An Interview with Just Associates Mesoamerica (JASS) about the possibilities arising after Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as President of Guatemala. The transition comes following months of efforts by former leaders to hold on to power, as well as months of peaceful protest by local movements in support of a democratic and peaceful transition of power.
NWI delegation to Guatemala in 2017
Presidential elections were held in Guatemala in the summer of 2023 with anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo being confirmed as the President-elect, and Karin Herrera as vice president-elect, with 58% of the vote.
However, the outgoing government, which was long faced allegations of mass corruption, human rights violations, persecution of journalists and civil society, and inaction in the face of growing gang violence, refused to accept the results. Efforts to prevent Bernardo Arévalo from taking the presidential office started within hours of the election last summer, and continued until the last minutes of inauguration day on 14 January 2024.
But so did peaceful protests in support of a transition of power. Indigenous and peasant women, urban, social and student movements took to the streets in peaceful protest demanding that results of the election are upheld, and a full transition of power ensured. They were there from election until inauguration.
On inauguration day hours of stalling, and an attempted coup took place. But ultimately the people’s will prevalied and Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as the President of Guatemala during the early hours of Monday, 15 January 2024.
Bernardo Arévalo’s win is historic. NWI’s longtime partner organisation, JASS Associates, told us why in this short interview.
1. Global media are calling Bernardo Arevalo’s coming to power a “new spring” for Guatemala. Why is this transition of power so important?
In recent years the government has shifted increasingly towards authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism. The arrival of Arévalo opens possibilities in the face of a growing wave of authoritarianism not only in this country, but also in the region. The possibility of democratic transition and political alliances, of reconstruction of the institutions previously co-opted by criminal economic/political alliances, and the possibility of leadership carried out without dogmatism. This shift gives hope for a shift in the dynamics of power, and genuine inclusion of people and groups that have not historically been represented.
It also proposes a possible solution to the institutional crisis and the pact of corruption that the country has been experiencing for decades, in which different levels of the State supersede each other. Crucially, with a joint cabinet we see how the role of women stands out and the challenge of a plural participation that involves more indigenous people.
2. You also took part in months of protests in support of a peaceful transition of power. Why are you, and the team at JASS, so passionate about this change? What are your hopes for this new presidency?
We know that a coopted state so affected by corruption and oppressive power for so long cannot change in a single period of government, but we do hope that seeds of change can be sown.
Our role as JASS Mesoamerica was to continue strengthening the movements in alliance with defenders, resistance groups, and women's and mixed organizations with whom we already had a relationship.
In Guatemala we have observed that the indigenous and popular mobilizations occurred in the context of the outgoing government criminalizing justice operators, student leaders, political parties and officials involved in the peaceful movement for a transition of power. The role of women was essential in this movement, indigenous women authorities, students, neighborhood representatives and other women leaders were ever-present and visible. The expressions of support, cooperation, solidarity, artistic expressions, creativity, sustenance, collective care, are lessons learned for us in these last months and will remain in the memory of the people forever.
These protests and strikes were truly historic, as a continuum of the struggles, resistance and ancestral organization of indigenous peoples and social movements.
The arrival of the new government presents the possibility of reducing the attacks and transformations in the legislative field, as well as the possibility of opening spaces for dialogue and participation of communities, indigenous authorities, women and different sectors that until now have not been represented.
The contributions and participation of the JASS team, particularly the Guatemala office, have had to be careful given the risk and persecution that organizations and WHRD's have experienced in the region in the last few years, a situation that, as they share with us in their response, they hope will end with this new government.
3. What do you think will be the main challenges President Arevalo has to overcome?
The key issues he will have to tackle are the historical inequalities of a structurally racist and patriarchal state and the weight of hidden powers. In particular, he will have to find a way to fight deeply seated corruption among institutions, and revive long abandoned basic systems such as health, education, infrastructure, local and peasant economy systems.
Organized crime groups represented in institutions such as courts, tribunals, congress and conservative organizations and media that represent the interests of agro-industrial monopolies and criminal groups that operate in the country will have to be tackled. The actions new leaders take against the criminalization of human rights defenders and political prisoners will be essential.
4. The international community came through to support President Arevalo’s inauguration and make their support of a transition of power explicitly clear. Is there a role the international community can play to support this new government now that it has assumed power?
The international community has a role to play going forward. Crucially, they should be present in observing the process of re-democratization, restarting cooperation processes that were canceled or interrupted by the previous governments, strengthening alliances for the depuration of institutions, and the fight against corruption and social justice.
The international community should also continue to support social movements, resistances, indigenous peoples, and movements led by women by amplifying their voices, providing support and political back up in different dimensions. The road is long and all the challenges that lie ahead continue to require international solidarity.