Guatemalans Elect Progressive President Who Pledges to Restore Democracy

Interview with Allan Nairn, award-winning investigative journalist, conducted by Scott Harris

After decades of murderous military dictatorships, followed by years of repressive, corrupt civilian rule, on Aug. 20, Guatemalans elected progressive, anti-corruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo president, decisively defeating the nation’s extremist right-wing oligarchy. Arévalo won the second round presidential election, beating his right-wing opponent Sandra Torres, a former first lady, 60.9 percent to 37.2 percent of the vote. Although Arévalo’s Semilla party won 23 seats in the 160-seat Congress, Guatemala’s attorney general’s office provisionally suspended the party — a move blasted by Arevalo as “illegal.”

Arévalo, who is scheduled to be sworn into office on Jan. 14 next year, is the son of Guatemala’s former President Juan José Arévalo. His family fled to Uruguay after his successor, President Jacobo Árbenz was ousted in a 1954 U.S. CIA-backed coup. In the decades that followed, the military and death squads killed thousands of political opponents and journalists and massacred hundreds of thousands of the nation’s indigenous population.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with award-winning investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who discusses Arévalo’s unexpected victory and the challenges he faces before taking office amid reported assassination plots and ongoing judicial maneuvers to prevent him from being sworn in as president.

ALLAN NAIRN: In this recent election due to a series of technical errors really by the current establishment, it’s known across Guatemala as “el pacto de los corruptos” or “the covenant of the corrupt,” and they direct the direct descendants of the massacre regime of the 1980s. They made a few mistakes in their management of the political campaign. They disqualified a series of candidates, but they didn’t bother to disqualify Arévalo and his party Semilla, in part because they thought they were such a small threat, they didn’t think they had any chance of winning.

So they didn’t even bother to disqualify them. And to everyone’s surprise, Arévalo and Semilla managed to sneak into the runoff and people recognized it for the first time this was a choice and Arévalo’s party won in an astonishing more than 20-point victory. But it’s not yet clear that he won’t be able to take office. He’s not yet due to take office until Jan. 14th.

The establishment is doing everything they can to block him. The Organization of American States just a few days ago came out with an official notice that they had information about an assassination plot against him from within the government establishment. The attorney general’s office of Guatemala moved to dissolve Arévalos’ political party. During the campaign, they attempted to arrest top officials of that party and even to arrest the top officials of the National Electoral Board because they were essentially trying to cancel the elections. They were trying to cancel the second round of the elections because they saw that Arévalo was on a path to victory. They didn’t succeed in that. But at this moment, they have succeeded in at least temporarily, banning and dissolving his political party.

And there are all sorts of other things they will try to pull in the coming months. The first phase of the battle to actually change the course of Guatemalan history is completed now with the election. Arévalo, the reformer, clearly won the election. But now the second phase, the battle to take power as he and his party are legally entitled to do.

SCOTT HARRIS: With the United States’ role in fomenting coups, supporting military dictatorships and death squads throughout many decades in Central America, what responsibility does the United States have?

What can the Biden administration do right now to support Arévalo taking office without violence, without maneuvers to keep him out of power whether the Biden administration is keen to do this or not. What could the Biden administration do right now to ensure the survival of democracy in Guatemala?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the first point is that due to activism in the United States — grassroots activism — which in turn generated pressure from the U.S. Congress, in recent years, the U.S. policy on Guatemala has changed to a significant degree. And now, during the past few years, the U.S. policy has been fairly critical of the current regime of the “el pacto de los corruptos” or “covenant of the corrupt.”

And the U.S. is not attempting to block Arévalos’ assuming the presidency. And in fact, indications are that due to public pressure and congressional pressure in the U.S., the U.S. policy now is to let him assume the presidency.

The main thing the U.S. could do now is to cut off and distance itself from the Guatemalan oligarchy, which is represented by a national federation called CACIF, the Chambers of Agriculture, Commerce, Industry and Finance, because their basic interest is in perpetuation of the obscene distribution of wealth and their ability to buy any piece of legislation or any political decision they want.

Even though the U.S. is now open — thanks to grassroots pressure in the U.S., to the idea of, in theory, a democratic transition in Guatemala — they are still wedded to the oligarchs there. And until that ends, it will be difficult for Guatemalans to democratically take control of their own government in their own country.

For more information visit the Allan Nairn’s website at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Allan Nairn (17:18) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

For the best listening experience and to never miss an episode, subscribe to Between The Lines on your favorite podcast app or platform:
Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcherGoogle PodcastsAmazon MusicTunein + AlexaCastboxOvercastPodfriendiHeartRadioCastroPocket Casts,  RSS Feed.

Or subscribe to our Between The Lines and Counterpoint Weekly Summary. 


Subscribe to our Weekly Summary