Before we get into what happened after the vote was actually counted and Arévalo was declared the victor, I want to set the scene a little bit more. Who is this guy? You know, he was not expected to win, I think it's fair to say. Movimiento Semilla, his political party is as also, as you say hasn't been around for particularly long. What's going on here and why has this victory become such a topic of contention that it's generated all of this pushback from the Guatemalan political establishment?

Vaclav Masek: Yeah. So when you look at it from a macro point of view, before we dig into who Bernardo Arévalo de León is, because I think from a historical perspective, he's a very significant figure in Latin American history. And I'll go into that in a bit.

But when you look at the results from the 2020 Latino Barometros survey, you see that Guatemala had one of the lowest levels of trust and support for democracy in the region among the electorate. Only 37 percent of citizens considered democracy to be preferable to any other form of government and 65 percent of them were not satisfied with how it operated in Guatemala. Regarding political rights, for example, only 9 percent of Guatemalans believe the right to participate in political life is fully guaranteed. And this atmosphere of optimism for change that had been present for the elections in 2015 have faded by 2020.

So, come the election of 2023, you have three favorites in the election. The first is Zury Ríos, who is a conservative politician and is the daughter of a former military dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt. You had Sandra Torres, who was known as a social conservative, who later pivoted to a much more hardline conservativism in the second round of the 2023 election. She was a former first lady of Álvaro Colom, from 2008 to 2012, and she is a three-time presidential candidate. And the other candidate that was emerging in the initial polls in 2023 was Edmond Mulet, who is a career diplomat who had worked for the UN and had led missions in Haiti and in Africa.

All of these three candidates used extensive clientelistic practices. So what do I mean by that is people who come to their meetings were offered various gifts, even a sum of money in the case of Zury Ríos. So political party activists circulated among the ranks, taking down the names and addresses of those who are present as the primary beneficiaries in the event of their candidate's victory. So, as you see, vote-buying is a very common practice in Guatemalan elections and it often goes unpunished. So when the first round took place in June of 2023, we saw a record number of invalid ballots where more than 24 percent of the ballots were either spoiled or left blank entirely. So this was attributed to the distrust of the electoral system among the electorate, including the disqualification of some presidential candidates at the beginning of the process. So out of this miasma of distrust and apathy comes Movimientos Semilla and Bernardo Arévalo. And now let me tell you a little bit about who they are.

First, we need to understand that the last great social movement that took place in Guatemala dates back to 2015. Back then, we had a a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission called Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG. And through extensive investigations Guatemalans found out through CICIG that then President and Vice President Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti were at the helm of a massive fraud which involved paying kickbacks in the ports of the country. After several weeks of protests, multitudinary protests that were gathered in Guatemala City and other urban centers of the country, they finally came down and they were put into preventive prison. The former president and vice president agreed to be set to trial, and this was the very first time that Guatemalans felt that their voice was being heard, especially in the 21st century.

During these protests, many student activists, members from the middle class people that work as small business owners, teachers, nurses, people that work in the health sector, and especially university professors and intellectuals, they saw themselves reflected in the citizen movement and they decided to organize a discussion group that later became known as Movimiento Semilla. Among the original founders was Bernardo Arévalo de León, who is the son of Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, who is an icon of the Latin American progressive movement, the first democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1945, who was a social studies professor in Argentina and then came back to Guatemala after another social movement deposed the dictator at the time, Jorge Ubico.

Bernardo Arévalo was actually born in exile in Uruguay because his father and, hence, his family, had to flee after the counterrevolution, which we'll talk about later when we address the role of the United States this time around. And he is a sociologist by training, he has a PhD that he got in Spain. He has worked as a diplomat in Israel. He speaks, I think, four fluent languages. And when Semilla finally decided to participate in their first election cycle in 2019, he was elected in the first cohort of congresspeople for Semilla. He was the head of the party of the legislative bloc during that first period. And he was selected as the ideal candidate because of his moderation. He's known to have worked in fields of peacekeeping and he's a good problem solver, or at least that's the reputation that preceded him.

When Semilla was seen as this option that was organically producing leadership, that was very much aware of what the structural deficiencies of Guatemala were, given their emergence as as a party after the anti-corruption protest of 2015, the electorate in 2023 placed their hopes in him and in Semilla's programmatic agenda, because the Guatemalan party system, as I mentioned many times already, is characterized by not having real ties, ideological or electoral. It's done through vote buying, it's done through favors. So ideology or even an agenda with specific public policies has never been in the minds of Guatemalans. So that's also partly what explains why one in four votes were blank or spoiled in the first round.

So he embodies this spirit of change. And right now, he's the most personable and popular politician in the country, in a country that, as I've said, is very apathetic towards politics. And he has risen to the occasion. I think he's very well-aware of the moment that Guatemala is facing ever since 2015, after these anti-corruption protests that were historic, we're facing a quick democratic backslide. It's almost like what happened between 1944 and 1954, we had the Ten Years of Spring as Guatemalans like to romantically call it. What followed that was the counterrevolution. Many of us will be familiar with the 36-year armed conflict that was marked by counterinsurgency, scorched earth military campaigns that many believe, including myself, amounted to crimes of genocide against the Ixil Maya populations. Over 200,000 people were killed during these years of bloodshed. A similar thing happened after 2015. A lot of the critics of the government had been forced to flee. A lot of criminalization, especially from the authorities tasked with serving justice in Guatemala, has been carried out. The Ministerio Público, which is the Public Prosecutor's Office, has been conducting this lawfare that I've mentioned at the beginning. Persecuting candidates and the extreme judicialization of the elections was the culmination of these eight years of democratic backslide.

So Bernardo Arévalo comes as this beacon of hope. And Guatemalans turned to him in the second round in an overwhelming fashion. He wins by over 25 points difference and over a million votes. So it is very clear that this marks a new era for Guatemalan politics. It is a watershed moment.

Quinta Jurecic: So you mentioned this idea of the judicialization of the election, which is something that the Organization of American States voiced concern about during the period in which the campaign was going on. Before we get to what happened after Arévalo wins, can you just give a brief overview of what you mean by that and what that lawfare--and we appreciate the shout-out--looked like in practice against Arévalo and Movimientos Semilla?

Vaclav Masek: Yes, of course. So, the Ministerio Público, or the Public Prosecutor's Office, has been orchestrating legal persecution against President-elect, or I guess, President Arévalo and his running mate, Karin Herrera, of pretty much non-existent crimes. These statements and these actions have sparked a domestic and international firestorm, and critics consider that these are efforts to overturn the electoral victory.

The first thing that happened was after Movimiento Semilla won this surprising first round, there were efforts to suspend the party. As I mentioned, a judge, criminal judge by the name of Fredy Orellana, who is an important protagonist here in this story, alleges through the use of the organized crime law, that Movimiento Semilla was fraudulently constituted. They forged signatories at the beginning of their efforts to become a political party. They used fake names. Some of the people that signed these documents that are handed in to the electoral authorities were either dead or were not real. And at this point in time, we still haven't seen the evidence, and it's been almost seven months now since this campaign started, and unfortunately the public is still a little bit in the dark about what this really looks like for the prosecutors who have been accused of undemocratic actions.

For example, the United States has previously alleged that Special Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, who is another important protagonist in our story, and the Secretary General of the Ministerio Público of the Public Prosecutor's Office, Angel Pineda, have obstructed investigations and have turned them into acts of corruption to further their political aims. And the aim is very simple. Initially, they didn't want Semilla on the second round of the elections. And they failed. After Arévalo won in a landslide, they wanted to invalidate their results and they also failed. And then they reiterated, Guatemalan persecutors reiterated their requests, that Arévalo be stripped of his political immunity, which could open him up to prosecution. They failed at that as well, but they went even further, raising the prospect of the entire presidential election being overturned to these findings. And prosecutors have even gone as far as targeting the Supreme Electoral Tribunal itself, which is the highest authority when it comes to elections in Guatemala. They have ordered raids on its offices after the elections, that resulted in sealed ballot boxes being opened. And this was a very traumatizing thing to witness for Guatemalans, who for decades experienced actual electoral fraud when the military dictatorships were in power. So watching these being livestreamed for everyone to see how prosecutors were coming into the building and essentially taking the boxes into their cars with their faces covered. It looked like an inconstitutional act because it was.

When you see all these attempts at undermining his electoral victory, you get a social response, which is what moved me and my other Guatemalans to think that we were at a breaking point. The national strike that launched in October 2nd, it carried on for 105 days. And if you are wondering why so long, it was because it was until his inauguration. So from October the 2nd till January 15th, indigenous authorities camped outside of the Ministerio Público, protesting and demanding that Attorney General Consuelo Porras, Special Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, and Judge Fredy Orellana would step down. This was an incredible thing to witness because when you realize that this is a country whose historically marginalized populations are the one leading the call to defend the same institutions that have rejected them, it almost becomes cinematic or poetic. The protests were mostly peaceful, but they involved blocking streets. So during October, we saw how the country was grounded to a halt. All of the highways in the country were blocked by these spontaneous and community-managed blockades. But they were all led by a powerful, generation-old assembly called the 48 Cantones of Totonicapan, who is based in the western highlands of Guatemala.

So in essence, despite the repeated attempts to not only violate the constitution, but disregard any democratic norm that Guatemala as a state has abided by since its return to democracy in 1985, the population, and especially indigenous peoples, lent this incredible mobilization to defend electoral integrity, to defend the right to vote, and to reject authoritarianism.

Quinta Jurecic: So in terms of the timeline, we have Arévalo wins the second round in August. There's this backlash where, as you say, there are these investigations, there is an effort to strip him of immunity from criminal prosecution to open him up to that potentially. You end up with this massive protest movement, and the general strike that goes from October through January. And as you said at the beginning, there's this moment at the very, very end where Arévalo, it finally seems like he's going to be sworn in. And then there's this last minute machination where it's all pushed back because of a final scramble, which is also quite cinematic and in its own way. What happened there?

Vaclav Masek: Yeah, the coup coalition--because not only has Arévalo called it a slow motion coup or a technical coup, but the Organization of American States, the OAS, the European Union, many heads of state in Latin America, including President Lula da Silva in Brazil, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, and many others have called this a coup. It's not like they used to do them in the 20th century with tanks and bayonets, but rather through lawfare, again, through courts and judges and very intricate uses of the law.

What happened in January, or especially in the weekend of the inauguration, was that the party became the focus of the coup plotters. They realized that Arévalo was going to assume office, given the international pressure that had been exerted on Guatemala. That there was, for them, this was already a lost battle. So what they try to do is to go back to this original accusation from Judge Fredy Orellana and say that Semilla actually is no longer a party. So what that means is that they have no political rights in Congress. The 23 elected representatives that had won seats in the new legislature would have to assume as an independent bloc.

And this is why the inauguration was delayed for so long. This became a bitter quarrel between the outgoing legislature and the incoming legislature. The outgoing legislature is the one that's supposed to hand the baton to the new one and then the new one inaugurates the president. That's how the law works in Guatemala. So there was this huge fear that if Semilla lost its party status, that they would no longer be able to vote for a board of directors or the executive directory of the legislature and that the new opposition or the former ruling coalition would decide not to inaugurate Arévalo. So this was the fear, that through these legal technicalities, they were going to be able to stop this transition of power. Fortunately for us Democrats who believe that this is the cornerstone of democracy, is being able to peacefully transfer power from the loser party or the outgoing regime into the winning party or the new administration, that didn't happen. And what we saw was, again going back to the very historic scenes that we witnessed recently in January. We saw that despite these egregious protocol delays, Bernardo Arévalo was finally able to receive the presidential sash from a party colleague of his, Samuel Pérez Álvarez, who finally was able to garner enough votes to win the Board of Directors, or the leadership position in Congress. And so, he was able to pass or officially inaugurate him. And why do I say this is historic? Because nearly eight decades ago, When Arévalo's father, Juan José Arévalo, assumed the first democratically elected presidency, he was sworn in by the young president of the legislature at the time, Manuel Galich, who, akin to Congressman Samuel Pérez, was 31 years old and a former student activist. So these echoes, or these similarities, these parallels from history were very moving to witness.

Unfortunately, after this inauguration that had all these symbolic scenes, the party was suspended again. This is when a new player, who at first was against the coup and now is stifling or undermining Arévalo's governing capacities, showed up. And this is the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court said that the legislative elections for the leadership roles had to be repeated because, in fact, the political organization known as Semilla is suspended. So this, what the Constitutional Court, which is Guatemala's highest court, endorsed, is pretty much a mortal blow to the electoral and party system that made the democratic transition possible. The CC, as it's known in Guatemala, resolved that the legislators elected by Semilla cannot be part of a legislative bloc, and that is why the Board of Directors of the Congress has to refrain from issuing provisions or even putting the issue up for discussion to reactivate their status. And this seems like an obvious attempt at, again, handcuffing Arévalo's ability to govern. Not only is he facing now the uphill task of ruling without an effective party in Congress, or no representation because Semilla is now just an independent legislative bloc that can no longer preside over the commissions in Congress or even attempt to gain a position in the leadership roles. But also, the Attorney General Consuelo Porras has refused to meet with the president, even though he's requesting that she steps down. So when you have two of the three organs of the state against you, it's going to be a very complicated scenario ahead.

This seems like a conspiracy to dismantle democratic legitimacy, and I don't think it has an end in sight because the coup mongers, which is a minuscule group whose fortune has financed the depredation of resources, will continue to seek to undermine the will of the citizens and reject any seeming attempt at reform. So, this anti-democratic mafia that isolated Guatemala from the world stage, will keep instrumentalizing the Ministerio Público and the Corte Constitucionalidad to maintain age-old privileges and immunity for the now weakened dominant political coalition.

Quinta Jurecic: I have to say, from where I'm sitting in the United States, the idea of legislature at the last minute engaging in some kind of creative reading of loopholes to prevent a new president from coming into office sounds uncomfortably familiar to what we experienced on January 6, 2021. And you actually, you wrote an essay this past summer in the publication Plumazos comparing the authoritarian threat in the U. S. on January 6, also the attack on Congress in Brazil on January 8, 2023, after Jair Bolsonaro's failed attempt to hold on to power, and what's been happening in Guatemala. And there are interesting contrasts to be drawn between Brazil and the U. S. in terms of the strength of responses to the attempted seizure of power, but I want to focus on the distinction you draw between what those coup attempts look like in Brazil and the U.S., and what they look like in Guatemala, where this effort to block Arévalo from power and now to handcuff him hasn't involved at any point a violent mob attacking the governing body. But, as you argue, it is an effort to overthrow the constitutional order. So I'm curious to hear your thoughts about that distinction, why things look different in Guatemala. Should we understand this effort to roll back democracy as something qualitatively different in the sense that it's a elite rejection of a democratic movement rather than a mob that itself has some level of popular support?

Vaclav Masek: Yeah, I think I've always been very curious to see how these phenomena play out. And I think you're onto something. I mean, elites have entrenched entrance to dismantle investigations. And it seems like a cynical effort to protect the status quo. And sometimes they cite alleged prosecutorial abuses or the dubious technicalities that we were talking as a pretext. And what has mounted throughout the region and seems to be motivated by political violence and using lawfare to target an individual or an ideology. Sometimes this has come to mean that it's particularly attacking individuals on the left. Some of that might be a little bit nonsensical because there's countries where the right has recently been in power, maybe Peru and Panama in 2019 come to mind. Conservative politicians have been the ones who went to jail, right? If leftist politicians are filling prisons everywhere, let's remember that the pink tide dominated South America for the last decade-plus. And in Brazil, as you say, the reaction to these very egregious attempts at disrupting the constitutional order have been very different to the ones that occurred in the United States. But I think it's worthy to compare it to Guatemala because ultimately what we see from these three cases is very authoritarian, populist, conservative, right-wing ideological notions of politics being at the forefront of these arbitrary use of law.

And it's very concerning because everything happens under the guise of legality. Everything that is happening right now in Guatemala is supported by the top courts and that's why it gives it a little bit of a semblance of legitimacy. Even though you look at public opinion polls and all of the institutions of the state are largely rejected. The fact that it is the Ministerio Público or the Corte Constitucionalidad, who are the ones carrying these attempts, are quite different from what we saw in Brazil and in the United States. You had two losing presidential candidates who rallied their bases and the masses took the clarion call to act upon these grievances. Since the outgoing president of Guatemala, who many believe is an integral protagonist in this orchestrated campaign to delegitimize Semilla and Arévalo, since he was one of the most unpopular figures of this century--I think he left office with something like 11 percent approval rating. I think it's fair to question what the real motivation is. And so, I go back to the beginning, right? If we're using the belief that it is an entrenched interest to dismantle investigations that might disrupt the status quo I think that this is where Guatemala comes into the case study that should be looked into by political scientists and other social scientists who are concerned with questions of power. How far is a coalition willing to go to keep these privileges and to maintain these structural advantages that they have in their favor?

The thing with Semilla and with Arévalo is that since nobody saw them coming, they were able to participate and they won using these institutions that are flawed, but ultimately paid off for them. If they were seen as a threat at the beginning of the electoral cycle, they would not have been even able to participate. So that's a mistake from the ruling coalition. They should have known better, in a more colloquial way, that a reformist candidate was the real threat to the system.

Quinta Jurecic: So as I kind of hinted in pointing to the U. S. and Brazil, we're in a moment of broad uncertainty around the world and in the Americas specifically when it comes to the stability of democracies and democratic backsliding. Obviously, the United States is going through a prolonged crisis on this front right next door to Guatemala. El Salvador is slipping further and further into outright dictatorship under President Nayib Bukele. The Arévalo story, depending on where you end it, can seem like good news or kind of mixed news. The good guys won, maybe Guatemalan democracy persevered, but now is facing this real persistent threat going forward. So I'm curious how you would situate this story in context of this broader concern over democratic backsliding and authoritarian movements around the world?

Vaclav Masek: Yes, I think Guatemala may emerge as a rare success in promoting democracy. And you're right; Arévalo largely reached inauguration day 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. I think U. S. officials recognized that averting this meltdown in Guatemala was critical. The Central American country is a major transit route for cocaine and irregular migrants. So when the Biden administration had already watched democracy crumble in Nicaragua and El Salvador, they probably feared that the trend was spreading. So when we see career U. S. bureaucrats with decades of experience in Latin America targeting Guatemalan politicians and influential business people with a blizzard of sanctions and stern public statements and quiet arms twisting, it all makes sense. We saw a procession of senior State Department officials visiting Guatemala to show support for Arévalo since his victory in August 2023. Even President Biden praised his victory and going as far as the Pentagon, who recognized, and I quote here, "the importance of maintaining democracy and stability in Guatemala." And not only the U. S. or special agencies or departments based in Washington, but also the European Union and the Organization of American States, which had monitored the elections, they also demanded the results to be respected.

So, we've seen how this coalition to defend democracy was led domestically by indigenous peoples, but the international community again--and I don't want to make this sound like it was only them. They made this possible. And I remember when, in late December, U. S. lawmakers like Senators Tim Kaine from Virginia, Pete Welch from Vermont, Jeff Merkley from Oregon, they all pressed members of Giammattei's cabinet to guarantee a democratic transfer of power, and apparently they agreed. But it was an hour later and a prosecutor from the Ministerio Público declared the results of the August elections null and void. So the State Department came out swinging and they announced that it was cancelling visas for nearly 300 Guatemalans. This included around two thirds of the members of Congress and some hardline business executives. But you're right. Human rights advocates domestically and internationally say that the Biden administration's efforts in Guatemala, while they might be admirable, they might be a little bit at odds with its actions elsewhere, especially in El Salvador, because U. S. officials continue to publicly praise relations with Nayib Bukele, even if he's led a crackdown on gangs that is widely criticized for its brutality. So it seems like the United States doesn't think it's worth fighting with someone who is that popular.

So the U. S. relationship with Guatemala will continue to become more prominent because in the past decades, due to this shifting migration pattern--and as I said, given that the country is not only an origin for migrants, but also a transit point for others that are coming from further South. Over 200,000 encounters with Guatemalans occurred at the U. S.-Mexico border between 2021, 2022, and 2023. So this structural inequality, you add it to political stability, and that will significantly drive immigration. And, of course, this disproportionately impacts indigenous communities who are burdened by state abandonment and corruption. So without the international community's diplomatic sanctions, I think we would be in a different place right now.

Quinta Jurecic: I find that particularly interesting because obviously, as we've alluded to before, if you say the words "United States," "Guatemala," "democracy," I think before the last few months, a lot of people would have thought of U. S. interventions in mid-century, against Guatemalan democracy. And so there's a bit of an irony there. But it's also the case that the Trump administration allowed CICIG, the anti-corruption Commission, to fall by the wayside. And that's been widely criticized. But I think it also points to, if we're looking at this dynamic that you're describing as a kind of international alliance of democracies, I also wonder what that means in terms of if democracies are helping hold one another up, what happens in a different U. S. administration that has different political priorities? If that pressure is no longer on Guatemalan elites, is there a danger that Arévalo will lose the momentum that he's gathered?

Vaclav Masek: Yeah, I think that is a very latent fear among Guatemalans, especially those who keep tabs on U.S. politics. We're very well aware that immigration is going to be the centerpiece of the Republican programmatic agenda for 2024. And we're very familiar with dealing with very hardline immigration spokespeople like Stephen Miller and the people that were at the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol.

You mentioned that during the Trump era, we had the beginning, or it coincided with the democratic backslide period in Guatemala. And I want to point out that it was during that time that Guatemala became a safe third country, which is where asylum seekers would be sent to wait for their court date until a judge was ready to see them and hear their case. And this happened with the Jimmy Morales administration, that this comedian turned politician with no experience in public administration that capitalized this anti-politics mood that stirred Guatemala after the 2015 anti-corruption protests. And he sent his then-chancellor, the foreign affairs minister, to the White House to sign these paperwork, in essence, giving away the sovereignty of Guatemala to, and becoming the southernmost border of the United States. And nowadays, when you speak or when you hear migrants coming from Venezuela or from Ecuador or from other Central American countries, they're most fearful of going through Guatemala because not only are security forces demanding bribes, but there are a multiplicity of criminal organizations that are taking control of these routes.

So it's extremely dangerous to go through Guatemala, not only because we've seen the deterioration of these institutions that are supposed to serve immigrants, but the fact that now--well, during the Trump administration, we committed to that vision of immigration politics. Again, the flow of migrants doesn't seem to be stopping. And the only solution for that is integral development and community-based projects. Funds that militarize these borders are only going to leave more human suffering. And this is what concerns us the most when we look into the future and we see that what might come is family separation on steroids. We realize that maybe we're not out of the woods yet in terms of our relationship with the United States.

Quinta Jurecic: So with the caveat, as you say, that a lot depends on what happens in the United States in November, what are you going to be watching in Arévalo's administration in Guatemalan politics over the next few months? What are signs that things are going well versus going badly?

Vaclav Masek: Yeah, I think the Arévalo administration is already indebted to the courage and determination of the people in a situation of great volatility and conflict between state bodies, and that's indigenous peoples. Its success would not only greatly benefit the rule of law in Guatemala, but I think it would send a powerful message to the region and maybe even the world, if I am so bold, that liberal democracy remains a viable option in the countries of northern Central America. And this would demonstrate to Latin Americans that it is possible to challenge the status quo while maintaining, at the same time, these democratic values. So that's why cautious optimists like myself have begun discussing that there's a new dawn in Guatemala with this post-conflict political model, how it had already cultivated so much indifference among young progressives. We see this reformist centrism filled the void of a nonpartisan electorate. And it produced an unlikely social democratic winner among a sea of conservative and far-right options. So this insistence on ceasing politicking as usual must be reflected going forward. Especially concerning indigenous peoples.

What I would like to see is Arévalo being very stern about his commitment against corruption. And that means that he needs to continue the confrontation with the Attorney General. He has already requested [for her to] step down. And even though she's not hearing any of these requests or attending any of the meetings, it seems that she no longer has the power that she used to last year when the president was on her side.

On the other hand, I would like to see a transparent government. We've been subjected to eight years of secrecy, of hermetic communication between the citizenry and the state. So I would appreciate that these channels of communication are open once again. And in regards to these civil liberties, I would like for freedom of expression to be a reality once again. I used to write for a daily newspaper called El Periodico, which was a very critical voice of the government, and I'm talking in the past tense here because unfortunately El Periodico had to close after regime pressures. And its editor, José Rubén Zamora, was wrongfully imprisoned. Until today, he remains in solitary confinement in a military prison with only one hour a day of sunlight. And it's been over 500 days that he's been there. So I'm really looking forward to the situation being resolved. I believe that journalism in Guatemala has been through dark times and this is one of them, but without this transparency and openness and willingness to speak to the people, I would expect that the Arévalo presidency would do that. I think society would at least feel less surveilled, less pushed to the extreme of self-censorship, or even as it happened with many of my journalist colleagues, to exile. So I hope that this year we see very specific task forces, for example, being assembled to resolve this issue of freedom of the press and freedom of speech. and hopefully we can have El Periodico back again in print.

Quinta Jurecic: Let's leave it there. Vaclav, thank you so much for joining.

Vaclav Masek: Thank you so much for the invitation.

Quinta Jurecic: The Lawfare Podcast is produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution. You can get ad free versions of this and other Lawfare podcasts by becoming a Lawfare material supporter through our website, lawfaremedia.org/support. You'll also get access to special events and other content available only to our supporters.

The podcast is edited by Jen Patja Howell. And your audio engineer this episode was Noam Osband of Goat Rodeo. Our music is performed by Sophia Yan. As always, thanks for listening.


Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.
Vaclav Masek is a Guatemalan sociologist and columnist based in LA. His writing has appeared in El País, El Faro, and NACLA. He was born and raised in Guatemala City.
Jen Patja is the editor and producer of The Lawfare Podcast and Rational Security. She currently serves as the Co-Executive Director of Virginia Civics, a nonprofit organization that empowers the next generation of leaders in Virginia by promoting constitutional literacy, critical thinking, and civic engagement. She is the former Deputy Director of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier and has been a freelance editor for over 20 years.