The Guatemalan Spring

Guatemala’s presidential election became a referendum on decades of government graft so rotten ex-presidents regularly become multi-millionaires and/or go to jail when their term ends. Indigenous mobilization has been the key to defending democracy.

Jan. 14, 2024, night of the inauguration. The sign reads “Because there are more of us and we are not afraid.” PHOTO: Cristina Chiquin / Reuters
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Este artículo en Español

It was a few minutes past midnight on January 15 when Guatemala’s new anti-corruption president Bernardo Arévalo was finally sworn in. The event had been scheduled for four o’clock, then rescheduled for five o’clock. As that deadline passed without action, the president-elect’s Indigenous supporters broke through police lines and began marching toward Constitution Plaza demanding Congress stop stalling. Dozens of foreign dignitaries in town to attend the inauguration called a press conference; they demanded the legislators get on with it, and the U.S. followed suit.

Meanwhile, a free-for-all was televised live from the floor of Congress where delegates duked it out over the status of Arévalo’s Semilla Movement party and who would represent Congress at inauguration ceremonies.

Finally, the new president and his vice president, Karin Herrera, stepped onto the balcony of the National Palace and addressed the crowd. They thanked the country’s nearly two dozen Indigenous groups, young people, and women for their victory. They promised to defend democracy and acknowledged the special debt owed to Indigenous people for centuries of abuse.

It remains to be seen if they can break the hold of a criminal political class that regularly robs the national treasury.

Roots of corruption

Guatemala is an extraordinarily rich country with an extraordinarily poor urban working class and a super-exploited agricultural workforce. Despite its natural wealth, the country’s infrastructure is dilapidated and the health and education of the majority of Guatemalan children and adults is dismal.

Guatemala’s problems arise first of all from a right-wing economic and political elite which holds the behind-the-scenes reins of power. Secondly, it has been Guatemala’s misfortune to be in close proximity to the United States.

After a 1944 popular uprising overturned a U.S.-backed dictator, Arévalo’s father became Guatemala’s first democratically elected president. A cautious social reformer, he extended the right to vote, enacted a limited labor code and devoted a third of the national budget to welfare; however, he simultaneously managed to protect the interests of owners of large estates.

He was succeeded by Jacobo Árbenz. Árbenz enraged the Eisenhower administration and frightened United Fruit Company, the largest single landowner in Guatemala, by cooperating with a radical peasant movement and expanding land distribution.

Tarred as a communist sympathizer, he was overthrown in 1954 in a CIA-orchestrated coup that made the country safe for United Fruit’s U.S. investors.

What followed were decades of dictators, a civil war that lasted 36 years and one presidential administration greedier and more corrupt than the last one. Through it all, the Indigenous people of Guatemala always suffered the worst violence and the greatest poverty.

Coup attempt defied

No one expected the Semilla Movement to propel Arévalo to the presidency. He only made it to the runoff election without being disqualified or arrested because the party appeared to be a sure-fire loser.

But this time the ruling class had completely under-estimated the public’s anger at the political class and Arévalo’s appeal for Indigenous communities ready to go to war for democratic rights.

Once Arévalo won the presidency, the establishment realized its mistake and retroactively tried to overturn his victory. Attorney General Consuelo Porras charged the Semilla Movement with fraud and arrested party members. Police raids, recounts of the vote, and an attempt to lift Arévalo’s immunity as president-elect followed.

Arévalo called it a “soft coup.” Indigenous leaders responded by proclaiming a national strike on Oct. 15. Blockades shut down 80 major roads and highways crisscrossing the country, hampering trade. Meanwhile other Indigenous protesters set up a permanent encampment outside the Ministerio Publico and called for Porras’ resignation.

Not surprisingly, a supporter of President Arévalo, when asked about what he expected from the new president, responded, “The victory was getting this far. Now we’ll have to see what happens next.”

Uncertain future

For the time being, Arévalo has the support of the European Union and the Biden administration, which has imposed visa restrictions on 300 unnamed lawmakers for “undermining democracy.”

But the Semilla Movement has only 23 seats in Congress vs. 160 representatives from conservative parties, which themselves have support among U.S. Republicans. Meanwhile, Attorney General Porras is refusing to resign with two more years in her term.

Clearly, only a massive, permanently mobilized popular movement has a prayer of winning against the hydra of corruption in Guatemala.

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