Guatemala’s Progressive Presidential Candidate Looks to Expand Base Beyond Urban Youth

Jul 31, 2023
11:28 AM

Seed Movement presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo holds a sunflower during a campaign rally in Santa María de Jesús, Guatemala, July 16, 2023. The 64-year-old academic and former diplomat won just 11 percent of the vote in the June 25th presidential election’s first round, but it was enough to give him the second slot in the August 20 runoff ballot. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

By SONIA PÉREZ D., Associated Press

SANTA MARÍA DE JESÚS, Guatemala (AP) — Presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo stood before a few hundred residents of this small Indigenous community on the slopes of the Agua Volcano and told them they could be the seeds of a brighter, more corruption-free spring in Guatemala.

The metaphor fits neatly with his political party, the Movimiento Semilla, or “Seed Movement,” and allows the 64-year-old academic and former diplomat to riff on themes of renewal and growth.

But it also alludes to Guatemala’s “democratic spring,” considered a more inclusive period in the country’s history during the presidency of his late father, Juan José Arévalo, in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Bernardo Arévalo won just 11 percent of the vote in the presidential election’s first round on June 25, but it was enough to give him the surprise second slot in the August 20 runoff ballot. He will face Sandra Torres, a conservative and former first lady who was the leading vote-getter in the first round and is making her third bid for the presidency.

Arévalo’s recent speech in Santa María de Jesús was similar to those he has given in Guatemala’s capital, but the imagery could be especially important in rural Indigenous communities as he seeks to rapidly expand his largely urban, youthful base before the runoff.

He won in Guatemala City and other important cities, including Sacatepéquez and Quetzaltenango. It remains to be seen whether he can convince people in rural communities that he can address their daily problems.

The delayed certification of the first round results shortened the already small window that Arévalo has to reintroduce himself to much of the country as his opponents rush to paint their own negative picture.

“Do you feel what is happening?” Arévalo told the crowd in Santa María de Jesús. “The new spring is arriving, that’s what you feel, and you all are the seeds of that new spring.”

“A new spring that is going to bring us well-being, the water we lack, the education they owe us, the health that they have denied us thanks to those corrupt contracts that serve few,” Arévalo said, standing in front of an old, damaged Roman Catholic church, in a wide-brimmed hat and untucked shirt against the tropical heat.

Among those listening was Juana Orón, a 67-year-old homemaker of the Kaqchikel people. She is one of the older voters who remember hearing about Arévalo’s father, one of only two leftist presidents in Guatemala’s democratic era.

The elder Arévalo, who governed from 1945 to 1951, is credited with establishing key social programs that remain in place today, including Guatemala’s labor code and social security. Guatemala’s democratic spring was cut short in 1954 by the CIA-backed overthrow of his successor, President Jacobo Árbenz.

Under Juan José Arévalo, the state advocated for rights for Indigenous peoples and others beyond the country’s small elite.

“I remember I was little and (my parents) said he had done good things,” said Orón, whose first language as a child was Kaqchikel. If his father was good, Arévalo could be a good president, too, she said.

Opponents have tried to frame Arévalo’s candidacy as a step toward some of the region’s more notorious leftist regimes, such as Cuba and Nicaragua. They warn that the progressive candidate will bring expropriations, abortion, and same-sex marriage to the conservative country.

Arévalo has been the election’s surprise.

In the days before the June 25 vote, he was polling below three percent and trailing at least seven of the other 21 candidates. But his anti-corruption message resonated in the country where gains against corruption have been erased and the justice system reoriented to pursue the prosecutors and judges who formerly led that fight.

In the month since that initial result, the Attorney General’s Office announced an investigation into his party and had a judge suspend its legal status until the Constitutional Court stepped in to block that move.

In Santa María de Jesús, people wanted to compare Arévalo in person to what they were hearing about him. Some handed him flowers, posed for photos, or reached out to touch him as he made his way through the throng.

Arévalo pushed back against attempts to frame him as a left-wing radical —he has said private property rights are not up for discussion— and pounded the issue of corruption.

“Let us work, let us get ahead on our own effort, let’s get rid of the corrupt once and for all,” he said.

For Francisco Jiménez, a political scientist at Rafael Landivar University, Arévalo will need concrete proposals to make inroads with the base of Torres, who has spent two decades assembling it.

“He will have to make governing proposals with a social agenda, where the people see that he is going to have an impact on their lives and communities,” Jiménez said. “The other part is continuing to present himself as the different model. That has been his success, someone totally different from the other candidates.”

Evangelical churches in Guatemala have painted Arévalo as an existential threat to the family.

Gladys Sunun, a 35-year-old Kaqchikel vendor from an evangelical family, said she came to hear Arévalo for herself. She said she had heard that Arévalo would convert Guatemala into another Cuba or Nicaragua, but left feeling that might not be true, though she wants to investigate more.

“He came to tell us not to worry,” she said. “It sounds real, but we don’t know.”

Her sister July said she wanted to hear more about Arévalo’s positions on gender ideology. “As a mother I’m afraid, because we’ve grown up with a Christian background. I don’t want to marry my daughter with another woman,” she said.

July acknowledged that Arévalo said he would respect the identities and decisions of the people, “but what he hasn’t said is that he won’t allow (same-sex marriage) to happen here.”