Pro-democracy protests in Guatemala are standing firm

Demonstrators have pushed back riot police and extended their protest demanding the resignation of the attorney general, whom they accuse of trying to prevent president-elect Bernardo Arévalo from taking office

Apoyo a las protestas que exigen la renuncia de la fiscal general, Consuelo Porras
Indigenous authorities arrive in Guatemala City on Tuesday to support the protests demanding the resignation of the country's attorney general.CHRISTIAN GUTIÉRREZ (EFE)

The outgoing president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, followed through on his warning to use the forces of law and order to clear the blockades that have been multiplying on several roads in the country. For ten days, protesters have been demanding the resignation of the attorney general, Consuelo Porras, whom they accuse of trying to prevent president-elect Bernardo Arévalo from taking office. On Tuesday, riot police encountered resistance from thousands of Guatemalans who have not backed down and are demanding that the results of the polls be respected. Meanwhile, Giammattei and the president-elect — who is making claims of an attempted “coup” against him — spent the day trading accusations about who is responsible for ending the crisis. At the end of the night, Giammattei posted a message in which he invited Arévalo to propose “a truce” and call on the protesters to vacate the streets because “people are dying” due to shortages in hospitals or obstacles preventing ambulances from getting through. The media, however, have documented that several blockades allow doctors, food, and other priority products to pass.

In his message, Giammattei criticized Arévalo’s alleged unwillingness to participate in a dialogue mediated by the Organization of American States (OAS) to seek solutions to the political crisis that the country is experiencing and called him out for evading “his responsibility for the blockades.” In a speech before the Permanent Council of the OAS, Arévalo expressed that the authorities of the Indigenous peoples, who started the protests, are legitimate interlocutors in any dialogue. They accepted the responsibility of participating in the discussions, but warned that they fear being criminalized for “defending democracy,” said the president of the 48 Indigenous cantons of Totonicapán, Luis Pacheco.

Since October 10, Giammattei has held Arévalo responsible for calling for people to demonstrate, and this Tuesday, in a public letter, he accused the president-elect of “encouraging” mobilizations “that are not peaceful” on the basis of “false and non-existent theories of alleged coup.” At the beginning of September, the president-elect condemned the coup that was preventing the president, the vice president, and the deputies elected by his party, the Semilla Movement, from taking office on January 14. Arévalo singled out Porras as the main proponent of the coup plan.

The president-elect considers that the end of the conflict is in Giammattei’s hands: he only has to ask the official he appointed as attorney general to resign. In several interviews with the press, Arévalo singled out President Giammattei as the main person responsible for the political crisis in Guatemala. “He is making a very clear attempt to evade his responsibility in this situation, as a result of the assault by a state institution, the Public Ministry [Guatemala’s Justice Department], against the Electoral Court,” the elected president told the radio outlet ConCriterio. If he is against the blockades, “he can ask for the resignation of the person he appointed to that position, which is Consuelo Porras,” he concluded.

The strike and blockades began on October 2, instigated by Indigenous authorities, with the seizure of several roads and a permanent protest in front of the headquarters of the Public Ministry. The Attorney General’s office had seized the ballots with the results of the votes, despite the opposition of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, who condemned the loss of custody of the citizens’ vote. The crisis escalated when the public realized “the intention to subvert the will of the sovereign,” says political scientist and dialogue expert, Miguel Ángel Balcárcel. “The people got fed up with their situation and said: ‘No more! How do we make them listen to us?’” he explains, and recalls that before the blockades, the Indigenous authorities had raised their demands in Congress, before the Prosecutor’s Office and the president.

During their arguments, the Indigenous authorities indicated that road blocks are the only recourse for their requests to be taken seriously, because they represent economic pressure. Furthermore, the people who participate in the blockades “risk their well-being and their livelihoods. They do it to try to recover full access to rights to health and education,” said Indigenous mayor David Saloj.

“Throughout its development, but particularly as a product of internal armed confrontation, our society has had a culture of resolving problems and differences through confrontation, which often reaches the level of violence,” explains Balcárcel. “We are facing a phenomenon of resistance, expressed in peaceful demonstrations, which definitively intersects with the right of free movement,” the political scientist points out.

Protesters push back police

The attempt to clear the streets began Tuesday afternoon. A riot contingent met hundreds of residents of the La Bethania neighborhood (in Guatemala City). The vast majority were motorcyclists, determined to defend their vote and their right to demonstrate, and they remained firm in their request for Consuelo Porras to resign. “Out, out!” the protesters shouted, while they refused to open the way on one of the main routes of the capital. “If [Porras] says she is resigning, we will clear the way in ten minutes,” said a protester interviewed by the Quorum media on one of the city’s main routes.

A crowd of residents, overwhelmed by motorcyclists whose engines roared, surrounded the riot police and made them retreat. Finally, they reached an agreement to open the way in 30-minute intervals.

The state operation occurred one day after efforts to “create a narrative that delegitimizes the protest, minimizes public participation, and minimizes the events that have caused public discontent,” says political scientist Renzo Rosal. He bases this assertion on the “series of quite articulate messages” that Attorney General Porras and President Giammattei disseminated on October 9.

On Monday morning, Porras broadcast a message to the country in which she expressed her “disagreement and displeasure” over the road blocks and highlighted a series of events that had not been reported, such as “looting and mandatory closures with threats to shopkeepers.” Hours later, videos circulated on social media of alleged pressure to close supermarkets and people condemning the shortage of basic consumer products.

The president also warned that they have “evidence that proves that funds from abroad have been transferred to national organizations to pay for food, portable toilets and the logistics of the road blocks” and announced the arrest of foreigners who “advise” the public protests.

What Giammattei did not talk about was the countrywide call for the attorney general to resign that draws the crowds and motivates the road blocks, says Rosal. The political scientist’s opinion of the situation is that Giammattei “is trying to convey a message of protecting his attorney general and that he continues to support Porras.”

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