A Shock to Guatemala’s System

Aug. 29, 2023

Almost no one thought that an underdog political reformer could defeat Guatemala’s corrupt political machine, but Bernardo Arévalo did just that. Now comes the hard part.

By Will Freeman and Lucas Perelló

August 2023

On August 20, Bernardo Arévalo, a centrist anticorruption reformer, won Guatemala’s presidential runoff by a wide margin, defeating his establishment rival, Sandra Torres, by more than 20 points. Arévalo claimed victory in eighteen of Guatemala’s 21 departments, dominating urban centers while also making inroads into Torres’ rural strongholds.

All told, the opposition win was a striking reversal of fortune for a country that seemed—until recently—to be on a one-way path toward democratic erosion, and for an electoral process that nearly saw Arévalo’s party barred from competing. Beating clientelist machine parties that backed his competitor is a feat in its own right. But now Arévalo and his party, Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement), face an even bigger challenge: governing for the first time, with control of only about a seventh of the seats in Congress, and enacting reforms that are likely to alienate a host of vested interests.

Democratic Springs and Winters

Semilla promises to usher in a “democratic spring,” harkening back to earlier periods of optimism and liberalization in Guatemalan history. For many voters, that’s exactly what has been lacking. In the 1940s, the country transitioned to democracy and elected Arévalo’s father, the political reformer Juan José Arévalo, as president. But the 1954 coup that ousted his successor, Jacobo Arbenz, marked a sudden end of Guatemala’s first “democratic spring.” A series of military dictatorships then ruled the country, and a civil war that raged until the mid-1990s left more than 200,000 dead.

Guatemala began holding regular elections again in the mid-1980s. But successive democratically elected governments failed to deliver. In 2019, right before the covid pandemic, more than half the country lived below the poverty line. Public officeholding became a lucrative business for politicians and the financiers of their campaigns. The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which arrived in Guatemala in 2007 seeking to remedy the situation, exposed vast corruption by then-President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti.