Guatemala’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, has repeatedly defied the odds: first by unexpectedly surging to second place in his country’s first-round presidential elections last June; next by winning the final round by a landslide in August, and then by surviving an onslaught of legal challenges in the run-up to his January 14th inauguration.

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Bernardo Arévalo, then president-elect of Guatemala, led a protest against an attempt by government institutions to interfere in the results of the elections in Guatemala City on Dec. 7. 2023. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)
Bernardo Arévalo, then president-elect of Guatemala, led a protest against an attempt by government institutions to interfere in the results of the elections in Guatemala City on Dec. 7. 2023. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)

Now Arévalo, a veteran diplomat and peacebuilder, faces his greatest challenge: meeting the enormous expectations of a population fed up with the corruption that has long enriched certain elites, protected drug traffickers, discouraged legitimate investment and deprived the poor of desperately needed public resources.  

After finally taking office shortly after midnight — following a last-ditch effort to derail his government in Congress — Arévalo promised to “build robust and healthy democratic institutions,” dismantling “the walls of corruption, brick by brick.”

What makes Arévalo different from other insurgent leaders promising radical transformation is that he has vowed to fight corruption by democratic means: fortifying institutions, respecting the rule of law and engaging all of Guatemalan society — from wealthy business elites to the country’s long marginalized indigenous populations — in dialogues to forge a new “social contract.”

High Stakes

The stakes are high for Guatemala, its neighbors and the United States. The Biden administration has put democratic renewal at the center of its foreign policy, arguing that “strong, rights-respecting democracies” are essential to global prosperity and stability. This is especially important in northern Central America, where poverty and violence send streams of migrants to the U.S. border.

If Arévalo succeeds, it could help turn the tide in a region where support for democracy has been declining for at least a decade. Nowhere is it lower than Guatemala, according to the 2023 AmericasBarometer conducted by Vanderbilt University. Fewer than half (48%) of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “Democracy may have its problems, but it is better than any other form of government.” In neighboring Honduras, where the leftist government of Xiomara Castro has grown increasingly unpopular, only 49% expressed support for democratic governance.

In Central America’s troubled northern tier, only El Salvador has bucked this trend. About two-thirds of Salvadorans express support for democracy, a percentage that increased under President Nayib Bukele.  But Bukele has defied democratic norms and procedures by running for president again despite constitutional prohibitions on consecutive reelection. His enormous popularity is based on hardline anti-gang policies that violate fundamental rights: using emergency powers, Bukele’s government has arrested some 74,000 gang members who are being held in jail without due process protections.

An Attempted Coup in Slow Motion

Guatemalans catapulted Arévalo into office to neutralize the so-called pact of the corrupt, a sub-rosa network of politicians, bureaucrats and business elites who have long manipulated state institutions for private gain. Arévalo’s determination to fight corruption set off a “slow-motion coup” led by the country’s attorney general, endorsed by much of the outgoing Congress and abetted (if not instigated) by then lame-duck president, Alejandro Giammattei, to prevent the new government from taking office.

The effort to derail Arévalo’s presidency was halted by a barrage of U.S. sanctions plus widespread national protests spearheaded by the country’s long-marginalized indigenous authorities. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court in mid-December finally ordered the country’s Congress to “guarantee” the transfer of power, though it reaffirmed the suspension of Arévalo’s party — known as the Semilla (or Seed) Movement — as a political party. 

The power struggle continued in the legislature even as international dignitaries waited for hours in the country’s National Theater to see the new president take the oath of office. In a dramatic final twist, Semilla succeeded in securing the votes necessary to assume leadership of Congress, clearing the way for the new president to take office.

Two days later, Guatemala’s high court ordered Congress to hold a new leadership vote on the grounds that Semilla’s suspension as a party barred it from assuming leadership positions. But Semilla has nonetheless demonstrated its political clout within a fractious legislature, which is divided among more than a dozen political parties. Although it won only 23 of the 160 seats in Congress, Arévalo’s party showed it can build the alliances necessary to pass legislation.  

A Second Democratic Spring

Despite the insurgent nature of his candidacy, Arévalo is not a populist. Guatemala’s professorial president is a sociologist who studied in Israel and the Netherlands, served as ambassador to Spain and assisted U.N. peacebuilding initiatives in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. His father, Juan José Arévalo, served as a reformist president from 1945 until 1951 during the country’s first “democratic spring,” which was cut short by a U.S.-supported coup d’etat in 1954.

Arévalo speaks the language of democratic governance and rule of law. That makes him an anomaly both in Central America and the wider region: an outsider candidate who wants to foster dialogue and create consensus; an insurgent politician who wants to build up institutions, not tear them down.

“The problem is how and who channels this citizen desperation, this exhaustion with corruption,” Arévalo said in an interview with the digital newspaper Contracorriente. “How to ensure this social energy rejecting corrupt government doesn’t turn in the direction of destructive populisms.”  

In much of Latin America, the momentum in recent years has been with “destructive populisms.” A region that led but did not consolidate the so-called Third Wave of democratization in the 1980s has, over the past decade, seemed to be sliding back into authoritarianism as citizens grow disillusioned with corruption and some of the world’s highest rates of income inequality and criminal violence.

Arévalo’s unexpected victory — fueled largely by the enthusiasm of youthful supporters waging a low-cost campaign on social media — could help reverse this trend, not only for Guatemala but for much of Latin America. But the new president needs to demonstrate that electoral democracy — the painstaking process of compromise and consensus building — is able to deliver honest, effective governance. 

Politics as Peacebuilding

Arévalo’s approach is classic peacebuilding: dialogues with a wide range of actors to build broad societal consensus. In interviews, he frequently cites his long experience working in countries emerging from conflict and political turmoil.

“The last 25 or 30 years of my professional life, before entering party politics, I dedicated myself to what has been internationally called peacebuilding, which is a mechanism to promote dialogue in societies emerging from armed conflicts or deep political crises in order to try to rebuild the social fabric,” Arévalo said in a video conversation during the campaign. “One of the objectives is to build societies that dialogue, not to create dialogues, but to build societies that know how to talk to each other, that know how to establish agreements, that know how to manage differences.”

Guatemala’s new president applied this methodology as a peacebuilder in Guatemala as it emerged from more than three decades of armed conflict in the 1990s, waged largely in the country’s impoverished Maya highlands. Peace accords between government representatives, guerrilla forces and the United Nations ended the war in 1996, but failed to be ratified in a plebiscite characterized by high abstentionism, leaving unfulfilled some of the accord’s most ambitious promises, including those on the identity and rights of indigenous peoples.

After the peace accords, Arévalo managed a research-based dialogue strategy to build consensus around security sector reforms, which remained stuck three years after signing of the peace accords in 1996.  In a case study of this work for USIP’s “Building Peace” series in March 2012, Arévalo stressed the need to establish “objectivity and impartiality,” and to “reach out to different sectors, including hardliners and spoilers.”

The project “intentionally avoided limiting participation to ‘politically correct’ individuals who would ensure the ‘right’ recommendations,” he wrote, enlisting “participation from key actors in state and society gradually, so that by the time hardliners and spoilers were interviewed and invited, the project was a fact and important figures had already committed to participate, making missing out on the exercise undesirable.” 

The process helped establish civilian control over the military forces that had dominated Guatemalan politics for much of the twentieth century, creating organizations and parliamentary oversight commissions, a civil society advisory council to the president and a national security system law.

Forging Consensus

Arévalo now wants to use the techniques of peacebuilding to build consensus in the bare-knuckle arena of Guatemalan politics. Semilla’s platform proposes the negotiation of four national pacts — on education, health care, development and the environment — through a series of dialogues including a range of stakeholders, from indigenous authorities to business leaders to civil society experts and activists.  The Semilla government plan also proposes talks to reach broad agreement on possible constitutional reforms.

Semilla has also proposed a 10-point anti-corruption strategy designed to ensure open government, clean up public contracting, professionalize the civil service and eliminate the “phantom” government jobs offered to political supporters.

Although Semilla focused its campaign on corruption, it is far from the only problem facing Guatemala, a country suffering high rates of criminal violence fueled by both drug traffickers and urban gangs. It is also among Latin America’s most unequal societies. Despite qualifying as an upper-middle-income country based on GDP per capita, more than a third of Guatemala’s population is chronically malnourished, including nearly half of Guatemalan children under five, rates that are even higher in rural areas.

“The fight against corruption is the most urgent [task] but it’s not the most important,” Arévalo said in a TV interview during his campaign. “The most important is the fight against poverty. The fight against hunger. The fight against the lack of health care. The fight for access to education.”

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