GUATEMALA CITY — Bernardo Arévalo, the surprise candidate in Guatemala’s first round of presidential elections, says the choice in the country’s Aug. 20 runoff is clear: continue to live under a corrupt system with his rival, or rebuild the country’s democracy with him. .
In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, the Social Democratic lawmaker said he believes his anti-corruption message resonated with voters. Now he just needs many more Guatemalans to listen to him.
Her rival, Sandra Torres, was the top vote-getter on Sunday in a field of nearly two dozen presidential hopefuls and Arévalo came in second with neither garnering enough votes to win outright, setting up the second round between them.
But their vote totals were so low that they fell below nearly 1 million null ballots cast by disenchanted voters, meaning both candidates have work to do to expand their support.
There is no shortage of Guatemalans desperate to see someone bring down the country’s corrupt power structures. For Arévalo, that means spreading his message beyond urban youth, who in particular supported him in the first round of elections.
“We believe that today there has been an awakening, we are awakening hope and conviction in the people,” said the 64-year-old diplomat and legislator.
He explained that if he wins the presidency, the executive branch will cease to be the source of “that fundamental lubricant of the corrupt system.” Instead, his administration would focus on fighting corruption and taking back co-opted institutions.
The government of President Alejandro Giammattei has weaponized the Attorney General’s Office, going after critics and the very prosecutors and judges who had previously fought Guatemala’s corrupt networks of politicians, business elites and drug traffickers.
Arevalo said he would bring back some 35 lawyers, prosecutors and judges who went into exile to escape persecution by the Giammattei government. Together with them, he will create a strategy to rebuild the justice system and resume the fight against corruption.
He calls for the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras -sanctioned by the US government as a corrupt actor- and with the help of former justice workers he wants to create a National Anti-Corruption System.
“If we want to continue living under the reign of corruption, vote for Sandra Torres,” Arévalo said. “We want to have the opportunity to restore the institutions to have a decent government.”
“This message permeated, this message generated, it aroused hope, it mobilized people fed up with corruption,” he said. “Now what we have to do is expand to reach more people, get more people to listen to it, convince themselves that there is an opportunity and move on.”
If he wins on August 20, he admitted that the path of his administration will not be easy. He would be up against an opposition congress controlled by some of the very people he accuses of populating the corrupt system.
But Arévalo said he was willing to make alliances with sectors that accept his principles and are unequivocal in their opposition to corruption.
“When we have met with businessmen who have some doubts, after speaking very frankly they tell us, ‘well, we feel very comfortable with your proposals,’” he said.
Arévalo is the son of Juan José Arévalo, one of only two left-wing presidents in Guatemala’s democratic era.
Father Arévalo, who ruled from 1945 to 1951, is credited with establishing the fundamental elements of Guatemalan democracy that remain in force today, including its labor code and social security.
In 2019, the son won a congressional seat for the Seed Movement, which he had helped found. He was previously a career diplomat, serving as Guatemala’s ambassador to Spain and vice minister of foreign affairs in the administration of President Ramiro de León Carpio in the mid-1990s.
Arévalo is already seeing how the opposition will paint him: a communist, a foreigner, he was born in Uruguay but he is Guatemalan.
“What we are seeing is people who feel like control of the state is slipping out of their hands and they are starting to use those old scare tactics that they have historically used to scare people for decades,” he said. “They are just attempts to distract people.”
His administration would attack corruption so it can begin to get to the root of Guatemala’s problems like the poverty that drives tens of thousands of Guatemalans to immigrate to the United States each year.
“The migration problem in Guatemala is a development problem,” he said. “How can we not have migration to the United States when we have a state that does not give people a future?”
“Guatemala has once again become a pariah nation,” he said.