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Why a progressive’s victory in Guatemala matters

Anti-corruption presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo has heralded a new era for Guatemala.

Arévalo, pictured from the shoulders up, wears frameless glasses, a navy suit jacket, and a striped tie. Behind him, a man speaks on a cellphone.
Guatemalan presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo, of the center-left political party Movimiento Semilla, leaves after a press conference in Guatemala City on June 25, 2023. 
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Guatemala has elected a new president, Bernardo Arévalo, a former academic and diplomat whose campaign focused on fighting corruption, giving many graft-weary Guatemalans hope that building strong democratic institutions could be possible in the Central American nation.

Arévalo won in a landslide during Sunday’s runoff elections, taking 58 percent of the vote with nearly all votes counted, and cementing the surprise success of his nascent Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement, in English). Former first lady Sandra Torres, a figure in the country’s conservative establishment, earned 37 percent of the vote.

Outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, who is term-limited and did not run, has promised an orderly transition and called Arévalo to congratulate him on his victory. But Arévalo’s path to the presidency has been fraught, as establishment politicians used the court system to disqualify or challenge anti-establishment candidates. And there remain questions as to whether Arévalo will be allowed to assume office — or how effective he’ll be if he does take office, without a majority in the legislature.

“We want to think that the force of this victory is going to make it clear that there is no place for the attempts to derail the electoral process,” Arévalo said Sunday. “The Guatemalan people have spoken forcefully.”

Arévalo’s rocky path to the presidency

Previously, it had seemed as though Arévalo might not have been allowed to participate in Sunday’s elections at all.

Other candidates Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera, businessman Carlos Pineda, and Roberto Arzúwere all barred from running in the country’s first-round multi-way elections in June by the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s high court. After Arévalo pulled out a surprise win that round, prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche began investigating Movimiento Semilla just before those results were certified, claiming that some 5,000 of the signatures on a petition to form the party were fake.

Guatemala’s Supreme Judicial Court granted an indefinite injunction against the effort to bar Arévalo from running, but the decision could still be appealed to the Constitutional Court. And the injunction didn’t stop Torres from launching specious attacks against Arévalo, including that Movimiento Semilla is trying to steal the elections and that Arévalo will make Guatemala a Communist country.

Now that the runoff results are posted, Arévalo could still face renewed calls for prosecution or attempts to overturn the election. But in a Friday interview with El País, he remained positive that his ideals would win out.

“We believe that democratic institutions must be reestablished,” Arévalo said. “We have to re-found the process that this corrupt political class has hijacked from us.”

Arévalo also now has the support of most Guatemalans behind him. Arévalo, the son of the nation’s first democratic president, Juan José Arévalo, was raised abroad after a military coup overthrew his father’s successor.

Torres is the head of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party, which has long been entrenched in Guatemalan politics, including, reportedly, the less savory side, like trading votes in Congress for favors and jobs. This was Torres’s third bid for the presidency, after failed efforts in 2015 and 2019, and over the years she has more closely aligned with Giammattei, according to InSight Crime, an investigative outlet reporting on issues in Latin America.

Arévalo’s message is powerful in a deeply corrupt nation

Torres’s coziness with the political establishment, both as a legislator and as a confidant of the unpopular Giammattei, signaled that a Torres presidency would be much the same as Giammattei’s. In a country with unstable democratic institutions — a situation aided by US meddling in Guatemalan politics under progressive leftist President Jacobo Arbenz — as well as serious inequality and violence, Arévalo’s success seems like a revelation.

In the first round of elections, Semilla was the underdog; Torres was widely expected to be a frontrunner, as was Zury Ríos, a populist legislator and the daughter of General Efraín Ríos Montt, a right-wing military dictator who took over Guatemala in a 1982 coup. Many Guatemalans were also expected to avoid voting to protest the corruption in the process.

But Semilla and Arévalo — upstarts offering Guatemala the chance to “vote different” — resonated with voters for reasons beyond Arévalo’s political pedigree, primarily because of his message that corruption would not be tolerated under his watch.

Guatemala suffers from the serious, interconnected problems of violence, inequality, and government corruption. Powerful interests, and especially business interests, can easily persuade the government to cater to their demands — increasing inequality and setting up the government as a mechanism for enrichment.

There was, starting in 2007, an attempt to address Guatemala’s corrupt politics under the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG, which confronted and prosecuted criminal organizations as well as corruption in the government, as Vox previously reported:

Under CICIG, Guatemalan prosecutors were tasked with investigating crime at the highest levels, even bringing corruption charges against a former president and vice president, among others. It was enormously successful, providing a model for other Latin American countries where similar problems — state capture, organized crime, and graft — have been allowed to flourish with impunity.

Former President Jimmy Morales, himself dogged by accusations of corruption, refused to renew CICIG’s mandate in 2019. CICIG’s efforts were already under attack by corrupt and powerful forces within the country; under Morales and Giammattei, anti-corruption judges and officials have fled Guatemala following arrests and threats of prosecution.

Arévalo made tackling corruption the centerpiece of his campaign, particularly speaking out against CACIF, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations, which in June he accused of “underpinning the economy of privilege” — defined in Arévalo’s words as “the economy in which the success of a group or company depends on the level of contact or political clout it has with a powerful politician, with a minister.”

But his anti-graft message, as well as his clear-eyed view of what’s possible given powerful and antagonistic interests, resonated in urban areas and, increasingly, smaller towns as well.

Arévalo faces obstacles in enacting his progressive agenda

Guatemala’s democracy is young; it has a strong, entrenched history of dictatorship, civil war, and corrupt and weak institutions which are extremely difficult to overcome, especially in just one presidential term — the limit under Guatemala’s constitution.

Inequality and poor social services, a struggling economy, and a legacy of violence following a 36-year civil war and violent dictatorships have allowed multiple armed groups to terrorize Guatemalan society. Those groups, according to InSight Crime, comprise street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18, but also involve former and current police officers, as well as members of the military and intelligence officers. The groups mostly engage in illegal drug smuggling, but also “human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, arms smuggling, adoption rings,” and other illegal businesses.

They are also entrenched in the government, with connections to powerful people “ranging from local politicians to high-level security and government officials,” Insight Crime reports.

Moreover, Semilla only has 23 seats out of 160 in the Guatemalan legislature; the ruling party, Vamos, has 39, which could lead to gridlock over Arévalo’s agenda.

That could make it difficult for Arévalo to deliver on his anti-corruption promises, even if he’s allowed to assume office.

Update, August 21, 11:30 am: This story, originally published August 20, has been updated with news that Arévalo has won the election.

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