Guatemalan presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo: ‘We are catalyzing a change that was seeking a form of expression’

In an interview with EL PAÍS, the Movimiento Semilla leader, who has a comfortable lead in the polls ahead of Sunday’s elections, proposes ‘re-founding’ a system hijacked ‘by the corrupt political class’

Bernardo Arévalo de León
The presidential candidate of the political party Movimiento Semilla, Bernardo Arévalo de León, during an interview in Guatemala, on August 17, 2023.SANDRA SEBASTIAN
Lorena Arroyo

In a region — and world — in which citizen frustration generally translates into anti-establishment politicians who shout a lot and deliver inflammatory messages, Bernardo Arévalo de León, 64, the great surprise of the Guatemalan elections, goes against the tide. In a calm but firm voice, he condemns the corruption that is eroding Guatemalan institutions. Now, the Movimiento Semilla [Seed Movement] candidate is poised to win the presidential elections this Sunday.

He has reached this point without promising miracles, warning that he does not have a “magic wand” to solve the problems of a country in which about 60% of its 17.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. But he has committed to vigorously opposing the corruption that takes much of Guatemala’s resources and prevents progress. According to Arévalo, that will be the starting point for pursuing development. “We believe that democratic institutions must be reestablished. We have to re-found the process that this corrupt political class has hijacked from us,” he says.

Driven mainly by urban professionals, Arévalo’s party emerged in the heat of the 2015 anti-corruption protests. After his unexpected second place finish in the first round of elections, the Movimiento Semilla candidate has confronted legal persecution, in the face of which he has not only prospered but judging by the polls and popular support in the streets, he seems to have grown stronger. His rival in the August 20 presidential election is former first lady Sandra Torres, of the National Unity of Hope (UNE); in her third run for the presidency, she has set aside her social democratic origins to embrace more conservative positions, on the basis of which she is attacking Arévalo.

Among other lines of attack, Torres is slamming the Semilla candidate for his foreign origins; Bernardo Arévalo was born in Uruguay, where his father, former Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), had to go into exile. He believes that such attacks are “childish, a sign of desperation.” He adds that “it’s an example of how they don’t know what to say anymore and need to latch onto anything. That’s why we don’t even react.” The candidate greets EL PAÍS on Thursday, just three days before the second round of the elections, at his campaign headquarters on the first floor of a house in Zone 9 of Guatemala City. There, he is surrounded by young people (most of whom are under 35 years old), a legion of “Uncle Bernie’s nieces and nephews,” as his followers call themselves. These youths have managed to bring new generations of Guatemalans closer to the quiet sociologist through social media like TikTok.

Question. The most recent poll gives you a 30-point lead over your opponent. Do you already feel like the president-elect of Guatemala?

Answer. We’re not here to win polls, we’re here to win elections, so we will know on Sunday night [if and how] we won. Of course, [the poll] gives us a lot of satisfaction. We believe that it reflects what we are now seeing in the streets, because now when one goes around the country, to rallies.... I had to do something at a business and I had to go through part of the mall to get there, and the attitude, the response, the enthusiasm, is something remarkable; but victory is not [achieved] until the day of the election. Also… the [corrupt political class] will try every dirty trick in the book [to stop me] and invent new ones, too.

Bernardo Arévalo speaks with his team at his campaign headquarters.
Bernardo Arévalo speaks with his team at his campaign headquarters.SANDRA SEBASTIAN

Q. If you win, you know that governing is not going to be easy, as this campaign has demonstrated. How are you going to deal with the attacks that are likely to come?

A. They are trying to do everything they can, but they are resorting to illegal tactics. That is the problem of the corrupt co-optation of the State, where institutions of justice are used to do illegal things, but at the same time they are [still] illegal things, and that is their weakness. They tried to do it after June 25, and it did not work. We know that they will continue trying, but we are calm. We are going to resort to all legal means, but more importantly the population is tired of this. After June 25, without anyone organizing, coordinating, requesting it... there was wall-to-wall [action] from the organized private sector to the indigenous populations, [and] the indigenous leadership organizations, who came out saying: “No, the elections have to be on August 20, and they have to be between the two [candidates] who won [the first round of the elections].” So, we see this weariness as [our] major defense against corrupt actors’ attempts to violate the State and do whatever they want.

Q. Have you thought about a scenario in which you win but your party is stripped of its legal standing?

A. That is what they want to do. That is [their] intention, and they’ve made no bones about it, but we don’t believe they are going to succeed.

Q. You talk about listening to and supporting Guatemalans. What have you learned from traveling around the country during your campaign? Your opponent accuses you of not being from Guatemala, of not knowing it.

A. I have learned two things: that what she knows of the country is the corruption that we have to get rid of. She says: “I have experience,” but it is the [type of] experience that we do not need. What I have learned is that the country has changed. Because what we are seeing is not that we created the change. We are catalyzing a change that had already occurred and that was seeking a form of expression. That is the hope. That is the illusion. That is the people’s enthusiastic desire to get out of the system of corruption, a generalized weariness, but it had no way of expressing itself. Then, suddenly it found a way to express it and affirms itself around that. We know that when we are standing on a stage in the interior of the country, it is not Semilla and Bernardo Arévalo. People are thinking “we can really get [away from the corruption].” This is the country, this is the opportunity to get rid of the corrupt [officials], and I think that is what we are doing.

Q. Is the party worried about getting people’s hopes up and then not being able to meet the major challenges that lie ahead?

A. We know that we are awakening hope, but we are very clear about what we are awakening, essentially [it is] the hope of having authorities that serve the population, and we are going to guarantee that. At least in the executive branch, which is what we [would] control, we are going to make the institutions start working and do what they were created to do. That is why we have announced ten anti-corruption measures, but fundamentally, what people will start to see is that they are no longer doing business behind [the people’s] back, they are no longer working behind close doors when the people ask for transparency, they are no longer making pacts with the usual corrupt actors to do this kind of business, and that alone will give people the sense that things are changing. And then, we have to put the institutions to work. And our task is to identify those results… that make people feel that things are moving [in the right direction]. We always say: “We do not have a magic wand.” The country’s problems are not going to be solved in four years, but we can start to do it and that is what we have to demonstrate.

Q. If you are elected president, what is the first measure you’ll enact?

A. We will lower the president’s salary, which is absurd in this country. But we actually have a plan, and we have a long six-month transition. That transition period will be used precisely to create detailed plans of action to guarantee that we begin to have those early results that are going to show the people that we are not here to lie to them in the elections… that we are here to put the institutions to work.

Bernardo Arévalo de León, the Movimiento Semilla presidential candidate, with his work team in Guatemala on August 17, 2023.
Bernardo Arévalo de León, the Movimiento Semilla presidential candidate, with his work team in Guatemala on August 17, 2023.SANDRA SEBASTIÁN

Q. When we spoke in June after the first round, you told us that you were not against businesspeople and that you wanted to make alliances with medium and small businesses. But you told me that you were against CACIF [the main business chamber] for having “positioned itself as the underpinning of the economy of privilege.” You have had conversations with the employers’ association. How did those talks go?

A. There have been changes in CACIF management, there have been changes in the management of some chambers [of commerce], and we have had a conversation with them, in which… I would say that we are against the economy of privilege, and that we want a competitive economy. The economy of privilege is the economy in which the success of a group or company depends on the level of contact or political clout it has with a powerful politician, with a minister, and we are definitely against that. Now, in terms of economic development, we are finding that there are many things that we can agree on, provided that we do not fall into an economy of privilege. And we are very clear that our objective is to support small and medium businesses, which create the largest number of jobs in the country — 80%.

And that is what we have been working on. We have had meetings with the private sector along with peasant organizations [and] trade unions… We are working with everyone, because we are certain that the corrupt politicians who have colonized the system, who have attained a majority in the national Congress, who are going to remain in their positions in the justice system, are not going to disappear overnight... We have to reestablish a formula for governance that includes all sectors and politicians who oppose corruption. And we have had very good conversations with all sectors.

Q. What would Bernardo Arévalo’s government bring to Central America? Who would you try to work more closely with in the region to strengthen the governance that is so lacking?

A. There are different issues in the region. One issue relates to the possibility of moving toward political integration, which has been broached since the origins of the Central American integration process. And there, we see that the path for that is closed off for the foreseeable future. It is not possible to move forward with a dictatorship like the one in Nicaragua in our midst. It is as simple as that, period. That means that we have to work at another level. We can move forward at the technical levels of integration, the integration of economies, of nations, of people. There is a lot of room there to reform integration’s institutional framework, to remove barriers and begin to build bridges [in anticipation of] the time when the political scenario can move forward.

We also intend to have the best framework for relations with the countries we share a border with. Because we have a common and joint task… With that clarity of purpose, we will work constructively on the issues that unite us, common problems and opportunities that we can work on and move forward on. We will not sacrifice our principles… Furthermore, we will expand and develop relations with all countries that feel comfortable working with a country that will not renounce the defense of democracy and the defense of human rights in its foreign policy.

The Movimiento Semilla campaign headquarters.
The Movimiento Semilla campaign headquarters.SANDRA SEBASTIAN

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