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In Guatemala, At Least, Democracy Is Winning

In Guatemala, At Least, Democracy Is Winning
In Guatemala, At Least, Democracy Is Winning

Democracy could use a win. All around the world, states have been taken over by strongmen dead set on extracting as much wealth as they can from the societies they rule. In Russia and Venezuela, Myanmar and Angola, weak electoral systems have given way to hyper-corrupt autocracies. And democrats haven’t really figured out how to fight back. Successful methods to get rid of criminal regimes are desperately needed but vanishingly rare.

Which is why what’s happening in Guatemala right now demands attention. Over the past six months, Guatemalans have made an audacious gambit to take their government back. And against all odds, they’re winning.

Nobody expected this. Until quite recently, Guatemala was arguably an excellent example of what the Venezuelan writer Moisés Naím calls a “mafia state”—a country run by a criminal syndicate focused mostly on enriching itself. Guatemalans call it the pacto de corruptos, or the “pact of the corrupt.” A nested set of criminal enterprises thoroughly colonized the state, infiltrating not just the government, but the courts, the election authorities, and crucially, the powerful office of the public prosecutor. Who are these people, exactly? That they’re the same tiny white elite that’s controlled Guatemala since colonial times is tempting to imagine, but not quite right. Picture instead the army officer corps that the tiny white elite empowered, during the Cold War, to crush Guatemala’s leftist insurgencies.

Backing up just a bit: From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala lived through a grisly civil war that killed 200,000 amid documented acts of genocide. Soldiers, equipped and trained with U.S. taxpayer dollars, would shoot up entire Maya villages, justifying the killings on the off chance they might be harboring rebels. At the height of the violence, from 1981 to 1983, the Guatemalan army committed more than 600 massacres. A truth commission later estimated that, out of the subset of victims that had been found and could be identified, 83 percent belonged to one of Guatemala’s many Maya nations. In just one small K’iche’ Maya area in the region of Ixcán, the army carried out 77 separate massacres. One goal was to get the survivors to flee. And flee they did, which is why 1.7 million Americans today are of Guatemalan origin.

When the war ended, a broad amnesty for even its worst crimes was granted by a national reconciliation law. The newly idled army officers quickly grabbed hold of the government and got to work embezzling all they could. Everything was fair game, including road-construction projects, contracts to supply medicine to public hospitals, and even drug smuggling: anything to make a buck.

From the start, regular Guatemalans hated this system. But they had few options for challenging it. The country was formally a democracy, but the pacto dominated all the major political parties as well as the courts. The system was locked down: Any public figure who threatened the pacto was disqualified from running for office on some pretext or another.

Even so, protests broke out time and again when corruption became truly intolerable. In 2015, outrage over the outright kleptocracy of then-President Otto Pérez Molina—a former general who had risen through the ranks during the campaign against the Mayabrought thousands onto the streets, a first seed of citizen energy that would take another nine years to germinate.

During that spasm of protest, a group of about 20 intellectuals from Guatemala City’s universities began gathering weekly in restaurants or members’ homes. They would talk politics late into the night, arguing about how to rescue their country from the pacto.

They didn’t always agree, the charismatic then-student leader, Samuel Pérez, recently recounted to me. Some, including Pérez, argued that they should form a party and compete directly for power in elections. More senior figures, such as the sociology professor and former diplomat Bernardo Arévalo, pointed out they had hardly any contacts outside the city and would have a hard time building a nationwide presence. Better, Arévalo suggested, to start a foundation and apply for grants from international organizations to finance grassroots democracy-building initiatives.

The group eventually sided with the younger man, choosing Samuel Pérez—just 22 years old at the time—to lead a party that didn’t quite exist yet. They called it Movimiento Semilla—Seed Movement—because their goal was to plant a seed that they knew might take generations to bear fruit.

In his worn-out colonial-era congressional office in Guatemala City, Pérez got a little misty-eyed when I asked him to tell me about those early days.

“Sometimes all I had to go on was a message somebody had sent us through our Facebook group,” he said. He didn’t own a car back then, he told me, so he would travel to far-flung places all around Guatemala by bus to meet people in villages he’d barely even heard of. It was painstaking work, but Semilla managed to gather enough signatures from enough places to get on the ballot ahead of presidential and congressional elections.

Semilla didn’t exactly set the Guatemalan political scene on fire. Not at first. In 2019, the party won 5 percent of the congressional vote, which got it seven seats in Guatemala’s 160-seat congress. Andrea Villagrán, now the party’s No. 2 in congress, told me that at the time they were over the moon with that result because it gave them a voice in national politics.

Power, though, felt a long way off. Semilla activists were keenly aware that they were a mostly white, urban, center-left party of intellectuals in a mostly Indigenous, rural, and conservative country of small farmers. As the 2023 election drew near, the party’s goal was modest: Just to hang on to the seven seats they had would count as a win.

“None of us was prepared for what came next,” Pérez told me.

For president, Semilla nominated Arévalo. The sociologist was seen as an intellectual’s intellectual—mild-mannered, precise with language, moderate to the bone. He was also, alas, utterly obscure. A poll taken one month before the first round of the election had him pulling 0.7 percent of the vote.

That obscurity was probably the reason the authorities didn’t ban Arévalo from running. But because they had banned all of the other reformers, very late in the campaign the reform vote rallied around the sociology professor whom no one had previously heard of.

On June 25 last year, the first-round results came in, and Arévalo seemed just as stunned as everyone else to find that he’d come second, with 15 percent of the vote. The runoff six weeks later would pit him against a widely loathed former first lady. Bernardo Arévalo had exploded from complete obscurity to odds-on favorite.

Soon, the pacto de corruptos started filing lawsuits challenging Semilla’s party registration on technicalities before judges they controlled. A judge closely linked to the pacto quickly handed down a ruling disqualifying Arévalo from the second round. The move provoked outrage around Guatemala and a strong response from the United States and the European Union, which condemned it as a threat to democracy.

In fact, the pacto had blundered spectacularly: Nothing could have burnished Arévalo’s anti-corruption bona fides like their panicked attempt to sideline him. Pressure to allow him to run in the second round proved too much for the regime. The country’s top court reversed the decision and allowed Arévalo to stand. He won with a crushing 61 percent of the valid vote.

Even then, whether he’d be allowed to take office was far from a sure thing. The powerful prosecutor general, María Consuelo Porras, remained solidly committed to the old system. She kept bringing legal actions alleging—absurdly—that Arévalo had won through fraud. People seethed at this slow-motion coup attempt.

Then Totonicapán erupted. The municipality, some 200 kilometers west of Guatemala City, is home to 405,000 people, 98 percent of whom are Indigenous, essentially K’iche’ Maya people—the same people who had borne so much of the army violence back in the 1980s. A local NGO from the area, the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, launched what would become one of the most consequential campaigns of civil disobedience in Central American history.

Totonicapán protesters flooded into Guatemala City, sparking copycat protests from other Maya groups and Spanish-speaking Guatemalans. Over the first three weeks of October last year, Indigenous demonstrators more or less shut down the country, blocking key roads around the capital and staging marches to demand that the prosecutor general and the judge who had originally disqualified Arévalo resign, and calling for the president-elect to be allowed to take office.

People put their lives on hold for weeks to support the protests, sleeping out in the open at sites hundreds of kilometers from their home and living on handouts organized by local sympathizers.

Arévalo backed the protests, and a little army of Semilla Gen Z activists documented the whole thing on TikTok. Their social-media game was exceptional, mobilizing support against the coup far beyond the K’iche’ Maya group that had launched it. This kind of cross-community cooperation—Indigenous rural Guatemalans teaming up across the ethnic divide with Spanish-speaking city people—is rare in Guatemala, and it made the movement unstoppable.

As the streets boiled over, an international coalition led by the Biden administration echoed the protesters’ message in diplomatic circles. In 2022, the United States had put Prosecutor General Porras on a list of sanctioned Central American officials presumed to aid corruption. Now the EU did the same.

International pressure eventually brought even parts of Guatemala’s conservative business elite on board: The powerful employers’ lobby, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), called for Arévalo to be sworn in. To Guatemalans, the sight of CACIF calling for the same thing as radical Indigenous street protesters felt positively surreal—an unimaginable coalition between people long assumed to have nothing to say to each other.

The movement succeeded—just. The pacto tried to derail the transfer of power right up to inauguration day, including a last-minute decision to bar Semilla representatives from leadership roles in congress that failed to block the handover of executive power. The swearing-in ceremony ran hours late, into the early morning hours of Monday, January 15. In a ceremony people around the country stayed up late to watch, a now-31-year-old Samuel Pérez—freshly elected as the head of  Guatemala’s congress—administered the oath of office to Arévalo.

Back in 2015, Arévalo thought Semilla might never get off the ground for lack of Indigenous support. Today he owes his presidency to the Indigenous groups who mobilized to support him, especially the K’iche’ Maya of Totonicapán. The day after he was sworn in, Arévalo and his vice president took part in a Maya ritual to invoke the deities’ protection on his behalf.

Arévalo is leading a unique experiment in how democracy can fight back against a mafia state. Many battles still lie ahead. The public prosecutor’s office remains in Porras’s hands, as does the powerful constitutional court, which means that every government minister is just one slipup away from jail.

Around Guatemala City, one has an eerie sense that Semilla is in office but not quite in power—at least, not until October 2024, when Guatemalan Supreme Court magistrates’  terms end and the pacto de corruptos can be flushed out of the top judicial roles. Porras’s term runs through 2026.

“What we just saw,” Andrea Villagrán, the Semilla congresswoman, told me, “isn’t a change of government, but a change of regime.” Semilla appears to have pulled off a master class in how to achieve a bloodless liberal revolution in the 21st century.

To beat back mafia states, democratic forces have to build coalitions across divides that feel permanent. Guatemalans are showing the way, with a mixture of political daring and prudence, pragmatic coalition building and moral zeal, as well as plenty of good luck. Their fight is far from over. But as of right now, Semilla is winning.


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