Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Some Foreign Intervention in Elections Can be a Good Thing.

This past June, Guatemala executed a pivotal democratic exercise, electing a new slate of 522 public officials for the forthcoming term of 2024 to 2028. Prior to this electoral event, concerns mounted from various organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, regarding the integrity of Guatemala’s electoral environment. As a remedial measure, the European Union and the Organization of American States, under the auspices of the United States, oversaw the elections to ensure the promotion of peaceful and fair civic engagement in Guatemala.

The results have since highlighted a crucial narrative: that carefully calibrated foreign electoral oversight is indispensable for safeguarding the sanctity of voter rights and fostering a transparent voting system that garners the citizens’ confidence.

Historically, foreign interventions have left an indelible mark on Guatemala, often negatively. The most striking instance being the 1954 coup d’état, which ousted the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz and installed a government that yielded to external manipulation, triggering an era fraught with political turmoil, a 36-year civil war, and acts of genocide.

Drawing parallels from other Latin American countries, the absence of international intervention has frequently paved the way for authoritarian regimes to consolidate power and stifle public dissent. Venezuela serves as a prominent case study, where Nicolás Maduro’s decade-long presidency is characterized by the marginalization of the opposition-led National Assembly and electoral manipulations — including the re-scheduling of election dates and the disqualification of opposition parties, leading to widely denounced election outcomes and the brief elevation of National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó to the presidency. As Venezuela approaches its 2024 elections, the nation’s fraught political landscape and presidential impasse underscore the vital necessity for foreign electoral intervention as a means to address the country’s entrenched issues, such as hyperinflation.

Moreover, the specter of political violence looms large where intervention or oversight is absent. The assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta in 1994 during a campaign rally, and the more recent murder of Ecuador’s former presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio, exemplify the extreme lengths to which political machinations can go to silence opposition — particularly those challenging the status quo and threatening the entrenchment of elite power.

Conversely, the annals of history do furnish us with notable instances where foreign intervention has engendered successful outcomes. The intervention by the United Kingdom in Sierra Leone in 2000 supported UN peacekeeping efforts against rebel factions committing civilian atrocities. Similarly, in 1964 Bolivia, the United States played a crucial role in preventing the ascent of communism under Fidel Castro’s influence by strategically funding mass media communications, opposing political groups, trade unions, student and youth organizations — all to ensure a democratic election outcome favoring the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), which, with U.S. support, won the presidency and helped Bolivia forge a more democratic government.

Statistical evidence from Guatemala’s Public Ministry illustrates that this measured foreign supervision, or ‘light foreign electoral intervention,’ has been instrumental in reducing the incidents of electoral complaints from 659 to 416 cases — a 36.8% decrease when juxtaposed against the prior elections. However, this decline in complaints does not inherently validate the transparency of the elections, as misinformation and voter coercion via social media have significantly influenced the election dynamics, prompting null votes for the presidential ballot and discouraging participation in the election’s initial round.

Yet, it is irrefutable that the intervention by the EU and the OAS facilitated a conducive environment for many Guatemalans to exercise their voting rights and achieve a representative outcome. The involvement of these international entities also mitigated tensions and bestowed a semblance of order on the day of the election.

Under this international gaze, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) managed to deliver results that appeared transparent to the populace. However, the nation is presently grappling with a judicial coup — the political party of president-elect Bernardo Arévalo, Movimiento Semilla, has been suspended by the Ministerio Público, and both the Constitutional Court and Ministerio Público are vigorously pursuing investigations into purported electoral fraud. The international community has not remained silent, with the United States imposing sanctions on individuals implicated in corrupt practices. This raises the potential for these observers to extend their involvement amidst the current political turbulence in Guatemala.

The alarm bells ring not solely for the democratic backsliding within Guatemala but also for the broader Latin American region, which might experience analogous threats in its forthcoming electoral cycles. The current political crisis in Ecuador, termed Muerte Cruzada, serves as a harbinger of the need for increased democratization efforts across the region. The year 2024 stands as a watershed moment for Latin America, with six nations — El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Panama, and Venezuela — poised to elect their leaders. It posits the question of whether external interventions might be necessary to forestall scenarios akin to Guatemala’s current political conundrum.

Yet, intervention is not without its own set of complexities, demanding considerable investment in time, effort, and financial resources. Those who contemplate such interventions must weigh the potential impact and consider the sacrifices required. A codified normative framework for intervention might provide clearer guidance for nations contemplating such actions. Above all, there is an imperative for an adherence to just rule and impartiality, to nurture peace and allow nations the autonomy to address their own challenges — thereby affirming their sovereignty and reinforcing their legitimacy on the world stage.