Guatemala is often a place of stealthy skirmishes and tactical silences. But the second round on August 20 between Sandra Torres, from the National Unity of Hope (UNE) and crude expression of the policy of “the end justifies the means”, and the social democrat Bernardo Arévalo, from the Seed Movement, is a battle open and decisive that will dramatically mark the path of 18 million people.
Since 1985, elections have been routine ceremonies in which Guatemalans futilely strive to bet on the “least worst” of the candidates; months later the mood of the “repentant vote” was installed. This time, however, they acquire a vital meaning, which is surprising in the usual anomie of society and its institutions, in the face of the overwhelming dominance of predatory elites. There is a backdrop that explains the turning point.
Fifteen years ago, a slow rebellion of prosecutors and judges began, whose trigger was the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig), hosted by the UN. Together they dismantled more than 70 corruption and crime structures, taking to court more than a thousand high-ranking public officials, including six former presidents, heads of parliament and court magistrates, as well as a hundred prominent businessmen. In 2015, for four consecutive months, the population turned massively to the streets to endorse this unprecedented anti-corruption crackdown.
Revenge would not be long in coming. An informal alliance of politicians, bureaucratic and business elites, known as the Corrupt Pact, dissuaded the then President of the United States, Donald Trump, through Senator Marco Rubio and Bill Brawder (promoter of the Magnitsky Act), from undermining the Cicig . In exchange, they offered Guatemala as a deposit for migrants. They then recaptured the justice system and went on the hunt for independent prosecutors and judges. To date, six prosecutors are in prison and 39 in exile, along with dozens of journalists and civil activists. Meanwhile, the prisons have been left open for more than a hundred leaders of the criminal networks, and the prosecutor’s office has lost the investigations of years of the experts.
The table was served for the feast of the Corrupt Pact, whose heads are President Alejandro Giammattei and Miguel Martínez (33), the true power behind the throne. A guest who was not missing at that table is Sandra Torres. The covid emergency offered the scene to pass extraordinary public budgets that went directly to the coves of deputies and senior officials, while health and education services fell into ruin and the population barely survived. Martínez amassed one of the largest individual fortunes since 2020, which he estimated to be more than 4 billion euros.
Unlike Nicaragua and El Salvador, Guatemala did not forge a popular leader. The Pact acquired the nature of a corporate dictatorship that had to self-regulate its own succession trying to maintain its forms. Through tricks they eliminated the most popular anti-system candidates, until in the June 25 elections the citizens won the game. My forensic reading of social networks is that people sought out the Seed Movement and Arévalo, not as the “less worst” but as an alternative to the regime of corruption.
The anti-system vote altered the relationship of political forces and the Pact has been unraveling: certain businessmen, politicians and magistrates have distanced themselves. The door was opened to the international community to finally demand that Giammattei comply with the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The OAS decided that its Electoral Observation Mission will remain until the transmission of command on January 14, reinforced with governance experts.
The path to democratic recovery continues to be fraught with risks, but two facts are indisputable: the Pact is reduced to its hard core (Martínez, prosecutor Consuelo Porras and shadow oligarchs), and the majority will vote for Arévalo on August 20. As expressed in two credible polls this week, Arévalo’s lead over Torres is between 22 and 30 points. Although Torres, supported by the Pact, will not give up. With official funding, they recruited dozens of mayors to buy votes, and suddenly the leader of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) adopted a pro-family and anti-rights discourse to get influential evangelical pastors on stage, while offering bonuses to retired military. Still, she won’t be enough to win.
Édgar Gutiérrez is a political analyst and former foreign minister of Guatemala.
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