Guatemala’s Progressive President-Elect Will Face an Uphill Battle

In Guatemala, the historic victory of Bernardo Arévalo has unleashed the wrath of the country’s conservative elite. The coming months will prove crucial as Arévalo and progressive forces struggle to guarantee a peaceful democratic transition.

President-elect Bernardo Arévalo speaking at a press conference after his victory was announced on August 28, 2023. (Sandra Sebastian / picture alliance via Getty Images)

On June 25, Guatemalans went to the polls to cast their votes for presidential, congressional, and mayoral candidates in a ritual that occurs every four years but that, in recent years, had become almost meaningless given the levels of corruption, poverty, and inequality that envelop the country. Since Guatemala’s return to democracy with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1997, electoral cycles have tended to be inundated with candidates facing serious accusations. Among those seeking the presidential office have been confessed murderers, generals accused of genocide and other human rights violations, and countless candidates with proven accusations of corruption.

This electoral cycle was no exception. Among the presidential candidates leading the polls were Zury Ríos, the daughter of a general convicted of genocide, who ran for office despite being constitutionally prohibited from doing so; Edmond Mulet, a former United Nations official linked to cases of child trafficking; and Sandra Torres, a former first lady running for the fourth time. In 2019, Torres was arrested for violating election laws related to illicit campaign financing.

On the night of June 25, while the news broadcast the preliminary results of which two candidates would move forward to the second electoral round, the country seemed to stand still. To everyone’s surprise, fighting for second place was the candidate for the Semilla Party, Bernardo Arévalo de León, who did not even appear in most of the polls and was relegated to last place within a group of twenty-three candidates competing for the presidency.

Guatemala is not a country used to good news. Nobody could believe what they saw. Nobody dared celebrate. It was as if time had stopped completely while supporters and opponents waited for the votes to return the popular-polling candidates to first place. As the hours passed, despite what the numbers on the screen announced, none of the television channels ventured declaring Arévalo the second-place winner. “It’s too early to talk about trends,” political analysts claimed, even after over 90 percent of the votes were processed.

The shock was not unfounded. According to the calculations of the economic, political, and military elites, conservative sectors that have historically dominated the country, Arévalo’s triumph should not have happened. These groups, in control of the constitutional court, the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, Congress, and the executive, made concerted efforts to eliminate any candidates perceived to be in competition with their designated candidates for the race.

This included barring Thelma Cabrera, the only female indigenous candidate running for president, representing the political party Movement for the Liberation of the People (MLP), who came in fourth in the 2020 elections — the best position attained by any indigenous candidate in the country since the beginning of the democratic transition in 1985. Conversely, Arévalo and the Semilla Party were underestimated throughout the campaign, which was the key to their victory.

A New “Democratic Spring” for Guatemala?

Arévalo comes from a long democratic tradition. He is the son of Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, from 1945 to 1951. Arévalo Senior is remembered as the first president of Guatemala’s “democratic spring,” a political experiment that sought to reform the feudal structures that dominated the country.

The democratic era lasted only ten years, until 1954, when a US-sponsored coup d’état ended the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz, who had continued the reforms of Arévalo. The intervention plunged the country into more than three decades of armed conflict that ended in 1996, leaving in its wake a genocide against the Maya population of the country, with over two hundred thousand killed and fifty thousand declared missing.

Bernardo Arévalo lived in exile for most of his life and returned to Guatemala in the late 1980s. He held various diplomatic positions and was one of the founders of Semilla. This political party gained momentum after a series of protests in 2015 led to the resignation of Guatemala’s president and his cabinet following corruption allegations. Semilla, a group of intellectuals and academics, became an official center-left progressive political party in 2017. In the 2020 elections, Semilla managed to secure seven seats in Congress despite their presidential candidate, former attorney general and now political asylee Thelma Aldana, not being allowed to participate.

However, since the anti-corruption demonstrations of 2015, a lot has changed in Guatemala. The country has seen a surge in criminalization of prosecutors, judges, journalists, and human rights defenders, resulting in their exile. Amid the terror and growing authoritarianism, Semilla developed a modest grassroots political campaign. In contrast to other parties’ extravagant million-dollar initiatives, Semilla’s advertisements consisted mainly of handmade banners and social media videos.

Unlike most candidates from traditional parties, Semilla’s toured the country in their personal cars and not in helicopters. Semilla’s campaign successfully gained support from urban middle-class ladinos (a term used to refer to the nonindigenous or mixed population) and rural and indigenous sectors without resorting to patronage networks.

The exhaustion around a political system that thrives on corruption in a country where 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, combined with apprehension toward the authoritarian policies of certain candidates, resulted in a quiet win for Semilla on June 25 and a resounding victory in the second round on August 20. This was a clear rejection of the corrupt political system that held power in the country for too long.

No Guarantee of a Peaceful Transition of Power

Ever since the initial triumph, the established authorities — comprised of government bodies like judges, courts, and the attorney general’s office — have been doing everything in their power, short of staging a military coup, to impede Arévalo and his party from assuming office on January 14, 2024.

In recent days, due to the attorney general’s actions, the country has experienced what could be classified as a soft coup d’état — no longer led by the military but by judges and prosecutors, who have twisted and violated electoral laws and the Constitution to advance a criminalization case against the party, cancel it, and imprison its leaders and candidates. The harassment has been so severe that the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, has been present for all transition proceedings.

If Arévalo and his government take office on January 14, they will face numerous challenges. He will need a capable and competent executive cabinet, and implementing a progressive agenda will be an uphill battle with Congress primarily composed of right-wing parties and the judicial branch not in their favor.

Among the party’s priorities is to restructure the health and education system while also combating corruption through transparency measures and responsible use of public funds. However, it remains unclear how they will operate within a budget they did not design and may have limited ability to modify due to opposition from the legislature and judiciary.

Prior to the signing of the Peace Accords, the only two times that civilian presidents were in office (1966–1970 and 1986–1991), they faced similar levels of hostility and were unable to deliver on their promises of change and democracy. The military ultimately maintained control behind the scenes, and politicians failed to secure significant improvements for most citizens. Moving forward, it will be crucial for Arévalo to govern without compromising his values and to prevent corrupt and antidemocratic groups of the past from entering into his circle.

Arévalo may struggle to find allies within the country and most of Central America, which is currently plagued by authoritarianism. Instead, the administration may need to look to governments such as the European Union and the United States for support. These powers, alongside several Latin American governments, have condemned the undemocratic actions taken against Arévalo and Semilla.

The fight against corruption has garnered support in the United States government, given its vested interest in Guatemala due to its strategic location in preventing migration. The future of this alliance may depend on the continuation of a Democrat president in the United States. Additionally, it may be beneficial to seek alliances with progressive leaders from the South, such as the current presidents of Chile, Brazil, and Colombia. However, the feasibility of these alliances remains to be seen.

In recent months, there has been a surge of optimism in Guatemala, a country accustomed to voting every four years for the menos peor, or “least worst,” candidate. According to polls, over 30 percent of those who voted for Arévalo did so with the hope that the situation in the country would improve, while another 30 percent did so with the hope that “things would remain the same,” which can also be interpreted in terms of the fear of a further erosion of democracy.

However, the last few weeks have also witnessed unprecedented turmoil and a breakdown of the legal order. As arrests of dissenting voices continue, the next few months will be crucial in determining the future of a nation grappling with corruption and striving toward democracy.