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Guatemalan Elite Tries to Overturn Democracy, But Anti-Corruption Candidate to Stay in Runoff Election

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In Guatemala, election officials have rejected an attempt by the ruling business and political elite to overturn the results of last month’s first round of the presidential election. Sandra Torres, the former first lady, accused of corruption, and her allies challenged the results of June’s first-round elections, which saw the progressive, anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo win second place and force a runoff. On Thursday, an electoral court said the final results of the first round had not changed after the review. Protests erupted in Guatemala City after the review suspended certification of election results. “It was really difficult for us to compete in this election, and now they are saying we manipulated the results,” says Samuel Pérez Álvarez, a Guatemalan congressmember who leads the progressive political party Movimiento Semilla. “​​This regime is not only corrupt, but authoritarian.” The runoff election will be held in August between Torres and Arévalo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to major developments in Guatemala, where election officials have rejected an attempt by the ruling business and political elite of Guatemala to overturn the results of last month’s first round of the presidential election. The race is heading to a runoff August 20th between the former first lady, Sandra Torres, and the progressive, anti-corruption candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, who’s also a member of Guatemala’s Congress.

The review of ballots came after the party of Sandra Torres, who’s been accused of corruption, and her allies challenged the results of June’s first round of elections. A spokesperson for Guatemala’s electoral court said in an interview with Reuters Thursday the final results of the first-round election have not changed after the review and will officially be released next week. But the elite sector still refused to accept the results, as fear mounts they’ll continue to interfere in the election, leading up to the runoff.

Protests erupted in Guatemala City earlier this week after the Constitutional Court suspended the certification of the results, which put Bernardo Arévalo of the Semilla party, which “Semilla” means “Seed,” in second place, sending him to that presidential runoff against Sandra Torres, the front-runner. Rights groups denounced the court’s decision as anti-democratic. This is an attorney for the Semilla party.

JUAN GUERRERO: [translated] What is clear is that the slogan of the official party, supported by parties close to the ruling party, is to manage to open as many boxes as possible that will allow them to declare the electoral process null and void so that the election can be repeated.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernardo Arévalo is the son of the former Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected president. He pushed for revolutionary social reforms when he was in office from ’45 to ’51. Bernardo Arévalo spoke to supporters in Guatemala City after the first round of the election led to his surprise second-place finish.

BERNARDO ARÉVALO: [translated] We will fight corruption, because if we do not fight corruption, we will not achieve development and fight poverty. … The persecution of the press is a symptom of the deterioration that this country is suffering under this authoritarian regime. We will fight persecution of the press and harassment of anyone of their ideas or dissent. We will guarantee freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of protest.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Guatemala City, where we’re joined by Samuel Pérez Álvarez, Guatemalan congressmember who was secretary general of the progressive Guatemalan political party Semilla. He was elected to Guatemala’s Congress in 2020.

Welcome to Democracy Now! So, there’s all sorts of internecine squabbles within the ruling political and business elite right now. First, were you shocked by your own candidate coming in second? And can you talk about what this means for Guatemala and if you expect, though it is expected that the elite will seek further recounts, annulment, that this runoff will happen on August 20th?

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Yes, of course, we were surprised by the results. But it was logical that all these elites and this, like, corruption regime were going to give fight against us, because this review of the ballot, it was just an excuse, because they were saying that we manipulated the results in order to commit fraud. But it was impossible for us to do that, because we have no economic resources. We didn’t have candidates all over the country. And we are relatively a new political party. So it was really difficult for us to compete in this election, and now they are saying that we manipulated the results. So, it was game-changing for Guatemalan political perspective. It is the first time that this happens.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what Semilla represents and what it would mean if Bernardo Arévalo became president of Guatemala, what he ran on, his platform?

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Well, we are a social democratic party. But we have some priorities, that maybe that scares some political elites or economic elites. We have some priorities that will take us, well, some time to solve here in Guatemala, because we have, like — this democracy, it isn’t at its best. So, the first thing is that we are going to fight against corruption, and that means, like, a big administrative reform of the state. The second thing is having a market that works for all. So, we plan to pass the first antitrust legislation in the history of Guatemala. And that is breaking all this market concentration, monopolies and everything, and market imperfections. So, that is maybe the most scary things for economic elites here in Guatemala. And the third thing is a massive investment in health, in education, social security and public services.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history of U.S. intervention and how that has led to where we are today? We were just mentioning that Bernardo Arévalo’s father, Juan José Arévalo, first democratically elected president of Guatemala, what, from ’45 to ’51. In ’54, 1954, the U.S., backing United Fruit, overthrew the Guatemalan president, Árbenz, leading to a number of military regimes, the massacres of people, particularly Indigenous in the northwest highlands of Guatemala. And how that has brought us to today, to Giammattei, the current president, who we just heard Bernardo Arévalo talking about the authoritarian government, and what you think needs to change, and particularly what should the U.S. be doing, what role the U.S. should be playing?

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Well, yes, it is important for us, because Juan José Arévalo was the first democratically elected president here in Guatemala. He won against a regime of military dictatorships. And now Bernardo will win against a regime of corruption dictatorship. I think that we have historical justice and Guatemalan people on our side. And we know that we have a social democratic legacy, but we are now looking forward. And we are expecting to have a pacific but strong government against corruption and authoritarian ways. But we know that we have now a polarized society, and it is time to put an end to that.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about Giammattei when it comes to corruption, I mean, when you have what is known as the pactos corruptos, the political and business ruling elite in Guatemala, how they’ve banned presidential candidates? It seems like they didn’t bother to ban Bernardo Arévalo because they never realized he would come in second, leading to this runoff against the former first lady, Sandra Torres.

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Well, actually — well, I’m not sure if Giammattei’s presidency is the most corrupt president in history, but it sure is the most shameless. They have no legitimacy, no social nor economic results for the people, not even the intention to solve them some minor problems. So, it’s all about two things for them: stealing everything they could, and seeking for impunity by selecting and protecting their judges. Semilla arises, actually, from a wave of protest against corruption and all the authoritarian ways. We have been speaking up in Congress against this political persecution, and which we have been victims in the past also, and in favor of freedom of speech and many other human rights. So, it’s very important for us, this election.

AMY GOODMAN: Can I ask you about the attacks on activists, on opposition, also on the press, the El Periódico, the founder, José Rubén Zamora, just sentenced to six years in prison, and what this means, the Guatemalan court in June convicting him of money laundering in what rights groups have condemned as a trumped-up case, part of a crackdown on press freedom? Zamora, founder and president of this investigative journalism website.

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Yes, it is because this regime is not only corrupt, but authoritarian. So, it’s not the first symptom of this authoritarian regime getting to power, because we have no freedom of speech. They, like, buy all these congressmen and congresswomen in Congress, so there is no, like, republican balances, check and balances, here in Guatemala. So, it is not only a political saying that we are living in a corruption dictatorship. So we have to put an end to that, because we have a really polarized society, and it is because of political decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how corruption and this authoritarianism leads to greater migration, and the role of the U.S. when it comes to shoring up the Guatemalan government in exchange for stopping that migration?

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Well, actually, some of the consequences of this corruption elite leading the country is that they do not have any plan for anything but for stealing public money. So, the economic strategy is not working for anyone here in Guatemala, so the consequences are migration, but also the increases of violence, of inequality, of poverty. So, every time we measure poverty, it’s every time higher. And that is also political decisions. So that is why they have no legitimacy in power. So, they might have the Constitutional Court, the electoral authority, the Congress, the executive power, but they do not have the most important majority, which is the people’s majority.

AMY GOODMAN: And there have been protests around the political and government elite trying to head off this runoff, stop Arévalo from running. Are you concerned about them initiating street violence?

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: The street violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Violence in the streets.

SAMUEL PÉREZ ÁLVAREZ: Yes, well, maybe, because I am not sure if they are going to win this point, because people are not supporting. Actually, I think the review of these ballots, it was their second plan, their secondary plan. It has came out for them everything will be different now, but it was a big failure for them. It was, I would say, humiliating for them, because in the public eye, with all the media watching and our brave teams fighting for a thorough review, we ended up having more votes than we were, like, originally announced. And it wasn’t a lot, but a couple of thousand of votes that they typed wrong. So we are now stronger than ever. So I’m not sure if they’re going to be, like, stopping Bernardo from running for the second round.

AMY GOODMAN: Samuel Pérez Álvarez, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Guatemalan congressmember, head of the progressive political party Semilla. Of course, we’ll continue to follow what happens this summer.

Next up, it’s the 10th anniversary of the coup in Egypt that ousted its first democratically elected president. We’ll speak with Shadi Hamid about “Lessons for the Next Arab Spring.” Stay with us.

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