Six weeks ago, the presidential first-round election reordered Guatemala’s political map around the Semilla Movement, a small progressive party born six years ago with the electoral baggage of being too urban, too intellectual and middle-class, too “should-be” obsessed. Next Sunday, August 20, the surprise would be if the party candidate, the 65-year-old academic and former diplomat Bernardo Arévalo, does not win.
In a country suffocated by racism and elites’ gluttony, Arévalo has unwittingly managed in the last two months to bind together the excitement of urban university students, hopes of Indigenous movements denouncing centuries of exclusion, and anti-system exhaustion that in other countries has stoked populism. While the state has incarcerated journalists and exiled 30 of its brightest anti-mafia judges and prosecutors, the son of the first president of the 1944 revolution promises a renewed democratic spring.
He will push what the mighty international anti-impunity commission CICIG fell short: to cleanse state institutions of corruption and lay bare the very business, partisan, military, and criminal alliances that since June 25 have sought by every means possible to bar his candidacy.
If the Sunday election is a referendum between continuity —his opponent Sandra Torres has accused him of being an anti-Christian, foreigner, and homosexual on the campaign trail while promising cash money, baskets of food, houses, and even plots of land— then a Semilla presidency would pose a radical dilemma to the entire political system, especially to those who have been active or silent accomplices to recent governments: whether to join a dialogue in search of baseline democratic consensus or betray voters’ evident desire for change.
Arévalo hints that he would achieve little without such a consensus. Semilla’s bloc of 23 elected legislators out of 160 members of Congress will lag behind the 28 of UNE, the party of Torres, and 39 won by the party of the heavily scrutinized outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei. After meeting with the conservative business association CACIF, he expresses optimism in receiving the support of a slice of the private sector in order to reach “baseline accords that can be a counterweight” on a legislative blockade by parties implicated in corruption.
El Faro interviewed Arévalo on Saturday in the western border department of San Marcos after a three-day tour through some of the territories who expel the most migrants and are controlled by drug traffickers. In campaign events he was flanked by a heavy security detail as his circle fears any attempt against his life. He doesn’t discard the possibility: “More than one [interest] group, in their desperation, could think of something like that,” he says.
Are you a revolution?
No. But we are already making a fundamental, transformational change: the rescue of Guatemalan institutions suffocated by corruption. Once we achieve this, we must make the institutions work and answer to the needs of the population that for decades have been ignored, in terms of education, health, and infrastructure.
We are a rich country where six in ten citizens live below the poverty line. A fertile country, with half of our infants suffering different levels of malnutrition. And this is, plain and simple, the result of failed administration. The democratic institutions that we started to build in 1985, with the creation of the current constitution, and in 1996, with the Peace Accords, have been sequestered by a political class that converted politics into an exercise in systematic pillage.
Missing from the equation in that sweeping institutional change is power. Both the composition of the new congress and the persecution of your party suggest that, if you win, you will be a president with little power.
That depends on whether you reduce the formula of governability to the current political parties, and to the relationship between Congress and the Executive Branch. Since [the first round of voting on] June 25, we have seen society lean into a defense of institutionality, and that is one of the factors to include in the formula, in order to expand it. We must tie the possibilities of governing, of agreements, and of advancing, not to a discussion among parties —most of whom are simply motivated by an interest in pillaging— but to a broad social consensus around the changes that the country needs.
With whom would you need to negotiate?
We will seek consensus and discussion with anyone. Our government will hold the necessary negotiations on different issues with the necessary actors.
What makes you think there are actors willing to negotiate? Can you identify them?
We have seen how actors ranging from the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán to the organized private sector have taken a common stance against the assault on public institutions. That is a point of convergence for baseline accords that can be a counterweight on the dominance that many of these parties will maintain in Congress.
But something else will happen: what makes the system of corruption work in Congress is the state public works budget, which is in the hands of the Executive. We will cut off that flow and, without that oil to grease it, the machinery of corruption will start to creak. That will change the incentives for many people. I have no doubt that some will continue following the blueprint of corruption, but others will start to think, “Hold on, this isn’t so clear anymore. I’d better change plans.” We’re tied to past governing formulas, but this election is shifting the political map and it’s in this new scenario, which we had not known before, where we must operate.
You’ve already made some winks to elected mayors. Have you already seen movement from mayors of other parties?
We’ve received calls from mayors of different parties saying they want to support us. We respond: “We’re thrilled to have your support, but we’re not going to negotiate, because we plan to work with everyone.” And there have been members of Congress who have said, “Look, I want to start thinking about how I can make changes.” The signals are there; there has been a change in attitudes. When I meet with various sectors, I tell them, “We cannot reduce governability to relations between a Congress captured mostly by corrupt parties and an Executive who will try to make changes but with limited power. In order to advance we need to expand the table.” And automatically, the reaction has been, “Yes, we have to create new mechanisms.” This is all tentative, but there is an opening.
You have spoken to mayors of different parties willing to enter into a new dynamic.
Not me personally, but members of our party have received calls from legislators and elected mayors from various parties who say they are interested.
I know that you have privately met with the conservative business association CACIF. What did you discuss?
These have been private meetings, but not secret. We have met with almost every business chamber. I believe only one remains, and we will see them this week. Just as we have met with different social sectors and told them, “This is our vision. Tell us what your concerns are.”
Do you trust CACIF?
We trust that we must find a working convergence with different actors in the country. Because we cannot swap the actors in the country. We cannot fill the country with the Swiss, with martians, or with all whom we would like. We must work with those who are here and seek formulas that will allow us to move forward.
Does this mean that you see the possibility of a middle ground with political and economic elites?
We believe that this is the moment to seek a solution of unity with all of the sectors except the corrupt, the violent, and the authoritarians. We must seek baseline, fundamental consensus in a logic breaking from the zero-sum that has deprived our country of change for a very long time. It is not true that for someone to win another must lose.
How do you fight corruption with a corrupt prosecutor’s office?
With an understanding that it’s not an overnight task. An understanding that this is a strategy of time. You start gradually, with what you have in hand, creating mechanisms and generating trust with the public surrounding what can be done, and where. And you wait for the moments that will come, to make changes in the Public Prosecutor’s Office or elect new magistrates.
You’ve also spoken of legal reforms to fight corruption. What are they?
A new Law of Licitations and Hiring. A Law of Civil Service that routs out phantom hiring and clientelism. A Law of Competition. A new Electoral Law of Political Parties. There is an enormous task ahead to review our laws.
The role of the justice system has been central not only in this election, but in recent years of political crisis in the country. How does one regenerate the justice system without a majority in Congress?
We will have to see. As I said, the incentives in Congress will change, and that will cause a shift in attitude. Based on a broader formula of governability, where you work with society and not exclusively within the tainted political system, there is a way to move forward.
You’ve spoken of inclusion and of alliances with diverse sectors of society. And you often publicly reference the four peoples of Guatemala [Mayan, Xinka, Garifuna, and Ladino]. Do you support the formation of a plurinational state in Guatemala?
We believe that this is a pending debate. We will put a conversation on the table, a debate, on the matter. First off, it is clear to us that nobody has a clear notion of what a “plurinational state” is. There are 20 different interpretations and not only between Indigenous peoples and Ladinos, but among Indigenous peoples, too. Among Ladinos —Mestizos— there are different interpretations. These are the kinds of words that, lacking clarity, elicit fear or illusions of different kinds.
Does Semilla have a concept or proposal for a plurinational state? Your legislator elected to the Central American Parliament defended the creation of a plurinational state in a campaign event in Huehuetenango.
To us it is clear that we must move toward a state that recognizes the fact that we are a society composed of four peoples, and this plurality must be adequately reflected in the constitutional system. Guatemala has a historical debt with the Constitution of 1985, which includes a commitment to develop a Law of Indigenous Peoples, one that has never been discussed.
Apparently absent from the political conversation, and from the campaign, is talk of racism. Is Guatemala afraid of this word?
I have called out racism from the pulpit. Discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, racism.
How does one fight the brutal racism in Guatemala?
First, by starting to fight the institutional mechanisms that perpetuate it. Racism is fought by generating equitable development for the whole population, giving attention to those who most need it. Our vision of development is, on one hand, one of universal access, but on the other hand [focusing on] those most abandoned by exclusionary structures, marginalization, racism. We must start with the most forgotten.
Other words that are often used to generate fear are abortion and homosexuality. In campaign events you have insisted that the smear campaign against Semilla is a lie, but you don’t place the same emphasis on clarifying your party’s stance, or your own.
The Semilla Movement’s stance, as well as ours, on abortion [legislation] is that it should remain exactly as it is. We do not think that expansions or restrictions are necessary. And as for same-sex marriage, we do not plan to make changes. What we must fight is discrimination against any person for their sexual orientation.
Why do you think that these reforms are not necessary in Guatemala?
Because we believe that right now there are many more issues in need of discussion. And because a social debate and consensus is necessary but for now does not exist. It would be absurd to propose something when there are issues… that are more urgent in terms of development.
President Giammattei has promised to transfer power on January 14 to whomever wins the elections. Do you take him at his word?
Well, I will be ready to receive power after we win on August 20. And all of Guatemala will demand it of him. The convergence that exists today, outside of the political parties who are part of the network [of corruption], is that the institutional framework must be respected.
What I’m asking is whether you believe that the word of the president, that of the State of Guatemala, is enough to guarantee that it occurs.
I have no doubt that between August 20 and January 14, if we win the election, there will be a good number of attempts to prevent it from happening. And they will come from different sectors. We have seen it coming. And the spearhead of the attack on the democratic institutions of the country is the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Do you fear that the attacks will not only be legal in nature? After the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio in Ecuador, are you afraid of an attempt against your own life?
For an attempt to occur, all you need is a crazy person. And we do not doubt that there are plenty of crazies in Guatemala, and more than one group who, in their desperation, could think of something like that. But, fear? No. Instead of worrying, we are reinforcing security measures. We feel safe.
And do you trust the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, despite the suspicions of bribery of its magistrates?
Since the June 25 elections, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has been one of the bastions of the defense of the [democratic] system. At the moment we have no reason to doubt them. We don’t know whether we will have doubts in the future, but today they have been fundamental to the failure of the strategies of illegal political persecution against Semilla.
Let’s talk about international politics. What role do you see yourself playing in Central America?
(Arévalo sighs.) We…
Is that a disheartened sigh with the current panorama?
Yes… and no. We —and I personally— believe that Central America should move toward integration, but the political conditions for this do not exist. It would require governments who have the interest, and governments with the same political nature, in order to make this a democratic environment. At this moment, the possibility does not exist.
That doesn’t mean that we cannot move forward and continue to prepare the terrain in technical areas and in economic integration, in the various mechanisms to facilitate contacts and eliminate barriers. While we politically lack the conditions to take the steps that we should in the direction of a more serious integration, we can start to gain ground.
Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and even Costa Rica stayed silent in the last two meetings of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States, in which they analyzed a possible resolution on the democratic crisis in Guatemala. Do you think they are uninterested in what is happening, or what do you attribute this to?
I think they were waiting for a vote, and given that it hasn’t happened yet, they haven’t manifested [their positions].
Do you think they would have voted against the current government of Guatemala?
I think we would have seen different positions.
To which Central American governments do you feel closest?
Well, I first need to engage with them…
You're playing with my words. To which ideas or attitudes in the regional governments do you feel closest?
Look, from a pragmatic and institutional lens, we will have a mandate of maintaining the best relations possible in the Central American area, especially with bordering countries. And that also includes Mexico, even though they are not part of Central America. When you share a border with a country, there are common agendas that sometimes divide and other times unite you. And there is another area where you move more easily with governments with shared principles and interests. And that’s what we'll discover when we start to engage with them.
At least three candidates in the Guatemalan elections have made winks to President Nayib Bukele, whether on issues of security or more openly. Why have you not?
I would say that they have tried to hitch themselves to his wagon of popularity for the perceived effectiveness of his response to the issue of the gangs. They have seen that it is easiest to tell people that they will copy that model because it worked in El Salvador. One candidate even went to see if they would receive her, and they did not. We believe that El Salvador’s security problems are not the same as those of Guatemala, and that the configuration of the criminality of gangs, organized crime, and drug trafficking is different than in Guatemala.
You have said that you are committed to human rights. Do you plan on being an active voice in the region in that regard? I say this because there are very grave reports of human rights violations in Nicaragua, but also in El Salvador.
We are committed to human rights.
Ergo, we consider it a fundamental principle and will consistently operate in accordance.
Many doubt whether you will be allowed to govern. But I wonder whether, being that yours is a small party that —as your own team has acknowledged— did not expect to move on to the runoff election, you will know how to do it. Will you have the human capital and technical expertise to govern?
First, what we clearly understand is that the formula of governability does not depend on us and the rest of the political parties. I repeat: It depends on the way that the country’s other social forces join this effort. We will fill the teams in our government with people who aren’t from the party; we will open up and our efforts will be made with different sectors on different issues. That is how we will move forward and complement our own team’s limitations. No party in Guatemala has, in terms of numbers, a team necessary to govern. We are not many, but we have the best ranks to govern this country. In terms of experience, competence, capacity, and integrity.
Do you worry that you will fall short of the expectations you appear to be generating?
I think that if we complete our term and people recover trust in institutions, in the fact that governments are not necessarily corrupt and that they work to solve problems, if results begin to be felt, if the necessary economy is generated to start to grow, even if we haven’t reached all of our objectives we will have paved the way for the country to continue moving forward.