Bernardo Arévalo’s unexpected, landslide victory in Guatemala’s recent presidential elections could be a transformational step toward bringing meaningful, inclusive democracy in Central America’s largest country. Alternatively, it could potentially be a flicker of hope before Guatemalan democracy is once again extinguished. To prevail, Arévalo will need the support of a cross section of Guatemalans and key international actors—including the Biden administration—to prevail over corrupt actors desperately clinging to power.
The 64-year-old former diplomat and son of former President Juan José Arévalo won 58 percent of the vote to former First Lady Sandra Torres’ 37 percent. And he did so on a progressive and anti-graft platform, echoing the sentiments of many Guatemalans regarding their country’s endemic corruption and widespread poverty. In 2022, Guatemala ranked 150 out of 180 on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.
After a brutal, decades-long civil war, Guatemala has struggled—despite efforts of a courageous and resilient civil society—to consolidate and fortify its democracy, as it has been plagued by widespread corruption, human rights abuses, impunity, poverty, and the systematic social and economic exclusion of indigenous Guatemalans. Among the negative consequences, Guatemala has been the second-largest country of origin for people making the dangerous journey to the U.S. southern border in recent years, depriving Guatemala of untold human capital.
As they did in rallying around Arévalo’s campaign, the Guatemalan people have repeatedly stood up for inclusive democracy. At the outset of this century—deeply concerned about the entrenchment of criminal syndicates in public institutions—Guatemala’s civil society lobbied the government through mass demonstration followed by arduous domestic and international advocacy to act on corruption and preserve the country’s fragile democracy. In 2006, Guatemala petitioned the United Nations––with U.S. funding and support––to help establish an independent commission to assist local institutions in investigating, prosecuting, and dismantling illegal groups and clandestine structures. In 2007, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established. And by the end of the year, it proved to be both a novel and an incredibly successful setup.
The CICIG, working with Guatemalan prosecutors, built local capacity and supported corruption probes that resulted in the convictions of numerous high-level officials, including a former president and vice president. However, the commission’s success was short-lived. In 2019, then-President Jimmy Morales, confronted with allegations of fund misappropriation and fraud, unilaterally decided not to renew the CICIG’s mandate, deeming the commission unconstitutional and a threat to national security.
The end of the CICIG’s mandate emboldened political elites and organized crime groups to further expand their influence. Corrupt political, military, and economic elites moved swiftly to erode democratic institutions and the independent judiciary, attacking the press, and harassing former anti-corruption prosecutors and judges––many of whom have fled the country in recent years under the threat of arrest.
It was against this background and amid the ruling elite’s systematic efforts to exclude opposition candidates that Arévalo captured the national sentiment running as a political outsider and an anti-corruption reformer. He promised to alleviate poverty by investing in job creation and infrastructure. He vowed to increase agricultural production and provide for farmers. And he refused to craft alliances with the political establishment and pledged to govern in a new, transparent way.
Having defied the odds to be elected, Arévalo now faces a series of obstacles—including a long transition, with the transfer of power slated for January 14, 2024—to make the change his election symbolizes into a reality for millions of Guatemalans.
Guatemala’s emboldened and co-opted justice system could be used to attempt to prevent Arévalo from assuming the presidency or complicate his ability to govern, as evidenced by the recent suspension of Semilla as a recognized political party. When Semilla won a surprise first-round election, prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche—whom the United States added to its list of corrupt and undemocratic actors in 2022—began an investigation into the party and alleged that they, alone among all of Guatemala’s political parties, had forged some 5,000 signatures on their petition form to qualify as a party. Amid significant domestic and international pressure, the Supreme Court of Justice blocked the order, but in the days following Arévalo’s win, Guatemala electoral authorities again suspended Semilla. The Guatemalan Congress, controlled by status quo parties, ratified that suspension, although Guatemala’s highest tribunal, its Constitutional Court, has yet to weigh in.
Even if it is able to overcome these seemingly spurious challenges, Semilla will govern for the first time with just 23 out of 160 seats in Congress. The previous governing party and its allies, which compose the majority, will almost certainly stonewall Arévalo’s reform agenda by passing a limited budget this fall, ahead of Arevalo’s inauguration, and by packing the judiciary with corrupt judges willing to do their bidding. Moreover, Guatemala’s attorney general, María Consuelo Porras—the orchestrator of the legal cases against Semilla—will remain in office until 2026. The U.S. State Department has sanctioned her twice for interfering in corruption investigations.
As he prepares to take office, Arévalo has laid out a modest, but important, initial legislative agenda. Beyond anti-graft plans, Semilla hopes to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis; reduce electricity costs; and address price-fixing in the pharmaceutical sector, which is driving exorbitantly high medicine costs. The party is also seeking to establish an anti-trust law, the first in Guatemala’s history.
To date, international actors have played a critical role in preserving the democratic space that made Arévalo’s election possible. His victory has received praise from regional players, including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as well as President Joe Biden. The international community will continue to have a critical role in helping to hold at bay anti-democratic forces. Under President Donald Trump, for example, the United States failed to support strengthening rule of law in Guatemala, emboldening corrupt actors and precipitating the CICIG’s demise.
The United States now has an opportunity to deepen its engagement with Guatemalan political leadership and support Semilla in its peaceful transition to power. More importantly, it has an opportunity to help make the democratic aspirations of the Guatemalan people a reality. To do so, the Biden administration should, at a minimum:
- Support, immediate high-level, bipartisan engagement, including by designating and dispatching a prominent, substantively focused official presidential delegation to the Arévalo inauguration to demonstrate support for Guatemalan governance, development, and economic growth
- Focus on stimulating investment and trade, including by fostering cooperation between the government and private sector in Guatemala
- Enhance development assistance efforts by expanding the Inter-American Foundation’s on-the-ground work to support local projects aligned with Arévalo’s agenda and working with Guatemala’s Congress to take necessary and prompt action to unlock the disbursement of $1 billion in potential multilateral development assistance
The U.S. national interest in supporting Arévalo in delivering for Guatemalans couldn’t be clearer. Strengthening an already fragile democracy will increase regional stability and decrease migration pressure.
By fulfilling their campaign promises, addressing corruption, and proving to ordinary Guatemalans that they are both seen and heard, Arévalo and Semilla can demonstrate to frustrated citizens that their democracy can deliver for them and that a future in their country is a good one. Everyday people have a lot to lose, and there are high expectations from voters who supported Arévalo. If election results are undermined, the country’s path toward democratic backsliding will only continue. It is imperative that the United States and the international community support Arévalo in his efforts to deliver for Guatemalans. Relevant authorities should do nothing less than respect the will of their voters––especially young people––and not rob them of the hope they have in their country and their future.