The Guardian • Issue #2070

Centre-left win in Guatemala

Bernardo Arévalo.

Bernardo Arévalo. Photo: Javier Arango – Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Nearly seventy years after the CIA-backed coup in 1954, the Left has finally won the presidency in Guatemala. Bernardo Arévalo, of the centre-left Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), has pledged to invest billions in public education and public healthcare.

Arévalo defeated former First Lady Sandra Torres of the UNE (National Unity of Hope) party, 58 per cent to 37 per cent. Arévalo, the son of former president Juan José Arévalo campaigned against endemic corruption, rising violence, food insecurity, widespread poverty, and the erosion of democracy.

News of the Semilla victory saw scenes of jubilation and flag flying in the streets, in what is now called the ‘democratic spring.’ Arévalo vowed to “purge institutions co-opted by the corrupt” and to return justice to Guatemala, following scores of prosecutors, judges and journalists fleeing the country. 

Guatemalans flocked to public squares waving the national flag and setting off fireworks. Chanting “Sí se pudo,” or “Yes, we could,” and singing the national anthem, they celebrated their victory. “We are going towards a new spring,” said Arévalo. “No one can prevent the will of the people of Guatemala.” The slogan ‘Nadie nos vió venir’ (nobody saw us coming) has appeared on social media supporting Semilla.

Arévalo was confirmed the winner of Guatemala’s presidential election by the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the same day the electoral registry ordered a temporary suspension of the party’s legal registration. It follows an investigation into Semilla by the attorney general’s office for alleged irregularities in the gathering of signatures for the party’s formation. Arévalo appealed the decision: “As of this moment, no one can stop me from taking office on 14th January.” The case will be taken to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal which outranks the electoral registry.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken congratulated Arévalo, saying the US remains “concerned with continued actions by those who seek to undermine Guatemala’s democracy.” The Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also expressed concerns. At a press conference Arévalo called on the public, “to unite to defeat the coup forces that intend to keep us submerged in corruption, impunity and poverty.”

RIGHT WING THREATS

Torres and her UNE party have not conceded defeat. Under former president Alejandro Giammattei (2020 to 2023), the military, assisted by several right-wing parties, seized ballot boxes by force, raising fears of election theft and ballot destruction. Criminal groups have threatened to prevent Arévalo from assuming the presidency.

This is a threat worth taking seriously. For years political parties, backed by wealthy elites and organised crime, coopted state institutions and weakened the judicial system. Consuelo Porras, the former attorney general, was sanctioned by the US for participating in corruption and undermining democracy.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called for protective measures for Arévalo and vice president-elect Karin Herrera after a plausible assassination plot against them was discovered. As one commentator has written, the threats ‘from Guatemala’s ruling elite, both through political lawfare and through physical violence, demonstrate both the tenacity of existing power structures and the immense promise of Semilla’s growing coalition.’

Leading up to the election, Claudia Gonzalez, a lawyer, was arrested and facing charges of abuse of authority when she served with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

CICIG, set up by agreement with the UN, was charged with investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in Guatemala. CICIG investigations led to President Otto Pérez Molina (2012 to 2015) being imprisoned. In 2019 President Jimmy Morales opposed CICIG after it revealed massive corruption in his party, the National Convergence Front. According to the International Crisis Group, CICIG contributed to the reduction of Guatemala’s homicide rate from 45.1 per 100,000 in 2009 to 26.1 per 100,000 in 2017.

US intervention

Blinken’s concern for democracy rings hollow against the background of Guatemala’s history. In 1944 a coalition of the urban and rural sectors of the working class ousted dictator Jorge Ubico. Under President Juan Jose Arévalo, Bernardo Arévalo’s father, the PAR (Revolutionary Action Party) enforced labour reforms and a new constitution. In 1951 Jacobo Árbenz instituted land reforms for landless peasants. A lot of that land – 42 per cent of Guatemala – had been owned by US company the United Fruit Company.

Following a complaint from the CEO of United Fruit US President Harry Truman authorized the CIA to overthrow the Árbenz government, by any means necessary, ending in the coup of 18 June 1954. The CIA replaced Arbenz with the dictator, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. The resulting 36-year civil war ended with 200,000 people murdered and a million refugees. 83 percent of casualties were indigenous Maya and over 90 percent of human rights violations were committed by the state military or paramilitary.

Guatemala’s present problems stem from the aftermath of the 1954 coup and years of Right-wing violence and corruption.

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