Latin American politics rarely fails to surprise. Not two years ago, a virtually unknown rural schoolteacher and union organizer, Pedro Castillo, was elected president of Peru. Something similar now appears to have happened in Central America’s most populous country with the election of Bernardo Arévalo to the presidency of Guatemala. Securing around 60 percent of the vote in the runoff, Arévalo was elected amid threats of disqualification by the nation’s high courts.
“Arévalo’s success in the first round shocked observers.”
The final round of Guatemala’s presidential contest was between two left-of-center candidates: Arévalo and Sandra Torres. Torres, the wife of disgraced former president Álvaro Colom, represented the leftist UNE party. Arévalo was the nominee of Semilla, a center-left anti-corruption party that has never before held the presidency. As also happened with Peru’s Castillo, Arévalo’s success in the first round shocked observers due to what appeared to be a last-minute surge in the days before the June vote.
In the ensuing days, Guatemala’s high courts and public ministry panicked at the prospect of an Arévalo presidency. Nine establishment parties submitted formal complaints of electoral fraud. Despite a lack of credible evidence, the nation’s constitutional court took the unprecedented move of granting an injunction and delaying the certification of the June 25 results.
Not to be outdone, the public ministry suspended Arévalo’s Semilla party after ordering the search and seizure of party offices as well as members’ homes on trumped-up charges. This action would have prevented Arévalo’s participation in the second round, in effect ceding his place to regime favorite Manuel Conde, the candidate of incumbent Alejandro Giammattei’s Vamos party. In the end, however, the constitutional court reversed the suspension amid a domestic and international outcry, respecting the will of the voters. For the first time in many election cycles, the Guatemalan elite was confronted with the prospect of a candidate they could not directly control.
The Guatemalan regime exists in a sort of purgatory between democracy and authoritarianism. On paper, Guatemala looks democratic: Presidents are limited to a single term and alternate power peacefully; elections are usually free and fair—at least on election day—and a slew of ostensibly independent institutions provide checks and balances. But beneath this façade, a special breed of oligarchic authoritarianism operates. Since 2018, some two dozen judges and anti-corruption prosecutors have fled Guatemala amid legal and criminal threats from the state and allied organized crime. What is more, in the past 10 years, a comparable number of presidential candidates (of both right and left) have been disqualified from running for office by the high courts each election season—including Semilla’s 2019 candidate, Thelma Aldana. Aldana had served as Guatemala’s attorney general and worked closely with the UN-backed anti-corruption commission CICIG, which led to the imprisonment of three former presidents and was later dismantled by Giammattei’s predecessor in the presidency, Jimmy Morales.
After the CICIG revealed multi-million-dollar schemes of corporate and political corruption, elites cracked down on real and perceived sources of independent political authority in the hope that their corruption would never again be exposed. Ever since, the country’s establishment has weaponized lawfare to defend itself from further legal investigations and pre-approve the candidates Guatemalans are allowed to vote into high office.
This electoral cycle, Sandra Torres was the regime-approved candidate. The former first lady is the beneficiary of a well-oiled political machine with a solid rural base that has propelled her into the runoff in three consecutive election cycles. But because she is so reviled for her and her husband’s corruption, she has lost in the final round to both of her prior opponents, in one case by more than 60 percent of the vote.
Given the usual stratagems of the Guatemalan establishment, it is surprising that Arévalo was allowed to compete in the first place. How did the president-elect manage to evade the expected onslaught? The simple answer is that the courts never had him on their radar in the first place. Prior to the first round, both analysts and the courts had written him off, given that he was polling between two and four percent. In the days before the June vote, the president-elect’s late surge was likely buoyed by the historical memory of his father, Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, who served between 1945 and 1951.
Arévalo’s father came to power following a revolutionary uprising that deposed US-backed dictator Jorge Ubico. A follower of what he termed “spiritual socialism,” the elder Arévalo was a committed democrat but also an anti-communist who stressed the importance of property rights. His successor, Jacobo Árbenz, went on to implement a program of land reform, backed by Arévalo, only to be deposed in the infamous US-backed military coup of 1954.
The coup reflected the reality that the elder Arévalo and Árbenz posed existential threats to Guatemala’s landed elite. In 2023, in contrast, the younger Arévalo isn’t likely to disrupt the country’s economic model. For one, he is limited to a single four-year term and lacks congressional majorities. Moreover, the president-elect is largely a center-left liberal—which one might have expected to be a hard sell for a deeply religious Catholic and evangelical electorate prone to electing conservatives like Giammattei. Indeed, despite a decades-long career in left-wing politics, Torres attempted to run to Arévalo’s right on a number of issues, accusing the Semilla candidate of wanting to legalize same-sex marriage and expropriate private property.
On foreign policy, too, Arévalo is studiously moderate. His international commitments couldn’t be more congenial to Washington if Joe Biden had concocted him in a lab. The president-elect is a strident critic of America’s enemies near and far: He has condemned the left-wing regimes of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and expressed support for Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia—a posture Arévalo’s more radical and non-aligned father would likely have rejected.
In the conflicts that tore Latin America apart during the 20th century—including the one that saw Árbenz ousted—rentier elites appealed to anti-communism and religious conservatism in their face-offs against industrializing reformers, populists, and left-wing redistributionists. Today’s Guatemalan elites, in contrast, offer no intellectual veneer for their despotism. Above all, they fear being held accountable for their past and ongoing corruption and criminality. Arévalo’s anti-corruption platform includes stripping politicians convicted of crimes of their political rights—an idea that terrifies the country’s political insiders.
Latin American history is littered with despotic oligarchies like Guatemala’s, which resort to lawfare, coercion, and massacres to maintain rentier control over extractive economies. It is also littered with cases of charismatic outsiders, populists, and demagogues who have challenged these regimes only to become dictators or aspiring crime bosses, from Juan Domingo Perón and Fulgencio Batista to Hugo Chávez and Cristina Kirchner. For his part, Arévalo isn’t much of a populist, and seems unlikely to follow this path. He does, however, face an uphill battle as Guatemala’s 40th president, and that’s if he even completes a full term. Arévalo might well face an untimely demise at the hands of the Guatemalan legislature, as happened to Peru’s Pedro Castillo, who was removed from office last December by a hostile congress before he had completed a year in office. Notwithstanding this uncertain future, the Guatemalan people’s victory over the maneuvers of the nation’s elites deserves celebration.