Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series examining Guatemala’s 2023-24 elections and the implications for regional efforts to curb corruption. Part 1 explored how and why efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of the governing party instead opened the door for Bernado Arévalo’s unexpected electoral victory.

Last year was a pivotal moment for Guatemala’s democracy. Longshot candidate Bernardo Arévalo rode popular anti-corruption fervor into a shocking second place finish in the first-round presidential polls, ultimately winning the presidency in the runoff. Since Guatemala transitioned to a democracy in the mid-1980s, the country has been wracked by increasingly pervasive corruption, perpetrated and perpetuated by venal elites.

Indigenous protesters camp in front of the attorney general’s office, demanding her resignation for targeting Bernardo Arévalo, the president-elect with investigations, in Guatemala City, Nov. 28, 2023. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)
Indigenous protesters camp in front of the attorney general’s office, demanding her resignation for targeting Bernardo Arévalo, the president-elect with investigations, in Guatemala City, Nov. 28, 2023. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)

This corruption has resulted in poor governance, insecurity, poverty and exclusion, which in turn drive growing migration to the United States. So, when Arévalo and his anti-corruption Semilla Movement won the elections, Guatemala’s “pacto de los corruptos” — an alliance of government officials, politicians, prosecutors, judges, party financiers, state contractors and some wealthy families — fought back, attempting to reverse the election in a bid to maintain their grip on power.

But Guatemalan civil society, particularly Indigenous leaders, refused to allow the election to be overturned. They were supported by the international community, and by U.S. policies and pressure because what happens in Guatemala is key to regional stability — a vital U.S. interest — and because Washington views the protection and promotion of democracy as a key foreign policy principle.

The Kleptocracy Responds

Incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei initially appeared to accept the runoff results, going to the extreme of stating he would defend an “orderly transition” with his life, if necessary. This was a lie: Attorney General Porras, a close ally of Giammattei who had been reappointed in 2022, renewed efforts to overturn the elections.

There were three prongs to these efforts, all spearheaded by the Prosecutor’s Office: (1) the ongoing suspension of president-elect Bernardo Arévalo’s Semilla Movement for alleged malfeasance in 2018 when it collected signatures to become a legally recognized political party; (2) alleged vote count fraud; and (3) attempts to discredit the electoral tribunal based on allegations that the magistrates had fraudulently contracted for goods and services.

The attorney general’s actions showed that Giammattei and his allies were determined to block the transfer of power. Although Arévalo denounced the plot as a “coup” against the electoral process, the president-elect and his party chose caution and did not call for citizen protests. Other major parties and business associations were mostly silent. With no other recourse, civil society, led by the country’s ancestral Indigenous authorities, began to protest. 

Indigenous Ancestral Authorities Unite and Protest

An unstated assumption in Guatemalan politics had been that the Indigenous majority would always remain divided, and would focus only on short-term, local issues. The ancestral leaders of the Indigenous peoples shattered that assumption in early October 2023, when they united to call for the resignation of Attorney General Porras, blocking highways and surrounding the Public Prosecutors’ office. 

The Semilla Movement, which had little presence in Indigenous areas, had nothing to do with this decision, although they supported the protests. Arévalo himself did not call a protest march until December 7. 

The highway blockades were a nightmare come true for some wealthy, conservative families who had long feared that democracy might lead to increased demands from the Indigenous and the poor. They also had an immediate effect on many businesses affiliated with CACIF, the country’s association of business chambers, which had denounced the blockades. The blockades likely convinced the wealthy elite that the annulment of the elections would lead to even larger protests and to instability.

With encouragement from the U.S. embassy, CACIF agreed to meet with the Indigenous authorities, who then relaxed the blockades. CACIF in turn issued more statements supporting the electoral process, though the business associations tellingly refused to call for the Attorney General’s resignation, probably because they viewed her as a useful counterweight to a Semilla government.

Although the protests proved difficult to sustain, Indigenous leaders had transformed Guatemalan politics by demonstrating that ordinary citizens would not remain submissive. The protests also opened schisms within the pact and the government.

Government Minister Napoleón Barrientos, whose ministry oversees the civilian police forces, resigned rather than enforce orders to remove protesters surrounding the attorney general’s office, prompting Porras to order his arrest. His replacement also refused to use force, as did military authorities. The United States likely had had some frank talks in private with military and police authorities regarding the likely consequences of using lethal force against demonstrators.

The Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU), the U.S., and other countries continued their vigorous defense of the electoral process. But it became clear that the international community’s statements, warnings and resolutions would no longer be enough. The United States needed to decide if it would implement sanctions. But it needed to work fast in an environment shaped not by institutions and laws but by chance, attitudinal shifts, personalities, emotions and popular protests.

U.S. Pressure and Sanctions

Sanctions were slow in coming, although the United States had ample justification. The plot to annul the election imperiled democracy, an important United States foreign policy objective. It increased the risk of greater instability in Guatemala and therefore greater migration to the United States. And instability could also encourage non-Western hemisphere nations to get involved.

Decision makers had to be convinced, however, to utilize stringent measures, that sanctions were justified based on credible information, and that they would not make the situation worse. In early 2022, Giammattei had threatened to expel the United States Agency for International Development Mission in Guatemala, so that possibility and others were also part of Washington’s calculation.

The United States has multiple sanction options, including three types of targeted sanctions based on credible allegations of corruption or human rights abuse: non-public visa cancellations, which are the easiest to implement; public visa cancellations, which places those targeted on the State Department’s official list of “Undemocratic and Corrupt Actors”; and Magnitsky Act sanctions, which not only deny entry into the United States but also freeze assets held there and prohibit financial transactions with the U.S. individuals or entities. Magnitsky sanctions, which can make it impossible to access international financial networks, require U.S. Treasury approval.  

Regarding U.S. sanctions, there are four key points to remember:

  1. Sanctions cannot serve as a deterrent unless foreign actors view their implementation as credible. The U.S. government’s excessively sparse use of Global Magnitsky Act sanctions led corrupt actors to conclude mistakenly that the United States was all bark and no bite. And they had convinced themselves that visa sanctions were tolerable.
  2. Magnitsky and visa sanctions are unlikely to convince corrupt leaders to back down, especially when they fear prosecution. Magnitsky sanctions are, however, extremely effective in persuading middle- and lower-ranking public officials and the private sector elite to change course. The United States can also withdraw Magnitsky and visa sanctions, as appropriate, providing an exit ramp.
  3. Sanctions against bad actors are most effective when combined with support for good actors.  Unlike some countries that the U.S. has sanctioned, Guatemala had civil society actors who promoted human rights and the rule of law and credible, democratically elected leaders — including ancestral Indigenous authorities — who led pro-democracy protests.
  4. An effective sanctions policy requires sustained attention; otherwise, those targeted will try to wait them out.

The Pact’s Final Push

By mid-November, it still appeared that the government and its allies remained set on annulling the election and prosecuting Semilla members, including vice president-elect Karin Herrara for her alleged role in protests at San Carlos University in 2022. Meanwhile Guatemalan attorneys from the Liberty and Development Foundation, a private think-tank, filed requests for injunctions to halt attempts to nullify the elections. Stanford University’s Rule of Law Impact Lab filed an amicus curiae, based on international law concerns, to support their case; I was the client on whose behalf they filed.

The pact also hatched a plan to convince Congress to pick an interim president, who would likely stay in office at least until mid-2026, thus managing the selection processes for a new attorney general, Constitutional Court and Supreme Court. Then this interim government would hold another round of managed elections — excluding Semilla — while prosecuting not only its political opponents, but also Indigenous authorities and the magistrates on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal who had dared to certify the electoral results.

The Hammer Meets the Anvil

Ultimately U.S. policymakers willing to take calculated risks, backed by a well-led, active U.S. Embassy, broke the logjam. On December 1, 2023, the United States announced it had imposed Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Miguel Martínez, a close political and personal associate of Giammattei. By sanctioning Martínez, who was reportedly prodding Giammattei to block Arévalo’s inauguration, the United States sent a clear signal, not only to Martínez but to Giammattei himself and to the pact.

The United States did not stop there. On December 7, the U.S. government cancelled some 300 American visas, including those of 100 members of Guatemala’s Congress and some private businesspeople. Only two days before, some 108 members of Congress (including about eight who had already lost their visas) had voted to lift the immunity of the electoral tribunal, which cleared the way for prosecutors to pressure the magistrates into reversing the electoral results. 

While the United States could not reveal the identities of those sanctioned, it was not difficult to conclude that U.S. officials had sanctioned the government’s allies and Congressional foot soldiers attempting to annul the elections. Many had previously downplayed visa cancellations as minor inconveniences. But this time the barrage of sanctions took the wind out of their sails. Sometimes, as the military saying goes, “quantity has a quality all of its own.” 

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols warned that a disruption of the electoral process would “jeopardize Guatemala’s market-friendly reputation and [would be] met with a strong U.S. response.” CACIF issued a stronger statement insisting that the electoral results “should be respected.” Meanwhile, Guatemalan bond prices were starting to drop on fears of U.S. trade sanctions. The EU announced it would begin to identify sanctions to support the electoral process.

High-level U.S. visitors, including a Congressional delegation led by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), reinforced the State Department’s messaging. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) also issued a statement calling on Giammattei to respect the peaceful transfer of power. 

On December 14, the Constitutional Court ruled that Arévalo was the winner of the presidential elections and entitled to assume power. The five-to-one decision included a justice appointed by Giammattei himself. Although the pact had lost the battle to annul the elections, it remained focused on disrupting the new Arévalo government and, in the long run, restoring authoritarian kleptocracy.

There are important lessons to be learned from the efforts of Guatemalans and the United States to uphold the elections. These lessons can inform supporters of democracy in Guatemala and the broader international community. Part three of this series will detail those lessons and explore the challenges ahead.

Stephen G. McFarland is a retired United States foreign service officer. He served twice in Guatemala, including as ambassador in 2008-11, and earlier in El Salvador during the armed conflict. His 12 overseas posts were in South and Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, focusing on countries in conflict and post-conflict situations. These are his personal views.

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