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'Coup' by lawfare: Guatemalan president-elect on attempts to keep him from power

The president-elect of Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo, visits the NPR offices during a trip to Washington, D.C. Guatemala's electoral authorities recently suspended his party to try to keep him from taking office.
Keren Carrión
/
NPR
The president-elect of Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo, visits the NPR offices during a trip to Washington, D.C. Guatemala's electoral authorities recently suspended his party to try to keep him from taking office.

Bernardo Arévalo walked into NPR's studios in Washington, D.C., with no security and two aides. It was symbolic of the kind of no-frills, home-spun presidential campaign Guatemala's president-elect has run.

Last summer, he surprised everyone when he won the Guatemalan presidency with over a 20 percentage-point margin in the runoff.

Up until that point, the elections had been marked by irregularities. Three popular candidates, including a front-runner in the polls and the most important Indigenous candidate, were disqualified by the electoral commission.

Human Rights Watch said the moves showed "clear manipulation" for political purposes and an election monitoring group run by a consortium of civil society groups said the electoral commission was "erratic" and said the decisions caused "irreparable harm to electoral process."

Arévalo, who leads a party full of idealistic young people, said the ruling elite in Guatemala didn't see him as a threat. He was polling terribly; no one, not even his own party, thought he had a chance.

"[The ruling elite thought] they're never going to make it, but let's let them run because they legitimize the whole thing," Arévalo said in his recent interview at NPR. "And then when we sneaked into the second round and we came second ... they saw that they had not planned for this."

Since then, the country's attorney general and some courts have launched a campaign to try to keep him from taking power. Authorities have suspended Arévalo's party, they have launched investigations and even after the election results were certified, officials from the attorney general's office raided the headquarters of Guatemala's electoral commission and forcefully took elections materials.

Thousands of Arévalo's supporters have taken to the streets for weeks, demanding that the attorney general step down.

Arévalo has described this as a "coup in slow motion." What follows are some highlights from Arévalo's interview with NPR.

President-elect of Guatemala Bernardo Arévalo speaks about his win during a visit to NPR's studios in Washington, D.C.
Keren Carrión / NPR
/
NPR
President-elect of Guatemala Bernardo Arévalo speaks about his win during a visit to NPR's studios in Washington, D.C.

On what a "slow-motion" coup means

"The coup d'états of the past were an affair that happened in two days with a lot of power. And you used the armies or the security forces to generate a change of government, ousting the people at the point of bayonets. That was in the 20th century and we had our share of coup d'états in Guatemala. In the 21st century, all over the world, coups are being conducted by lawfare. They are being conducted by co-opted institutions, justice institutions that then begin to be used selectively, non objectively, opportunistically, and sometimes even to the point of completely fabricating or falsifying evidence in order to try to attack somebody to gain the same effect that the old violent coups were getting, which is to prevent people that are in office or got elected to office to actually governing. So the result is the same. The means is different, and the means here is by judicial persecution."

On whether he believes President Alejandro Giammattei, who has promised a peaceful transfer of power

"Well ... I have asked him and the [Organization of American States] has asked him and the international community has asked him to come out clearly and say that he's against these efforts for political persecution. He has not done so. So ask him."

On why the Guatemalan elections matter to broader world

"I think that at this point in time, not only in Latin America, not only in Central America, but all over the world, democracy is at a difficult moment. We have threats, some old, some new, emerging that are questioning the basic principles of of democratic co-existence in our society. And we need to bring democratic institutions that also respond to the needs of the people, because one of the reasons why democracy is being questioned in many places is because it has stopped [delivering] the social development, the social justice that everybody requires in order to develop a life in dignity and an in security. So I think that we need to claim democracy back, and that's what we hope to do in our government."

On whether he is confident that he will take power as scheduled on Jan. 14

"Oh, yes. First of all, the electoral tribunal already closed the electoral period. That came together with the publication of the official results. We've already had the Constitutional Court saying that those that have been elected by the people, according to the electoral tribunal, are the ones that are going to take office on 14th and 15th of January. So we have all those elements in place. That doesn't mean that they will [not] continue to try to invent everything and to fabricate whatever, but ... each day that passes, it's less likely that they are going to succeed in derailing us from from getting into office. We are confident."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.