A Surprise Breakthrough in Guatemala

A Surprise Breakthrough in Guatemala

After months of political battle, Bernardo Arévalo has become the president of Guatemala. His winning campaign was built on attacking the corruption of the institutions that tried to keep him from office.

Protestors in Guatemala City demand the resignation of officials who attempted to prevent Bernardo Arévalo from taking office. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

The following article was written in December. Bernardo Arévalo assumed office on January 15.

When Guatemalans voted in general elections last summer, those with democratic inclinations had few reasons for hope. The electoral authority had disqualified three presidential candidates for various reasons, which ultimately came down to one: the government wanted to prevent them from winning. The pro–status quo parties, associated with corruption and impunity, had an abundance of campaign funds. The ruling party managed to recruit nearly 150 of Guatemala’s 340 incumbent mayors to support its re-election. Candidates critical of the government and its allies were labeled as leftists with no chance of winning.

So the final result came as a huge surprise. Bernardo Arévalo received under 12 percent of the vote in the first round, but that qualified him for a runoff. In the second round on August 20, Guatemalans overwhelmingly supported him, and he won 60 percent of the vote.

Arévalo succeeded thanks to young urban voters weary of a corrupt government system. (Four urban electoral districts leaned in his favor in the first round.) Arévalo and his party, the Semilla (Seed) Movement, have been persistent in criticizing this system and the national elite that hoards power and wealth. Semilla formed in 2015 as a political vehicle for protesters who supported the fight against corruption led by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, created by the United Nations at the request of the Guatemalan government. The commission landed a number of prominent political figures and businessmen in prison, on charges of embezzling public funds. Semilla first participated in elections in 2019, with moderate success, electing seven legislators. However, its presidential candidate, the former prosecutor Thelma Aldana, was barred from standing.

The victor in that election, Alejandro Giammatei, managed to consolidate power in his hands, garnering the favor of a majority of right-wing forces in Congress in exchange for public funding for their projects, which in many cases enriched lawmakers. With this support, he extended the term of a Supreme Court of Justice aligned with his interests and formed a Constitutional Court without a single dissenting voice. He also reappointed Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, who has halted investigations into corruption within the current government (at least three cases involve the president himself) and has gone after those who prosecuted corrupt officials in the past. Dozens of Guatemalans targeted by Porras’s office, including former prosecutors, judges, magistrates, and journalists, are currently living in exile.

As in 2019, the 2023 electoral process was manipulated by the authorities to exclude candidates who posed a threat, like indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera and right-wing politician Roberto Arzú. Populist candidate Carlos Pineda was eliminated while leading in the polls. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal showed a clear intention to clear the path for one of the ruling alliance candidates to win. They paid little attention to candidates from small center-left parties, considering them harmless—and even useful for creating the appearance of a participatory democracy. Arévalo was one of these candidates. Polls never named him among the favorites.

An academic and diplomat with center-left beliefs, Arévalo’s main proposal was modest: he said he wanted to fix national institutions by attacking corruption. He is not exactly a rock star, but his candidness during the campaign, in which he openly called his rivals corrupt, earned him praise.

Arévalo connected corruption to the extreme poverty in which almost a quarter of the country’s population lives—widespread deprivation that exists alongside a wealthy business elite. The pharmaceutical market, for example, is dominated by a few companies that shut out competitors and sell their products at high prices. Thousands of Guatemalans have been impoverished by the high cost of medical treatments. Half of children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition, and schools are in dire condition. The country’s road network is constantly deteriorating, even though it has become the main source of enrichment for politicians. As many as 4 million Guatemalans currently live in the United States, compared to just 17 million in Guatemala itself. These migrants contribute roughly one-fifth of Guatemala’s GDP in remittances to help their families survive.

As of this writing, it’s unclear if Arévalo will be allowed to assume the presidency in January. The president-elect faces intense opposition from the government alliance, led by the attorney general. First, Porras’s office revived an old accusation from a person who claimed to have been registered in Semilla without authorization. Then, officials initiated a corruption case against the electoral magistrates. Finally, legislators have announced that Porras is preparing a fraud case about the data transmission system in the first round of the elections.

National and international election observers, who conducted exercises on election day, have rejected the accusation of fraud. But if Porras succeeds in her mission, the elections would have to be repeated—and the Semilla Movement and Arévalo would not be able to participate due to the charge of unauthorized party registrations. The president-elect has denounced the effort as an attempted coup.

In response to the threat to overturn the election results, Guatemalans have taken to the streets in widespread protest. Indigenous leaders are leading the charge—an unexpected development in a country where people of Maya descent face de facto segregation. The business elite, meanwhile, waited for over two weeks of protests to call for the government to respect the election results. And they have not demanded Porras’s resignation.

On the last day of the election campaign, the Semilla Movement projected a message onto a building that houses the powerful business association CACIF, a symbol of the Guatemalan elite: “The people decide, not CACIF.” For ordinary Guatemalans, that remains the central battle.

Juan Luis Font is a Guatemalan journalist in exile. He was the founder and former general editor of elPeriodico, whose president has been in prison for the last seventeen months. He runs ConCriterio radio on TV from abroad.

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