Right Livelihood Laureates Helen Mack Chang (right) and Thelma Aldana (left).

Guatemalan Right Livelihood Laureates in exile hopeful about anti-corruption president’s victory

News 21.08.2023

This Sunday, Bernardo Arévalo de León won the second round of elections in Guatemala with 58 per cent of the votes. Human rights defender Helen Mack Chang and former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, both Guatemalan Right Livelihood Laureates in exile, celebrated the results. 

In a conversation with Right Livelihood, Mack and Aldana expressed satisfaction with the victory of the Semilla Movement political party. They were hopeful about the possibility of coming back home in the near future. 

“For the first time since I can remember, an anti-system political party triumphed with a conscious vote of the population,” said Thelma Aldana (67), Semilla’s presidential candidate and favourite for the 2019 election. Unfortunately, her candidacy was blocked by trumped up corruption charges,  forcing her to leave the country for her own safety. She has been in exile ever since.

Aldana became popular among Guatemalans after her successful role as head of the Public Ministry (2014-2018), fighting corruption jointly with the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). In 2018, she received the Right Livelihood Award “for their innovative work in exposing abuse of power and prosecuting corruption, thus rebuilding people’s trust in public institutions.”

“The interesting thing about Bernardo Arévalo and Movimiento Semilla is that they are aware of what they have generated: hope for change, hope to leave corruption behind,” said Helen Mack Chang (71), human rights activist and justice reform advocate. She received the Right Livelihood Award in 1992 “for her personal courage and persistence in seeking justice and an end to the impunity of political murderers.”

Aldana and Mack are currently political refugees in the US due to the safety risks they face in their home country. From exile, they continue the fight for justice and democracy and dream of the day they can go back home.

“Hope becomes even greater for those who have suffered from corruption. Returning home will not happen immediately, but at least we know that the fight has not been in vain,” said Mack.

While Mack thinks about the possibility of returning, Aldana imagines how it could have been if she had not fled. “I could now be handing over the position to Bernardo Arévalo to give continuity to progressive democratic governments. But they have not let us. And now, for Bernardo, it is complicated despite all his support.”

Both Guatemalan Right Livelihood Laureates agree on the challenging scenario Arévalo will face from now on. “After 12 years of corrupt governments that destroyed the institutional framework, Bernardo Arévalo must create a transitional government. He’ll need to make many alliances and negotiations. He’s going to have a difficult time, but I have no doubt that he’s going to do the best he can,” Mack said.

We asked Aldana whether she would involve herself in politics upon her return to Guatemala. “This is a tough question because these years of exile – I’ve been here for four and a half years – have been difficult, very sad, anguished. I knew the deepest feelings of loneliness, anguish and worry, but at the same time, a lot of peace,” she replied.

“So one gets used to that peace, to having a job where they support you and make things easier for you. And these political positions in Guatemala are challenging because the problem is structural. But well, if there is an opportunity, I think the 38 exiles will always be willing to resume the work that we left pending a return to the country,” Aldana added.

Regardless of her plans for the future, Aldana sticks to the optimism of the present moment. She affirms: “No one is going to take what happened this Sunday, August 20, away from our memory and history.”

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