Guatemala attempts 'preventive coup d'état'


Santiago Billy / AP

The third week of mass demonstrations of Guatemalans against the “pact of corruptors” has begun. To date, 125 highways across the country have been blocked. This has led to the closure of transportation routes and border crossings, as well as serious disruptions in food and fuel supplies to vital centers, including the capital’s main airport.

Indigenous people, Indians who have been disenfranchised in Guatemalan society for centuries, suddenly organized and called for an indefinite strike. They were joined by students and employees, peasants and traders, activists from social organizations and local committees for democracy. Their demand is to recognize the results of the August 20, 2023 presidential election and not to obstruct the transition period that should culminate in the inauguration of President-elect Bernardo Arevalo of the Semilla (Seed Movement).

In general, the protests are peaceful and somewhat folkloric, except for the fights between prosecutors trying to seize election records and Supreme Electoral Court judges trying to prevent them from doing so.

President-elect Arevalo assessed the clash as an «escalation of legal violence» aimed at «annulling the election results and destroying the democratic regime».

Calling the country’s elite a «pact of corruptors» during the campaign and promising to fight corruption and authoritarianism, Arevalo (incidentally the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, Juan Jose Arevalo (1945–1951), won the 2nd round of the presidential election with the support of 2.4 million citizens. This caught the ruling elite by surprise, who seemed to have done everything to eliminate from the ballot all candidates who could pose a threat to their well-being. Journalists, judges and prosecutors who spoke out against corruption were either jailed or exiled abroad.

Two months after the election, Attorney General Consuelo Porras actively sought to overturn the election results. On her recommendation, prosecutors deprived the Semilla movement of its legal status, which should have led to a review of the election results and «get Arevalo out of the way».

This caused a storm of protests in Guatemala, where it became clear to one and all that Porras was taking orders from powerful people, including outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, in their efforts to overturn the election results. People took to the streets and demanded the resignation of the attorney general.

Giammattei called the demonstrations illegal and warned that the organizers, whom he accused of receiving funds from abroad, would be arrested. Porras called on police to disperse the protesters and break up the barricades. The police hesitated to carry out that order for fear of a popular revolt.

There was a time in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) when no coup d’état ever passed the watchful eye of the White House. “Kings” always fed their “sons of bitches” with cabbage and did not tolerate initiative even from their most zealous servants. It was in Guatemala in 1954 that the U.S. CIA conducted the covert operation PBSUCCESS to overthrow democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz. It was one of the first bloody coups d’état in LAC, in which the US bombed Guatemala’s peaceful cities.

Guatemala’s “true rightists” were counting on Washington’s support this time too. But today the situation south of the Rio Grande has changed, and it is not Dwight Eisenhower sitting in the Oval Office, and it is not John Foster Dulles serving as Secretary of State. Double B — Biden and Blinken — have to reckon with the rise of leftist forces in governance in one LAC country or another.

Perhaps, Latin American analysts believe, Bernardo Arevalo «will eventually get lucky and become the first progressive leader to survive a coup d’état in Latin America without U.S. approval».

The thing that really distinguishes this attempted “preventive coup d’état” is the U.S. position. In the case of Guatemala, after the official announcement of the results of the presidential election, the State Department rushed to issue a statement in support of the president-elect, and a few days later issued a communiqué from Vice President Kamala Harris to Bernardo Arevalo. In both communiqués, the U.S. took the opportunity to demonstrate its concern about attempts to change the outcome of the elections.

Even the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, known for his pro-American stance and outspoken rejection of the Latin American left, went so far as to condemn the «judicial system» of the electoral process in Guatemala.

Is this a sincere turn by Washington toward tolerance of both the Latin American right and left?

At any rate, back in October 2019, the U.S., OAS and EU openly supported the coup d’état in Bolivia against President Evo Morales. Widespread rumors and forged documents about alleged electoral fraud were used as a pretext to remove the election-winning Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) from power and send Morales into exile.

Why did the U.S. not resort to already tested tactics and strategies in the Guatemalan case?

First, it has not proven itself in Venezuela (although it is not yet evening). Second, according to Guatemalan political scientist Rafael Cuevas Molina, «the corrupt elite that has ruled Guatemala for so long no longer serves U.S. interests, it is too discredited and even discourages U.S. investment».

Supporting change in a country that is strategically important in stemming migration flows from Central America to the U.S., according to Cuevas, would also help «clean up the damaged democratic image of the U.S. in the region».

The U.S. government has even imposed sanctions against Attorney General Porras and other prosecutors who have had their entry visas revoked.

Finally, where politics loses, money wins. This is an axiom of the American way of life. Biden’s Democrats have already proposed that Congress allocate $164.5 million for cooperation with Guatemala in the 2024 budget. And what Latin American government doesn’t need money?

Today, along with classic coups d’état, we have witnessed a new phenomenon, preventive coups d’état», which aim, on the one hand, to prevent the rise to power of elected presidents or even leaders who have not yet been approved by the ballot or taken office. And on the other hand, to make it clear what they may face during their rule if they are «disobedient» to those who pay.

The most likely scenario in Guatemala is that Bernardo Arevalo will be inaugurated next January and will manage to assemble a governing coalition. If that happens on schedule, it will be in part because of ongoing protests and roadblocks on Guatemala’s roads and cities.

Chiefs of Mayan and Aztec descendants, mestizo Ladinos and whites say the lockouts will continue indefinitely until their demands are met. They simply want to live in peace and equality.