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A Turning Point in Guatemalan History: Bernardo Arévalo Wins in Landslide Rejection of Ruling Elite

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Image Credit: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

In Guatemala, progressive presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo has won a landslide victory in a runoff election against former first lady Sandra Torres. Arévalo, a member of the Semilla party, took nearly 60% of the vote Sunday after months of political persecution. In June, Arévalo stunned many in Guatemala when he placed second in the first round of voting after running on an anti-corruption platform. Soon after, the attorney general’s office suspended Arévalo’s Semilla party, and police raided their offices. In Guatemala City, we speak with Guatemalan human rights lawyer Frank LaRue and award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn about this historic election. LaRue and Nairn agree this election proves that Guatemalans want a change from the country’s history of corruption and military dictatorships, but the situation remains tense in the country as oligarchs will most likely attempt to disrupt Arévalo’s transition to power. “This could be the beginning of a turn in Guatemalan history,” says Nairn, who predicts the next phase of this election process will be people demonstrating popular support to force a transition of power. “They may have to take to the streets to defend the results of this vote.”

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AMY GOODMAN: In Guatemala, progressive presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo has won a landslide victory in a runoff election against former first lady Sandra Torres. Arévalo took nearly 60% of the vote Sunday in an historic election. Arévalo, who’s a member of the Semilla party, has vowed to fight corruption and push for social reforms. He addressed supporters last night.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BERNARDO ARÉVALO: [translated] Today, we accept with humility the victory the people of Guatemala gave us. The ballot boxes have spoken, and the Supreme Electoral Court, with 93.6 of the tally, has officially recognized the result. And what the people shout about is enough of so much corruption. …

We would like to think the convincing result of this election will make evident that any attempt to derail the electoral process will not take place. The people of Guatemala have forcibly spoken. Otherwise, get out to ask the people that are outside in an unprecedented act in our political history. We are calm because we know. Karin Herrera and I are out in front of you, because this has been the convincing decision of the people of Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: Bernardo Arévalo is the son of former President Juan José Arévalo, Guatemala’s first democratically elected leader, who pushed for revolutionary policies when he was in office from 1945 to 1951. Three years later, in 1954, the CIA backed a coup, putting an end to democracy in Guatemala.

Bernardo Arévalo’s victory comes after a tumultuous year in Guatemala, as the country’s ruling business and political elite took extraordinary measures to maintain its grip on power. Prior to the first round of voting, election authorities barred three prominent presidential candidates, including the Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera. Then, in June, Bernardo Arévalo stunned many in Guatemala when he placed second in the first round of voting, after running on an anti-corruption platform. Soon after, the attorney general’s office suspended Arévalo’s Semilla party, and police raided their offices. While Arévalo was allowed to keep running for president, he may still be blocked from becoming president.

We go now to Guatemala City, where we’re joined by two guests. Allan Nairn is an award-winning investigative journalist who’s reported on Guatemala since the 1980s. And Frank LaRue also joins us, a Guatemalan human rights activist and lawyer who confronted the Guatemalan military at the height of the terror of the 1980s and brought the first case of genocide against former Guatemalan military dictators, including General Ríos Montt. From 2008 to 2014, he served as U.N. special rapporteur.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Frank LaRue, let’s begin with you. Your response to Arévalo’s overwhelming victory last night?

FRANK LARUE: Well, thank you, Amy.

We are really delighted. Guatemala has had a sequency of very corrupt governments, but also tied to the military, to the misdealings with organized crime, it has been an absolute mess. And this has deteriorated the justice system progressively. So, all of a sudden, in having a small party, like Semilla, but with a wonderful history of honesty and tradition, brings about a new era of hope for Guatemala. Guatemalans really feel that the course of history is changing. And I think this is really important. And this is what they expressed in the vote. The time was ripe, because the crisis has deepened so much, especially in the current government under President Giammattei. So people were desperate for an opportunity of change. And as the electoral authorities eliminated other possibilities, Semilla became the only alternative for change. And today, people are welcoming them as the new government.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about the presidential candidate who won, Bernardo Arévalo, the son of the first democratically elected president of Guatemala. Can you talk about his rise to power right now and whether you think the political and government elite of Guatemala will actually let him take office?

FRANK LARUE: Well, this is going to be the big challenge. Bernardo is a very interesting man. He is an academic. He is a very well-trained statesman. But also he has been a diplomat, working for the foreign service of Guatemala, so he really knows the world, and he is a great analyst.

But the figure of his father also is very important. His father was, like you said, the first democratic president, that brought change to this country, the first labor code. The social security system was established. The new education system was established. So his father was a profound reformer, after the beginning of the century with many dictatorships. And I think the image of his father keeps on shining around him. He keeps on saying, “I’m not my father, but I’m trying to be honest to his memory and follow his path.” So I think this played a key role in the elections, as well.

But more importantly, Bernardo has been a member of Congress with his party, with a very small group of congressmen, for the last four years. And they have shown that they were above corruption, they were critics of everything else that was happening around, and they never sold out to any of the other corrupt political parties. So, this is what I think gave them the image of honesty, that they deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of whether he will be able to take office? Can you talk about the election commission and the kind of threats they have faced?

FRANK LARUE: Yes. The justice system in Guatemala has deteriorated progressively, especially since the past government expelled CICIG. CICIG was this commission of the U.N. supporting criminal investigations. And it was very successful, very successful to challenge high-level corruption and to challenge organized crime. But it was so successful that the ruling elite and those committed to corruption wanted to get rid of it. And effectively, they moved the past government to do so. And since they left, what they did is, with the support of a corrupt prosecutor general, they turned the justice system, the criminal justice system, around. And now the attorney general is prosecuting honest judges and honest prosecutors. We have many of them in exile at this moment, 20-something of them in Washington, D.C., because they had to flee this form of persecution.

The State Department has been very clear in its criticism of the attorney general and the Public Ministry. But now they were trying to use the Public Ministry to indict Arévalo and the party. But this cannot be done, because you cannot use criminal law to try to intervene in what is the area of electoral law. So, it was decided at the end that only the electoral tribunal could make a decision on any party. So they pushed back on the prosecutor general.

But now that the elections have ended and that Bernardo has been elected president, we’re sure that they will go after the party again. We believe they’re going to do two stages. Number one is they’re trying to dissolve the party, saying that it had false signatures in the establishment. There may be problems with some of the signatures, finding the right person, but it’s irrelevant in the amount of signatures. If a party presents 20,000, 25,000 signatures, the fact that you find 200, 300 doesn’t really matter. But they’re trying to do that, because the plan number one is to allow him to become president, and Karin Herrera vice president, but you would have a government without a party. So, they would not be able to really organize things in Congress or try to find followers of the party.

And plan number two is then to attack the members of the party on false charges of crime, including Bernardo and Karin. I mean, obviously, they have immunity for the position they have, but that immunity can eventually be lifted by Congress — or, by the Supreme Court, actually. And what they would do is they would try to initiate some investigation to keep the new government at bay all the time, or at least harassed by criminal law. This is truly the perfect example of lawfare in Guatemala. So, we believe that the way to defend Arévalo is to build as much as a massive support of population, like it did turn out for the vote in the elections.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Allan Nairn into this conversation, investigative journalist who’s won many awards for his coverage of Guatemala, and particularly of the U.S. involvement in the terror campaign in Guatemala that saw so many hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans killed since the 1980s. Start by talking about the significance of this election, Allan, and then go back in time, back to 1953, even before, because Bernardo Arévalo’s father was the first democratically elected president of Guatemala, then the U.S. CIA coup, and what this means for Guatemalan history.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I think this election was a referendum on the old regime, the old regime that was imposed when the U.S. invaded in '54 and overthrew the democracy that was just getting started with the presidencies first of Arévalo's father and then with his successor, Árbenz. What they were doing were things like basic land reform, social security, free speech, the idea of equal rights for farmworkers, laborers. And the oligarchs of Guatemala and of the United States, specifically President Eisenhower and the CIA, and specifically United Fruit, found this intolerable. They sent the CIA to invade. They overthrew the nascent democratic regime.

And they began an era of military dictators who worked on the principle that, first, basic human equality was unacceptable as a political program, and that, secondly, anyone who they imagined opposed them had to be killed. The military terror, backed by the United States, reached its peak in the early 1980s. There was a guerrilla movement in the mountains against the Army. The Army, by its own account, swept through the mountains, using a strategy developed in coordination with the U.S. military attaché at the time, Colonel George Maynes. Maynes himself described this to me. And as they swept through the mountains, they wiped out, by their own count, 662 rural Indigenous villages. They did this at the orders of the military dictators, particularly General Lucas and General Ríos Montt, and later General Mejía, and they did it with the full support of the United States.

At the end, the wealth of the oligarchs was preserved. After the ’90s, there was a series of nominally elected governments, but which gave no opportunity for social change. But now, for the first time, that whole regime, that whole regime that started with the overthrow of democracy and went on to include genocide, has now been repudiated by the Guatemalan public in the first chance they really got to vote on it. And this could be the beginning of a turn in Guatemalan history.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of it being Bernardo Arévalo in this historic role? And you were there for the first primary, with Bernardo Arévalo coming in second, and now this one, where he really swept. Whether you believe he will be able to take office?

ALLAN NAIRN: It’s not clear yet. And it’s really up to people here to decide whether that happens. In a way, the vote and the votes which they cast yesterday were the first stage of the referendum, and they supported the idea repudiating the old regime by roughly a 60-40 margin, but now the second stage begins. As Frank just detailed, the what they call the pacto de corruptos, the covenant of the corrupt, the descendants of the old massacre regime, the current rulers, they will use every level, every trick available to try to block Arévalo from the presidency. So, the second phase of the voting, in a sense, for the Guatemalan public begins now, because they may have to take to the streets to defend the results of this vote. I think the fact that the vote was so overwhelming will make the regime think twice, but they’re probably going to go ahead anyway. So, this may, in the end, be settled in the streets in what will hopefully be a peaceful confrontation between the public and the descendants of the old regime.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Allan, what makes you think this is different than what took place in 2015 in terms of the mass protests at that time against corruption?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, in a way, that was the beginning of the process that culminated in Arévalo’s election, because those protests in '15, those mass protests which filled the plaza with many thousands of people persistently, week after week, ended up bringing down General Otto Pérez Molina, who was the president at the time. But he was brought down not for his role in the ’80s massacres. In fact, during those massacres, when I was in the mountains and talking to the troops as they described how they would torture, strangle people to death, make them dig their own mass graves, execute them, pitch their bodies into the graves, and come back in their U.S. helicopters and bomb and strafe villages, those soldiers, many of the soldiers who were describing that process, were directly under the command of Pérez Molina. And I actually met Pérez Molina in the mountain at the time. He was using an alias: He was known as Major Tito. But he was the one — he was one of Ríos — General Ríos Montt's field commander for the slaughter. But after he later rose to general and became director of military intelligence and became an asset of the U.S. CIA, after that, he was elected president. And in office, he was, in the end, brought down by these mass demonstrations and by the prosecution of the U.N.-backed special prosecutor CICIG, which Frank mentioned. But he was brought down not for his role in the massacres, but for his being a thief, for his being corrupt.

But after Pérez Molina was ousted, he was just replaced by more of the same, and the popular movement did not have the leverage to go any further. Now, though, with Arévalo, if he can take office, there is the potential that they can actually, as a representative — through the representation of Arévalo, the popular movement can actually begin to wield state power, or at least the state power that the president will be able to exercise, because he will be hemmed in by a hostile Congress and the powerful forces of the oligarchy, which is still intact. But having the presidency can make a tremendous difference. And this really could be the beginning of the end of what could best be described as the U.S. invasion-genocide era, an era that started in ’54 and possibly started to conclude yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Frank LaRue, I want to turn to Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei speaking to reporters while casting his vote Sunday in Guatemala City.

PRESIDENT ALEJANDRO GIAMMATTEI: [translated] We have only one incident. A truck carrying electoral boxes had an accident in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. The police are protecting the electoral material until the members of the electoral board arrive to collect it. Apart from that, polls are opening in the remaining 340 municipalities without incident. I hope that the day will be peaceful and that whoever the will of the people chooses wins.

REPORTER: [translated] Whoever wins is going to be respected?

PRESIDENT ALEJANDRO GIAMMATTEI: [translated] I am a man who respects the constitution. I think I am one of the few in the region who respects it. Here, power will be handed over on January 14th, no matter who it is. The important thing is that the people choose and that it is legally confirmed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. Frank LaRue, what happens with him next? And exactly what he’s saying, “I am a man who respects the constitution. … Here, power will be handed … on January 14th, no matter who it is. The important thing is that the people choose and that … is legally confirmed”?

FRANK LARUE: Yes. This is an important statement, not because we believe in Giammattei. Giammattei has lied all through his teeth during four years of government, and he’s probably been one of the most corrupt presidents that we have had. But the reason that he’s making these statements, I think — and this we have to give credit — is, number one, because he knows the people of Guatemala want change. And this has been proven by the vote. I mean, the fact that almost 60% of the population voted for Arévalo means that the people of Guatemala decided to take the country in a different course. And I think that he recognizes that. But secondly — and I must give credit to this — is because of the international pressure. Guatemala, because of being such a tragic case, especially in the misuse of justice, of criminal justice, drew a lot of attention, so we have an enormous amount of delegations and domestic initiatives of election observation, as well. And it is that pressure — even the OAS had a meeting just on Guatemala before the second round, sent the secretary general to investigate the situation and report back to the Permanent Council of the OAS. I think these elements built enough pressure to make Giammattei understand that they could not get away with stopping the elections last Sunday, yesterday, which was, I believe, their original intention.

So, now they will allow transfer to power in January, yes, but in what conditions? And I think that’s still in a challenging mode, because in the meantime, the attorney general, who, although independent, responds to what Giammattei says, is still investigating, on one hand, the members of Semilla, including Bernardo Arévalo, but, on the other hand, it’s even begun investigations against the five members of the electoral tribunal and even members of the staff. The head of digital information has left the country for fear of being prosecuted and detained. So, now the attorney general is taking it out even on the electoral authorities because they did their job well.

So, the situation remains tense. I think, obviously, they have to acknowledge the decision, and the overwhelming strength of that decision in the elections, but they will keep on doing whatever they can to put obstacles to the new government. Whether they dissolve the party or whether they can stop the inauguration, they will try to do it. And if not, they will try to make it impossible for him to govern.

So I think the message here for the people of Guatemala is to defend their vote by supporting their new government and demanding transparency and getting — and demanding the resignation of corrupt people in government positions, like the attorney general. And eventually, for the international community, is to have as much support as possible for transition to real democracy in Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Frank LaRue, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Guatemalan human rights activist, lawyer who brought the first case of genocide against the former Guatemalan military dictatorships from 2008 to ’14. He served as U.N. special rapporteur, speaking to us from Guatemala City. And investigative journalist Allan Nairn has covered Guatemala since the ’80s, also there in Guatemala City.

Next up, we go to South Africa, where leaders of BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are holding a major summit as the group looks to expand. Back in 30 seconds.

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