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  • Writer's pictureClarissa Sung

Guatemalan President-Elect Alleges “Coup”

Bernado Arévalo was recently blocked from ascending to the presidency based on legal technicalities, prompting allegations of an attempted coup d'état (Government of Guatemala/Wikimedia Commons)

Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo announced himself the victim of an alleged “coup d'état'” on Friday, September 1. His accusations reference legal actions taken against him that prevent him from holding leadership positions, as well as the cancellation of the legal status of his Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement) party. Statements from the United States, Chile, Mexico, and the Organization of American States (OAS) criticized the Guatemalan judicial system’s actions as politically motivated and an explicit attempt to keep anti-corruption candidate Arévalo from assuming the presidency.

Who is Bernardo Arévalo and His Movimiento Semilla?

A progressive candidate from a small party known for championing anti-corruption measures, Bernardo Arévalo surprised many when he won Guatemala’s presidential elections in a landslide victory, 20 points above his right-wing opponent and former First Lady, Sandra Torres. Arévalo and his Movimiento Semilla party campaigned on an anti-corruption and anti-establishment platform, which may be just the change Guatemalans have been looking for, given high disapproval rates among the nation’s citizenry. The United States has already sanctioned Guatemala’s current Attorney General as an “undemocratic actor” and appears to look favorably on an Arévalo presidency, which promises to counter much of the democratic backsliding noticeable in his predecessor’s administration. However, Arévalo’s anti-status quo agenda has upset entrenched political forces within the Guatemalan government, which threaten to stall his ascension to the presidency amid a turbulent political environment where his opposition has refused to concede and has leveled accusations of election fraud.

What Legal Actions Are Being Taken?

Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office has begun an investigation into a possible forgery of signatures gathered by Movimiento Semilla years prior when it was registering as an official party. The investigation prompted a judge to cancel the legal status of Arévalo’s Movimiento Semilla party and label Arévalo and six other Movimiento Semilla lawmakers as independent candidates, preventing them from assuming leadership. On September 3, Guatemala’s top electoral authority blocked the suspension of Movimiento Semilla—temporarily granting the party back its legal status—but this decision will only hold until the end of the electoral period on October 31. In the meantime, Arévalo continues to condemn the investigations as politically motivated, announcing in a press conference, “We are seeing a coup d’état in motion in which the justice apparatus is used to violate justice.” A number of international actors have rallied behind Arévalo as fairly elected and criticized the Attorney General’s investigations. The OAS, in a statement, concluded that the Guatemalan justice system has been used for political intent and described the justice system’s recent actions as “selective, disproportionate, and clearly tailored to the political moment.” The United States has echoed this sentiment in a statement of its own, stating it “remains concerned with continued actions by those who seek to undermine Guatemala’s democracy” and labeled the recent judicial actions as “unacceptable.” As the transition of presidential power approaches at the beginning of next year, the eyes of the international community remain on Guatemala’s next president.

What does this mean for Guatemalan democracy?

The suspect legal barriers barring Arévalo from the presidency have captured the attention of global leaders across the American continent. But to many Guatemalans, Arévalo’s success or failure means more than deciding the course of Guatemala’s government for the next 4 years — it represents a greater turning point in a country that has been more or less embroiled in a struggle against corruption and anti-democratic forces since the abrupt end of the “Guatemalan Spring” in 1954. This point is driven home by the fact that Arévalo’s father was none other than the president of Guatemala during that very same democratic period, Juan José Arévalo. The situation in Guatemala remains under close observation as a rapidly unfolding example of democratic trends in developing Latin American nations. Should Arévalo overcome the legal investigations conducted on his party and his political status reinstated, Guatemala could send an irrefutable message in support of popular democracy as a legitimate means of power within its borders. However, should Arévalo remain obstructed from taking office despite the public disapproval of a number of international leaders and heads of state, Guatemalan democracy’s reputation and credibility could be tarnished for the immediate future.



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