Earthquakes periodically shake Guatemala, but none has been more stunning than the political quake that struck last Sunday. An honest and socially conscious government may soon take power, led by the son of the country’s greatest-ever president.
The father brought democracy to Guatemala in 1944, but 10 years later, that democracy was overthrown by order of President Dwight Eisenhower. Then, to prevent the father from returning to power, President John F. Kennedy authorized a second coup. Now the son hopes to pull his long-suffering country back to democracy. This time the US government will not intervene. Powerful drug lords and other criminals who benefit from the regime’s corruption, however, may try to do so.
For decades Guatemala has been governed by leaders who stole and repressed with impunity. Dozens of judges and prosecutors, along with two attorneys general, have fled the country. The country’s most prominent journalist sits in jail. Guatemala is careening toward failed-state status as drug gangs take control of territory and desperately poor people flee toward the United States. Last Sunday, though, voters rebelled against their fate and gave their country a totally unexpected burst of hope.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The run-up to this year’s presidential election was depressingly familiar. Activists were intimidated and candidates who challenged the status quo were ruled off the ballot. No one bothered to crush Bernardo Arévalo because he appeared harmless. A poll taken shortly before the first round of voting in June put him in eighth place, with less than 1 percent of the vote.
To everyone’s astonishment, possibly even his own, Arévalo took 12 percent, making him one of the top two vote-getters. On Sunday he won the run-off overwhelmingly, with 58 percent of the vote. Now the outgoing government and the gangs that support it must decide whether to let him take power.
“The people are shouting ‘Enough of so much corruption!’” Arévalo told delirious supporters at his victory celebration. “This is a demonstration of the change of mindset that we are witnessing in Guatemala. Today Guatemalans have hope. What we’re celebrating in the streets is the recovery of a sense of hope for our country.”
Few Guatemalans missed the echoes of history that reverberated through this celebration. Arévalo’s father, Juan Jose Arévalo, personified democracy and social justice — but two American presidents took him as an intolerable enemy.
Guatemala had been ruled by a succession of dictators when a peaceful revolt broke out in 1944. The dictatorship collapsed. Juan Jose Arévalo, a young schoolteacher, became the country’s first democratically elected president.
“We are going to add justice and humanity to order,” he said in his inaugural speech, “because order based on injustice and humiliation is worthless.”
At the end of his six-year term, Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Arbenz, a fellow reformer. Arbenz promoted land reform that outraged the powerful United Fruit Company. In 1954 Eisenhower ordered him overthrown. After the coup, both Arévalo and Arbenz went into exile. The country fell back into the hands of brutal oligarchs.
In 1963 Arévalo announced that he would return to Guatemala and run for a second term as president. That terrified some in Washington. Arévalo had written a book called “The Shark and the Sardines” in which he portrayed the United States as seeking to dominate Latin America. President Kennedy, spooked by the possibility of “another Castro” in the Western Hemisphere, authorized a coup. Days later, military officers seized power and canceled the election.
The scholar James Dunkerley, author of a definitive history of Central America called “Power in the Isthmus,” wrote that Arévalo “personified the revolutionary decade” in Guatemala. Kennedy’s fear of radical change there, he concluded, was the reason he “personally approved” the 1963 coup. The result of these two coups was a civil war that lasted well over 30 years and killed more than 200,000 Guatemalans.
Arévalo went into exile in Uruguay, where his son Bernardo was born. Bernardo Arévalo eventually returned to his homeland and won a seat in Congress. After an outburst of popular protest in 2015, he helped organize a civic movement called Semilla, or “seed.” Transformed into a political party, this movement propelled him to victory on Sunday. People call him “Uncle Bernie,” a tip of the hat to an American who has also challenged the political status quo, Senator Bernie Sanders.
President-elect Arévalo faces daunting challenges. First among them will be surviving physically and politically until Inauguration Day in January. Election authorities, who tried to annul the results of the first round of voting, are threatening to invalidate his victory. Even if he manages to be sworn in, he will face a deeply hostile Congress.
Guatemala is racked by criminal violence, and murders are almost never solved. Climate change has contributed to crippling poverty that forces many wretched citizens to begin walking to Mexico or Texas. South American drug cartels use Guatemala as a transshipment base. Since much of the police and army are under their indirect control, they operate with impunity.
American interventions in 1954 and 1963 robbed Guatemalans of the legacy of their visionary leader Juan Jose Arévalo. Those interventions propelled the country toward the most horrific bloodbath Latin America has seen since the days of the Spanish conquistadors. Now, in a delicious twist, Arévalo’s son has picked up the fallen torch of Guatemalan democracy.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.