Welch Statement on Guatemala’s Democracy

Jan 17, 2024

Statement of Senator Peter Welch
Submitted to the Congressional Record
January 17, 2024

Madam President, the inauguration of Bernardo Arévalo as President of Guatemala shortly after midnight on January 15th was a triumph for the people of Guatemala.  Despite corrupt forces in the outgoing government, the Congress, and the Office of the Attorney General—who abused their authority in a flagrant attempt to subvert the result of a free and fair election that President Arévalo won overwhelmingly—in the end Guatemala’s democracy was preserved. 

I want to congratulate the Guatemalan people for their courage and perseverance, especially the Indigenous Mayan population who have suffered deprivation and indignity under successive governments whose officials cared far more about enriching themselves than improving the lives of the country’s most vulnerable.  It is long past time for Guatemala’s Indigenous leaders to have a central role in the national government.

I also want to commend the Biden Administration, in particular United States Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols, Charge d’Affaires Patrick Ventrell, and the other U.S. Embassy staff, who in the months leading up to the election and late into the chaotic night of January 14th until Arévalo was finally sworn in, used a combination of diplomacy, sanctions, and advocacy to support a peaceful democratic transition of power.  Without their sustained diplomatic engagement and the strong support of the international community, it is likely that the so-called “Pact of the Corrupt” would have prevailed in destroying Guatemala’s fragile democracy.

President Arévalo faces immense challenges.  Late last year, in an attempt to ensure that if he came to power he would be unable to govern effectively, the Congress slashed the national budget for the social programs and economic reforms necessary to carry out his anti-corruption, anti-poverty, pro-justice, and accountability vision for the country.  The Guatemalan people expect him to deliver on his campaign promises, but the very forces that sought to prevent him from taking office have made clear that they will do every possible to prevent him from governing. 

Despite these formidable obstacles, Bernardo Arévalo’s remarkable ascendency to the presidency offers Guatemala, and the United States, an opportunity that has not existed for generations.  Hundreds of thousands of impoverished Guatemalans have fled their country, risking their lives in search of safety and a better life in the United States.  In President Arévalo, we finally have a partner of integrity with whom we can focus on addressing the root causes of migration.  

For generations, Guatemala’s elites, including business and political leaders, have profited from a corrupt system at the expense of the best interests of the country.  Tax revenues are a fraction of what they should be.  Large areas of the country lack basic public services.  Millions of Guatemalan children are malnourished and have no access to higher education.  The justice system has been used to perpetuate the unjust and inequitable status quo. 

If the Pact of the Corrupt had succeeded, Guatemala’s business community would have also paid dearly.  The choices were, and remain, stark.  They can either help create the conditions for new investment and economic growth, or share responsibility for putting the country on a course leading to the scale of criminality and economic decline that have engulfed Nicaragua and Venezuela.  With American companies relocating from China back to this hemisphere, and with a Guatemalan President who believes in transparent and accountable governance, there is an opportunity for new investment and business partnerships in Guatemala unlike any time in recent memory.  It is time for Guatemala’s business leaders to embrace President Arévalo’s vision for the country and to become real partners in the Guatemala’s development.   

Madam President, I had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala in December as part of a bicameral congressional delegation led by Senator Tim Kaine.  Our purpose was to show our support for Guatemala’s democracy, and for a peaceful transfer of power.  We left Guatemala convinced that while the outcome was far from certain, the people of that country would defend their democracy to the end.  That is what they have done, and while the daunting challenges of governing lie ahead, they and President Arévalo deserve our congratulations and our strong support.