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After months of protests, will democracy prevail in Guatemala?

While establishment figures tried to block the election of progressive president Bernardo Arévalo, Tim Brinkhof spoke to the grassroots activists defending democracy

5 to 6 minute read

Sun rises over a road block filled with people, rocks and pro-democracy banners

‘Do you think I’ll be able to take a collectivo to Guatemala City tomorrow?’ I ask Esau Rosa, a humanitarian worker from San Salvador. Rosa shrugs his shoulders and pulls out his phone. ‘A friend from the frontera,’ he clarifies after a brief, hurried conversation. The highways were still being blocked, his friend had said, leaving hordes of chicken busses stranded at the border. If I wanted to go to Guatemala, I would have to fly. 

It was mid-October, 2023. Protests in the country had just entered their third week, prompted by Attorney General María Consuelo Porras’ attempts to invalidate the election of presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo. Set to assume office on 14 January, Arévalo’s anti-corruption campaign poses a significant threat to the establishment that Porras represents.

But the unprecedented coalition of Indigenous leaders, student associations, and human rights institutions that rose up in October have been fighting for more than Arévalo, or the removal of Porras. They are, as Guatemalan organiser Chris Krings tells me, fighting to ‘defend democracy, and to prevent Guatemala from falling into authoritarianism as other Latin American countries have.’

The crowds gathered outside of Guatemala City’s interior ministry reminded me of what I had seen a year earlier in Lima, Peru. There, a similarly diverse group of citizens came together to demand the removal of Dina Boularte, the unelected replacement for, and former vice president of Pedro Castillo. Both situations boil down to the same problem: a conservative government that disrespects its citizens’ right to vote.  

Arévalo, like Castillo, won over votes with his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ – to cleanse Guatemalan politics of the clientelism that keeps much of the country impoverished and underdeveloped. Whether he will be able to honour this promise remains to be seen.

On 3 November, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Court suspended Arévalo’s party – Moviemento Semilla or Seed Movement – over alleged ‘anomalies’ in its creation five years ago. The suspension, which Arévalo called an attempted coup, cannot reverse the result of the election or annul the Seed Movement’s 23 congressional seats. It will however be used by Arévalo’s opponents after he takes office, to question his authority and challenge his decisions. 

The oppressed united

While the establishment uses its institutional power to undermine Arévalo, it relies on propaganda to break up his supporters. On social media, conservative politicians and business leaders argue that the economic pressure exerted by roadblocks is hurting the rural poor just as much as it is hurting the urban elite.

‘They are trying to convince us that we are shooting ourselves in the foot,’ Vaclav Masek Sánchez, a Guatemalan sociologist specialising in Latin American protest movements, tells me over Zoom. 

There is some truth to this narrative. Protestors face the risk that their struggles – while righteous – could deepen sociocultural divisions. Last year, Bloomberg published an investigation into how protests against Boularte were taking their toll on the Indigenous communities around Lake Titicaca, which rely heavily on tourism.  

Arévalo’s anti-corruption campaign poses a significant threat to the establishment

‘Roadblocks have been a staple of Latin American protest movements since the early twentieth century,’ Masek Sánchez explains, ‘especially in countries with large Indigenous populations like Peru, Ecuador, and of course Guatemala. The inconvenience they cause reinforces the bourgeois notion that Indigenous people are an obstacle to development, and that they have to be tamed.’

Masek Sánchez adds that this age-old perception appears to be changing. In the past, Indigenous communities largely protested in isolation. This time, they are campaigning not just for Indigenous rights, but the rights of all Guatemalan citizens, for the sanctity of voting and democracy. The oppressed, long divided, are finally working together. 

Small steps towards change

More importantly, they understand their fight is only just beginning. For international observers, it’s tempting to believe that the election of an honest politician like Arévalo can, if not instantaneously solve all of the country’s problems, at least put it on course towards a brighter future.

What many fail to recognise is that, in Latin America, corruption is a systemic issue – a hydra-like beast, where the removal of one head (i.e. Porras) will inevitably result in the growth of another. Many of these ‘heads’ are part of congress, a body that, according to Krings and many other Guatemalans I spoke with, is all but guaranteed to grind Arévalo’s agenda to a halt. They will oppose his policies, and – as their Peruvian counterpart did with Castillo – may even attempt to impeach him. 

If we are going to fight, we will have to fight until the end

‘If we look at other Central American countries that elected progressive presidential candidates following extreme governments, like Honduras or Costa Rica,’ says Krings, ‘we can expect a period of constant struggle without progress.’ But: ‘If we acknowledge the reason for this pause, we vote again for a progressive proposal that can advance our democracy.’

Even though Guatemalan voters stand behind Arévalo, whose father Juan José became the country’s first democratically elected leader in 1945, they should not expect a single person to transform their society. Corruption in Guatemala isn’t the result of gang violence, but a quasi-legal network – a ‘pact,’ Krings says – of judges, congresspeople and companies. It will take decades to dismantle.

Reinvention needed

In addition to preserving the right to vote, Guatemalans will have to reinvent the organization and operation of their political parties. ‘There is no party in this country that grows organically,’ says Masek Sánchez.

Most seasoned politicians buy votes and sell votes the way Wall Street trades in bonds, while parties like Semilla are launched like start-ups: overnight and with high hopes. As a result, Masek Sánchez continues, ‘we don’t have parties that live longer than one or two elections.’ It isn’t enough time to leave a lasting impact, positive or negative.

For Guatemala, then, we should expect no great leap forward, but a series of small, successive steps in the same direction. It starts with Arévalo’s upcoming inauguration. Protestors meanwhile face the same challenge faced by their counterparts across Latin America: to stay determined in spite of their incremental, at times imperceptible progress – and to continue mobilising even when the hardships of daily life start weighing them down.

‘The crisis is just beginning,’ Sophia Arrazola, a Guatemalan artist and researcher, tells me. ‘This isn’t just happening now. If we are going to fight, we will have to fight until the end. We need to prepare ourselves as a society to have options for the future. Not just for the next four years, but beyond. A change of system will only be possible with an active and organized citizenry in defense of human rights. What’s at stake right now could lead to dictatorship.’

Tim Brinkhof is a Dutch journalist based in Atlanta

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