Can a reform-minded president-elect change Guatemala’s political culture of corruption?
Nery Roldenas first marched outside Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office in July, protesting attempts then to prevent one of the winning candidates in the first round from participating in the subsequent runoff election. Six weeks later, he was back, demanding this time that the runoff winner, Bernardo Arévalo, rightfully take office as death threats surfaced against the candidate and so-called anti-corruption prosecutors pushed to cancel his Seed Movement party.
Of the Guatemalan elite seeking to cling to power through the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Rodenas, told America, “they’re burning their final cartridges, so that he doesn’t take possession [of the presidency].”
“It’s a terrible situation, a worrisome situation, a situation that’s weakening the democratic [institutions] in our country,” Mr. Rodenas, director of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City’s human rights office, said.
Mr. Arévalo surged from seemingly nowhere to place second in the first round of elections on June 25 as urban voters unexpectedly swung to the Seed Movement he fronted. He had campaigned on an anti-graft agenda in a contest that many in Guatemala had assumed was rigged from the start against insurgent candidacies.
Mr. Arévalo had campaigned on an anti-graft agenda in a contest that many in Guatemala had assumed was rigged from the start against insurgent candidacies.
Mr. Arévalo, with a professional background in nongovernmental organization work, promised to clean house, restore democratic norms and unseat the rapacious elite dubbed the “pacto de corruptos,” the pact of the corrupt, by local media.
He will have his work cut out for him, however, as the governing party and its allies have maintained a legislative majority in Congress and have retained their hold in many municipalities. Countering his unexpected success, the pacto de corruptos has been deploying the forces of the state to undermine Mr. Arévalo and his allies.
Outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, who is limited by the Guatemalan constitution to one term in office, has promised a smooth transition of power. Mr. Arévalo is to take office on Jan. 14, 2024.
But Mr. Giammattei’s allies, who managed to disqualify rival candidates prior to the election, are torpedoing the transition at every turn. Mr. Arévalo suspended his participation in the transition Sept. 12 after the prosecutor’s office raided the installations of the country’s top electoral authority.
“They’re not just going to let this go from one day to the next,” Mr. Rodenás said, describing the pacto de corruptos as a shadow network within the government and private sector—“all these businessmen, soldiers and politicians who have benefited from the state for decades and have tried to continue maintaining a corrupt state by enriching themselves and retaining impunity and privileges.” Other observers of Guatemalan politics say representatives of organized crime can be included as part of the pacto.
Mr. Arévalo’s improbable victory sharply contradicts a pre-election narrative of democratic backsliding in Guatemala and broke with a trend toward rising populism and authoritarianism in Central America.
Congress recently refused to recognize the Seed Movement, forcing its seven legislators to sit as independents. The move came after the Seed Movement had been suspended by state prosecutors who claimed the party’s founding documents contained fraudulent signatures.
The country’s top electoral tribunal has blocked the Seed Movement’s suspension—but perhaps only temporarily. According to Guatemalan election law, the suspension of political parties is prohibited during electoral periods. The tribunal also certified the election, but not before prosecutors raided the Seed Movement’s offices—and those of the tribunal, too. Mr. Arévalo described the incursions as “coup forces that intend to keep us submerged in corruption, impunity and poverty,” according to Reuters.
Mr. Arévalo overwhelmingly won the runoff election on Aug. 20, trouncing three-time presidential candidate Sandra Torres. She had polled well in rural regions, where an anti-hunger program she championed as first lady between 2008 and 2012 proved popular, even as it created patronage groups.
Ms. Torres, however, came to represent the status quo in an election about overturning politics as usual, despite previously being branded a “communist” by the same business elites backing her campaign this time, according to Mr. Rodenás.
“They wanted to have the election of the first round in June under control, so there would be only two of their candidates” in the runoff, said José Luis González, S.J., coordinator of the Jesuit Migrant Network, Central America and North America. “By the second round, they were already scared” and responded with a Plan B to control outcomes through the nation’s judiciary.
Before Mr. Arévalo’s success, the Seed Movement itself seemed an unlikely platform for ousting the pacto de corruptos. Founded in 2015 and able to win only modest representation in Congress.
Throughout the campaigns, Guatemala’s bishops called for the contests to occur as scheduled, for their results to be respected and for state prosecutors “not to intervene in the electoral process.”
The bishops themselves refrained from supporting specific candidates, unlike some prominent evangelical pastors in Guatemala, who loudly supported Ms. Torres’s campaign and her calls to continue prohibitions on abortion and same-sex marriage. But the appeals on moral issues failed to move many voters.
“The fact that the population was fed up with corruption weighed more heavily” than social issues, “and there was fatigue with this kind of religious manipulation,” said Ursula Roldán, director of the Research Institute of Socio-Humanistic Sciences at the Jesuit-run Rafael Landívar University.
Mr. Arévalo’s improbable victory has captured enormous international attention. It sharply contradicted a pre-election narrative of democratic backsliding in Guatemala and broke with a trend toward rising populism and authoritarianism in Central America.
The victory showed a latent desire among many Guatemalans to return to a path toward good government and transparency last explored in the mid-2010s, when the country stood out as a rare anti-corruption success story in Latin America. Back then Guatemala had ousted a president and vice president over a corruption scheme, dubbed “La Línea” by local media, that was run through the country’s customs service.
In those years the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (C.I.C.I.G.)—established to combat the criminal impunity that had persisted since the country’s civil war—subjected Guatemalan elites to unprecedented scrutiny. But the anti-corruption push unraveled—with the blessing of then-U.S. president Donald Trump, who raised no objections to the expulsion of the C.I.C.I.G. in 2019 in what some analysts described as a trade-off in return for Guatemalan commitments to tougher immigration enforcement.
Guatemala’s elite “prefer Donald Trump because he doesn’t prioritize combating corruption. He prioritizes being allies to stop migration above all else.”
Then-president Jimmy Morales—a former television comedian turned politician—also curried favor by moving the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem 2018 following the precedent set by the United States—making Guatemala the second country to do so. He also struck a deal with the Trump administration to establish Guatemala as a safe third country for other Central American states. This meant that any migrant setting foot in Guatemala had to apply for asylum there at the risk of invalidating that person’s future asylum claim in the United States.
Mr. Giammattei also cast his lot with Mr. Trump and U.S. conservatives, adopting policies tough on transmigration, according to analysts, and even welcoming the U.S. Heritage Foundation’s president to the annual Guatemalan National Prayer Breakfast in Guatemala City.
Guatemala’s elite “prefer Donald Trump because [he] doesn’t prioritize combating corruption,” Father González said. “He prioritizes…being allies to stop migration above all else.”
The Biden administration has called for Mr. Arévalo’s election to be respected. The U.S. government previously sanctioned Guatemalan officials who pressed dubious post-election investigations. In 2022 members of the Guatemala judiciary pursued prosecutors who sought to investigate government corruption, forcing them to flee the country.
Guatemalan prosecutors serving the elite status quo have also made efforts to suppress local media—most notoriously a suspect prosecution of José Rubén Zamora, publisher of El Periódico, who was convicted of money laundering in June and sentenced to six years in prison.
“This administration has turned very authoritarian and has spent more than a year trying to silence any critical voice,” José Zamora, the journalist’s son, said in 2022. He added that El Periódico, which has since closed, published at least one corruption exposé weekly on Mr. Giammattei since he took office in 2020.
Mr. Arévalo is “radical in that he represents honesty and someone with the will to govern differently.”
Opposition candidates showing any signs of popular appeal were disqualified by electoral officials ahead of the 2023 elections. Such was the disenchantment with voting that more null ballots were cast—17 percent—than votes for any of the candidates in the first round.
“We’d already considered it a given that the elections were going to consolidate this system of corruption and impunity we have been experiencing,” Ms. Roldán said.
Mr. Arévalo made it to the first round only because he had barely registered in pre-election polls, according to analysts, allowing him to escape the scrutiny of prosecutors looking to protect the status quo. But, unexpectedly, he placed second in that round of voting, with 11.8 percent of the vote, which advanced him to the runoff.
Bookish, bearded and bespectacled, Mr. Arévalo seems an unlikely candidate to take down the pacto de corruptos; but his father, Juan José Arévalo, was Guatemala’s first democratic president in the 1940s, a leader who achieved constitutional and social reforms, according to a profile in America’s Quarterly. And his father’s successor, Jacobo Árbenz, continued that agenda until he was ousted in an infamous C.I.A.-managed coup in 1954, forcing the Arévalo family into exile.
Mr. Arévalo, a sociologist, spent much of his career in the not-for-profit sector and as a diplomat and only entered politics as a lawmaker with the Seed Movement in 2020. Analysts say he does not fit the typical profile of anti-corruption populists who have been winning power in parts of Latin America.
“He’s radical in that he represents honesty…and someone with the will to govern differently,” Ms. Roldán said. “He’s not arriving compromised by [work in] private sector or illicit financing [which] makes him substantially different from [leaders of] recent governments.”
Mr. Arévalo made it to the first round only because he had barely registered in pre-election polls, allowing him to escape the scrutiny of prosecutors looking to protect the status quo.
Before Mr. Arévalo’s success, the Seed Movement itself seemed an unlikely platform for ousting the pacto de corruptos. Founded in 2015 and able to win only modest representation in Congress, the movement’s representatives have been undertaking serious work in a legislature notorious for warehousing unserious lawmakers. The Seed Movement stands out in a political system known for parties fond of rent-seeking and self-dealing rather than coming up with practical policy proposals.
“They’re not revolutionaries. They’re in the political center,” Father Gónzalez said. “I wouldn’t even say they’re center-left.” But the movement is “anti-system of corruption and in favor of democracy.”
How much Mr. Arévalo can accomplish toward dislodging the nation’s entrenched corruption remains to be seen. But Father Gónzalez predicts some changes on immigration policy in a country still experiencing massive outflows from its neglected rural and indigenous regions.
He also predicted changes to other migration suppression policies undertaken during Mr. Giammattei’s administration. The former president was a self-described migrant “caravan killer” and deeply hostile to defenders of migrants, including the Catholic Church. He once sought to force migrant shelters to send all guest registrations to the government.
“There will be a better relationship between Biden and Arévalo than with Giammattei. They’re much closer ideologically,” Father Gónzalez said.
He allows himself a little optimism at this historic moment. “If corruption stopped, if justice improved so that there was no impunity,” he said, “if there were development projects as the [Seed] Movement proposes that would really attack the causes [of migration] within Guatemala.”