On the evening of August 20, election day for Guatemala’s second round of presidential voting, Alba Noe Muñoz’s family was afraid she would have a heart attack. The 90-year-old, mostly blind matriarch listened to the television, rapt, as the results came in and Bernardo Arévalo, progressive candidate for the Semilla party, took a commanding lead. She prayed, she exulted, and then she ran out into the street in front of her home, in the hamlet of San Juan Ostuncalco in Guatemala’s western highlands, and shouted to the neighbors and anyone within earshot. “Arévalo won! Arévalo won!”
The last time she felt this deep well of hope, it was 1944, she was 11 years old, and she was cheering the ascension of Juan José Arévalo, the father of the now president-elect. Along with the rest of her country, she had waited decades for a dream deferred: the revival of the “Guatemalan spring,” the 10-year democratic window between military dictatorships. “She was out there yelling in the night,” Noe Muñoz’s granddaughter, Alba González Molina, said. “We had to give her a little cup of tea to get her to sleep.”
The recollection of the Guatemalan spring — kept alive by a generation who guarded the historical memory of a free and open society through decades of war, genocide, corruption, and impunity — helped lift Arévalo’s unlikely campaign to power last month. It was the restoration of a process that began in 1944 with Arévalo’s father, the first democratically elected president of Guatemala, and was torn apart in 1954 by the CIA-backed overthrow of the Guatemalan government. Arévalo’s election represents the first real opening for Guatemalan democracy since almost anyone can remember. But it’s those like Noe Muñoz who kept the promise close. According to her granddaughter, “It wasn’t just the university students that voted for him. It was the senior citizens — the ones who lived it and who want those times to return.”
But a long and bitter electoral process, sullied by interference from officials associated with what Guatemalans refer to as the “pact of the corrupt,” dark campaigning from the opposition candidate, and efforts to undermine Arévalo’s Movimiento Semilla, or Seed Movement, has many wondering if the spring will actually arrive or the same forces will block his ascension. All of this has played out in the aftermath of a 36-year genocidal war, which left an estimated 200,000 people dead, and waves of immigration and remittances that have transformed the country, expanding the middle class and creating a new set of expectations for Guatemalan leaders.
The salient issue for voters was the absolute corruption of their government. The pact of the corrupt is shorthand for the shadowy alliance of business, mafia, and military interests united to rob the country and maintain a status quo of opacity and impunity, driving violence, eroding the rule of law, and convincing millions of young people that immigration to the U.S. is their only shot at a better life. Three of the four Guatemalan presidents who served from 1999 to 2015 did time for corruption. Voters were fooled in the last two elections by candidates who promised justice but in the end seemed to join in the game. More than two dozen jurists and investigators who worked to prosecute these individuals, including two former attorneys general, currently live in exile in the United States, chased out by replacements co-opted by corrupt interests. The U.S. Department of State maintains a sanctions list of corrupt actors, which includes the current attorney general, María Consuelo Porras. One of Guatemala’s leading journalists, José Rubén Zamora, is serving a six-year sentence for what are widely regarded as trumped-up charges related to his corruption investigations.
Earlier this year, as parties jockeyed to enlist their candidates, election officials seen as connected to this cabal issued a series of questionable edicts that disqualified three of the top candidates, all of them espousing anti-corruption platforms. At the time, Arévalo’s Semilla party, formed amid anti-corruption protests that gripped the country in 2015, was stuck deep in eighth place, having shown little ability to electrify the voting public. But the edicts backfired, leading to a first-round win for a combination blank and “null” vote, a silent protest against the electoral manipulations. When the dust cleared, former first lady and perennial candidate Sandra Torres was in the lead. And just behind, squeaking through a small electoral hole, was Arévalo and his Semilla party. No one saw him coming.
After the first round of voting, the machine went into overdrive trying to end Arévalo’s campaign. Party offices were raided, a ballot review was ordered, and a top prosecutor tried to suspend Semilla. A week before the second round of the elections, a few hundred protesters gathered along Guatemala City’s central drag, the pedestrian corridor known as the Sexta. They carried signs denouncing corruption and election interference, adorned their hair with flowers, and carried bouquets symbolizing the democratic flowering they hoped lay ahead. Eschewing the billboards, posters, and painted storefronts that usually define political campaigns in Guatemala, Arévalo’s Semilla party had run an unorthodox operation that played out mainly in the ether. A squadron of young, ironic, fed-up, and extremely online volunteers stuffed social media networks with the gifs, memes, inside jokes, and vertical videos of the information age. TikTok posts flew through the country faster than good gossip, eventually making their way to family members in the U.S., who sent back messages asking, “Have you heard of this guy Arévalo?”
Meanwhile, the capital was plastered with Torres’s face and the green and white of her UNE party. The former first lady — who in 2011 divorced her husband to circumvent electoral laws prohibiting the candidacies of the president’s immediate relatives — was vying for her third shot at the office, running hard to the right of her upstart rival. Two days after the democracy march, the Guatemalan press corps, accompanied by a contingent of international reporters, converged on a compound in a run-down neighborhood in Zone 6 to see Torres make what looked to many Guatemalans like a deal with the devil. The Guatemalan Military Veterans Association, a powerful group of ex-military members who insert themselves on the hard-right side of politics in the country, had invited her to address their ranks.
For those unfamiliar with the baroque intricacies of Guatemalan politics or the genocidal mayhem of the country’s “armed internal conflict,” it might be hard to grasp the inherent weirdness of the scene. Torres and her former husband, President Álvaro Colom, were once seen as center-left reformers who had introduced important, if halting, social welfare programs. Now she was making common cause with proud paranoiacs and executors of the brutal counterinsurgency war who had opposed both of her previous runs for president. She climbed the stage, donned a ball cap with their logo, and launched into an anti-communist, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-progressive tirade shaded with allusions to “strange ideologies.” The crowd cheered when she asked them to “defend Guatemala” against the leftist Arévalo. Torres’s alliance with the association capitalized on veterans’ fears that after years of war crimes convictions of former military leaders, an Arévalo administration would unleash a new wave of prosecutions. In a sign of desperation, Torres, who herself spent time in jail over corruption accusations, bent over a table and signed a promise to increase veterans’ retirement benefits.
Otonil, a 62-year-old veteran of the Guatemalan special forces, known as the Kaibiles, took in the scene from the front row. He said he was conscripted at 14 and underwent the legendary Kaibil training in 1984, at the height of the counterinsurgency war. The Kaibiles are known for their participation in many of the emblematic massacres that amounted to genocide in Guatemala. Otonil’s politics hadn’t shifted much with the peace, and he was convinced that “if Arévalo wins, they’re going to create alliances with Venezuela, with Nicaragua, with Cuba. Guatemala is going to be swept away.” But his conviction was sincere, if paranoid, and he was voting for Torres because he needed her help. “The thing with Sandra is she understands the needs of the humble, simple people in their communities.” He begged pardon and tucked into the real draw of the day: Attendees jostled to receive ham-and-cheese sandwiches, packs of cookies, and sodas, along with 250 quetzales, around $32, for coming out.
The next night, the closing campaign rally for Bernardo Arévalo in front of the historic Palacio Nacional de la Cultura presented a distinct contrast. The vibe was inclusive, forward thinking. A contingent of Mayan Achí dancers performed, and kids gathered at tables to have their faces painted. Arévalo, a diplomat and academic born in exile in Uruguay, had put forward detailed policy proposals emphasizing public investment in health and education, much like his father. But what won the country over was his implacable condemnation of the corruption and dysfunction Guatemalans saw all around them.
For some observers, Arévalo’s candidacy awoke something vital in the electorate, a leftward tendency long thought extinguished by the exhaustion of the war years. Sandra Morán is a former congressperson and women’s rights activist who lived in exile for years as a musician and member of Guatemala’s revolutionary movement. In a working-class neighborhood of the capital, where she lives with her 93-year-old mother, Concepción, she reflected on Arévalo’s victory as the culmination of years of hard work by the Guatemalan left. “The first job was to defeat defeatism,” she said. “And we succeeded. This win for Arévalo wasn’t just a win by Semilla — it was the sum of lots of work.”
Morán is convinced that the influence of elderly folks like her mom, who remember the first Arévalo, were key to the victory of the second, “that important intergenerational connection. It’s fabulous right? Their historical memory, recovering history.” For Morán, the election also represents an endorsement of voting as the ultimate tool for change in Guatemala. After years of guerrilla warfare, after the failure of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission, after the repression of social movements and the criminalization of the judiciary, “What other tool did we have in this country? The last thing we had was the vote.”
Early on the morning of August 20, crowds of indigenous Kaqchikel speakers gathered outside Mass at the central church in San Juan Sacatepéquez, an hour and change from the capital. Election authorities had consolidated the number of polling locations, which observers worried would hamper turnout. But as Mass let out, residents made their way to the polls. Buses honked and smoke rose from the stalls of vendors warming breakfast for the throng. Rosa Sequen, 35, a Mayan mother of two and a nurse’s assistant, strolled out of the colonial-era portico in the central square after casting her ballot. “I voted for Semilla because we want to see a change,” she said. She was convinced by Arévalo’s commitments to education and public health and hoped that the improvements would spread to other areas of concern. “There isn’t a single day that you don’t hear about violence in this country.”
That night, as word spread of Arévalo’s impending victory, people started to gather outside the Hotel las Américas in one of the tonier districts of Guatemala City, where the Semilla party had announced a press conference. Guatemalans wore “Arévalo Presidente” shirts and “Tio Bernie” hats and carried potted plants to symbolize Semilla and the return of spring. Kids rode on their parents’ shoulders, Carolina blue and white Guatemalan flags swayed, and traffic stood stone still. Guatemalan journalists with decades of experience had never seen anything like it. Arévalo had no official victory party planned, but his supporters supplied one.
Suddenly, a roar went up from the crowd, and necks craned upward. On a balcony ledge above them, Bernardo Arévalo and Vice President-elect Karin Herrera appeared. They waved down to the crowd, flanked by tense, newly assigned bodyguards. Earlier that day, Arévalo had been advised of a plot to assassinate him, dubbed “Plan Colosio” for the Mexican presidential candidate murdered in 1994. But history was calling, and thousands of Guatemalans had gathered to place their hopes on his shoulders. He addressed the crowd. “Thank you for not losing hope. Thank you for not surrendering to the corrupt. Thank you for not surrendering to fear and intimidation,” he said. “Your confidence in us is what makes it possible that today Guatemala is changing its history.”
In the end, it wasn’t even close. Arévalo won 61 percent of the vote and 17 of the country’s 22 departments. But there were dark clouds on the horizon. A week after Arévalo’s victory, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal finally certified the election results but also issued a ruling suspending his Semilla party, more of the same harassment. Arévalo denounced the effort as an attempted coup, but the move left Guatemalans uneasy; the actual handover, on January 14, was still a long way away.
Concepción, Morán’s mother, remained optimistic. As a 16-year-old member of the student movement in 1944, she had agitated for Arévalo Sr.’s election. When she first heard of Bernardo’s candidacy, she couldn’t believe it. “When I heard the name, I wondered, ‘Could it be? Is it possible that he is the son of Arévalo?’” She noted some differences. “He looks a bit like him, not much,” she said. Arévalo Sr. “was a doll, he was gorgeous.” But like others who saw the promise of another Guatemalan spring, she was convinced that the son could bring back “the peace and tranquility that will better our country.” “He has the seed of his father, who came to liberate us back then. That’s what everyone had hoped for.”