Can Guatemala’s new president turn the tide on years of corruption?

user avatar Author: Editors Desk
January 11, 2024 at 07:58
Guatemala’s president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo, was elected last year as voters rallied to his Seed Movement’s promise to clean up politics. Photograph: Moisés Castillo/AP
Guatemala’s president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo, was elected last year as voters rallied to his Seed Movement’s promise to clean up politics. Photograph: Moisés Castillo/AP

Bernardo Arévalo, an unassuming academic, will offer hope when he is sworn in on Sunday – despite the best efforts of the previous ruling cabal to stop him

Spontaneous celebrations broke out in Guatemala City: cars sped down the capital’s main boulevard, passengers leaning out of windows and sunroofs, yelling in pure delight. But the source of all the joy and all the flag-waving on this Sunday evening in August wasn’t football – it was politics.

Bernardo Arévalo, a 65-year-old academic, whose unassuming personality marks him out from many other Latin American leaders, had just been named Guatemala’s president-elect. “Thank you for not losing hope,” he told a cheering crowd from the balcony of the hotel where his young, centre-left party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), had learned of its election victory.

Over the turbulent months that followed, however, Guatemala’s democracy has remained on the brink. Fearing Semilla’s anti-graft pledges, the country’s political, economic and military cabal, known as “the pact of the corrupt”, has tried to stop Arévalo from taking power. Prosecutors seized ballot papers from the electoral authorities and brought spurious court cases with the aim of annulling the election results.

But, so far at least, nothing has stuck, and Arévalo, whose father served as Guatemala’s first democratically elected president between 1945 and 1951, is due be sworn in as the Central American country’s new leader on Sunday. Although many political analysts believe the transfer of power will go ahead as planned, it remains possible that his opponents will try to prevent the inauguration at the 11th hour.

What makes the anti-corruption campaigner’s rise so remarkable is that it came against the backdrop of democratic backsliding in the country. This accelerated in 2015, when nationwide protest movement which forced the resignation of then president Otto Pérez Molina over a corruption scandal. The optimism it brought, however, was quickly shattered by the governments of Jimmy Morales and Alejandro Giammattei, under whose watch the country’s institutions rapidly deteriorated.

“Institutionally, Guatemala is a country in ruins,” said Edgar Ortiz, a political analyst and lawyer, who believes the recent regression is the worst seen since the end of the Guatemalan civil war in 1996. “The country’s freedom and democracy regressed more in the last three years than they did in the previous 25.”

Ahead of the first round of the 2023 elections, the situation appeared bleak. The justice system continued to be a tool through which the powerful could attack their opponents, as illustrated by the six-year prison sentence given to the prominent journalist José Rubén Zamora in June. And the electoral playing field was unequal, with three high-profile, anti-system presidential candidates barred from competing on dubious grounds.

A man is seen during a demonstration calling on the attorney general, Consuelo Porras, and others to resign in Guatemala City on Tuesday. Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images
A man is seen during a demonstration calling on the attorney general, Consuelo Porras, and others to resign in Guatemala City on Tuesday. Photograph: Johan Ordóñez/AFP/Getty Images

Arévalo was allowed to remain on the ballot paper because he was polling so badly. Then, in the run-up to the first-round vote in June, popular discontent unexpectedly coalesced around Semilla’s promise to clean up politics. Arévalo finished second, qualifying him for August’s runoff against the ex-first lady Sandra Torres, which he won by a landslide.

“Arévalo is a glitch in the matrix. Because at the end of the day, when people are angry and desperate, they vote for a Nayib Bukele, for a Javier Milei, for populists like them,” said Ortiz, referring to the leaders of El Salvador and Argentina. “They don’t usually vote for a Bernardo Arévalo – a sixtysomething-year-old sociologist.”

Reflecting on Semilla’s unlikely win, Marielos Chang, a political scientist, told the Guardian: “Arévalo did not have the blessing of the political system, nor the blessing of the economic elite, nor the blessing of the traditional media channels.”

Semilla’s triumph was, above all, down to the support of young urban voters, who successfully encouraged their relatives to back Arévalo. For Chang, the significance of the 2023 election results went far beyond the endorsement of one man and his cash-strapped party. “It represented a victory for Guatemalan citizens against the system,” she said.

Guatemalans were also alive to the need to protect democracy after the elections. Most notably, Indigenous leaders organised weeks of protest in which roads were blocked across the country, calling for the resignation of Consuelo Porras, the attorney general whose ministry has led unsuccessful attempts to ban Semilla, and to strip Arévalo and his deputy, Karin Herrera, of their political immunity. (Porras remains in his post.)

The other main democratic bulwark has been the international community. In December, the US sanctioned Miguel Martínez, a close Giammattei ally, for corruption, sending a warning signal to those seeking to impede Arévalo. Washington then announced visa restrictions for more than 100 Guatemalan politicians, after they supported a budget designed to kneecap the incoming Arévalo government.

If Arévalo takes power on Sunday without a hitch, he has the protesters and the sanctions to thank. His next challenge will be how to govern with only 23 of the Guatemalan congress’s 160 seats, and how to weather the inevitable moves to hobble him by the “pact of the corrupt”. He has been honest that he can only do so much in the single term allotted to every Guatemalan president, but he says he is confident that he can start to rebuild the country.

Guatemalans at home and abroad will watch on in expectation. Juan Francisco Sandoval, a senior anti-corruption prosecutor forced into exile in 2021, said: “Four years is very little time, and it will be very difficult for Semilla. But I believe that there is at least the possibility of stopping the actions that have suffocated Guatemala’s democratic institutions.”

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