Bernardo Arévalo, a 64-year-old sociologist and reformer, did the seemingly impossible this week. He overcame trumped-up legal challenges and a better-financed, establishment-backed rival to become Guatemala’s next president.
Arévalo’s landslide victory — delivered by young and middle-class voters fed up with endless government dysfunction — is a watershed for Central America’s largest nation. Political machines backed by big donors and organized crime have dominated elections there for decades, entrenching corruption, violence and poverty and driving millions of Guatemalans to migrate to the United States.
Arévalo’s campaign, run on a shoestring budget from a rented garage, broke the mold. He won the presidency without backing by or promises to vested interests.
It was a deeply symbolic victory. Guatemalans still remember his father, the late President Juan José Arévalo, for having ushered in a “democratic spring” before a 1954 CIA-backed coup thrust Guatemala into decades of military rule. At Arévalo’s closing campaign rally in Guatemala City, young and old supporters alike held signs promising “the spring will flower again.”
Now comes the hard part: making it happen. Arévalo has a path to success — and Guatemala to a future that doesn’t drive hundreds of thousands a year to the U.S.-Mexico border — but both are mined with obstacles.
The president-elect and his party have a commonsense, centrist agenda that most Guatemalans support and good political instincts to match. They are not ideologues, and they are ready to work with political and business leaders who share their goals.
The problem? Such potential allies are in short supply. Under President Alejandro Giammattei, Guatemala has edged ever closer to becoming a mafia state, and the powerful vested interests that profit from the way things are will fight Arévalo tooth and nail. They could even put him in danger: The Organization of American States recently revealed two plots to assassinate Arévalo and the vice president-elect.
Arévalo wants to replace the politically connected cronies in state agencies with trained professionals, stop skimming of government contracts and reduce soaring electricity and healthcare costs. But these reasonable reforms are contrary to the way Guatemala has operated for decades.
The justice system, which is filled with establishment cronies, will be one obstacle. In July, in a naked bid to stop Arévalo from competing, Atty. Gen. María Consuelo Porras opened three criminal cases against his party and asked a judge to dissolve it. Resistance from parts of the private sector, civil society groups and foreign embassies foiled the plan, but the cases remain open.
Porras, who can’t be removed from her post until 2026, is pushing ahead with politically motivated investigations of Arévalo’s party and independent election officials. At worst, the cases could dissove the party and hobble its lawmakers. Some fear the opposition-controlled Congress could even seize an opportunity to delay or prevent Arévalo’s January swearing-in.
Even if Arévalo’s party dodges that, it holds only about a seventh of the seats in the country’s Congress. The rest are controlled by political machines and hard-line conservatives who distrust Arévalo. Leaders of Arévalo’s party told me they kept the scope of their agenda modest knowing that they would be dealing with a hostile Congress.
But just passing basic legislation such as the annual budget will be an uphill battle. Arévalo’s party has pledged to not dole out public contracts, Cabinet posts or cash, the usual means of currying favor among legislators.
Some business leaders rallied behind Arévalo’s reform agenda. But most were publicly silent as the current president chipped away at democracy and persecuted critics. And some influential tycoons are dead set against Arévalo.
Navigating the private sector’s many factions while without watering down his agenda will be difficult. Some of his party’s bolder proposals, such as passing an antitrust law and taking on a powerful pharmaceutical cartel, are sure to cause tension.
Then there will be the challenge of meeting the expectations of his own supporters. When I asked Samuel Pérez, the 31-year-old leader of Arévalo’s party in Congress, what would be the greatest challenge of governing, he didn’t hesitate: “Managing the expectations of the Guatemalan people. Because right now, the hope we have generated is huge.”
There’s still reason to hope that the president-elect can fulfill some of his promises. Simply by refusing to award contracts and jobs based on political connections, he could reduce rampant corruption. Without control of the presidency lining their wallets — and funding their campaigns — machine politicians in Congress may realize they are at risk of losing reelection and change their tune.
Endemic corruption, bad government and pervasive crime drive many Guatemalans to abandon the country every year. If Arévalo governs as prudently as he campaigned, Guatemala has a good shot at fixing its broken institutions and giving more of its people reason to stay.
Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.