From Crisis to Democracy: OAS Shines in Guatemala’s Political Transition

Saunders Portrait 2022
File photo: Sir Ronald Saunders.
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By Sir Ronald Sanders

The Organization of American States (OAS) demonstrated its continuing relevance and importance to member states by playing a constructive role in ensuring the transition of government in Guatemala, despite numerous attempts to disrupt the process.

Undoubtedly, had the OAS and its Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, supported by key member states of the Permanent Council, not played an active role as mediator, negotiator, and influencer, Guatemala would currently face a constitutional crisis and civil unrest.

As the run-up to the Presidential and legislative elections in Guatemala approached in June 2023, signs of trouble were evident.

Much of the concerns centred around the deterioration of the rule of law, threats to judicial independence, and the activities of the country’s Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, and the Special Prosecutor in the Public Ministry, Rafael Curruchiche. The European Union (EU) was among the international bodies that had persistently expressed concerns about Porras.

Under the direction of Porras and Curruchiche, the Public Ministry used its “independence”, and absence of any institution to oversee its activities, to pursue a campaign of political intimidation against political persons and parties. After the July 2023 elections in which Bernardo Arévalo emerged in second place as a contender for the Presidency of the country, the Public Ministry focussed its attention on disqualifying him, his running mate for the Vice Presidency, Karin Herrera, and his Semilla (Seed) Party.

When Arévalo obtained an overwhelming majority at run-off elections on 20 August 2023, the Public Ministry intensified its already strident efforts to disqualify him and the Semilla party candidates. Taking advantage of the interregnum before Arévalo could be sworn in as President on 14 January 2024, the Public Ministry intensified its efforts against him and the Semilla Party. These actions created great concern in the international community, and especially among certain member states of the OAS Permanent Council, that the transition of power, in accordance with the will of the majority of the Guatemalan electorate, would be overturned promoting civil strife.

Sensing the need for a constructive high level OAS diplomatic intervention in Guatemala to try to ensure that the looming crisis did not occur, an informal meeting of the Permanent Council in the July 2023, agreed that Secretary-General Almagro should go to Guatemala to use his good offices to try to guide all parties away from the abyss to which they were being led with the Public Ministry as the chief pilot. Recognizing that the consent of the government of Guatemala was necessary for Almagro’s visit, a behind the scenes agreement was reached that the Government should invite him, and importantly, that he should go with the full backing of the OAS Permanent Council.

The OAS already had an Electoral Observer Mission in Guatemala. It had done a courageous and highly professional job in overseeing the first round of elections held in June 2023, but had a technical team on the ground since January 2023. The preliminary and final report of the Mission had helped to advise both the Permanent Council and Almagro of the political challenges that were brewing and the fragility of the situation.

In what should be regarded as Luis Almagro’s finest moment as Secretary General, he embarked on a successful “good offices” mission to ensure the transition of Government. Between August 1, 2023, and January 15, 2024, he visited Guatemala six times, meeting all relevant players. On December 15 and 16, 2023, as Chairman of the Permanent Council, I participated in high level meetings with him.

The task was formidable; forces unwilling to relinquish power persisted in a relentless campaign of persecution, with the Public Ministry at the forefront. This caused Almagro to declare, fearlessly, in early December 2023, that: “The Public Prosecutor’s Office is still bent on bringing cases from the past to affect the transition”.

In addition to his own good offices’ role, Almagro also dispatched two supporting special missions with the agreement of the Guatemalan government. One was a “transition mission” and the other a “mediation mission”. The latter was sent as a result of peaceful protests, initiated by the indigenous and ancestral communities on 2 October 2023, against the Public Ministry and in support of Arévalo and the Semilla party.

As part of the OAS’ involvement in ensuring that the will of the electorate was respected, amid the continuous efforts to deny the installation of Arévalo and Herrera, a five-member group of Ambassadors, representing the Permanent Council, went to Guatemala from 12 to 14 January 2024 for discussions with the parties, including the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the Private Sector, and the ancestral communities.

All of this proved to be vital. The Public Ministry never ceased its attempts at prosecution. Up to two days before the inauguration ceremony, it still tried to remove immunity from the Vice President-elect in order to pursue investigations against her. And on January 14, 2024, the day of the inauguration which was scheduled for 2 pm, the opposition forces fought a desperate, last-minute action in the Congress to stop the installation of Arévalo and Herrera.

It fell to Luis Almagro to issue a public statement, late that night, on behalf of all Presidents, Foreign Ministers, and diplomatic representatives, calling  on the Congress “to fulfil its constitutional mandate to hand over power as required by the constitution” and stressing that the will of the Guatemalan people “must be respected”.

The situation in Guatemala is still not finally settled. A decision by the Constitutional Court, issued on January 17, 2024, questioning the composition of the Board of the Congress, has opened a new area of controversy. Fortunately, the same decision “validated” the swearing in of the President and Vice President.

Further, the Public Ministry remains, headed by an Attorney-General who is palpably antagonistic to the new government, but who is insulated from removal by any institution or organ unless she is “convicted of an intentional crime”. It is unlikely that once she holds office – and she is there for another 2 years – that her campaign, obviously supported by powerful groups, will end.

Therefore, while the OAS has proved its relevance and importance by its vital work, in relation to Guatemala, that work is not yet over. The task of supporting democracy, the rule of law and inclusive social and economic development in Guatemala remains on its agenda.

(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com)

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