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Political upheaval in Guatemala


WORLD Radio - Political upheaval in Guatemala

Guatemala’s president-elect faces obstacles to uprooting political corruption

Demonstrators protest in front of the Attorney General's office in Guatemala City. Associated Press/Photo by Santiago Billy

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: political upheaval in Guatemala.

Like many countries in the region, Guatemala is plagued by gang violence and political corruption, but the winner of a recent presidential election aimed to change that.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Back in August, a majority of voters elected Bernardo Arevalo to be president on an anti-corruption platform.

But since then, Guatemala’s attorney general has attempted to alter the results of the election and block Arevalo from taking office in January.

BROWN: How have Guatemalans responded to the chaos, and what does it mean for the stability of life in Central America more broadly?

WORLD Associate Correspondent Noah Burgdorf recently visited Guatemala, and he brings us the story, with protest sound courtesy of the Associated Press.


NOAH BURGDORF, ASSOCIATE CORRESPONDENT: For the past three weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have crowded the streets of Guatemala, waving signs and demanding the resignation of the Attorney General, Consuelo Porras.

JOSE ARMEZ: There are communities all over the country protesting, blocking roads, and threatened to block the airport if some of the parties don't quit from the actual government.

Jose Armez was born and raised in Zone 18, the most dangerous neighborhood of Guatemala City. He’s watched corrupt politicians and presidents come and go…and thinks these protests won’t get Porras out of office.

President-elect Bernardo Arevalo is the son of Juan Jose Alevaro, the first Guatemalan president to be democratically elected. And Bernardo is looking to follow in his father’s footsteps in office.

But his victory in the recent runoff raised eyebrows.

STEVE SWYUWLKA: Two days before the elections, he was polling at 2.2%. And he jumped up to 9% to get into the runoff.

Steve Swyuwlka is a missionary in Guatemala City and is a director for TGN Radio—a Christian radio station. He explains that while Attorney General Porras sees the jump in the polls as evidence of foul play, there may be a simpler explanation.

SWYUWLKA: Most of his campaign was on social media and apparently, a lot of young people who were not represented in the polls were the ones that voted for him.

Porras has used Arevalo’s unexpected win to cast suspicion on the election’s validity. She has illegally raided polling stations and suspended Arevalo’s political party from engaging in Congress weakening his authority as president before he can even take office.

Dr. Eduardo Gamarra is a professor of political and international relations at Florida International University and he says this sort of political unrest is typical for Guatemala.

EDUARDO GAMARRA: Guatemala has had a long, long process of, let us say, corrupt politics, right? The promise of the new, let's say the President Elect, is that he will wipe out corruption. And the sincerity of his promise, of course, is one that we won't see until he actually tries to tries to implement his campaign pledges.

But Guatemala’s pattern of political corruption will be difficult to wipe out.

ARMEZ: Every president who has come has literally sold the country. Sold land, did business, dirty business with other countries and the last person, the last ones they think about is the people of Guatemala.

For years, gangs have taken advantage of Guatemala’s political corruption and dysfunction. And now control entire sections of cities, where they push drugs and extort people for money.

SWYULKA: They extort the corner store owner, the taxi driver, I mean, it's not they don't extort the big corporations because they can defend themselves. The people that suffer are the little people.

On top of that, there’s enormous social pressure for kids to join gangs. For kids growing up in a country with a poverty rate of almost 60%, a gang promising protection, food, and community is hard to resist. Gangs start recruiting as young as 10 years old and offer three options: join, leave their territory, or die.

Armez has outlived nearly everyone he grew up with and thinks that gang activity comes from a lack of role models.

ARMEZ: It's just because of the fact that a lot of the parents are either absent or in prison or, you know, just dead.

But Armez hasn’t given up hope that his country can change. He believes that the nearby country of El Salvador can be a model of revitalization through education and limiting gang activity.

ARMEZ: I want to see that children don't have to get involved in gangs. So if a president will come and fight the fight he has chosen to do, I am convinced that we will have some change in our country but no one has done that. Few have promised but no one has come through with any of their promises.

In an attempt to boost public safety, El Salvador has arrested over 72,000 suspected gang members since 2019 and allocated 250 million dollars to schools. Guatemalans think it’s possible to institute similar improvements in their country, but experts like Eduardo Gamarra aren’t so sure.

GAMARRA: But the real problem with approaches like that, is there longevity? How long can those programs go on? And especially in contexts where presidents like Arevalo will be will have a minority in Congress and won't have the enormous political muscle that that somebody like, like Bukele has in El Salvador.

The Guatemalan public support for Arevalo has only increased through the Attorney General’s attempt to block him. but that won’t be enough to establish his authority.

GAMARRA: You know, unless they find a way to move forward, right, and allow Arevalo to take office, I think you know the situation there is going to be kind of problematic there for the next few months.

Attorney General Consuelo Porras has until November 1st to compile evidence to overturn the election. But until then, the protests continue and threaten to become more violent.

Reporting from Guatemala City, I’m Noah Burgdorf.

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