Bernardo Arévalo’s Unexpected Victory Brings Guatemala Another Democratic Spring

Bernardo Arévalo’s Unexpected Victory Brings Guatemala Another Democratic Spring

Bernardo Arévalo’s Unexpected Victory Brings Guatemala Another Democratic Spring

The anti-corruption candidate’s stunning upset could mark a new and hopeful era for the country. But only if he is allowed to take power—and to exercise it.


Quetzaltenango, Guatemala—On Sunday night, in the central plaza of Xela, the second-largest city in Guatemala, a crowd of several hundred gathers to watch the results of the country’s presidential election. When the press calls the vote for Bernardo Arévalo, a university professor turned anti-corruption politician, the crowd erupts. ¡Viva Arévalo! Viva Guatemala! Fireworks go off. A young campaign volunteer runs up to the podium, takes the microphone, and cries, “Today is the beginning of Guatemala’s next Democratic Spring!”

It is a reference to Arévalo’s party, Movimiento Semilla, whose language is full of seasonal metaphors. (“Semilla” is Spanish for seed). It is also a nod to the party’s birth during the “Guatemalan Spring” of 2015, when citizens took to the streets to oust President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for corruption (both are now in prison). Most meaningfully, though, it is an invocation of the decade of social democracy that Guatemala witnessed from 1944 to 1954. That period, commonly known as the “Democratic Spring,” has remained an ironic point of light in Guatemalan historical memory—an era that gave way to a US-backed coup, a decades-long campaign of genocide during which the state murdered some 200,000 indigenous Guatemalans, and, most recently, a series of “democratic” governments marred by corruption, poverty, and political repression.

Now, with Arévalo’s victory, the phrase “Democratic Spring” has transformed from nostalgia for a distant past to hope for a near future. The comparison is personal. Bernardo Arévalo is the son of Juan Jose Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, who held office from 1945 to 1951. The invocation of Arévalo Sr. is a political strategy. Many still remember him as one of the country’s two best presidents, along with his successor, Jacobo Arbenz. But it is also an instructive reminder of what it will take for the current Arévalo to lead Guatemala toward—or back to—a genuine form of democracy.

It is something of a miracle that Arévalo even made it to the final round of voting. In February, before the first round, the country’s electoral commission used spurious accusations to bar three candidates from participating. Two were wealthy businessmen running popular campaigns. The third, Thelma Cabrera, was a Mayan Indigenous rights activist whose party, the left-wing Movement for the Liberation of the People (MLP), had performed unexpectedly well in 2019. It seems likely that Arévalo snuck through on the strength of his dismal support. Most polls had him in last place.

Arévalo, 64, is impeccably calm and soft-spoken. His lack of bombast, together with his party’s emaciated infrastructure—Semilla did not accept the bribes and gifts that sustain Guatemala’s leading parties—helped him stay under the radar. They also helped him garner support. Semilla’s party proposals are nothing if not rigorously sensible: lower the cost of electricity and food by breaking up monopolies; bring workers into the formal economy, which would lower the skyrocketing rate of immigration to the US; clean up government agencies, by following a detailed ten-step plan. Over and over on the campaign trail, Arévalo reiterated this last commitment. His words were vague (“together, as a people, we will fight against corruption”). But coupled with his honest style and clean background, they earned him a valuable epithet: the “anti-corruption” candidate.

In the first round election on June 25, Arévalo received 12 percent of the vote, enough to put him in second behind Sandra Torres, a former first lady with no meaningful ideology beyond a commitment to gaining power. (Torres had run for president twice before, in 2015 and 2019, and lost both times.) Or, really, Torres finished second, Arévalo third, behind some 1.2 million blank or spoiled ballots. Even as Arévalo’s victory is fêted, it should not be forgotten that the real winner of the first round was a simple, resounding no.

Stunned by Semilla’s advance to the second round, the current government scrambled to disqualify Arévalo. The supreme court investigated “fraud” in the vote count. The attorney general tried to dissolve Semilla on the grounds that the party had falsified voters’ signatures. The police raided Semilla’s headquarters in Guatemala City. But the attacks backfired.They reinforced Arévalo’s image as an anti-establishment candidate and carried his name out into rural areas that Semilla’s campaign, largely a social-media operation, would not have otherwise reached. Despite the fact that Torres and her UNE party used all sorts of illegal tactics on election day—busing voters to polling sites, handing out food supplies in exchange for votes, instructing her election monitors to challenge Semilla ballots—Arévalo won the second round by over a million votes. In Xela, a few Semilla poll monitors told me that their UNE counterparts accepted Torres’s money and then cast their ballots for Arévalo.

Juan Jose Arévalo took office in 1945, in the wake of a revolution that toppled the country’s military dictatorship. It was a tenuous popular front of communists and anti-communists, leftists and centrists, momentarily united to fight for democracy. Arévalo was the ideal candidate. A left-liberal philosophy professor of a Deweyan cast, he advocated the overcoming of “old class hatreds” with a flighty platform of “spiritual socialism.” Eloquent in speech and manner, upper-class but never a part of dictatorial circles, anti-communist but with vague leftist sympathies, he was, as one historian writes, “all things to all people.”

Arévalo senior had significant blind spots. He never pursued land reform and did little for rural education. But he did pass a labor code that established the right to unionize, capped the workweek at 48 hours, and instituted health and safety standards for all laborers. (A Nation contributor wrote that the law made the US’s Wagner Act look like “sheer fascist reaction.”) He also created a robust social security system, the IGSS, which is still active today. Crucially, he tolerated and benefited from a coalition of left-wing parties without which the most impactful elements of “Arevalismo” would not have survived. The communist-leaning Party of Revolutionary Action, for example, played a critical role in executing Arévalo’s policies—and beating back several coup attempts against him. Fitfully but genuinely, as historian Greg Grandin has argued, Arévalo cultivated a union of “socialized democracy and democratized socialism.”

Like his father, Bernardo Arévalo’s greatest strength, for now, is that he is all things to all people. This is evident even within the Semilla office in Xela. Rene, a recent college graduate who joined the party in May, eagerly affirms that Semilla is “not socialist” and labels the party as both progressive and centrist. Her colleague Guillermo, a serious politico in his late 20s, speaks of Arévalo as a Guatemalan Salvador Allende who will begin to “transition” the country out of “unsustainable capitalism.” In Xela and its environs, I heard socialists and centrists and evangelical Christians say they would vote for Semilla. Ex-guerrillas are happy he won; so is the US government. “Semilla is a party of an elite class,” Percy Aguilar, a former mayoral candidate in Xela for the left-wing MLP party, told me. “A radical left would try to transform the state. Semilla doesn’t want to transform the state. They want to keep the state we currently have, only without corruption.” He voted for Arévalo anyway.

It is still not a given that Arévalo will take power in January of next year. At the time of writing, Torres has not recognized his victory. There are rumblings from the attorney general’s office about another prosecution of Semilla. The speeches by congressmen at the celebratory gathering in Xela’s central plaza are tinged with worries and warnings. Stay alert, the message goes, and be ready to protest.

Even if the transition does go smoothly, it is likely that Arévalo will be limited to working through executive power and administrative appointments. Semilla has just 23 representatives in the 160-seat national congress, and the prospects of a center-left coalition are slim. The intense repression of leftist, Indigenous parties has seen to that. “Whoever wins,” Aguilar told me last week, “the political left will continue to disappear in Guatemala.”

If Arévalo and his movement are to have any hope of upending Guatemalan politics for the long run—of creating a new Democratic Spring—they must reverse this trend. Cleaning up government ministries and strengthening social services are essential goals. But a move from corrupt capitalism to upstanding capitalism will not root out the troubles of a country at the sharp end of global power. Semilla’s promise of a renewed democracy will remain unfulfilled without the cultivation of a strong anti-capitalist left. If the invocation of the first Democratic Spring in Guatemala carries any counsel for Bernardo Arévalo, his party, and the blander forms of liberal anti-authoritarianism now in vogue around the world, perhaps it is this.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy