Summary: On the inauguration of President Bernardo Arévalo, efforts to halt it, and new stirrings for Indigenous rights and democracy – Editors
Many – both in Guatemala and around the world – watched nervously as the calendar approached Sunday, January 14th, the set date for the inauguration of Guatemala’s President-elect, Bernardo Arévalo. In an unexpected outcome, Arévalo was sworn in a more or less peaceful, although disorderly manner.
His inauguration and the transfer of power can be attributed almost entirely to two factors. Many are emphasizing the international outcry from countries such as the U.S. or those in the E.U. berating the outgoing corrupt administration as undermining the will of the people. However, the main factor, and the one that carries with it possibilities of needed radical transformation, was the mobilization of, mainly, indigenous people and the momentum of the Movimiento Semilla.
Leaders of these indigenous communities have maintained pressure on the outgoing government for more than 100 days. The central demand of these protests has been the resignation of corrupt and anti-democratic leaders, first and foremost the outgoing attorney general, María Consuelo Porras.
Porras was labeled as a corrupt and anti-democratic leader by the U.S. in 2021 and 2022. However, she is not alone in her corruption. That is, after all, the basis for the formation of the Movimiento Semilla and the ascendance to the popularity of President Bernardo Arévalo. Porras became the most recognizable face of an outgoing conservative government steeped in corruption. In contrast, Arévalo has become the face of a movement seeking to oppose this corruption, reinvigorate Guatemala’s democracy, and increase education and social spending.
Unfortunately, for Arévalo, corruption in Guatemala is far more entrenched than one attorney general. Arévalo’s party was able to gain control of Congress in the midnight hour, enabling his inauguration ceremony to go forward. However, the chaos and last-minute brokering that got him there does not bode well for his progressive platform. Although Arévalo’s cabinet is the first in the country’s history with more than half the positions filled by women, only one of the members is indigenous despite this group’s efforts being key in not only propelling the Guatemalan president to victory but also in ensuring he was inaugurated. Further, one of Arévalo’s picks comes from a prominent business group, signaling the administration may already be moving to the right. In addition, the outgoing Congress passed a budget that severely limits Arévalo’s ability to pass significant legislation increasing spending on education or healthcare – two priorities of his.
Regardless, the indigenous activists who enabled this transfer of power framed this as a fight for democracy more than a fight for Arévalo, as many of the protestors lined outside the prosecutors’ offices framed this as a battle for Guatemalan democracy. How progressive Arévalo will actually be now that he is governing will be determined in the coming months and during his administration. What is sure, however, is that this is a turning point for Guatemalan democracy. It marks a rebuke of the outgoing conservative party, which was crushed in last year’s elections, and the corruption it represents. It also demonstrates the power the people have when unified and mobilized. Arévalo nor the Movimiento Semilla did not get themselves elected and did not stop the government from blocking his inauguration – the people of Guatemala did that.
From the August 2023 Election to the Contested Inauguration
President Bernardo Arévalo was inaugurated on January 14th despite the outgoing administration’s plan to stop the ceremony. The allegation prosecutors levied was that the election results were irregular and therefore invalid. Despite these allegations, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the highest authority in Guatemalan elections, said the results and inalterable and valid.
Former President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras denied that the legal actions were taken and the pressure applied to Arevalo and his Seed Movement was an attempt to keep him from being inaugurated. However, the U.S., EU, and the Organization of American States charged them with this exact goal.
However, even before Arévalo’s election, the Seed Movement was embroiled in legal challenges to its legitimacy in the courts and Guatemalan election bodies. The Seed Movement – or Movimiento Semilla – is a coalition of political interests founded in 2017. The movement is socially progressive, anti-corruption, and reminiscent of Juan Jose Arévalo’s presidency. Both of these present threats to the established international order, which is structured around the hegemony of a small capitalist elite.
In November of 2022, members of the Seed Movement, particularly students, and the president-elect were accused of using social media to encourage students to take over a public university. In September, a court ruled favorably for Arevalo and the Seed Movement by granting the latter legal standing as a political party.
The Seed Movement presents a threat to the established order of Guatemalan politics. Born partly from protests in 2015 targeting governmental corruption, the Seed Movement is driven largely by young people. The Movement has made effective use of social media to promote turnout, perhaps in part why this aspect was potentially targeted by the sitting government.
But support is not limited to young people. Indigenous people have turned out in large numbers to support President Arevalo and protest the actions of the Guatemalan Attorney General. Protestors who celebrated his victory in August have maintained a presence in demonstration of their support for the new government. On October 1st, 2023, the president of the 48 Cantones called for a national strike against the government for their slow-motion coup.
Luis Pacheco is president of the Totonicapan, a municipality in the western Guatemalan highlands that has preserved indigenous customs in the face of Western colonialism and imperialism. While not always present in national politics, their presence now illustrates the significance of Arévalo’s win. Some report the indigenous-led protests cost the Guatemalan economy nearly 366 million dollars.
The Seed Movement represents a type of anti-corruption democratic governance not seen in Guatemala since the older Arvélo’s successor, Jacob Arbenz. Despite what Western countries and their international bodies are saying, President Bernardo Arévalo represents a threat to the dominant order of things. His alliance with the youth and indigenous movement sparks hope that he may return to the policies of his predecessor of a similar name. Hopefully, he will be even more radical and also undermine the dominant Hispanic ethnic class that has long marginalized the indigenous people of Guatemala.
Regardless, Arévalo is a symbol of anti-corruption that offers a glimpse of hope in a region bogged down by foreign intervention on behalf of capital. Arévalo, while not a communist, was put into power by young and indigenous people despite not being taken seriously by the establishment. His indigenous and youth-based supporters maintained pressure on the outgoing administration – particularly the attorney general – in an effort to ensure the results of the spontaneous, self-activity of the people were kept intact.
The ongoing problems of today are situated within the large chronology of history. Western imperialist countries have long established a presence in Central and South America. Beginning during the days of colonization, the powers at the time colonized large swaths of the land, enslaving indigenous populations in an attempt to steal land and resources for capitalist development. As capital has evolved throughout history, how imperialist powers interfere has changed to accommodate capital’s insatiable appetite.
Colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal were once dominant in the region. The legacy they left behind has become embedded in deep social and ethnic divisions in many former colonial states. After the United States became established in North America, its imperial ambitions soon turned south. Beginning with the Monroe Doctrine – that is, when President James Monroe declared the Americas were to be in the sphere of influence of the United States and outside of European jurisdiction – the U.S. transitioned into the dominant imperialist role in the region. The Roosevelt Corollary (Theodore Roosevelt) later solidified the U.S. position, along with the completion of the Panama Canal.
As the 20th Century progressed and Western bourgeois democracies formed a block behind the U.S. to resist the Soviet Union, the United States engaged in multiple coups in Central and South America. Notable examples of U.S. imperialism include indirect interventions in Haiti, Nicaragua, Rica, and Cuba; the overthrow of democratically elected Salvadore Allende and installation of Augustus Pinochet in Chile; and, the most relevant for today’s analysis, the Guatemalan coup of 1954.
The United Fruit Company had a vested economic interest in many parts of Latin America. In Guatemala, the United Fruit Company owned infrastructure as well as land. Guatemala’s largest export was bananas; it is where the term “Banana Republic” comes from. The United Fruit Company was a dominant force in Guatemala and propped up oppressive regimes to maintain its interest. As early as the 1920s, the U.S. was involved in militarily supporting Guatemalan leaders friendly to the United Fruit Company.
In 1944, however, the people of Guatemala rose up and toppled the representative of capital who oppressed them then: Jorge Ubico. Ubico was staunchly anti-communist and passed many policies favorable to the UFC, including wage limits for those who worked on their plantations and allowing landowners to punish workers as they wished. The man elected in the first democratic election of Guatemala in 1950, Juan Jose Arévalo, liberalized labor laws but stopped short, immediately, of more radical policies. In his early years, he cracked down on the Guatemalan Labor Party, which identified as communist, and unions. Despite his anti-communism, the U.S. needed to ensure their interests – capital’s interests – were maintained.
In 1954, the CIA backed former general Carlos Castillo Armas with money and arms to lead a coup d’etat of the Jacob Arbenz government. The catalyst for this was Arbenz’s Decree 900, which sought to nationalize much land that was not being used. The United Fruit Company owned a large swath of this land. In an example of the contradictions of capitalism, despite not being used for anything productive, it was more important the corporation horde the land than it be nationalized and redistributed to the people. In 1951, Arévalo resigned and was succeeded by Arbenz. Following the coup that overthrew Arbenz, a military junta was established. After a power struggle ensued, Castillo Armas won an “election” with CIA backing where all political parties were banned.
The country was destabilized as a result and the military dictators and oligarchs that followed committed atrocities in their own right. For example, General Rios Montt, whose daughter ran in these 2023 elections unrepentant, is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands after he ascended to power in 1982; further, hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. Montt targeted indigenous groups that were part of a social base of Marxist revolution guerillas with prejudice. Perhaps this history has influenced the political mobilization of Indigenous Guatemalans and the Movimiento Semilla today.
Today, as right-wing fervor sweeps Western democracies, the importance of grassroots campaigns cannot be understated. With the establishment of “illiberal democracies” in Eastern Europe, the rise of right-wing nationalism in France, and the election and potential reelection of Donald Trump in the United States, the Movimiento Semilla represents true populism. The spontaneous self-activity of the masses has propelled a progressive leader to the Guatemalan Presidency. In a similar fashion to Donald Trump’s efforts to keep Joe Biden out of office through pseudo-constitutional means, reactionary forces in Guatemala sought to prevent the peaceful transition of power and democratic will of the people from taking place. Fortunately, and due in large part to the mobilization of the Guatemalan people – first and foremost indigenous people – the inauguration played out peacefully, though disorderly. Now, Arévalo must listen to the people who propelled him to power and honor their support of him.