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Latam Brief: Arévalo brings hope for change in Guatemala (June 27, 2023)

Latin America Daily Briefing: Arévalo brings hope for change in Guatemala (June 27, 2023)
Latin America Daily Briefing

Guatemala’s second-round presidential election pits establishment candidate Sandra Torres against the anti-corruption Movimiento Semilla candidate, Bernardo Arévalo. Arévalo’s second-place finish in Sunday’s presidential election was completely unexpected, and suddenly shifts the country’s electoral narrative. Arévalo’s fighting chance has injected a measure of hope in an electorate desirous of change and doubtful of obtaining it.

Torres obtained 16% on Sunday, and Arévalo 12% — they competed in a broadly fragmented field of nearly two-dozen presidential candidates. Voter disenchantment was evident: Null votes represented the majority of ballots cast Sunday — 17% — and nearly a 24% of the voters were null or blank. Only 60% of Guatemalans participated in an election that was widely denounced as irregular after three front-runner anti-establishment candidates were prohibited from running by Guatemala’s electoral justice, accused of rigging the playing field in favor of entrenched power interests. (Prensa Libre)

In fact, efforts to eliminate challenges to the status quo seem to have backfired by channeling dissatisfaction to Arévalo, who now has a fighting chance to win the August 20 runoff vote.

“We believe voters were fed up and tired of a political system which has been co-opted by the same-old groups and were looking for a decent alternative,” Arévalo told a press conference, thanking voters for their “courage”.

Arévalo is a co-founder of the Movimiento Semilla, founded in 2017, in the spirit of the 2015 mass anti-corruption protests. He is the son of Guatemala’s widely respected first democratic president, and has promised to make fighting entrenched corruption a central pillar of his government if he wins. Arévalo has repeatedly said he would recruit prosecutors and judges who had been forced to leave Guatemala as advisers to aid him on tackling corruption.

WOLA Director for Central America Ana María Méndez called the result “a window of hope”. “Semilla [is] a non-traditional party that has built its base far from the clientelist dynamics and illicit finance that define most [Guatemalan] political parties.” (El Faro English)

“Voters sent a clear message here: They want disruption—but within the system—and to reject traditional politics,” Claudia Méndez, investigative reporter at ConCriterio told Americas Quarterly.

“The shocking first-round results also highlight a critical point that has been buried amid the alarm over Guatemala’s authoritarian descent: as political scientist Laura Gamboa argues, democratic erosion is a slow process that contains within it moments for the opposition to respond and fight back. Semilla’s underestimated campaign and unforeseen advance to the presidential runoff is one of them,” writes Rachel A. Schwartz in Democracy Paradox.

Torres, a once progressive former first lady who has reached the runoff stage for the third time, represents the UNE party, which is nominally center-left, but has effectively supported the right-wing government of Alejandro Giammattei. “That is why she is seen as an accomplice to the democratic decay of the past several years,” reports El Faro English.

Torres is seen as a presidential kingmaker — in that she always loses the runoff, making Jimmy Morales and Alejandro Giammattei winners in the last two elections. But Semilla is a relatively young party, which will have an uphill battle to defeat Guatemala’s political status quo and Torres’ nationwide network of seasoned political operators, explains Will Freeman in Americas Quarterly.

“In spite of high unfavorability ratings, Torres has a party organization, rural support, and the machines of other parties close to the government and the ruling elite will likely prefer her. In that respect, she could win in a free-ish and fair-ish election against a lesser-known candidate with far less organization,” argues James Bosworth at the Latin America Risk Report.

Should Arévalo win, he will also have a difficult time imposing a legislative agenda on a Congress that will be dominated by Giammattei’s Vamos and UNE. (Prensa Libre)

(See also GuardianNew York TimesAFPReuters)

More Guatemala

  • Giammattei was not eligible for reelection, but his presidential candidate had a surprisingly strong third-place finish on Sunday, and his Vamos party won the most seats in Congress. CiclosCap reports on Giammattei’s political construction at the municipal level.

El Salvador

  • Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele will officially run for reelection, his party announced yesterday. Reelection was traditionally understood to be prohibited by El Salvador’s constitution, but the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, packed with government loyalists, ruled in 2021 that Bukele’s candidacy for reelection was permitted and ordered the electoral court to allow it. (Associated Press)


  • Honduras’ Castro administration announced two-week curfews in two cities in the Sula valley after more than 20 people were killed overnight in separate attacks, reports Reuters.

  • Honduran military authorities began taking over the country’s prisons yesterday, and carried out harsh searches for contraband that mimic anti-gang policies enacted by the Bukele administration in El Salvador. An official video showed hundreds of shirtless male inmates, many tattooed and with their heads shaved, arranged on the floor of a high-security prison with their arms over their heads, guarded by heavily armed soldiers. (ReutersAssociated Press)


  • Suriname’s economic woes “illustrate one of the new complexities in global finance,” reports the New York Times. “As scores of middle- and lower-income countries grapple with an intensifying debt crisis, assistance is often held up by conflict between traditionally dominant Western institutions and a significant rising player: China.”


  • The region’s average ability to detect, punish and prevent corruption dropped for the first time in years, according to the latest edition of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and Control Risks Capacity to Combat Corruption (CCC) Index. “It’s important to note that these declines were generally not dramatic compared to 2022, reflecting a general erosion in the anti-corruption space rather than a sudden collapse,” reports Americas Quarterly.

  • A U.S. crackdown on Chinese sellers of fentanyl precursors could affect illicit drug supply chains, but “the War on Drugs, however, has shown how traffickers can adapt, sometimes with worse consequences,” writes Ioan Grillo in Narco Politics, noting that Mexican cartels are already angling to create the precursors themselves.


  • Mexican authorities arrested Gualberto Ramírez Gutiérrez, the former head of the country’s federal anti-kidnapping unit, in connection with the disappearance of 43 college students in 2014. (Al Jazeera)

Regional Relations

  • Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with his Argentine counterpart, Alberto Fernández in Brasília, and once again defended the idea of a common currency for regional trade, to replace the U.S. dollar. (Brazil Report)


  • Annual inflation in Brazil slowed again in early June, to 3.4%, hitting its lowest in nearly three years. (Reuters)


  • Colombia’s Indigenous Guard, a confederation of defense groups that have sought to protect broad swaths of Indigenous territory from violence and environmental destruction linked to the country’s long internal conflict, has long been a marginalized cause. But now it has been thrust into the national limelight after participating in the successful search for missing children in the Amazon jungle, reports the New York Times.


  • A plane used by Argentina’s military to carry out “death flights,” in which victims of the country’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship were thrown to their deaths from the sky, was returned to the country, where it will be displayed in the Museum of Memory. (Associated Press)

Jordana Timerman / Latin America Daily Briefing

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