What Is Really Going on in Guatemala?

What Is Really Going on in Guatemala?
“I don’t see a coup, I don’t denounce it.” Illustration by Edgar R. Ayala

You don’t see the army on the streets, and there are no speeches being delivered by a military “junta” on “CNN en Español.” How could a coup be happening, if the current president, Alejandro Giammattei, who is at the end of his term, is not dissolving Congress and, under international pressure, has said that he will “carry out a peaceful transfer of power”?

And why would a sitting president with three months remaining in office bother to orchestrate a coup?

It’s simple: As an act of self-preservation.

After almost four years in office, Giammattei has mounting accusations and cases alleging corruption against him and his allies, but the cases are not moving through the courts. No wonder. Giammattei exerts total control of the prosecutor’s office.

Only legal cases against his detractors have gained any traction, and only his opponents have been jailed. A winning presidential candidate, Bernardo Arevalo, who won a landslide victory with a campaign against corruption, is bad news if your administration is utterly compromised.

In a monumental miscalculation on the part of Giammattei and that of his co-conspirators, a handpicked successor failed to make the cut in the first round of elections on June 25. He was supposed to go into a second election round against an unpopular opponent for an easy win.

Instead, Arevalo took the country by surprise, pulling ahead and winning second place. Then, Arevalo won the final election round and was declared president-elect by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. His win triggered alarms up and down the state corruption apparatus, sending all corrupt politicians and their operatives into panic mode.

According to the Oxford dictionary, a coup is “a sudden, violent and unlawful seizure of power from a government.” The most notorious are those where the military overthrows a government to install a military leader, or “junta,” by force and violence, as has recently happened in African countries such as Gabon and Niger. In 2021 alone, there were six coup attempts in Africa, four of them successful.

Now we are faced with a new modality of a coup d’état in Guatemala. A “soft coup.” This is when a sitting leader is conspiring behind the scenes, with the final objective of not ceding power to the rightful winner of an election, but to pass the office illegally to another person or entity, thus breaking the constitutional order and reversing the will of the people.

The conspirator weaponizes prosecutors and judges to violate electoral constitutional law and retroactively derail an election. According to constitutional scholars in Guatemala and international observers, what is going on in Guatemala now is a “soft coup.”

Instead of using blunt force or violence, a “soft coup” is carried out under the veil of legality, misusing laws or overstepping legal jurisdiction to entrap the democratic process. To discredit or call into question an election that has already been certified and declared clean by an electoral authority and international official observers is part of a soft coup.

Guatemalans are no strangers to coup d’états of the traditional kind, having had several in its history, notably when the CIA helped to overthrow a democratically elected government, which led to decades of military rule. We are also aware of the U.S.-backed coups in the Dominican Republic in 1963, Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976. In 2009, Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, stage-managed a coup in Honduras.

Nor is the country unfamiliar with “self-coups.” In 1993, President Jorge Serrano Elias, following the example of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, dissolved Congress to stay in power that year.

Today, in “slow motion,” Guatemala is again in the middle of a constitutional crisis. This time, outgoing president Giammattei is not dissolving Congress or ousting judges or magistrates. He planned the scenario ahead of time. He prepared for this.

During his first three years in office, he managed to stack the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, lower and appeals courts, and the Office of the Attorney General with unscrupulous and obedient legal operatives that have weaponized their institutions to go after journalists, human rights defenders or protectors of the land. Dozens went into exile, mostly in the United States, including prosecutors and judges who wouldn’t give in to the pressure.

Little by little, the current coup d’état is moving forward, despite mounting international pressure and condemnation by the Organization of American States, the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the European Union and many, many leaders around the world.

If Giammattei and his handlers are successful, the presidency will not be transferred to the rightful winners of the elections in January. Instead, it will go to an interim government that will be selected by a sitting Congress with a political majority belonging to the ruling party. The “pact of the corrupt” is terrified of a champion who would charge them with legal liabilities for recent acts.

An interim government would provide Giammattei and others with cover to continue to profit by stealing from the country’s treasury or maintaining their government-inflated contracts with bribes from the business sector.

The Guatemalan people have spoken loud and clear against corruption with their vote for Arevalo and are now in the streets demanding that their vote be respected. But peaceful popular protest of the soft coup can only go so far.

Time is short and the stakes are high.

Take Action!

How can people in the United States help stop the “soft coup” in Guatemala?

  • Write your Congressional representative and request their support to advance a resolution condemning the soft coup in Guatemala. Demand concrete sanctions, not just symbolic travel bans. Demand bold actions such as placing Guatemala’s sugar import quota on hold until President-Elect Bernardo Arevalo is inaugurated.
  • Call or write President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, asking them to use their leadership to invoke the Interamerican Democratic Letter of the Organization of American States, which was designed to initiate collective actions from members when the constitutional order has been breached in a member country.
  • Start an online petition or answer the calls of U.S.-based activists struggling to preserve and promote democracy in Guatemala.


  • Edgar R. Ayala

    Edgar Ayala es diseñador gráfico, traductor, intérprete y activista comunitario. Ha estado involucrado en muchas causas artísticas y a favor de la justicia social en el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco, California, desde 1986. Transmitir información entre barreras lingüísticas, culturales y políticas a través de la palabra y la imagen ocupa gran parte de su tiempo.

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