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Hope for Guatemala, Redemption for the United States
A troubled nation’s democracy is reborn. This time, America is on the right side.
When Guatemalans go to the polls this Sunday, they’ll find something startling on the ballot: hope. And, though most Americans wouldn’t know it, the election offers the United States something equally rare: a chance for redemption for one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the post-war era.
Sunday’s election pits an earnest, wonky center-left reformer against Guatemala’s deeply entrenched kleptocratic elite. The reformer, Bernardo Arévalo, barely made it to the second round ballot after a portion of that elite tried to have him disqualified after he shocked them by placing second in the first round back in June. They failed.
If you’ve heard anything at all about Bernardo Arévalo, you’ve likely heard he is the son of a former Guatemalan president. That’s true, but it hardly puts across the resonance of the Arévalo name in Guatemalan history. Bernardo's father, Juan José, was Guatemala's first democratically elected president in 1945—the founding figure of a fledgling democratic regime bound for tragedy.
For most of the first half of the 20th century, the storied, Boston-based United Fruit Company had run Guatemala as a virtual fiefdom in collaboration with local military dictators. Systems like Guatemala’s before the Arévalo era are where we get the phrase “Banana Republic” from—not a mid-market casual fashion label, but a quasi-colonial system of exploitation at the hands of private interests.
An anti-fascist intellectual and FDR-admirer, as well as one of just a handful of Guatemalans with a Ph.D., it was Juan José Arévalo who put in motion his country’s tragically short-lived mid-century experiment with democracy. That episode remains Guatemala’s road not taken—a brief, hopeful period of forward-looking, democratic government at once responsive to popular demands and allergic to communist encroachment. Had it been allowed to prosper, Guatemala’s home-grown brand of democratic nationalism might have spared the country, and perhaps even the region, the decades of civil war that followed and the general dysfunction it suffers to this day.
But it was not allowed to prosper. In 1950, at the end of his term, Arévalo picked his Defense Minister, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, to succeed him. Winning the presidential election with 65% of the vote, Arbenz promised to deepen Arévalo’s New Deal-inspired reforms and, in particular, to begin redistributing land to Guatemala’s millions of landless peasants.
Arbenz expropriated hundreds of thousands of acres of the United Fruit Company’s best land, crippling its operations in the country. By 1954, 10 years after the uprising that had brought Arévalo père to power, the Company decided Central America was no place for a New Deal. In close cooperation with America’s new spy agency and Guatemalan anti-communists, it bankrolled an invasion that became the archetypal example of CIA neocolonialism, a brutal affair that ejected Arbenz from power and replaced him with what soon became a reactionary dictatorship. The coup became a founding event for the Latin American left, remembered almost ritualistically in some quarters as the truest expression of reactionary US imperialism in Latin America.
The 1954 overthrow of Arbenz was not just morally abhorrent but also spectacularly counterproductive as policy, poisoning hemispheric relations for generations to come and becoming part of the mythology that propelled Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and Hugo Chávez to power in the decades that followed. Worse, the coup set Guatemala on a calamitous path first to a brutal dictatorship and, in time, to one of the hemisphere’s bloodiest civil wars. And it sent the former President, Juan José Arévalo, into exile, in Chile and then in Uruguay where, in 1958, his son Bernardo was born.
In time, Guatemala became just another battlefield in the proxy war between the United States and the USSR, its civil war a gruesomely murderous affair where massacres of entire indigenous villages were almost routine. Except for a brief interval during the Carter administration, many of the abuses were perpetrated by army units the United States had trained and equipped. Seldom have America’s claims to moral leadership and its actions on the ground diverged as dramatically as they did in Guatemala starting in 1954. And though, in 1999, President Clinton did apologize for America’s sordid role in supporting the units that perpetrated the worst crimes, a formal apology doesn’t do much to right past wrongs.
Fast forward some decades and the world has given the United States a remarkable chance to atone for the human rights disaster its policy caused in Guatemala. Thankfully, the Biden Administration appears to be sensitive to the call. Just as the democratic experiment Juan José Arévalo founded in 1945 wouldn’t have been overthrown without decisions made in the United States, the one his son Bernardo seems on the verge of founding today also owes its existence, in part, to decisions made in Washington, D.C.
In reality, Bernardo Arévalo was mostly unknown a year ago, even in Guatemala. A soft-spoken former diplomat with little governing experience, he was polling at less than 1% at the start of the year. He was obscure enough as a figure that the current Guatemalan regime, which is an outright kleptocracy, didn’t bother to ban him from the first-round ballot, as they had done to all the reformist candidates that seemed within striking distance of the second round. The approach backfired, consolidating the anti-regime vote around this moderate, scrupulously democratic figure vowing to take a hard line against the pervasive corruption that defines Guatemalan public life today.
Arévalo’s success seems to have caught him by surprise, and even some of his fans wonder if he’s really up to the rigors of governing a country like Guatemala. He came in second amid a hugely fragmented field, with just 12% of the vote. His opponent, Sandra Torres, is a former first lady backed by the establishment and at the head of a large political patronage machine. Realizing that Torres would surely lose against a reform figure, some within the elite panicked. One judge handed down a ruling banning Arévalo from the second ballot over a technicality: a late, clumsy attempt to keep power safely within the hands of the corrupt.
Removing Arévalo from the second round of the election would have clearly marked the end of Guatemalan democracy. Without a strong, concerted international reaction, that might well have been the result. Instead, the Biden administration made it entirely clear that such a result was unacceptable to the United States. In coordination with allies in the European Union and throughout the Americas, and in a hugely symbolic reversal of the US role in 1954, the Biden administration pressed hard to keep Guatemalan democracy on track.
The result was peculiar, according to hemispheric analyst James Bosworth. Much of the business elite in Guatemala balked at picking a fight with the United States—still by far the country’s largest trade partner. The Biden administration’s heavy hint of looming sanctions enlisted their help in an effort to keep Arévalo on the ballot, not because they favor his election—they don’t—but to avoid the disastrous consequence of losing access to US markets. CACIF, the lobbying body that brings together the country’s moneyed elite, came out forcefully for the second round to take place as planned—that is, with Arévalo on the ballot. “The Biden administration acted where it had leverage,” Bosworth says.
What came next was a stunning reversal: Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overruled the lower court’s decision, ensuring a meaningful second round ballot. Now, polls put Arévalo 26 points ahead of the establishment candidate. Something may still go horribly wrong: a catastrophe could befall Arévalo; the elites may launch a power grab, deciding they aren’t so afraid of the United States after all. But barring the hugely unexpected, he will be elected president on August 20th.
Of all the countries screwed by American imperialism over the years, few have been as thoroughly brutalized as Guatemala. By enabling the likely election of Bernardo Arévalo to the presidency, the United States begins the long process of undoing the damage. For hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans murdered during the cruel and needless civil wars of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, it is too late. And yet, this measure of redemption—though long delayed—is historic nonetheless.
Francisco Toro is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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