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How Guatemalans Are Defending Their Democracy

They are organized, nonviolent, and they have come out in great numbers. Guatemalans may also be writing the script on how to defeat democracy’s enemies.

By Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez and Laura Gamboa

October 2023

On August 20, Bernardo Arévalo, a moderate anticorruption reformer, won Guatemala’s presidential runoff by a landslide. A little over a month later, on September 29, prosecutors descended upon the headquarters of the country’s top electoral authority. After an overnight raid that went on for more than twenty hours, they began to extract dozens of file boxes from the facilities. Chaos unfolded as election officials pleaded with prosecutors to stop the raid, going as far as to physically block the narrow hallway through which the boxes were being removed. In the end, the prosecutors, backed by around 120 police officers, reportedly seized more than 125,000 files documenting the country’s June 25 general election.

The scenes were dramatic, but not surprising. Guatemala’s “criminal oligarchy” had used courts, prosecutors, and state agencies to undermine the country’s electoral process from the outset. Ahead of the general election, it had selectively disqualified four candidates from the presidential race, including Carlos Pineda, a firebrand populist who rose to the top of the polls in early May. And when Bernardo Arévalo beat this uneven playing field and snatched a place in the presidential runoff, the establishment tried to challenge the vote count and suspend his party, Semilla. Even after Arévalo won the runoff by more than 20 points, the establishment doubled down on its efforts to investigate the electoral tribunal and ban Semilla.

Yet the late-September raid on the electoral tribunal was a tipping point. By the evening of September 30, a group of indigenous organizations announced a national strike in defense of democracy. The strike, the indigenous authorities said, would continue until Attorney General Consuelo Porras, senior prosecutors Rafael Curruchiche and Cinthia Monterroso, and criminal judge Fredy Orellana stepped down. These four officials, who have all been sanctioned by the U.S. State Department for undermining democracy and obstructing corruption investigations, had been at the forefront of the legal efforts to subvert Guatemala’s election. The nationwide wave of mass protests sparked by the indigenous groups’ announcement has been as remarkable for its scale as for its nonviolent character.

By October 9, the indigenous movements, now joined by dozens of other organizations and thousands of Guatemalans, were blocking major roads at more than 140 locations across the country. At their peak, demonstrators had established roadblocks in each of Guatemala’s 22 departments and in at least 92 — or about 27 percent — of the country’s 340 municipalities. (Our data is from Guatemala’s Communications Ministry and includes only roads administered by the central government, which means that the real number of blockages is likely much higher.) Simultaneously, protestors organized dozens of marches, rallies, demonstrations, and sit-ins. For the better part of three weeks, this prodemocracy movement brought Guatemala to a halt.

This is an extraordinary level of mass mobilization by almost any standard. But it is especially remarkable given the conventional wisdom about democratic backsliding. For years, the Guatemalan establishment has subverted the country’s democracy gradually — and often under the guise of legalism. Such incremental assaults on democracy are difficult to detect and counter precisely because of their piecemeal nature, which — as suggested by Haggard and Kaufman — “normalize[s] abuses, disorient[s] oppositions, and encourage[s] acquiescence.” Indeed, as Aleisar Arana, an indigenous leader who helped organize the national strike, told El Faro: “We held assemblies [over the past few months] to share ideas and chart a course, but it was a bit difficult, because the context kept changing. We would say, ‘On such-and-such day we will mobilize and start the protests,’ but then we would push it back to another date.”

Even when democratic oppositions are able to overcome coordination issues, incremental backsliding means that “the wider public may not recognize that the playing field has been decisively tilted until it is too late to mount a meaningful defense.” As a result, leaders may struggle to mobilize the broader population in defense of democracy. In Guatemala, for example, various opposition actors had repeatedly issued calls for mass mobilization against earlier efforts to undermine the electoral process. But until late September, none had gathered enough momentum among the general population to seriously disrupt the establishment’s plans.

What set this latest call to protest apart? The authoritarian coalition may have created an opening for prodemocratic actors with its overreach. Even many moderate Guatemalans would have balked at the sight of prosecutors forcibly seizing thousands of electoral records, especially given the wide and unambiguous margin by which Arévalo won the election. But it is the indigenous movements — and the long- and short-term strategies that they have pursued — that successfully mobilized thousands of Guatemalans. For years, these movements have invested in long-term organization-building projects rooted in strong traditions, robust local and regional networks, and a deliberative ethos. These farsighted and often painstaking investments paid off at a critical time. They endowed the indigenous movement with an unmatched degree of collective-action capacity, public legitimacy, and organizational resilience. Once they decided to call for a general strike, the indigenous organizations established concrete objectives that were widely supported by the general public, such as the resignation of Porras and her collaborators; outlined clear protest strategies, such as strikes and roadblocks; and deftly navigated the challenge of incorporating a wide range of actors into the demonstrations without forming alliances that could have undermined their legitimacy or alienated significant portions of the population. These tactics greatly enhanced the indigenous movement’s ability to persuade large swaths of the wider public to join the protests.

These efforts to mobilize Guatemalans also succeeded because they have been remarkably nonviolent. Media coverage and anecdotal accounts suggest that the roadblocks and rallies were, on the whole, marked by a peaceful — and at times even festive — atmosphere. This is no small feat. Between 2010 and 2019, more than half of all nonviolent movements worldwide embraced or tolerated violent flanks. And in the Guatemalan context, there have been ample opportunities for protests to descend into violence. On October 9, for example, presumptive gang members infiltrated a demonstration in Guatemala City’s central plaza and triggered a clash with police forces. A week later, armed men shot at a roadblock in the southwestern department of San Marcos, killing one bystander. During other recent episodes of mass mobilization in the region — in Chile in 2019 or in Colombia in 2021, for example — acts of repression against peaceful protestors have elicited fringe violent responses. But in Guatemala, these potential flashpoints have been contained and diffused before they could spill over into more generalized violence.

This adherence to nonviolent resistance has been essential for mobilizing and sustaining the protests. Fringe violence, even when in response to repression, tends to undermine resistance movements for at least two reasons. First, violence discourages mass participation. If movements embrace or tolerate violent flanks, they are less likely to draw large numbers from wider society required to sustain mass protests. Second, violence helps opponents frame all protestors as radical lawbreakers, which in turn undermines domestic and international support.

The protest movement in Guatemala has avoided this fate thanks in large part to the organizational capacity and tactical foresight of its indigenous leaders. The organizations leading the protests have consistently championed nonviolent rhetoric, established strong norms against the use of violence from the outset, and taken specific steps to reduce the likelihood of violent confrontations, such as allowing emergency vehicles to bypass many roadblocks. When episodes of violence have happened, the movement’s leaders have quickly distanced themselves and condemned these actions. As a result, despite the best efforts of Guatemala’s authoritarian coalition (the Constitutional Court went as far as to suggest that the protestors had committed crimes against humanity), it has failed to undermine the domestic and international legitimacy of the prodemocracy movement.

But how likely is it that the prodemocratic movement will succeed? After three weeks of protests, some indigenous leaders announced that they would begin lifting roadblocks in order to refocus their efforts on Guatemala City. Despite the shift in strategy, these leaders insist that mass protests will continue until Porras and her allies step down.

For now, Porras and company have shown no intention of resigning. If the prodemocracy movement’s broader goals of ensuring a timely transfer of power and preventing further backsliding are considered, however, the protestors have arguably already made meaningful inroads. First, they have exposed cracks in the authoritarian coalition. On October 16, for example, the interior minister, who is in charge of the police force, resigned. The move was widely interpreted as a sign of divisions within the central government over how to respond to the protests. Second, the protests have helped maintain international attention on Guatemala. The Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department have both signaled support for the demonstrations and reiterated their commitment to a peaceful transfer of power. Last but not least, the prodemocracy movement has demonstrated that it can exercise significant leverage through mass mobilization. These gains have already brought the government to the negotiation table once and are likely to place at least some constraints on the authoritarian coalition’s room for maneuver in weeks to come.

To be sure, there is still a long road ahead for the prodemocracy movement. But evidence from across Latin America suggests that well-organized, nonviolent popular resistance against democratic backsliding can succeed. This is especially true when accompanied by tactics that leverage courts, legislatures, elections, and other institutional channels toward the same goal. As recent experiences in Mexico show, it is easier for institutional actors to push back against autocratic forces when they enjoy the strong backing of organized citizens. Even if Porras, Curruchiche, Monterroso, and Orellana refuse to resign, the indigenous-led movement can continue to play a crucial role in stemming — and even reversing — the tide of democratic backsliding in Guatemala by bringing domestic and international attention to future authoritarian maneuvers and strengthening the hand of Arévalo, Semilla, and other democratic institutional actors. After all, Arévalo has promised Guatemalans that his election signals the beginning of a new “democratic spring.” If he is able to deliver on that promise, it will be in large part thanks to the efforts of the country’s indigenous movement.

Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez is a doctoral candidate in government at Harvard University. Laura Gamboa is assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah.


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images




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