SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Guatemalans have been staging protests and blockading roads over the past two weeks to show their support to president-elect Bernardo Arévalo.
He defeated the government-backed candidate Sandra Torres in the second round on August 20 and since then has been facing a series of judicial challenges that may impede him from taking office in January.
Led by Indigenous groups and supported by urban workers, the demonstrations target General Prosecutor Consuelo Porras as well as other judicial authorities, who have made Arévalo’s Movimiento Semilla (“Seed Movement”) an illegal pary, and stop its participation in the elections.
The prosecutors have also the electoral results in doubt and seized the voting reports from the court in charge of supervising the Sept. 30 elections, which was accused of being unconstitutional by several Guatemalan law experts. Arévalo has called these actions an attempted coup against him.
Protestors are demanding respect for the electoral results and the immediate renunciation of Porras and other prosecutors. They claim that Arévalo, elected with an anti-corruption platform, is suffering the opposition of the Central American nation’s powerful elites and their allies in the political world.
The Catholic Church – at least most of the episcopate – agrees with them.
On October 9, the Bishops’ Conference released a harsh statement avout the political crisis, in which it asked Porras and special prosecutor against impunity Rafael Curruchiche to step down.
“Not only have their actions been the trigger of popular dissatisfaction but it will continue, with all its negative effects, until the people realize that their requests have been heard,” the document reads.
The letter also asked President Alejandro Giammattei to “speak out in defense of the common good and to address the clamor of those demonstrating on the street by asking the resignation of the General Prosecutor” and other authorities whose actions have been perceived as abusive.
“There are no conditions for the General Prosecutor to remain in office. There is a great popular outcry against her. But that crisis was not created only by her. One must analyze all the forces involved,” Bishop Benedicto Moscoso of Jutiapa told Crux.
Moscoso explained that large segments of the Guatemalan people think there is a “pact of the corrupt” in the nation, a decades-long alliance of the justice system, politicians, businessmen, and members of the military. This coalition opposes Arévalo and his proposed changes in the power structure.
“They claim Arévalo will implement communist reforms,” he added.
Bernardo Arévalo is the son of former President Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), the first to be elected after the 1944 revolution in Guatemala. An extensive program of reforms was planned during those years, but it all came to an end after the CIA and the United Fruit Company staged a coup against President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954.
Arévalo was exiled for several years – Bernardo was born in Montevideo, Uruguay – but his name has always been remembered in Guatemala as a symbol of political change.
“So, president-elect Bernardo Arévalo’s name is connected in the public opinion with that time of reforms in the 1940s and 1950s,” said Father Víctor Ruano, a vicar in the Diocese of Jutiapa.
Ruano said the current crisis is linked to the great demonstrations promoted by the people in 2015 against then-President Otto Pérez Molina, accused of corruption. Pérez Molina resigned and the protesters expected that a political transformation was going to happen, but it never did.
“Giammattei assumed office in 2020 and radicalized the consolidation of the pact of the corrupt. In the first round of the election in June, the people surprised the political system and voted for Arévalo, the leader of a new, small party,” Ruano said.
Now, “the ‘pact of the corrupt’ is doing everything it can to hold on to power, something that the people have been denouncing and protesting against,” he added.
Indigenous communities have been the most organized promoters of the manifestations. But teachers, poor workers, and students are also taking part in them in the cities.
“Catholics are very involved in the marches, including members of the clergy. Unprecedented things have happened, like priests giving blessings to the demonstrators and nuns offering them food,” Moscoso said.
Ruano said that the Indigenous movement has been markedly ecumenical. Evangelical Pentecostalism is a major force in Guatemala. Among originary groups, Mayan spirituality has been recovered and is presenting a growing influence. The Catholic aspect appears in the way religion and politics are connected for many social leaders who were influenced by Progressive Catholic movements in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The other day, marchers prayed in a rather Evangelical fashion, but concluded the protest with a Hail Mary,” Ruano said.
José Obdulio Hernández, who is part of the Archdiocese of Guatemala’s commission of base ecclesial communities, confirmed that many Christians have been actively showing support to Arévalo.
“I have been working with theological and pastoral education over the past 20 years with an ecumenical council. It is possible to notice that the communities where we offered our program are the most active ones,” he told Crux.
Even in neighborhoods where priests stigmatize the participation of Catholics in politics, people have been going to the streets, Hernández added.
One of the reasons people are demonstrating now is to ensure that Movimiento Semilla will continue to be a legal party, so its elected Congress members will be able to assume office, he said.
The other one is that many people fear that the government is working on a new plan to impede Arévalo from take office in January, Ruano said. The scheme involves the current Vice President, who is facing judicial persecution.
According to Ruano, political actors want to nullify the elections. In that case, the Congress will have to appoint a new vice president, who would be the one taking office in January instead of Arévalo.
Ruano is part of the National Convergence of Resistance, a movement against authoritarianism and corruption in Guatemala promoted by Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini. The group issued a statement last week to denounce that strategy.
“The outcome of this perverse plan is to prevent the victorious ticket of taking office, the integration of a new legislature with the elected deputies, as well as new municipal corporations, resulting in the maintenance of the same legislature and the same municipal authorities – that is, all the winning candidates of the elections which were held will not assume their positions,” the document read.
Both the United States and Europe have recognized the election result and congratulated Arévalo as the next president. But with the continuous risks he is facing, demonstrators are determined to continue on the streets.
“Repression is increasing. The government is trying to criminalize the movement. In Petén, demonstrators were shot a few days ago,” Ruano said.