Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Will Arévalo’s Presidency Mean for Guatemala?

Photo of Arévalo Bernardo Arévalo, a former diplomat and son of former President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, was elected Guatemala’s president in Sunday’s runoff election. // Photo: Arévalo Campaign.

Former diplomat Bernardo Arévalo, who has vowed to fight corruption, won a landslide victory over former First Lady Sandra Torres in Sunday’s presidential runoff election in Guatemala. Arévalo was nearly removed from the ballot last month after a court, in an order that the Constitutional Court later overturned, sided with a prosecutor who alleged irregularities in the registration of his Semilla party. How likely are prosecutors’ investigation of Arévalo’s party to prevent him from taking office in January? What factors fueled Arévalo’s landslide victory? In what direction is Arévalo likely to take Guatemala as president, and how well will he be able to work with Congress?

Salvador Paiz, president of Funsepa and board member of Fundesa in Guatemala City: “Elections in Guatemala are powered by citizen volunteers who safeguard democracy and protect each vote. As with previous elections, this was a civic celebration that evolved with no major violence or tension. With a relatively low 45.1 percent turnout, Bernardo Arévalo was elected with a comfortable 60.9 percent of valid votes. The result follows the pattern of prior runoff elections against three-time presidential candidate Sandra Torres, with Jimmy Morales getting 65.5 percent of the vote in 2015 and Alejandro Giammattei receiving 58 percent in 2019. The election was marred by the judicialization of the electoral process. The ‘cancellation’ of candidates is comparable to what transpired in 2019. However, the judicialization became more disruptive by encroaching on the electoral period and by encompassing the electoral authorities. The investigation into the allegedly fraudulent creation of Semilla is based on an accusation that the party itself presented. I cannot provide a legal opinion, but the case is unlikely to disrupt Arévalo’s investiture as president in January. His victory is based on audacious campaign promises of ‘change.’ Guatemalans have grown weary of ‘swamp politicians’ and welcomed Arévalo’s promise to fight corruption. His success will largely be based on his ability to deliver on the hope he has created. That will be no small feat given that his party will control only 14 percent of the seats in Congress and that he has a self-admitted lack of inner talent to staff his cabinet. Collaboration with other sectors, actors and initiatives such as ‘Guatemala Moving Forward’ seem like the logical move. May Guatemala flourish from his leadership and his ability to drive a nonpartisan development agenda.”

Stephen McFarland, former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala: “Five factors drove Bernardo Arévalo’s dramatic victory over former center-left, and now right-wing populist Sandra Torres, and the ‘pact of the corrupt’ mafia that runs Guatemala. Foremost was citizen fatigue with President Giammattei and the status quo he and Torres represented: incompetence in government, corruption and a sense of entitlement, with nary a whiff of the charisma of El Salvador’s President Bukele. Second was the government’s exclusion of three rival parties from the election, which triggered voters to protest by supporting Arévalo. Third was Torres, whose divisiveness pushed voters to Arévalo. Fourth was Arévalo’s own sincere, no-frills campaign. Fifth were the monitoring roles of the Organization of American States, the United States and the European Union, which along with civil society and the economic elite kept the government from arbitrarily eliminating Arévalo. Guatemala’s attorney general is likely to continue prosecution of Semilla if the ‘pacto de corruptos’ so orders; given Arévalo’s mandate, it is unlikely she could do much without causing massive protests. The potential for political violence against Semilla remains. Arévalo seeks to improve services—roads, security, health, education—and to reduce corruption. He must govern with a majority opposition Congress whose parties also dominate the judiciary, and his ministers must lead a civil service undermined by 12 years of corruption and incompetence. His assets include his and Semilla’s reputation for honesty, his negotiating ability, his popular support and renewed citizen belief in change, emerging divisions within the corruption mafias and international support, especially by the United States.” 

Dinorah Azpuru, professor of political science at Wichita State University: “People voted for Arévalo because he was seen as the only candidate who could rout the structures—including parties—involved in corrupt practices in Guatemala. A modest, nontraditional campaign, for example using personal vehicles to move around, also helped his party’s image. The unprecedented involvement of younger Guatemalans who campaigned in his favor through social media was also key. The attacks against his party by the attorney general’s office possibly backfired and benefited him in the end. Despite Arévalo’s large margin of victory, as of Tuesday, Torres has not recognized the results, and there is a possibility that the ongoing legal process ends up in the cancellation of his party before his inauguration on Jan. 14. Many analysts believe that this would not prevent him from taking office in that he could govern without a party. Given the circumstances of his election, Arévalo will most likely govern as a moderate. Undoubtedly, he faces daunting challenges. He has said that his priority is repairing government institutions that have been severely damaged by corruption, but he will also need to enact policies on other pressing issues, such as citizen security and deep poverty, which affects around 60 percent of Guatemalans. Arévalo’s experience in conflict resolution can help him reach agreements with different sectors, but he has clearly stated that he will not negotiate with corrupt actors, much less engage in vote-buying in Congress in exchange for legislative support, as has been done in Guatemala for decades. The jubilation of thousands of Guatemalans who took to the streets waving Guatemalan flags (not party flags) after Arévalo was declared the winner shows that this can be indeed a watershed moment for Guatemala’s democracy, but the battle for democracy is far from over.” 

James M. Meyer, partner at Harper Meyer in Miami: “The people of Guatemala know better than most that maintaining a democracy should not be taken for granted. The results of Sunday’s runoff election are a case in point. Bernardo Arévalo defied the odds and all sorts of challenges during his unforeseeable ride to victory. However, even more difficult challenges still lie ahead. With zealous prosecutors trying undermine the legitimacy of the election, no significant representation in Congress and the perennial residual issues that any incoming administration faces in Guatemala, including endemic corruption, organized crime, an inadequate budget and weak institutions, there will be nothing easy or ensured for the new president. Two goals that could give Arévalo his best chances at success would be to 1.) avoid even the slightest appearance of impropriety directly or indirectly through friends, family, associates or appointees, and 2.) avoid alienating the private sector and instead reach out to as many as possible as to support his agenda, which includes infrastructure projects, job creation and growing the economy. However, Arévalo’s reputation as a progressive has made many business leaders skeptical of his intentions, based on the destructive populist policies of similarly labeled administrations in the past. Therefore, it will be critical that Arévalo distinguish himself from those prior failed regimes by allying with and building the private sector’s confidence, proving their fears wrong as quickly as possible. If he can achieve these two fundamental goals, both he and the people of Guatemala could prosper at least until the next election when democracy will once again likely be put to the test.” 

Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “Guatemala is yet another painful example of a democracy where people have voted but failed to elect. For too long a time, entrenched economic elites have put their candidates in the presidential palace in order to protect their holdings. Little or no resources are mobilized to improve public education, enhance job creation and foster civic society participation in politics. As drug trafficking progressed, most economic ventures and the government have been phagocytized by drug cartels. Corruption runs rampant. But from chaos comes the light. In these elections, civic society joined the all-pervasive anti-incumbent movement sweeping across Latin America’s political spectrum and decided to choose a leader who could begin to address the situation, assuming he is not disenfranchised or killed. Bernardo Arévalo’s tailwinds were generated by a deteriorating rule of law and democratic backsliding. His Semilla party represents the organized arm of civic society that has shouted loud and clear, ‘No More Corruption!' ” 


Latin America Advisor logo.The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.

Related Links

Suggested Content

Can Spain Solve the Cuba Problem?

By all accounts, Spain wants to bring change to the European Union’s Cuba policy. In so doing, it is tackling a foreign policy challenge that often sheds more heat than light.