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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Guatemala’s anti-graft crusader won in a landslide. Will he actually take office?

Anticorruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo, who won a landslide victory in Guatemala’s presidential race, in Guatemala City, Dec. 12, 2023. Analysts say the incumbent conservative government’s scorched-earth attacks against the democratically elected leader in a bid to prevent an orderly transition of power reveals a country on the brink of political crisis.

By Simon Romero and Jody García

When anti-corruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo won a landslide victory in Guatemala’s presidential race, voters streamed into the capital of Central America’s most populous country to celebrate. But as Arévalo’s foes intensify efforts to keep the president-elect from taking office just weeks from now, the mood on the streets has changed.

Indigenous protesters camped in front of the attorney general’s office are demanding her resignation, accusing her of targeting Arévalo with investigations cooked up after his surprisingly strong showing. Graffiti excoriating prosecutors, who have broken up a major anti-corruption drive, blankets government buildings. Riot police officers stand on alert as the tensions simmer.

In a region already on edge over the embrace of authoritarian tactics restricting democratic freedoms, not just in Guatemala but also in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador, analysts say the scorched-earth attack against a democratically elected leader in a bid to prevent an orderly transition of power reveals a country on the brink of political crisis.

In an interview, Arévalo, an Israeli-educated sociologist who is the most progressive candidate to make it this far since democracy in Guatemala was restored in 1985 after decades of military rule, insisted that he still saw a path to taking office. But he conceded that huge obstacles stand in his way.

“In the 20th century, coups involved tanks, bayonets, soldiers, and lasted two or three days,” Arévalo said. “The coups of the 21st century are carried out with members of Congress, with lawyers, in the courts. It’s more sophisticated, takes much more time, it’s done with the pretense of institutional continuity.”

“But the truth is that the institutions are hollow shells where legality has been cast aside,” he said.

The warning signs for Guatemala’s fragile democracy started flashing as soon as Arévalo, who is the son of Juan José Arévalo, a former president still exalted for creating Guatemala’s social security system and protecting free speech, squeaked into a runoff over the summer.

A prosecutor quickly moved to suspend Arévalo’s insurgent party, Movimiento Semilla (the Seed Movement), and when he resoundingly won the election in August, the judicial authorities and members of Congress expanded their campaign against the president-elect and his allies.

These efforts reached a fever pitch in recent days as prosecutors and Congress took steps to strip Arévalo of his immunity from prosecution and effectively nullify the election results. Together with other efforts to lift Arévalo’s immunity and lock up some of his allies, these moves could open the way for judicial officials to seek his arrest and disrupt the scheduled transfer of power in mid-January.

Leonor Morales, a prosecutor who spearheaded the latest efforts against Arévalo, accused Semilla of using fraudulent signatures to register as a political party. “Semilla was never born through legal means as its constitution was through corrupt and illegal actions,” Morales told reporters last week.

In seeking to invalidate Arévalo’s party, and potentially by extension the election outcome, an alliance of conservative prosecutors and members of Congress, working without pushback from the departing president, Alejandro Giammattei, is pressing ahead with a multiyear drive to consolidate and protect their power, legal experts said.

Alejandro Balsells, a constitutional law authority, said the officials ramping up the legal attacks on the president-elect were in “burn-the-ships mode,” comparing their tactics to those of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who scuttled his ships to prevent his men from turning back on what became the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

In this case, Balsells said, prosecutors and legislators were engaged in a scheme to overturn the election results and were using nearly every tool at their disposal to get the courts and Congress to move against Arévalo.

For some of Arévalo’s supporters, such positioning is tantamount to stealing the election. “It will be a miracle if Arévalo takes office,” said Claudia González, a prominent human rights lawyer who was imprisoned this year for 82 days.

González had worked for a United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission that was shut down, transforming Guatemala from a staging ground for rooting out graft to a country where dozens of judges and prosecutors battling corruption have been forced into exile.

This shift has proved vexing for the Biden administration, which has repeatedly expressed support for Arévalo and has been trying to bolster anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala. The U.S. Treasury Department this month imposed sanctions on Miguel Martínez, a close ally of Giammattei, over widespread bribery schemes.

But the drive by Guatemalan officials to keep Arévalo out of office makes clear the current limits of American influence in Guatemala, where the United States once held considerable sway.

Arévalo’s supporters, pushing back, are in a tense standoff with authorities in parts of Guatemala’s capital. After taking to the streets in October for nationwide anti-government demonstrations, Indigenous protesters remain camped in front of the attorney general’s headquarters to show support for the president-elect.

“Our fight today is for the little bit of democracy we have left,” said Rigoberto Juárez, 66, an Indigenous leader from Huehuetenango, in Guatemala’s western highlands. “We deposited our confidence in Arévalo,” he said. “Nullifying our votes amounts to an attack on Indigenous peoples.”

For those in the caught in the crosshairs as Guatemala’s prosecutors move against Arévalo and his allies, that means the wait until the president-elect’s scheduled inauguration is infused with anxiety.

“There’s this fear that remains, a sort of trauma, that stays with you,” said Marcela Blanco, 23, a member of Arévalo’s party who was arrested in November and held for 11 days. “You feel unsafe in your own home — like at any moment, they can come again and wake you in the middle of your dreams, and completely change your life.”

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