Photo by CNN
Following a tumultuous election, Guatemala’s electoral tribunal officially declared Bernardo Arévalo the country’s next president on August 20, 2023. The victory was considered a landslide that was “delivered by young and middle-class voters fed up with endless government dysfunction.” It was an unexpected victory for the people.
But will Arévalo be sworn in and take office? With Guatemala undergoing a seismic political shift, the specter of political violence hangs over the country. Arévalo, despite his progressive vision for the nation, may face the same risks that have befallen other leaders in the region. As Latin America and the Caribbean contends with rising political violence, the future of Guatemala and the hope of its people remains uncertain.
Across the region, political violence is on the rise—and has been for a long time. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), social conflict and political violence have drastically increased in the past three years. Countries such as Paraguay, Ecuador, and Haiti have been facing extreme issues of political violence, including assassinations of politicians.
Arévalo, a 64-year-old sociologist, is Guatemala’s most progressive president in nearly 40 years, and his election was a shock to the economic elite who have dominated politics with a conservative bent. He is a member of the center-left Movimiento Semilla party of Guatemala, and defeated former first lady and establishment supporter Sandra Torres to win the presidency. Arévalo also happens to be the son of Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president.
Historically, the Guatemalan government has been largely conservative, and even before that, largely under authoritarian rule (excluding Arévalo’s father). The country has been plagued by civil war and U.S. political intervention for decades, as the CIA notoriously led the 1954 Guatemalan government coup. This coup was designed to overthrow President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who succeeded Juan José Arévalo’s presidency. Guzmán’s constitutionally elected government and history of controversial land reform—which conflicted with American business interests—are often cited as factors that led to his overthrow.
So how did Arévalo, a progressive liberal, clutch this unexpected victory in a country dominated by an extremely conservative (and corrupt) establishment? Will he be successful in his presidency while facing severe backlash from the said establishment? Will he find political allies? The answers, respectively, are: Underestimation of Arévalo and the people. Probably not. Maybe a few, but not nearly enough.
Even from the onset, Arévalo was not predicted to win the election. The first round of polling data estimated that he would receive a mere 0.7 percent of the votes, leaving him to appear “harmless” to other opponents. Thus, he was ignored. However, as the election went on, Arévalo’s polling numbers continued to rise. He went from having less than 1 percent of the votes to 12 percent, then finished off the race with 58 percent in the last round, which allowed him to win the presidency in shocking fashion.
Despite Arévalo’s success—or perhaps because of it—he is receiving extreme backlash from the ruling conservatives of Guatemala. The establishment has tried to do everything it can to stop him, including having Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras ban Movimiento Semilla and declaring that Arévalo was disqualified from running, though this declaration was eventually overturned in court. Still, Porras and the political establishment persist in trying to prevent Arévalo from taking office.
Arévalo hopes the significant and shocking impact that his success has had on the country will promote the idea that these attempts by the establishment to prevent democratic elections will not be tolerated going forward. Arévalo’s hopes are being reinforced by the people, particularly historically marginalized groups. For example, Guatemala has seen historic demonstrations over the past month, led by indigenous leaders, protesting efforts by the conservative elite to maintain power undemocratically and demanding Porras’ resignation. As the world has seen countless times in revolutions throughout history, fighting deeply entrenched corruption and an establishment that has a firm chokehold on a country’s neck is a challenging task.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, violence is still all too often used by the establishment to obtain or maintain power. When political violence is utilized, those who commit it are aware that no one in the international community will do anything significant to prevent it, except perhaps issue an impotent statement denouncing it before the world inevitably moves on. This issue is a significant problem for those who are committed to democracy, freedom of speech, and peace, and there are few signs political violence will abate any time soon.
Given how the establishment in Guatemala is fighting the Arévalo presidency to maintain power, the political situation and the violence we have seen—and are seeing—in the region beg the question: will Arévalo live to see his inauguration in January?
Arévalo has an ambitious agenda, with a major goal of fighting corruption and crime throughout Guatemala. He intends to counter social violence by “increasing state presence in crime hotspots, reclaim jails from gangs, and use intelligence-gathering to dismantle mafias” with the goal of improving his country’s security as a whole. Arévalo wants to see Guatemala and its economy grow and increase in prosperity, especially among the poorest and most vulnerable. This initiative is especially important since the country has one of the highest levels of inequality and malnutrition in Latin America. Additionally, he intends to “address a culture of mistrust” throughout the country. This feeling of mistrust among Guatemalans pertains to the lack of voice most citizens have, the sense that the government does not care about the vast majority of its people, and the insecurity that the citizens feel as a result of the crime and violence in the country.
However, none of this will be possible for Arévalo and Guatemala if he never takes his oath of office. Given that Arévalo seems to care a lot more about the people than about preserving a corrupt system that serves to further enrich the lives of a select few, it is not inconceivable that Arévalo will encounter political violence, as have other politicians in the region.
Political and social change are hard—in many ways, they are revolutionary. Make no mistake, Arévalo’s vision for Guatemala is revolutionary. Unfortunately, throughout history revolutions and violence have gone hand in hand.
The current president of Guatemala and establishment member Alejandro Giammettei has said he intends to have a smooth and efficient transition of power. And yet, incongruously, he continues to support the Attorney General, even as she endeavors to block an Arévalo presidency. Why the mixed messages? Will the establishment turn to violence? Will Arévalo be spared, or will his blood be spilled? The will of the people—the hope of the people—are at stake.
This article was edited by Natalia Gaitan and Nicole Kilada.