The Good Fight
Francisco Toro on Guatemala’s Political Revolution

Francisco Toro on Guatemala’s Political Revolution

Yascha Mounk and Francisco Toro discuss the surprise election of Bernardo Arévalo and the broader state of Latin American politics.

Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan journalist and the founder of Caracas Chronicles. He is also a contributing editor at Persuasion and the author of the Substack newsletter The Two Worlds of Climate.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Francisco Toro discuss the chances Guatemala's reformist president will set the country on a better path; whether El Salvador’s “millennial dictator” Nayib Bukele is a regional outlier or a sign of things to come; and why former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s coup attempt failed.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Quico, you are working closely with Persuasion. We run a lot of your excellent content and you have had a bee in your bonnet about Guatemala for the last months. 

Tell us about how Guatemala has turned into one of the most unlikely and also one of the biggest democratic success stories of, perhaps, the last decade, and why it matters.

Francisco Toro: When I was younger, there was this brand of story we'd get in the newspaper quite often about democratic movements having big fights on the streets with autocratic governments. Sometimes they'd win, sometimes they'd lose. But over the last 10 or 15 years, the news has been mostly bad: we see what happened in Iran, in Cuba. Democratic movements tend to get crushed and it's awful. So when I saw people beginning to protest on the street in Guatemala to reestablish their democracy, my first thought was, “Well, here comes another crushing blow.” 

But it didn't turn out that way. They actually managed to elect a new government that has sterling anti-corruption and democratic bona fides. And they did it in this unique way, completely nonviolently, through the ballot box, but also through mobilization on the streets—and, interestingly, with US support. The US embassy played a very important role in coordinating these things and making sure that the rest of the international committee made it clear to the Guatemalan autocratic authorities that there would be major consequences if they didn't allow the new democratically elected government to take office. 

Mounk: So tell us a little bit about the history of Guatemala leading up to this point. I think to appreciate just the significance of the events in Guatemala, it's important to understand a little bit about the history of a country and the political structure of a country. It is a country that has had elections for a long time but wasn't a true democracy and in which a relatively small number of people were very dominant over the country's economy and its political affairs. 

Tell us a little bit about the broader political and socioeconomic structure of Guatemala and how that helps to explain what's so remarkable about this apparent democratic breakthrough we've seen in the last weeks.

Toro: You really need to go back to the Civil War, which raged between 1960 all the way to 1996. It was a long and very bloody war, a leftist insurgency inspired by the Cuban Revolution (like we saw all over Latin America) trying to take on this white elite in Guatemala City. The insurgency tried to mobilize the indigenous population, which is about 45 percent of the country, to overthrow the government. And it got very, very nasty, especially during a two-year period between 1981 and 1983, when the Reagan administration was in power. Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas had just taken over Nicaragua. People in Washington were very concerned about dominoes falling in Central America. And so the green light was more or less given for what's been called the “scorched-earth campaign,” where the army carried out 626 massacres in a two-year period. Soldiers would just show up in the village and kill any Indian person they could find. And this was later described as “acts of genocide.” 

About 200,000 people were killed, 45,000 more people were disappeared, more than a million were displaced and ended up in the US. That's why there's more than 1.7 million Guatemalans are in the US now. It really traumatized the entire society. At the end of this war, a law of national reconciliation was passed that granted amnesty for all of the crimes during the war, including the worst atrocities. And the army, the people who had run the killings, ended up more or less colonizing the state. They took off their uniforms, put on suits, went to work in different ministries and got elected to Congress. A couple of them ended up making it all the way to the presidency. And what they set up was really a kind of kleptocracy where corruption became absolutely mainstreamed into everything that the Guatemalan state did. 

Guatemalans hated this, but there wasn't really very much that they could do about it because the Pacto de Corruptos, this pact of the corrupt that took over the country, controlled all the courts, the prosecutor general's office, which turns out to be very powerful in Guatemala. And they could very easily just sideline anyone who threatened them. They could just open an investigation, put them in jail and push them into exile.

Mounk: In the latest election, it looked like this was what the regime was going to do again, which is to say to investigate a number of opposition politicians and to disqualify a number of them. And then they left one standing because they didn't think that he was a viable candidate and so it would kind of be nice, ornamentally, to have him on the ballot. Am I getting this roughly right?

Toro: Absolutely. In the polls right ahead of the election, like two months out, Bernardo Arévalo, this sociology professor and son of the first democratically elected president in Guatemala back in the 1940s, was at 0.7 percent of voting intentions, within the margin of error to zero. Nobody had really heard of him. He was quite an obscure kind of academic and minor congressman. So the regime did disqualify three figures, one from the far left, one sort of a populist who was coming up through the ranks, somebody else that they didn't really get along with, and then didn’t bother to disqualify Bernardo Arévalo because he was a nullity. What they didn't calculate is that If you sideline all of the reforming candidates except one, obviously all of the reformist vote is going to concentrate around that one figure, which is what happened in Guatemala. Just like three weeks ahead of the vote, after these three other candidates had been disqualified, Bernardo Arévalo was at like 6%. He was already fifth. It's a very divided field.

And nobody really saw it coming. The polls did not show this last-minute surge, but on election night he had 15 percent of the vote and he came second. And this has been described as a glitch in the matrix. This was the thing that nobody really saw coming. And the regime thought, “Well, you know, this is bad, but we can deal with it. We still run the entire state. We still have many, many tools at our disposal to deal with this guy.”

And so they went to the prosecutor general. It's a strange figure in Latin America. And the piece I wrote about this, I go quite a bit into what a prosecutor general is. It's like an AG, but it's entirely independent of the president. In this case, she doesn't serve at the pleasure of the president. And there's really no way to rein in the prosecutor general in Guatemala. This lady Consuelo Porras was clearly aligned with the Pacto de Corruptos and she had a judicial action brought in to say that Arévalo had not filled his paperwork to be on the ballot correctly in the first place—they found some nonsense technicality and threw him off of the second-round ballot. But here's where things really got interesting because the Guatemalan law is very clear that you could not do this, but they did it anyway. And it doesn't seem like they had really looked ahead. They hadn't really understood what this would mean. 

First, the US embassy, which is a powerful player in Guatemalan politics, still, hit the roof because this clearly would take Guatemala entirely out of the democratic camp. The Biden administration made this very clear. And so, next thing you know, other foreign affairs ministries around the continent and in the EU are saying there will be consequences. There are going to be sanctions if this goes through. And at the same time, people started protesting in the streets in Guatemala. And there were these big protests around Guatemala City, smaller protests in the countryside. And this confluence of street protests and US embassy pressure, it's interesting, the way it played out was through the business lobby. The conservative business elite around Guatemala City is very powerful. They have many links to the Pacto de Corruptos and they started doing the math: “Is this really in our interest? We might lose control of the government if this guy gets in, but we can't lose access to the US market. We can't all end up losing our US visas.” These people all have family in the US. They have kids going to US universities. So the business sector started coming around behind Arévalo, and that alliance—between US diplomatic pressure, pressure on the streets and from the business community—actually brought the prosecutor general around. The decision was overturned on appeal. 

But what it seems they really hadn't anticipated is that trying to sideline him that way was the greatest campaign ad that Bernardo Arévalo could have hoped for. Now, anybody in Guatemala who wasn't quite sure about him, who hadn't heard about him, now they knew all they needed to know about him: This was a no-BS, anti-corruption crusader, and if the people in power were this scared of him, he must be the real deal. So in the second round, just six weeks after the first, this guy who had been at 0.7 percent of the vote ended up with 61 percent of the national vote and 80 percent of the vote in Guatemala City, which is the dominant city in this country. It was this very quick ascent and nobody seemed more surprised by it than Bernardo Arévalo.

Mounk: Tell us a little bit about Bernardo Arévalo. Obviously it looks like he's a very courageous man. He appears to be principled, but it also sounds to me like the necessary scrutiny of him hasn't arrived because there hasn't been any time for it. Will he be able to reform a country that has deep-rooted corruption, serious problems of crime, that is in need of rapid economic growth? That is no mean task for somebody, no matter how experienced and well-intentioned they may be. What is your assessment of him as a political figure and as a political leader? 

Toro: His father was the first democratically-elected president of Guatemala back in 1945. Kind of a legendary figure in the center-left in Guatemala. The government that he started was eventually overthrown by a CIA-backed invasion in 1954, which is why Arévalo was born in exile.

He was born in Uruguay. He didn't set foot in Guatemala until he was a teenager, had a very urbane, international education, and speaks English, French, and Hebrew fluently. He went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. That's where he got his undergrad and then he has a PhD in sociology from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. So we're really talking about an academic and intellectual who later became a diplomat as well. He was Guatemalan ambassador to Spain for a few years. So he's very moderate. He's very smart, but he's a conciliatory figure (he's a guy who will try to have a conversation with anyone who you put in front of him) and an ur-institutionalist; we're very far from the populist way of doing politics in Latin America. In a way, he's kind of a throwback to the centrist politicians of Christian democracy in Latin America in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now, my first impression when I saw him at the head of this protest movement is this guy doesn't have any fight in him. They're gonna steamroll him because he's up against a bunch of crooks. But, as it's turned out, his very moderate conciliatory stance has ended up making the prosecutor general and the people around him look just hysterical and weird. And it ended up in a situation where Guatemalans were rallying around Arévalo's moderation. Polls that I was shown in Guatemala City when I was there a couple of weeks ago showed him at 75 to 80 percent approval in Guatemala right now. The country has embraced Bernardo Arévalo-style moderation. The really interesting thing about that also is that the prosecutor general, this very powerful figure who cannot be thrown out of office under Guatemala law, by the president or anyone else, is still deeply entrenched until 2026 when her term runs out.

Anywhere else in Latin America, this would have been a train crash. The president would have insisted on getting rid of her, whether legally or illegally. But that's not who Bernardo Arévalo is. Bernardo Arévalo's take is that if he has to cohabitate with this figure for the first two years of his presidency, well, that's just what the law is. And that's just what he's going to do. And I can't overstate how sort of un-Guatemalan and how un-Latin American this kind of institutionalism really is. It's a new thing, but it comes back to a phrase that he keeps using, which is “political pedagogy”: now we need to teach the political class a new way of doing politics. And the way we're going to do that is by example, by not acting the way that thugs have always acted in Latin American politics. Is this going to work?

There is a sense that the new government is in office, but not yet in power. And that goes back to this prosecutor general situation. The prosecutor general in Guatemala, that sounds like a minor office. It really isn't. It's sort of a co-equal branch of the state. The way the institutions are set up in Guatemala, if the prosecutor general wants to put you in jail and can find a judge who is friendly to her (which she can easily do, because they control all the appointments of the judges), she can make one phone call, write one brief and have anyone she wants jail. So there is a sense that so long as this cohabitation with Porras has to go on, at least until 2026, that there's a kind of loaded gun pointed at the government's head at all times. And so it doesn't necessarily feel quite real. Arévalo ran on that strongly anti-corruption platform, but he can't hold any corrupt people accountable yet because he doesn't control the prosecution.

Mounk: I want to understand why we've seen this democratic revival in Guatemala but not, by and large, in other countries in Central and South America. Is this just one of those stories in which agency matters more than structure, in which something had a very low probability of happening, but all the dominoes fell in exactly the right way and suddenly you get this democratic moment? Are there differences between Guatemala and countries like Venezuela, where you were raised and grew up, which you know very well, where attempts to stand up to the authoritarian government of Hugo Chávez and then his successor Maduro have failed?

How do we think about the significance of these events in a broader context, and what explains the contrast between the good news from Guatemala and the generally bad news from the broader region and, in a sense, the wider world?

Toro: That's a question that I've spent a lot of time pondering. I don't know if I have a good answer for it, but I think of it like this. When Hugo Chávez was first elected in Venezuela in 1998, I remember being vaguely embarrassed about what was happening in my country because he seemed like such a throwback. He had this discourse from the Cuban Revolution and he just sounded like someone out of the wrong decade. But over the next ten years, as more and more populists got elected first in places like Brazil and Honduras, and later, eventually, places like the United States, I came to realize how wrong that had been. Chavez wasn't a throwback. He was ahead of his time. He was pointing to something that was just beginning to bloom across the region and around the world. 

All I can say about Arévalo is that he also feels like a throwback to a different time, to a more moderate time, when centrists could just be centrist. And he does seem out of time now because he's the first one. But it might be that the region starts to see a shift in the pendulum towards that kind of position. Maybe, hopefully, if the stars line up right, 20 years from now we will look at Arévalo as the first and not the last of his kind.

You might expect, with Arévalo being a white guy from the city, that the protests would have been mostly city-based, but that's not what happened. What happened was that one particular indigenous group, the K'iche’ Maya people of Totonicapán, which is about 200 kilometers west of Guatemala City, decided to bring their people to Guatemala City and they started to get buses together, mostly old yellow school buses that probably came down from the United States after the end of their useful life there. They set up this protest encampment outside the prosecutor general's office that lasted three weeks. We're talking about thousands of people from Totonicapán living and sleeping out in the open, eating out of communal kitchens that had been set up by volunteers from Catholic charities or university activists. 

And it became a nationwide phenomenon. It became this moment of real social transformation. It became the moment when this went from being purely a political story to being a story about Guatemalans seeing themselves in a new and different way and feeling empowered to face the police, to face the prosecutor general, to face these forces in their society that had been stealing from them for 30 years. 

At this point, he is president purely because of the indigenous protests. I can't think of another president in Latin American history who owes more of his power to indigenous mobilization than Bernardo Arévalo, not even a guy like Evo Morales in Bolivia, who actually was indigenous and who headed an indigenous movement. Not even him. 

Mounk: Tell us a little bit about what the situation is in some of the American countries. Venezuela is a country that I followed closely for a while and this is close to my heart even though I've never had the chance to go there. It just seems like the situation is going from bad to worse to even worse. And yet the Maduro regime appears relatively stable. 

How is it possible for a political movement that started with genuine hopes, under Hugo Chávez, that claimed to want to make the country fairer and more affluent to deteriorate to such an extent that a very large percentage of the population has left, the living standards have collapsed, and yet keep control?

Toro: Yeah, those things are clearly related. What happened in Venezuela is that this generation that I spent two decades chronicling, that had fought the regime, that was on the street facing down riot cops and getting tear gassed and getting roughed up and thrown into jail, at a certain point switched from fight to flight: those kids that were facing down the cops seven years ago are making their way up through Central America, through Guatemala (I saw a lot of Venezuelan migrants in Guatemala City when I was there, which was shocking) and making their way up to the Rio Grande and ending up—well, I'm sure if you live in a big city in the US, you see the Venezuelan encampments. They're the same people. So if you export your protesters, well, what's left behind in Venezuela is this crisis of the empty rooms: Every house, every apartment, every shack in Venezuela has an empty room now because people who were sleeping there have left. It stabilizes the country because now you have remittances: These people who end up in the US or in Chile or Peru or wherever it is, they get a job and they send money back. The economy isn't going to grow, but it's at least stabilized and people aren't starving.

So, I mean, it's very sad, but Venezuela shouldn't be mistaken as the future of Latin America or even the present of Latin America. Venezuela and Nicaragua are strange outliers. The broader trend in the region is that there isn't a broader trend. You have countries going left, like Brazil, you see Mexico going in this strange direction that is somehow right-wing and nationalist but also left-wing at the same time. You see Argentina in the hands of a libertarian lunatic, and El Salvador in the hands of a very strange new type of sort of millennial dictator. 

We'd like to be able to summarize the region, but these really are a bunch of different countries with different histories and different dynamics inside each one. I think you have many, many different countries going in different directions, some moving forward, some moving backwards—though all of them arguably are really exposed to commodity markets (as it's always been, because Latin America mostly exports commodities).

Mounk: I buy the point that there's no general trend, but let's double-click on a few of those figures because I think that my audience will profit from hearing a little bit more about each of them. So let's go and we'll see if I get my geography right. Roughly north to south, one neighbor of Guatemala is Mexico. And it seems to me that this is one of the more significant political figures—certainly in Latin America and more broadly in the world at the moment—that Americans, despite being close to the country, know very little about it. (There was a remarkable moment in the 2020 Democratic Party primaries, where a number of the candidates that were still in the race at the time were asked to name the president of Mexico, and I think not a single one of them was able to do that). 

And yet, AMLO—who is coming to the end of his time in office but is likely to be succeeded by a hand-picked successor and to continue to exercise a lot of power in the country, perhaps be the real power in the country—is an important figure. Tell us a little bit about AMLO, about his political ideology and about how he's been transforming Mexico and undermining democratic institutions.

Toro: AMLO is a very strange political animal and very hard to get a read on if you're not Mexican—or even if you are Mexican, as I found out. His roots are in the old Partido Revolucionario Institucional that ran Mexico as a one-party state for 70 years up until the year 2000. That's where he got his start in politics. This was known as a “perfect dictatorship” because they always won the elections, though the elections were not fair and the entire country was run as a one-party state. This seems to be, I think, AMLO's real ideology. He wants to recreate the old PRI system. After he left PRI, after 2000, he spent a stint on the left and he tried to recraft himself as a figure on the left. But I think in power, what he's shown is that he still basically sees Mexico as a place that should be run by a single political machine forever. And that machine should be his machine, run by the party he came up with, which he called MORENA, whose ideology I cannot enlighten you on, Yascha, because I don't get it. There's resource nationalism and a lot of emphasis on sovereignty and baiting the Americans and anyone else who tries to tell Mexico how to do their work, then also taking some left-wing positions, but then getting very cozy with the business elite as well. 

His chosen successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, is an interesting personage. She's an intellectual. She is a chemist, I think, with a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley—so an actual scientist, brutally smart as far as anyone can tell. But her entire political persona, since she came into politics, has consisted entirely in shadowing AMLO, doing whatever AMLO says and not allowing any daylight to come between her and AMLO. So is she going to be a stooge once she reaches power (which she will, she's 20 points ahead in the polls) orr is she going to be her own woman? We don't know. There's been many cases in Latin American politics over the last 50 years of people who were handpicked to become a stooge in power and then decided, “No, you know what? I want to be my own president.” So that'll be really interesting to watch. But it's very hard to read. Mexico has every problem that a country could have. None of the problems are better now than when AMLO took power four years ago. And he is incredibly popular in Mexico. Somebody explain it to me, please.

Mounk: I won't explain it to you, and nor, sadly, will anyone else on this podcast. But I want to go south, leapfrogging Guatemala to a small country on the southwestern borders of Guatemala, El Salvador. 

Bukele has just won reelection in the country. Tell us about Bukele and how you worried at one point, I remember, that he would become really the model for every other would-be ruler in Latin America. What has made Bukele so successful in political terms and in terms of increasing public safety in his country? What are the reasons to worry about Bukele and his authoritarian methods? And has he, in fact, proven to be the inspiration for political leaders in other parts of Latin America, or has that not yet transpired?

Toro: There's a lot there. Bukele doesn't pretend to be a democrat, which is already a very bad sign in my book. He's very clear that he intends to be president for life and he's only in his 30s now. So that could be a very long time. He patterns himself very explicitly on Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore. So what's interesting about Bukele is that in the region we have lots of experience with clueless, useless, thuggish authoritarian rulers. What we have less experience with is authoritarian rulers who have a knack for technocracy, who have a knack for running the country effectively and who get results for voters. So that's what's strange about Bukele is that when he decided to crack down on the gangs that were making Salvadorans’ lives miserable, he did it effectively. And so his popularity shot up in El Salvador, which was one of the most dangerous places in the world. So it's entirely normal that he would become so popular. He just won reelection in an election that was so far from free and fair with no freedom of speech, no real freedom to organize against him, that I don't think we can really call that an election. But the interesting thing is that if the election had been fair, he would have won anyway. But he doesn't believe in democracy. 

Odds on, what generally happens with leaders like Bukele is that they start out doing things that people like. And then when they start doing things that people don't like, people realize, “Oh, he's instituted an authoritarian system. Now we can't get rid of him.” That's the most likely thing. There are black swan events like the original Lee Kuan Yew, who was incredibly effective, so effective that people more or less gave him a pass on his early human rights abuses. That could be the future of El Salvador. But I don't worry that there will be twenty Bukeles in Latin America, because thuggish, authoritarian people are generally not good at actually governing, so it's very hard to find the people to become the next Bukeles. But what I'm concerned about is people claiming to be successors to Bukele. We see a little bit of that in Ecuador now.

Mounk: If you go a little bit further south and mostly east, you end up in Brazil. Listeners of the podcast will have followed Jair Bolsonaro and his presidency. He was often called the “Trump of the tropics”—that was, I think, an oversimplification, but certainly Bolsonaro was in certain ways inspired by Trump and emulated that brand of far-right populism. He was defeated at the last elections by a broad coalition spearheaded by Lula and he appears to have become much less relevant in Brazilian politics, because he has somewhat lost control over the sort of right-wing coalition. Now, he may in fact be prosecuted for some of his actions in doubting the outcome of the election. 

But how durable is this new settlement in Brazil? It is a deeply divided society, deeply divided between north and south, between the rich and the less affluent, and between the secular Brazilians and those who are both deeply Catholic and, increasingly, a very high percentage of Brazilians who are evangelical.

Is Lula, who's getting on in age as well, going to be able to hold together that more left-leaning coalition, or what is the future of Brazilian politics?

Toro: You have to start by saying that Bolsonaro didn't get in trouble for doubting the election. He got in trouble for organizing a coup d'etat and keeping minutes. This is sort of like that Wire meme: “are you taking notes on a criminal conspiracy?” Yes, they were taking notes on a criminal conspiracy and Brazilian justice seems to be coming down rather hard against that. I think there's a very clear parallel between Bolsonaro and Trump both in their ideology and the way they behaved after they lost the election. And I don't think American justice is looking great by comparison to Brazilian justice in the way that it's dealt with this. When evidence was forthcoming that Bolsonaro had tried to overthrow the government, institutions acted quickly. They seized his passport. He cannot leave the country and he will, odds on, end up in jail, which is where he belongs.

Lula in his third term (he spent two terms in power back at the beginning of the aughts) is really outperforming, I think, everybody's expectations: He has managed to pass tax reform, which in Brazil was long assumed to be impossible. It had the world's most complicated and worst tax code and needed simplification desperately. Lula did it. He seems to be hanging on to a working majority in Congress without bribing everybody (which was his strategy the first time around). That's why he ended up in jail for a while between his stints in power. Lula had demonstrated during his first two terms in power that he had a level of comfort with the corruption in the Brazilian state that was really off-putting to a lot of us. And when he won again, “I really had this sense like, oh God, no, it's just gonna be more Lula-style corruption.” So far it doesn't seem that that's the way he's governing this time. Maybe that year-and-change that he spent in jail had a salutary effect; maybe you should just throw all former Latin American presidents in jail for a year if they want to come back into power. That might do some good. The Brazilian economy is also doing better and Lula is more popular than had been assumed. So Brazil is on a really interesting path and Lula has done quite a bit to redeem himself from the sins of his first two terms in office.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.