Supporters of presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo of the Seed Movement party protest to demand respect for election results in Guatemala City, Guatemala, July 13, 2023 (OSV News photo/Cristina Chiquin, Reuters).

Although the outgoing government did everything it could to stop him, on January 15, Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as president of Guatemala. Around midnight, after hours of delays, the victorious candidate of the center-left Movimiento Semilla (“Seed Movement”) delivered an address calling for greater access to education and health care, increased security, and an end to corruption—the standard promises of a Latin American reformer.

The son of Juan José Arévalo, who was the first democratically elected president of Guatemala and a proponent of “spiritual socialism,” Bernardo Arévalo is an insider’s outsider. He was born in Uruguay, where his father was in exile. His last name secured entry into the Guatemalan elite, and he obtained a doctorate in the Netherlands and the ambassadorship to Spain. But he didn’t enter electoral politics until 2019, when, in his late fifties, he ran for Congress and won. His talk is institutionalist and liberal. In an interview with CNN, he spoke of the “true mission” of the Ministry of Education: “To create citizens. To educate, not to ideologize.” He vows to forge alliances with the different sectors of society, rather than political parties. He looks for “practical solutions,” not “rhetorical” ones. 

It’s his promise to fight corruption that got Arévalo into trouble. Almost all politicians say they’re against corruption, including the corrupt. But in Guatemala, many politicians have all but announced their corruption. The so-called Pacto de Corruptos (“Pact of the Corrupt”) is the name given to a series of changes to the Guatemalan Penal Code ratified in an extraordinary session of parliament, supported by then-president Jimmy Morales. These changes allow for the commutation of prison sentences of more than ten years for the kind of crimes—corruption, robbery, narcotrafficking—that politicians tend to commit. The corruptos see Arévalo as a threat.

The corruptos see Arévalo as a threat.

Before the first round of elections in June 2023, opposition parties faced intense scrutiny from state institutions. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal noticed that the vice-presidential candidate for the left-wing Movement for the Liberation of Peoples (MLP) was missing some paperwork, which disqualified the MLP’s entire presidential ticket. The candidate for Podemos, a right-wing populist party, was denied due to “anticipated campaigning.” (Guatemalan law sets a strict window for political campaigns.) The conservative Commitment, Renewal, and Order party saw its ticket rejected because its candidate had ongoing legal proceedings, though this was later overturned.

Arévalo survived this gauntlet and, in a first-round election with twenty-two candidates, he came in second, with 15 percent of the vote. Ten parties challenged the result in the Constitutional Court, while the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom all intervened in favor of respecting the first-round result. The Public Prosecutor of Guatemala called for the dissolution of Movimiento Semilla on the grounds that false signatures were found in their registration documents. That case is still pending. Despite all this, two months later, Arévalo won the run-off election with 61 percent of the vote, defeating Sandra Torres, a socially conservative social democrat and former first lady. Torres contested the second-round results, unsuccessfully.

Meanwhile, the sitting attorney general, Maria Consuelo Porras, an ally of the outgoing president, has been building the case against Movimiento Semilla. In October, Porras ordered a raid of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Since August, the OAS repeatedly warned of a possible coup preventing Arévalo from taking power. Porras’s term ends in 2026. It remains to be seen whether Arévalo will outlast this attorney general, or whether the corruptos will yet find a way to get rid of him before he can clean up their mess.

Santiago Ramos is a staff writer for Commonweal and executive editor at Wisdom of Crowds.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the February 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.