U.S. intervenes as Indigenous Guatemalans back President-elect Arévalo
President-elect Bernardo Arévalo, the son of Juan Jose Arévalo, Guatemala's first democratically elected president in 1945, waves to those attending the commemoration of the 1944 October Revolution in Human Rights Plaza in Guatemala City, Oct. 20, 2023. Bernardo Arévalo is supposed to be sworn-in on Jan 14, 2024. | Santiago Billy / AP

Bernardo Arévalo’s victory in the first round of presidential voting on June 25 surprised Guatemalans, as did the emergence of his Seed (Semilla) political party. Roadblocks engineered by established political forces threatened his candidacy in the second round of voting, on Aug. 20, and now may keep him from taking office, on Jan. 14, 2024.

Arévalo and the Seed Party seek to remove corruption from Guatemalan politics. They and others oppose “the Pact of the Corrupt,” individuals with criminal associations that for decades, they say, have occupied all levels of government, national and local.

They are, “former military people…sophisticated businessmen, judicial functionaries, legislators, mayors, communications people, bankers, and liberal professionals, the facilitators of business deals worth millions.”

From shortly after Arévalo’s first-round victory until now, their operatives in the government of outgoing President Alejandro Giamattei have alleged voter fraud. The attorney general, a couple of prosecutors, and a few judges of the Supreme Court of Justice and Constitutional Court have forced the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to take measures that would prevent Arévalo from becoming president.

It decreed that ballot boxes be seized and the Seed Party no longer qualify as a political party. It voided the election of congressional deputies. Giamattei has rejected widespread demands that Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the offending prosecutors, and a couple of judges be dismissed.

Another surprise was on the way. A national strike of Indigenous peoples erupted on Oct. 2. For one commentator, this represented “the discovery of a forgotten and marginalized country, that didn’t exist in the national imagination…[and] came from the provinces, where the Seed Party, with its basically urban and middle-class origins, did not exist.”

Sit-ins and blockades of highways spread nationwide, peaking at 130 or more. Up to 60% of Guatemala’s commerce halted. Schools, colleges, and some local government offices closed. The demands were: No more corruption, remove Attorney General Porras, and Arévalo will become president on Jan. 14.

Indigenous leaders referred to as the “48 Cantons of Totonicapán” had called the strike. They and Indigenous officials nationwide were in charge. Guatemala’s European-descended leadership class had bestowed administrative authority on the “48 Cantons” in the 19th century. Now, somehow, they seem to set the course for Indigenous authorities in municipalities nationwide.

News reports cite the “Ancestral Indigenous Authorities” as representing Indigenous participation in Guatemalan politics. The Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, formulated in 1995, had enabled such. It was part of the Peace Agreement that ended decades of armed conflict during which some 200,000 people died, most of them Indigenous.

Partisans of the current strike staged a rally in Guatemala City on Oct. 20 to mark the 79th anniversary of Guatemala’s “October Revolution.” On that day in 1944, a three-person “revolutionary junta” replaced the long dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. Voters in 1945 elected Juan José Arévalo, father of Bernardo, as president, and Guatemala experienced its so-called “Democratic Spring,” which ended in 1954 thanks to a CIA-instigated coup.

Bernardo Arévalo spoke at the rally on Oct. 20:

“The ancestral authorities have opened the way to students, community leaders, professionals, unions…business leaders.… Look around. We are located in the center of citizens’ life in the country. The legacy of the October Revolution of 1944 is before our eyes. The Guatemalan Institute of Social Security is an instrument of solidarity… and source of tranquility for many families … [and the] Bank of Guatemala guarantees economic stability and supports … an economy whose benefits extend to everyone.”

In Guatemala, however, the poverty rate was 59% in 2020, 80% in rural areas; half of the population have limited access to food. That the average adult income in 2022 was $13,412 testifies to a well-resourced sector of the population. Indeed, 10% of Guatemalans owned 61.7% of the nation’s wealth in 2021.

Journalist Víctor Ferrigno points out the limited ambitions of the national strike: Its Indigenous leaders claim not to represent a political party but merely to be defending democracy and opposing corruption. Analyst  Ollantay Itzamná adds that Guatemala’s government will emerge unscathed and will “certainly continue being racist and lethal for indigenous peoples.”

He argues elsewhere that the Seed Party, attentive mostly to the urban middle class, is responding to concerns that the government, a big source of employment, might disintegrate because of corruption, racist though it may be.

The U.S. government backs Arévalo, the Seed Party, and the campaign against political corruption. Itzamná points out that USAID finances projects of the 48 Cantons and of NGOs siding with the Seed Party.  Indigenous leadership groups in Guatemala have gained U.S. trust, he indicates, by not “questioning the racist nature of the state or disputing the power of the rich.”

The U.S. government, he explains, is willing to “try out a progressive government in Guatemala as long as it is obedient to U.S. interests.” That government now gains U.S. favor by accepting an Indigenous mobilization that serves to “hide the emergence of the pluri-national, anti-neoliberal, or anti-imperialist social subjects that do exist in Guatemala.” Radical Indigenous movements, such as the ones active in Peru and especially Bolivia, are to be squelched.

One would be Committee of Campesino Development (CODECA), formed in 1992 as a “class-based organization” defending farm workers. CODECA announced its own national strike to begin on Sept. 19. Demands were those of the current strike, with the addition of a “people’s and pluri-national constituent assembly.”

Calling for a constituent assembly and basic change, Thelma Cabrera, presidential candidate of CODECA’s political party, The Movement for Liberation of the Peoples, won 456,114 votes, or fourth place, in the 2019 elections. She was ranking in fourth place in 2023, according to opinion polls, when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal rejected her candidacy.

In an interview on Feb. 19, 2023, Mauro Vay Gonón, the CODECA founder, recalled that “state terrorism, mainly at the hands of Guatemala’s military, had cost the lives of 25 CODECA activists.”  Tereso Cárcamo, killed on Dec. 5, 2022, had taken part “in different peasant struggles, such as the Popular and Pluri-national Constituent Assembly process.”

Vay Gonón, a guerrilla insurgent during the armed conflict, lamented that, “The entire Peace Agreement” [of 1996] is for nothing. They are walking all over it. This is a sad truth for the Guatemalans, because we sincerely don’t want to go back to a war.”

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.