Summary: Discusses recent political developments in Guatemala – Editors
Bernardo Arévalo and the Semilla Movement
Contrary to all expectations, on June 25, 2023 Bernardo Arévalo of Guatemala’s Semilla Movement emerged from a crowded field of contenders to be one of two candidates for run-off presidential elections on August 20. Arévalo survived challenges to first-round results from the losing candidates when his showing was confirmed by Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the Constitutional Court. Similarly, attempts by Guatemala’s Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, to outlaw the legal status of Arévalo’s Semilla party following the June 25 outcome were turned back by the electoral courts.
What does Bernardo Arévalo’s candidacy represent to Guatemalans? Where did he come from? Bernardo Arévalo is the son of Guatemala’s first democratically-elected president, Juan José Arévalo, a progressive who promoted voting rights and introduced the country’s first social security programs between 1945 and 1951. Juan José Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Árbenz, Guatemala’s second democratically-elected president. However, when Jacobo Árbenz extended reforms to include the redistribution of land, he was abruptly removed from office in 1954 by a coup d’état. This opened the door to thirty years of brutal military dictatorship in Guatemala.
The 2023 candidate Bernardo Arévalo was born in exile in Uruguay and arrived in Guatemala at the age of 15. Arévalo pursued a career as a scholar and a diplomat serving as the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for Guatemalan President Ramiro de León from 1994 to 1995, and as Guatemala’s ambassador to Spain 1995-1996. Self-identified as a social democrat, Bernardo Arévalo firmly believes in private ownership. He would add moderate government regulation so as to restrict monopoly practices and to protect the broad interests of civil society. Arévalo calls for cross-class alliances spanning ethnic, religious, and gender differences so as to protect Guatemala’s democratic institutions and to combat the country’s notorious corruption. In the Semilla Movement’s platform there is no mention of the nationalization of industries, of land, or services and no talk of using government intervention as the first response to the country’s socio-economic problems. Arévalo believes private sector interests can be enlisted to deliver much needed health-care for the nation’s remotest areas and is running on this campaign promise. These are modest proposals for a nation where 54% of citizens live below the poverty line and more than half of all children suffer from what international agencies qualify as “serious malnutrition.”
Prior to June 2023 the Semilla Movement held 7 total seats out of the 160 seats in Guatemala’s Congress. (For reference Semilla means “seed.”) The party’s impact and presence was limited to the capital and the suburban peripheries around Guatemala City. It is primarily middle class in formation and character. Semilla lacked the resources and national networks of competing political parties who use the traditional “clientelismo” patronage model, such as Arévalo’s second-round opponent Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party (UNE). UNE is the largest political party in Guatemala by number of members and counts on an entrenched network of supporters (“clientes”) at the municipal level in all parts of the country. Semilla, on the other hand, had to rely on Twitter and TikTok to reach towns and regions outside the capital district with its campaign message.
The 2023 Presidential Elections: Elite Manipulation of Guatemala’s “Managed Democracy” Backfires
The question on everyone’s mind following the June 25 elections, and asked most bitterly by Guatemala’s ruling elites, was how could Bernardo Arévalo a first-time candidate polling in low single digits from a field of 22 contenders rise to second place and earn an unexpected position in the two candidate run-off? At the same time people ask how could Manuel Conde and Zury Ríos, the two candidates preferred by the elites be left entirely out of the running having finished in third and sixth place respectively?
For reference, the Economist Intelligence Unit considers Guatemala to be a “hybrid regime”. That is to say it is not an actual dictatorship. But it is certainly not a full democracy either. There are elections. There are courts. There is an attorney general and special prosecutors. There are political parties and political candidates. However, since the time of the military dictatorships 1954-1985, and the subsequent post-civil war return to democracy 1985-1996, the whole process has been managed from above. How does a country of 18 million embark on an election for president with a total of 22 declared candidates (plus the 4 candidates who were disqualified prior to election day)? Why are the 160 seats in Congress divided up among a total of 17 separate party formations? Despite the large number of different candidates and different parties, why do they all follow a consistent center-right to far-right consensus on the issues facing the nation? Why are they all agreed on a relatively narrow range of neoliberal options to choose from? Why are there no left progressive options or critical voices among the choices presented to voters?
As indicated above, four of the 2023 candidates for president were disqualified by the attorney general and the electoral authorities prior to the election. These candidates included Carlos Pineda of Citizen Prosperity (Prosperidad Ciudadana), Roberto Arzú of We Can (Podemos), and Thelma Cabrera of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP). The significant issue is that these three ranked among the top candidates prior to their removal from the race for alleged “electoral irregularities”. Infractions ranged from incomplete documentation to the charge of “early campaigning”. For his part, Carlos Pineda of the center-right Citizen Prosperity was polling ahead of all 22 candidates when he was removed. Observers say the issue was not ideological as Pineda belongs to the center to far-right consensus imposed by the business, landowner, evangelical, and military elites. It’s just that he represented a non-conforming faction whose differences stem from conflicting personal allegiances. Roberto Arzú is further to the right ideologically but was also deemed to be out of step with members of the elite in terms of his personal ambitions. He was prevented from running.
The decision to exclude Thelma Cabrera an Indigenous woman activist was different. Cabrera had been a presidential candidate in 2019 who placed fourth with 10% of the vote and came close to making the run-off. In the 2023 campaign Cabrera and the MLP called for a new constitution where Guatemala would become a decentralized plurinational republic modeled on Bolivia and its pioneering 2009 constitution. Cabrera-MLP was the only electoral campaign to seriously challenge the status quo. Once the disqualification of her candidacy became clear, Cabrera made a public call for voters to spoil their ballots. She said the majorities in Guatemala do not have political representation.
June 2023 Presidential Elections: Of 22 Candidates the Winner was “Spoiled Ballots”. On top of a 40% Abstention Rate
In the face of continued electoral meddling by an elite known for corruption and impunity, Guatemalan voters issued a massive repudiation to the system when given the chance to go to the polls on June 25. In the field of 22 candidates the largest number of votes went to “Spoiled Ballots” with 17% of total votes cast. When combined with 7% “Blank Ballots”, the “Votes of Rejection” reached 24% of all votes cast.This dwarfed the vote totals garnered by approved candidates; first round winner Sandra Torres of UNE got 16.0%, second place finisher Bernardo Arévalo got 11.7%, and Manuel Conde of Vamos came a distant third with 7.9% of votes cast. Of the nation’s 9.4 million registered voters, 5.6 million voted on June 25 which leaves a voter abstention rate of 40%. The combined totals for voter abstention, spoiled, and blank ballots show that 5.2 million Guatemalans, or 55% of all registered voters, refused to vote for any of the approved candidates on June 25. Nationally and internationally the fundamental legitimacy of this election and of the country’s “managed democracy” is brought into question.
In Guatemala there is a decentralized network of leading figures from the business, landowning, evangelical, and military elites known as the “pacto de los corruptos” (the pact of the corrupt), The interests of the “pacto de corruptos” are effectively served through the loyalty and machinations of senior agents of the state. In June 2023 bold and aggressive moves against “undesirable” candidates and their parties, including disqualification, was driven by Attorney General Consuelo Porras and her colleague Special Prosecutor Rafael Currichiche with the collaboration of Supreme Court Judge Fredy Orellana. Fortunately for democracy, the sustained efforts of these three people to disqualify Arévalo and the Semilla party have been successfully countered by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the Constitutional Court.
The main defense for Arévalo and Semilla is that constitutional law does not permit disqualification of a candidate once they have been approved to run in the first round. The elites and state agents should have moved to disqualify Arévalo before the June election took place, as they did with three other leading candidates. Arévalo’s initial low single digit poll numbers placed him well down the list. This allowed him to come in under the radar and be the beneficiary of protest votes on June 25. Perhaps we cannot give sole credit to the Thelma Cabrera-MLP call for spoiled ballots for producing the “winning choice” at 17%, but we can give Cabrera-MLP credit for being attuned to Guatemala’s majority opinion. When agents of the state disqualified the three presidential candidates, Pineda, Arzú, and Cabrera, they intended to clear the path for the favored elite candidates, Manuel Conde and Zury Ríos. However, the high-handed plan backfired. Guatemalan voters perceived an elite move against democratic institutions and refused to comply. On election day they relegated Manuel Conde of the ruling Vamos party to a distant third and out of the running. Zury Ríos, daughter of a former military dictator, and heavily promoted by right wing media, lagged far behind in sixth place.
“They don’t use death squads anymore. They now have the justice system at their disposal,” Exiled Guatemalan Special Prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval
It is important to note that the above-mentioned Attorney General Consuelo Porras was the person who fired Guatemalan Special Prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval in July 2021. After his dismissal Sandoval abruptly left the country and chose to remain in exile for his personal safety. He had been head of FECI (Guatemala’s Special Section of States Attorneys Combatting Impunity) for six years. Sandoval and FECI worked in conjunction with CICIG (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), which was a collaboration between the U.N. and the government of Guatemala. A massive popular uprising in 2015 drove an authoritarian from the presidency and opened an era of prosecution of high-ranking officials for corruption and human rights atrocities. In six years of collaboration FECI and CICIG were remarkably effective. They investigated 60 agencies, organizations, and government departments resulting in convictions and imprisonment of 18 high-ranking ex-military leaders plus a former president and vice-president. Indeed, the Guatemalan elite’s concern regarding Bernardo Arévalo is not the modest socio-economic reforms he proposes. It is the fear that Arévalo would revive CECIG and FECI and renew a much needed anti-corruption drive.
Sad to say, over the past four years the pro-human rights and anti-corruption tide in Guatemala has been sharply reversed. As CICIG-FECI investigations drew closer to the personal interests of the elite they closed ranks and in 2019 expelled CICIG from the country. Since then the Public Ministry began pressing charges against its own prosecutors for their role in documenting high-level abuses. In May 2023 Attorney General Consuelo Porras arrested two prosecutors bringing the number of anti-corruption attorneys behind bars to eight. Thirty-six are in exile. These state’s attorneys face long sentences in what is widely viewed as retribution for attempting to prosecute entrenched corruption. Curiously, the charges levied against them often lead with “obstruction of justice.”
What are Bernardo Arévalo’s Chances to Run on August 20? What are Arévalo’s Odds to Win on August 20?
At the moment, the path is clear for Bernardo Arévalo (Semilla) to run in second-round elections on August 20 against Sandra Torres (UNE). The legality of his candidacy was affirmed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the Constitutional Court. The U.S. State Department has requested that the democratic process in Guatemala be respected. This includes respecting the duly chosen candidates and the results of the August 20 run-off. Moreover, former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Stephen McFarland, stated that the United States could easily work with Arévalo and that the U.S. does not view his candidacy with alarm. Guatemala’s powerful business lobby CACIF (Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations) called for support of the TSE’s decision to proceed to the second round with Arévalo and Torres.
While Semilla’s representation in Congress surged from 7 to 23 seats, this is still a small progressive group among 160 congressional seats which are arrayed in 17 center-right to far-right formations. If victorious on August 20, Arévalo would face the situation encountered by progressive presidents recently elected in Chile and Brazil who must work with predominantly right-wing Congresses. The possibility for right-wing obstruction, co-optation, retribution, and impeachment poses a daily challenge to the new presidents. This situation requires high political and institutional skills as well as the ability to mobilize a mass base. In these presidential struggles, Lula da Silva the third-term Brazilian progressive is able to hold his own, while Gabriel Boric the first-term Chilean progressive appears to be floundering. It is well within the capability of Guatemalan elites to hamstring Bernardo Arévalo’s administration and hold the newly elected president at bay.
In Guatemala there is still the possibility of a military coup, an unprecedented legal manoeuvre, arrests, disappearances, or worse, which could prevent the installation of an Arévalo presidency. However, given the ability of elites to restrict Arévalo’s range of action, why would they risk the consequences of a blatant coup? In 2015 such a move provoked a massive popular insurrection which unseated a sitting military president and unleashed far-ranging investigations resulting in the conviction and incarceration of 18 high-ranking officials. In fact, the elites have spent the past four years working hard to reverse this. Why provoke another explosion and the uncertainty this entails for them and the privileged positions they hold? In addition, there is the possibility of sanctions from the U.S., the E.U., the U.N. and other regional organizations.
Bernardo Arévalo placed second in first round voting with 11.7% to Sandra Torres’ 16.0%. Does Arévalo have a chance to defeat Torres in the second round? Clearly benefiting from protest votes in the first-round, in the second round could Arévalo win a significant portion of the 24% spoiled and blank ballots? The Arévalo-Semilla base is primarily middle class located in the capital with growth in other urban areas. The Cabrera-MLP base is primarily Indigenous and rural. Could Arévalo and Cabrera work together to give coverage to the entire country and forge a majority alliance?
There is a distinct possibility that Torres-UNE will win the second round. Torres is a perennial second round presidential candidate who was defeated in run-offs in 2015 and 2019 by more conservative candidates. Now that she is the conservative candidate against Arévalo could she be victorious in 2023? A significant political consideration in Guatemala and elsewhere is the impact of evangelicals who proclaim inflexible conservative positions and wage culture wars with passionate certainty. The progressive president of Brazil is contending with an electorate heavily impacted by conservative ideology and with difficulty is able to hold his own. In Brazil evangelicals represent an influential 31% of the population. In Guatemala evangelicals are 42% of the population.
All eyes are on the August 20 run-off. It looks like the elections will take place. The results are unknown. The consequences of the possible outcomes differ. Each potential outcome offers possibilities for future struggles and progress in this emerging nation.
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