In the elections held on Sunday, the Guatemalan voters elected Bernardo Arevalo as president with 58 per cent of the votes. This is significant for three fundamental reasons in the context of the Guatemalan and regional political history.
Firstly, this clear and decisive election of an anti-establishment outsider is a victory for democracy. The current ruling establishment of President Giammattei had tried a lot of dirty tricks and prevented some candidates from contesting in the elections. They even went after the Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement) party of Arevalo with accusations of irregularities.
Sandra Torres, the rival of Arevalo, was favoured by the incumbent administration. This situation lead to fears that the elections might be derailed or Arevalo himself might be prevented from contesting in the second round. These concerns went beyond the borders of the country to regional and international levels. The Organization of American States and the US State Department as well as the Congress members had issued statements.
It is against this backdrop that Arevalo’s election with a convincing margin of 16 per cent (against 37 per cent of Sandra Torres) has given a clear message that democracy in Guatemala is safe, healthy and resilient. The elections were held peacefully without any major incidents. President Giammattei has already congratulated the winner and has invited him for talks for a smooth transition.
More importantly, there has been no violent attacks against the electoral system or outcome as done by Trump and Bolsonaro and their thuggish followers in the US and Brazil, the largest democracies in the hemisphere.
Secondly, Arevalo is a centre-left progressive leader. He has promised to give priority for elimination of poverty and inequality. He proposes reforms in education and health care to make them more accessible and affordable for the poor. This is essential since a large part of the population is poor. Most of these are the indigenous people. The country has still not recovered from the 36-year civil war which ended in 1996. Several hundred thousand people were killed by the security forces of military dictatorship in the name of fighting left-wing guerillas. Criminal gangs have taken over many slums and indulge in murders, extortions and crimes. Poverty, insecurity and lack of economic opportunities are the main drivers of illegal migration of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to to the United States. Although Sandra Torres is also left-of-centre candidate, she had started moving to the right aligning more with the ruling oligarchy.
Thirdly, Arevalo’s election is a boost to the anti-corruption movement. Corruption and impunity have been the major issues after povery and insecurity. The common people accuse the elites of having a "Pact of the Corrupt". In 2015, the Guatemalan justice had sent a sitting president Otto Perez Molina directly from the Presidential palace to jail on corruption charges, In December 2022, Molina and his Vice president President Baldetti were sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Arevalo has an excellent resume for the job. He has a cosmopolitan background of studies and living. He was born in Uruguay where his father and ex-president Juan Jose Arevalo lived in exile after the 1954 military coup in Guatemala. His father was the first democratically elected president of the country in 1945. His family moved later to Venezuela, Mexico and Chile. He was in Guatemala for the first time at the age of fifteen. He went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel for his graduation in sociology. His father was ambassador to Israel at that time. He got his doctorate in philosophy and social anthropology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He became a diplomat in the Guatemalan foreign ministry and had served as ambassador in Spain. He left the diplomatic career to work with regional and international organisations.
He has written a number of books on history, politics, sociology and diplomacy. He joined a group of intellectuals to form Semilla, a think tank which became a political party. He was elected to the Congress in which he served from 2020 to 2022. When he started his presidential campaign in 2023 his polling rate was in single digit. But he succeeded in getting the second position in the first round of elections and became eligible to run in the seond round on 20 August.
In foreign policy, Arevalo is pragmatic. Although he is left-of centre, he has condemned the leftist regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as authoritarian. He seeks more business with China while maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The clean election process and the clear outcome in Guatemala should be an inspiration to other countries in Central and South America some of which also face similar political situations. Anti-establishment outside candidates would feel encouraged to take on established and entrenched political parties which control political power.
While Arevalo has a serious agenda for reforms of governance and socio-economic development, he does not have enough votes in the Congress to pass progressive legislations. His party has only 23 seats in the 160 member Congress. President Giammattei’s conservative party Vamos has 39 members and the UNE party of Sandra Torres has 28.
Sandra Russo, who has lost the presidential race for the third time, has an interesting history. She was the wife of Alvaro Colom when he was President in the period 2008-12. She manipulated and intervened in the administration to raise her profile and image. She was seen as the real power in the presidential palace. She acted like Evita of Argentina. She became head of a charity organization and got plenty of government funds to distribute to poor people, as Evita did. Sandra wanted to be seen as protector of the poor with her leftist agenda.
There was a constitutional obstacle to Sandra’s dream to become President after her husband. The Guatemalan constitution prohibits immediate family members of sitting president from contesting presidential elections. So what did Sandra do? She tried Magical Realism. She divorced her husband a few months before the election and proclaimed that she was “the first woman in history to divorce husband to marry the country”. Hmm..she was already divorced before marrying Colom for whom she became the third wife.
But some judges in the constitutional court had the courage to reject her claim saying that her candidature was a violation of the spirit of the constitution even if she was technically correct. After the disqualification of her candidature in 2011, Sandra waited four years and contested against the comedian Jimmy Morales in 2015. His promise to the voters was, “I have made you laugh for so many years. I promise I will not make you cry as President.” But his government had some corruption scandals and he left the office crying. He beat her to presidency with his jokes and promise. Later, Colom was arrested on corruption charges in 2018.
Guatemala was the first country in Latin America to be destabilized by US in the so called war against Communism during the Cold War. In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup against the democratically elected leftist president Jacob Arbanz and installed a military dictatorship. While the coup was carried out in the name of the war on Communism, the real reason was to protect the interests of United Fruit Company which owned hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land. The company was likely to lose some land to the land reforms initiated by Arbanz government. It had absolute monopoly in banana plantation and trade and pursued exploitative labour policies with impunity. Its revenue was bigger than that of the government of Guatemala. John Foster Dulles, the CIA chief, had close business ties with the company. When the rightist military dictatorship was resisted by the leftist political movements, the regime unleashed a wave of terror, with the support and encouragement of US.
The civil war continued till 1996 in which over two hundred thousand people were killed. In March 1999, President Clinton made a formal apology for the sufferings inflicted on the people of Guatemala by the US-backed military dictatorship. But those who got US weapons to fight communism took to gangsterism and criminality after the end of the civil war. To escape this US-supported violence and crime, Guatemalans started emigrating to US, which has a moral responsibility to give asylum to the victims of its past sins.
It was in Guatemala that Che Guevara got to see first-hand the excesses of the empire and became an anti-imperial leftist guerrilla crusader. Thereafter he joined Fidel Castro and succeeded in liberating Cuba from another military dictatorship supported by US.
Guatemala is the largest and most important market in Central America. In 2022-23, India’s exports to Guatemala were 465 million dollars, The exports were 552 million dollars in 2021-22. This more than India's exports to some neighboring countries such as Cambodia or Kazakhstan. Motorcycles, cars, generic medicines are the leading items of India’s exports. India is the no. 2 supplier of medicines to Guatemala. Some Indian IT, pharma and motorcycle companies have established successful operations in the country. There is good scope for increasing India’s business with this country of 18 million people.
The author is an expert in Latin American affairs