Guatemala Just Ran January 6th In Reverse
It’s the most successful pro-democracy movement of the 21st century. So why has nobody heard of it?
A popular progressive stuns an entrenched, corrupt political establishment to win a presidential election in one of the most unequal countries on Earth. Knee-deep in corruption, the political class he’s pledged to unseat panics and goes all out to overturn the election. They control the government, the lame-duck Congress, the courts, the prosecutors’ office, the media, everything, and they’re not afraid to use every tool at their disposal. They have a court rule the president-elect’s party illegal, they harass his supporters, investigate them, maneuver to overturn the election, try one dirty trick after another to prevent his inauguration.
Soon, a largely-indigenous grassroots movement mobilizes behind the president-elect, taking to the streets day after day and facing down riot police to demand their votes be respected. They come out in numbers, calling out the corrupt pact for trying to overturn an election they know they’ve won fair and square. The establishment’s sabotage never lets up, it keeps going right up until the very day of the inauguration, when the outgoing Congress maneuvers furiously to keep the new president’s supporters from gaining the speaker’s chair and swearing the new president in, even as hundreds of thousands of protesters mass outside in the street chanting in anger against the power grab. Against all odds, they succeed, facing down the coup plotters to get the president sworn in late at night, having beaten back every attempt to block him.
That Guatemalans needed to resort to such heroics to keep their democracy in place is one sign of how far off the rails the country had gone. Long one of the most racially and economically unequal countries in the Americas, Guatemala emerged from its long civil war against Marxist rebels in 1996 to an elite-dominated democracy that soon devolved into kleptocracy. Official graft was so out of hand, and corruption so enshrined throughout the country’s institutions that, in 2007, the country tried to effectively outsource its anti-corruption efforts, asking the UN to backstop the country’s failing institutions.
The ill-fated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala had a long, rocky couple of decades swimming against the current until 2019, when it tried to investigate campaign funding irregularities by then-president Jimmy Morales, who retaliated by ending its mandate. Since then, all brakes have been off, with what Guatemalans call “the pact of the corrupt” taking over every state institution and politicians barely bothering to conceal the scale of their graft.
Unsurprisingly, democracy suffered, as the pacto de corruptos maneuvered to ensure their cozy arrangement couldn’t be upset by anything so vulgar as an election. Ahead of last summer’s vote, every high-profile reformist candidate was disqualified from the ballot on one technicality or another. It was a very obvious stitch-up… only they left one loose end: A single, mostly-unknown reformer—an egghead former diplomat and academic—was polling so low, the pacto de corruptos didn’t even bother disqualifying him. His name was Bernardo Arévalo. Nobody had heard of him.
Two days ago, Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as president.
Squint hard enough, and you can just about imagine a parallel universe where Arévalo’s amazing underdog tale of democratic derring-do this weekend was at the top of every newspaper and newscast worldwide. I mean, the story has everything: enough plot twists and 11th-hour reversals to read like a tropical House of Cards, only with the good guys coming out on top.
Amid a million stories of democratic backsliding everywhere from Hungary to India, from Israel to America itself, here’s this tiny poor country showing us the way regular people, indigenous people, can fight back against the enemies of democracy and win. It sounds like a movie. But it’s real.
And yet, the average American who follows the news probably heard about none of it. No one is putting little Guatemalan flags in their social media handles. Unless you were out specifically looking for Guatemala news, the story just passed you by.
Why? It’s a question that has stalked me for months, as Guatemala’s democratic movement beat back one authoritarian power grab after another. How could international public opinion sleepwalk through all this drama? Shouldn’t the world’s democrats be hungry for a feel-good story like this one?
Well, nobody much cares about Guatemala at the best of times. It may be the most populous nation in Central America, but with everything else going on in the world right now it’s just never going to grab people’s attention to the same extent as, say, Ukraine.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I have other theories. And they’re bleak.
Fatally for Guatemala’s democrats, Joe Biden supported them. Loudly. He mobilized America’s diplomatic weight behind them. He made it perfectly clear that if Bernardo Arévalo, the president-elect, didn’t get sworn in there would be major consequences. Guatemala’s business sector got the message, and the organization that brings together the owners of its biggest companies fell in line behind Arévalo. They may not be thrilled to have the center left in power, but better that than U.S. sanctions.
Bizarrely, this probably meant that neither America’s loud online left nor its reactionary Republican right could get behind the Guatemalan democracy movement. The left could never back a movement supported by Guatemala’s business sector because it was supported by Guatemala’s business sector. The right could never support a movement supported by Guatemala’s indigenous movement because it was supported by Guatemala’s indigenous movement. Neither could work up any warm feelings for a movement supported by Joe Biden because it was supported by Joe Biden.
The most daring, successful movement in the defense of democracy our hemisphere has seen in ages just pulled off the almost impossible feat of dislodging one of the world’s most entrenched and most corrupt regimes peacefully, through the ballot box… and everyone found a reason to sleep right through it.
It was sad, really, to see so much of international public opinion miss the boat on perhaps the most hopeful political story of the 2020s so far. Whether we noticed or not, Guatemala just gave the world a masterclass on what it takes to defend democracy in the 21st century.
I, for one, am in awe at what they’ve achieved.
And you should be too.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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