Protests in Guatemala in support of the elected president show willingness to defend democracy

2023-09-21 06:48:02

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The protests in which thousands of Guatemalans supported President-elect Bernardo Arévalo this week suggest that the efforts of some officials to prevent his presidency have awakened a new determination among many citizens to defend democracy.

Public demonstrations of rejection of the attorney general’s maneuvers had been modest in the month since Arévalo’s resounding victory. But on Monday, thousands of people marched peacefully through the city’s streets, and on Tuesday protesters blocked major highways in several parts of the country.

In the past, Guatemala has been among the worst-ranked countries in Latin America for its support for democracy, according to the Americas Barometer, which has measured attitudes in the region for three decades. Over the past 15 years, support for democracy as the best form of government reached its highest score in 2014 at 62.9%, and fell to a low of 48.4% in 2017.

Just weeks before this year’s elections, only 48% of respondents said democracy was the best form of government, placing Guatemala last in the region, according to researchers’ yet-unpublished data from the LAPOP Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, which conducts the survey.

But since the elections, Guatemalans have seen efforts by defeated parties and the attorney general’s office to challenge the results. Arévalo has described the investigations into his party and electoral authorities as an attempted coup, and the Organization of American States observer mission said the prosecutor’s actions appeared aimed at preventing Arévalo from taking office.

Sandra Paz, 55, marched through the capital on Monday waving the Guatemalan flag and said she had come out to support the new president’s democracy, so he might work without corruption. Paz, who lives on the outskirts of Guatemala City, said she had gone to the capital even though arthritis made it painful to walk.

Rachel Schwartz, an assistant professor of international and regional studies at the University of Oklahoma who was a research assistant and Guatemala expert for the AmericasBarometer, said that while the survey data was collected before the election, which has seen later suggests that the eventful electoral process has struck a chord.

“I think given what I’ve seen on the streets and in the Plaza de la Constitución and on social media, I think this process is mobilizing people,” said Schwartz, who was in Guatemala during the first round of elections in June.

The perception of democracy in Guatemala, he noted, is closely intertwined with the perception of corruption.

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Around 76% of Guatemalans surveyed said that more than half of the country’s politicians are implicated in corruption cases, the highest figure ever recorded in the country and surpassed only by Ecuador and Peru this year.

Then Arévalo arrived, the last anti-corruption candidate still in the campaign. His message resonated with voters, especially young voters, in contrast to former first lady Sandra Torres, who was associated with the established ruling class and whom he faced in the second round on August 20.

A central target of this week’s protests has been Attorney General Consuelo Porras. “Resign, Consuelo!”, the protesters chanted on Monday.

Guatemalans’ trust in the attorney general’s office has steadily declined since peaking in 2017, and this year it has fallen to 42%, according to the Americas Barometer.

Porras took office in 2018, and in 2021 she was sanctioned by the US government for undemocratic practices and undermining anti-corruption investigations. She has denied the allegations.

Porras’ office has ongoing investigations into how the Arévalo Semilla Movement gathered the signatures needed to register a few years earlier, as well as into accusations of electoral fraud that independent observers consider unfounded.

Arévalo is one of those who believes that the country’s democracy is on a slippery slope, but ‘he thinks that has changed since the elections. Now more people are “betting” on democracy, Arévalo said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Guatemalans, he noted, have lived in a corrupt state with authoritarian practices, and people are beginning to realize that this leads nowhere.

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Sherman reported from Mexico City.

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