Guatemala’s 2023 elections were a turning point for the country. Despite a playing field tilted to favor the governing elite, voters elected Bernardo Arévalo, whose Semilla (“Seed”) Movement promised to break the country’s cycles of corruption, restoring democracy and the rule of law. Success was — and remains — far from inevitable. The kleptocracy pushed back hard, using their control of the public prosecutors’ office to open spurious investigations and pursue unsupported claims of electoral fraud.

Supporters of presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo gathered in Guatemala City, on July 13, 2023. Arevalo could become the country’s first progressive leader in four decades. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)
Supporters of presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo gathered in Guatemala City, on July 13, 2023. Arevalo could become the country’s first progressive leader in four decades. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)

What comes next matters not just for Guatemala but also for regional and U.S. security. Although Latin America has no ongoing interstate conflicts, it is home to 42 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world. While the sources of violence vary widely, from gang activity and organized crime to unresolved civil conflicts to weak judicial institutions, a common thread across the region is the absence of viable mechanisms for reducing violence and social conflict.

Guatemala appears to suffer from a particularly entrenched dynamic of corruption, social conflict and criminal violence, which has left the country struggling to progress, even after the formal end of the brutal civil war of the 1980s. For many, that war never really ended. A new USIP essay series by Ambassador Stephen McFarland explores how Guatemalan citizens — assisted by  the international community — generated an unexpected and potentially historic opportunity to move past previous cycles of violence and conflict.  

Guatemala is particularly important from Washington’s perspective because internal developments there touch on a broad range of U.S. national interests. It has the biggest population and the largest economy in Central America. It has long been a major source of irregular migration to U.S. borders and a transit country for migrants crossing from South into North America, as well as a route for illicit drugs. Corruption, instability and conflict in Guatemala and its Central American neighbors directly affects U.S. security, often to a greater extent than better known geopolitical hotspots.

This series examines how Guatemalan individuals, institutions, ancestral Indigenous leaders and civil society — plus the foreign governments and multilateral organizations that supported them — have thus far outplayed their autocratic, corrupt adversaries. It also looks at the implications of what happened in Guatemala for regional efforts to curb the corruption that is undermining democratic governance, driving massive irregular migration and empowering organized criminal networks.

Part I explores how and why efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of the governing party instead opened the door for Arévalo’s unexpected electoral victory. Part II looks at how the combination of international pressure and domestic protests thwarted attempts to prevent the president-elect from taking power. Finally, part III provides lessons for policymakers seeking to isolate corrupt actors and deter efforts to disrupt and undermine democratic elections. It also discusses the challenges ahead and how the U.S. government and its partners can help Guatemala’s democratic leaders to overcome them.

Best-Laid Plans

The pivotal issue during the 2023-24 electoral process was whether Guatemala’s government should serve all citizens or continue to provide preferential treatment for those in power. Thirty-seven years after the 1986 elections ended decades of military-dominated rule, Guatemalan democracy teetered atop extreme inequality and exclusion, a weak state captured by corruption and ruled by authoritarians, and an economic model increasingly dependent upon migration and remittances. Traditional political and economic leaders had run out of ideas beyond narrow self-interest.

A year before, no one in Guatemala expected the so-called “pacto de los corruptos,” or the "pact” hereafter — an alliance of government officials, politicians, prosecutors, judges, party financiers, state contractors and some wealthy families — would lose the elections. They had the best-known candidates, they had money and they controlled — or so they thought — the judiciary and the electoral authorities. More than eight years of increasingly mediocre and corrupt government had reinforced voters’ fundamental assumption that all parties were equally flawed.

But as the boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The pact overlooked or misinterpreted mutually reinforcing factors leading to their electoral loss. They underestimated rising citizen resentment of the status quo and dismissed Arévalo and the Semilla Movement as a credible alternative. They misjudged the determination of Indigenous authorities to defend the electoral results and of civil society and journalists to inform and rally citizens, despite intimidation and arrests. They also failed to anticipate that certain judicial and electoral authorities would defend the electoral results even in the face of intense pressure. And finally, they ignored or dismissed the impact of international pressure, including U.S. outreach and sanctions.

The Pact, State Capture and the Eclipse of Democracy

Guatemala’s 2023 election process occurred in an increasingly authoritarian, kleptocratic state. Since Guatemala’s 1986 transition from military to democratic rule, corruption has metastasized, transforming Guatemala into a captured state in which self-interest had become the organizing principle of politics. The old adage of, “yes he steals, but he gets things done,” went out the window. With politicians and operators stealing ever more public money, there was less to spend on projects and services. Illicit money procured votes in Congress and cemented local alliances while politicians and corrupt officials lined their pockets.

The pact had first banded together in 2019 to terminate the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a hybrid, U.N.-sponsored initiative that brought international investigators together with Guatemalan prosecutors to dismantle criminal organizations operating in collusion with state officials. But closing CICIG was not enough. Attorney General Consuelo Porras turned against the Guatemalan judges and prosecutors who had pursued corruption cases, replacing them and then threatening them with prosecution for alleged irregularities. By early 2023, some three-dozen former Guatemalan anti-corruption prosecutors, judges, and civil society leaders had sought asylum, mostly in the United States. Journalists also fled, especially after the arrest of former newspaper publisher José Ruben Zamora in July 2022.

By early 2023, it appeared that incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei and his supporters controlled not only the executive branch, Congress, the judiciary and the Attorney General’s office (also known as the Public Ministry), but also the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the Comptroller’s office and the Human Rights Ombudsman. They had secured the support or the neutrality of most of the wealthy elite, including a private sector umbrella group called the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF). Giammattei and his allies dismissed the impact of international sanctions, assuming that increasing migration and remittances from the United States would provide a safety valve and economic growth. They saw the democratic opposition as small, weak and lacking a credible candidate. The 2023 election seemed theirs for the taking — all they needed to do was to decide which candidate they preferred.

A Managed Election That Escaped Control

Giammattei was the strongest president in Guatemala’s post-1985 era. He was also among the most disliked: arrogant, abusive, corrupt, ineffective and indifferent to ordinary citizens. Voters want results, and Giammattei — and his two predecessors — had failed to deliver. Scandals undermined his government, including the shady procurement of Russian COVID-19 vaccines, many of which remained unused. Shoddy highway construction reminded citizens of the impact of corruption on a daily basis.

Despite government pressure and the loss of private advertising, Guatemala’s investigative journalists reported extensively on the scandals in a target rich environment. “More of the same” was not an effective campaign slogan for 2023. Rather than support the apparently stronger candidacies of potential allies, such as conservative Zury Rios, Giammattei gambled he could steer the election to his own party’s candidate, the uncharismatic but pliable Manuel Conde. This would allow him to remain the power behind the throne.

A key element in Giammattei’s calculation was the presidential bid of Sandra Torres of the National Unity for Hope Party (UNE), who was almost guaranteed to advance to the runoff, but whose high negatives made it unlikely she could win. Hardworking, extremely ambitious and much better at governing than Giammattei, Torres, was a former first lady who reputedly co-governed with her husband, Alvaro Colom, during his 2008-2012 presidency. But many conservative elites considered her a leftist — her National Unity for Hope party belongs to the Socialist International — while others distrusted her as a corrupt operator who allegedly made deals with the government to escape prosecution on campaign financing charges.   

This meant that whoever managed to win a place in the first round and then run against Torres in the final had an excellent chance to win the presidency, just as Giammattei himself had done in 2019. To ensure that Conde made it to the runoff, Giammattei got the TSE to remove three rival candidates: Thelma Cabrera, an indigenous activist, Roberto Arzu, a conservative populist and son of a former president, and Carlos Pineda, another conservative populist who had been leading in the polls. The TSE left on the ballot candidates from smaller parties, including Semilla’s Arévalo, whom no one thought had a chance to win.

Semilla, meanwhile, conducted a campaign focused on good governance, fighting corruption and responding to citizens’ needs. The movement was unique among Guatemalan political parties in having no owners. It had no financing from shadowy businessmen, advertised little in traditional media and held no flashy campaign events. Semilla and Arévalo stressed values and actions over ideology and provided voters an unexpected credible alternative to the status quo.

Unlike most of his rivals, Arévalo had no sense of entitlement or lust for power — he was an anti-candidate in Guatemalan politics. An older, moderate legislator in a new center-left party with mainly young, urban supporters, he had started his campaign with zero illusions of winning. Though little known himself, Arévalo had an illustrious surname as the son of Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president who ruled during a short-lived “democratic spring” in the 1940s. He gave up running for re-election to Congress to conduct one last campaign on behalf of Semilla. 

And The Last Shall Be First

The June 25, 2023, first-round vote stunned the country: Arévalo and the Semilla party placed second, winning a spot in a runoff against Torres. As the returns came in, Semilla poll observers reportedly took selfies with the initial results on their monitors, joking that they needed to do so before the results changed.

Outpolling both Torres and Arévalo were historically high null and blank votes, which reflected massive citizen disenchantment with the status quo. Government party Vamos candidate Manuel Conde finished third.

The immediate reaction of the losing parties was to claim election fraud, but they had no credible theory, let alone proof. The electoral missions of the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU) and Guatemalan civil society had confirmed the validity of the June 25 vote. Guatemala’s election vote-counting mechanisms, based on paper ballots with observers from all parties, had never been seriously challenged in nearly four decades. An initial recount in Guatemala City revealed that Semilla had received a few more votes than initially reported. 

The OAS and its secretary-general, Luis Almagro, issued strong statements of support for the election process, as did the United States and the EU. In a significant move, the Constitutional Court sent the complaint over to the TSE, which in turn refused to modify the results. CACIF issued a cautious but clear statement that supported the electoral process, distancing itself from the government.

These decisions doomed efforts to annul the first-round vote. In the August 20 run-off, Arévalo beat Torres, who refused to concede, by 20 percentage points. Despite the ruling establishment’s best efforts, Arévalo had prevailed at the ballot box. But the kleptocracy was not ready to relinquish its hold on power.

The next article in this series will explain how domestic protest and international pressure staved off a last-ditch effort to prevent the president-elect from taking power.

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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