Right Livelihood Laureate Thelma Aldana in Stockholm in 2018 Photo: Wolfgang Schmidt

Thelma Aldana: “My biggest challenge in exile is to be happy”

News 20.06.2023

Guatemala’s presidential elections this Sunday, June 25, mark four years since Thelma Aldana’s been in exile. The renowned former attorney general and Right Livelihood Laureate has been living outside the country since 2019, when her presidential candidacy was rejected. She spoke with Right Livelihood about the controversial upcoming elections in the Central American country and her experience as a political refugee in the United States.

Having led efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala, Thelma Aldana, the former head of the country’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, and Iván Velásquez, former chief of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), received the 2018 Right Livelihood Award “for their groundbreaking work in exposing abuse of power and prosecuting corruption, rebuilding people’s trust in public institutions.”

Considered a favourite in the 2019 presidential elections, Aldana had to go into exile after the Constitutional Court rejected her candidacy under the banner of the young political party Movimiento Semilla. Smear campaigns, harassment and criminal charges followed. The prosecution even got to her lawyers, leaving her without legal defence. They also tried to issue an international arrest warrant against her, which was denied by Interpol.

Reflecting on her order, Aldana said that the Guatemalan community in the United States, her religious faith, and, more recently, a large number of fellow lawyers and judges also in exile have been her support during this experience.

Regarding the elections of Sunday, where once again the candidates with the best chances of winning have been sidelined, Aldana noted, “The elections in Guatemala are a farce.”

Right Livelihood: What have these four years been like for you?

Thelma Aldana: These four years have been really difficult because I have experienced anguish, loneliness, the uncertainty of the unknown, without family, without anything. It is practically starting from scratch, and that is extremely difficult. I chose to read the Bible. I have read it once a year since in exile, so I am reaching my fourth reading this year. I am impressed to notice how this reading gives me so much peace and renews my faint spirit. So the biggest challenge I have in exile is to be happy. I work for that every day.

RL: The Guatemalan community in the United States played the role of family for you, at least during the early days.

TA: Indeed. I was fortunate to find Guatemalan, Colombian and other migrant friends. They became, especially at the beginning of my exile, those people who are there and who accompany you. I still keep communication with many of them. And as the number of people in exile has increased, we are now a community of about 30 people in the United States. We keep in touch, although we don’t see each other daily. We are always sighing for Guatemala, asking God for a different future for our country.

RL: Many other people who served in Guatemala’s judicial system have met a similar fate to yours. How was and how is the bond between you now?

TA: In Guatemala, we knew each other but hardly had meetings or were friends. However, in exile, we are undoubtedly united by this experience, which is shocking and leaves its mark. I knew they were going through difficult times. I believe this brought us together. I consider them my brothers, my sisters, apart from the fact that we were co-workers and fought against corruption and for the rule of law. Now we are people who are living the pain of exile. This experience, this uncertainty and all that it implies unquestionably unite us, even though we are not meeting or talking every day. But there is an understanding of the situation that each of us is living in exile.

RL: Not long ago, you said that, for your well-being, you had opted to be less aware of the news from Guatemala and less active on social media. But that didn’t last long…

TA: (Laughs) There are moments in exile when you want to talk a lot. Then suddenly, you say, “No, not anymore. I’d better dedicate myself more to my work, to this new reality I’m in.” And recently, I thought about doing that. I told myself, “I’m on Twitter a lot, and the truth is that it’s causing me anguish and worry. I want a more relaxed life.” So, I got off Twitter, but in the evening, I was already checking what happened in Guatemala that day. You can never stop paying attention to your country. And so I do. But I do try to have schedules, which I follow and manage out of respect for my happiness, for the happiness I seek. I have routines to monitor Twitter and worry about Guatemala, but I no longer feel anguish. I have tried to overcome those states of mind that I never thought existed, much less that I would live in them.

RL: Four years ago, did you think you would still be in exile four years later? Do you maintain hope in the possibility of returning to your country?

TA: When you start your exile, you think, “In three months, I will return.” Three months go by, and you see that you can’t. Then you say, “No, it’s three more months.” That makes six. Well, that’s how time goes by. I have been here for more than four years. Then I started to think, “It will be five years.” But now, I’ve stopped thinking about time, and I live in my present. I’m going to return when God wants me to. I always have my suitcase ready: I can’t deny it. I will always be ready to return to my country. But I don’t want that to bring anguish into my life. I have already freed myself from deadlines. I leave it in God’s hands; he will decide when I will return. But I will return. That is my conviction, and I don’t mind waiting as long as it takes to return to my country. 

RL: What else can you tell us about your present?

TA: I travel by bus and subway. It is a new experience that I am extremely enjoying. These are public services that impress me: to be able to get on a bus, take out your phone or your computer and start writing. In Guatemala, that is impossible because of crime. Here I feel very well, safe and calm. I walk a lot and have work meetings with various organisations. I am consulting on violence against women in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Women’s human rights is an issue that I always want to have on my agenda to contribute to, even if only minimally, to fight against the violence that women suffer. That’s my day-to-day life.

RL: There are only a few days to go until the elections in Guatemala…

TA: The elections in Guatemala, it is difficult to say, but in my opinion, they are a farce. There are no democratic possibilities in the country. The system is manipulated perversely, not allowing the population to make a genuinely free and conscious choice. This manipulation takes only those people that the regime wants to the second round. And it is not only in this election process. We have been in that situation for decades. It is becoming more and more evident, more and more notorious. So, I have little hope for the election process in Guatemala. It is a farce.

RL: Like in 2019, several of the most prominent candidates were rejected. What are the real possibilities of the election, then?

TA: Where there is a system that decides who is in and who is out, they are taking away the people’s right to choose. There were historical movements for people to be able to vote. In the case of women, we know of the women’s suffrage movement in England, the United States and other countries, fighting for the right to vote. And that in Guatemala they manipulate it this way is deplorable. There can be no democracy without the opportunity for people to vote deliberately and freely.

RL: Besides opposition politicians and those working in the justice system, journalists and human rights defenders are now also suffering more attacks.

TA: Guatemala’s experience teaches us several lessons: when the strength of honest prosecutors and honest judges falls, as has happened in Guatemala, the rest of the system begins to crumble. Because those honourable judges and prosecutors are a barrier to criminality, so they must be defended. The people and the international community must help a country make its justice system truly institutional. But when that force fighting against impunity and corruption falls, as in Guatemala, there is no doubt that human rights defenders and independent press will also falter until the justice system becomes a tool for organised crime. That is what is happening in Guatemala. The sentencing of José Rubén Zamora (a renowned Guatemalan journalist) to 6 years in prison is regrettable. It is a message to the independent press in Guatemala not to follow in his footsteps because the same thing will happen to them. Just like they did to us, the prosecutors and judges. It’s a system truly designed for impunity, for persecution.

RL: What solution do you see to all this?

TA: The only way out is to recover the justice system in Guatemala. That should be the goal. It is difficult because they have especially captured the Public Prosecutor’s Office. It will take many years to recover the Public Prosecutor’s Office we had, which began to be strengthened with Claudia Paz y Paz, which I continued. We would have liked it to continue in that strengthening process. An independent and autonomous Public Prosecutor’s Office guarantees access to justice for the population. That is where we would have to start at some point, someday, hopefully.

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