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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Guatemala’s Anti Corruption Crusader is on Cusp of Presidency

Bernardo Arévalo had been having fun with a quiet and predictable life for almost a decade along with his household in Geneva, engaged on pro-democracy points for a nonprofit. That placid existence ended after he returned to his homeland, Guatemala, and received drawn into politics.

In the present day, each time Mr. Arévalo seems in public, he attracts throngs to listen to him assail the federal government’s assaults on Guatemala’s democracy.

Flanked by a well-armed safety element after receiving loss of life threats following the assassination final week of a presidential candidate in Ecuador — which despatched tremors throughout Latin America — Mr. Arévalo wears a bullet-resistant vest and travels in an armored S.U.V.

Now, in what’s constructing right into a watershed second for Central America’s most populous nation, Mr. Arévalo, a Hebrew- and French-speaking polyglot with a doctorate in sociology, is on the cusp of profitable the presidency in a runoff on Sunday — an implausible situation simply months in the past.

“Bernardo is a glitch within the matrix,” mentioned Edgar Ortíz Romero, a constitutional regulation skilled and one among Guatemala’s prime political threat analysts, calling Mr. Arévalo “probably the most progressive candidate to get this far since 1985,” when democracy was restored within the nation after greater than three a long time of army rule.

Citing strikes by the nation’s electoral company earlier than the primary spherical of voting in June to disqualify each severe candidate who might problem the conservative institution, Mr. Ortíz Romero added: “His emergence is one thing I by no means noticed coming, that nobody noticed coming. Had that been the case, they’d have disqualified him, too.”

After his sudden exhibiting within the first spherical, polls recommend a landslide win for Mr. Arévalo, 64, the candidate of a small get together comprised largely of city professionals like college professors and engineers, over Sandra Torres, a former first woman thought of a standard-bearer for the conservative institution.

Nonetheless, doubts persist across the outcomes, particularly after polls didn’t foresee Mr. Arévalo’s earlier efficiency, and whether or not Ms. Torres’s supporters will intervene with the voting, a worrisome chance in a rustic the place elections are recurrently marred by makes an attempt to control outcomes.

Mr. Arévalo has additionally come beneath withering assaults, together with strategies that he helps communism.

Nonetheless, his surging anticorruption marketing campaign factors to a uncommon opening to push again in opposition to authoritarian techniques which have pressured into exile dozens of judges and prosecutors centered on combating corruption, elevating fears that Guatemala is sliding into autocratic rule.

His rise has been helped by deepening fatigue, in one among Latin America’s most unequal international locations, with a political system through which entrenched elites enrich themselves and are seen as working above the regulation.

Guatemala’s present president, Alejandro Giammattei, who’s prohibited by regulation from looking for re-election, has overseen the persecution of judges, nonprofits and journalists. His predecessor, Jimmy Morales, shut down a world physique that had been prosecuting graft in Guatemala after his brother and son have been arrested on corruption fees.

Even Mr. Arévalo, the son of a revered Guatemalan president who continues to be exalted in textbooks for creating the nation’s social safety system and guaranteeing freedom of speech, appears a bit stunned by the flip of occasions.

In an interview this week at his getting older art-deco house in a middle-class neighborhood within the capital, Guatemala Metropolis, Mr. Arévalo, goateed and carrying a blue blazer and colourful socks, recounted how he arrived at this crucial second.

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, the place his father took his household to dwell in exile after his successor as president was toppled in a 1954 C.I.A.-backed coup, Mr. Arévalo was raised in Venezuela, Mexico and Chile earlier than his household might return to Guatemala, the place he attended highschool.

After his father turned ambassador to Israel, Mr. Arévalo began wandering once more. He discovered Hebrew as an undergraduate on the Hebrew College of Jerusalem, and studied political sociology in Europe, acquiring a doctorate at Utrecht College within the Netherlands. He returned to Guatemala to work as a diplomat, ultimately changing into ambassador to Spain.

Then he moved his household to Switzerland, the place Mr. Arévalo labored for Interpeace, a nonprofit helping post-conflict societies. Based mostly in Geneva, he sometimes labored in African international locations earlier than deciding to return to Guatemala in 2013.

“I used to be by no means interested by electoral politics,” Mr. Arévalo mentioned. However he additionally didn’t wish to dwell out his days removed from Guatemala. “I needed to get entangled.”

When anticorruption protests exploded in 2015, resulting in the president on the time resigning after which being jailed, Mr. Arévalo joined teachers, writers and intellectuals to determine methods to grab on the momentum. Whereas some needed to create a brand new political get together, Mr. Arévalo sought to determine a analysis institute, recalled Román Castellanos, now a member of Congress.

“These wanting the get together gained the controversy,” mentioned Mr. Castellanos, who represents Semilla, or Seed, the get together born from these discussions.

Making the most of identify recognition, Mr. Arévalo ran for elected workplace in 2019 for the primary time, profitable a seat for Semilla in Congress.

He mentioned he was not planning to run for president till inner voting within the get together selected him as Semilla’s candidate. He was driving himself in an unarmored automotive to marketing campaign occasions and polling within the low single digits earlier than beautiful his opponents — and even a lot of his supporters — when he positioned second within the June election.

Luis von Ahn, the Guatemalan founding father of the language-learning app Duolingo, mentioned he was impressed by Mr. Arévalo’s intelligence and idealism, however when Semilla reached out for financing, he mentioned no, believing the marketing campaign would by no means acquire traction.

“I’m not within the follow of losing cash,” Mr. von Ahn mentioned, describing Guatemala as a “land of sharks.” On the time, he mentioned, he noticed Mr. Arévalo as “your uncle who’s a tutorial, who means effectively, however has no probability.”

However after Mr. Arévalo made it to the second spherical, Mr. von Ahn modified his thoughts and contributed $100,000 to the get together. He has additionally publicly supplied to pay airfare for a few of Mr. Arévalo’s most virulent critics, together with officers entangled in graft scandals, to go away Guatemala, ideally for Panama, a historic vacation spot for disgraced politicians.

Guatemala’s conservative institution has mounted an intense effort to undermine Mr. Arévalo. Shortly after the primary spherical, Rafael Curruchiche, a prosecutor who has himself been positioned by the USA on a listing of corrupt Central American officers, sought to droop Mr. Arévalo’s get together.

However that transfer backfired, producing calls throughout the ideological spectrum in Guatemala for Mr. Arévalo to be allowed to run.

Nonetheless, Mr. Curruchiche this week resurrected his plan, citing allegations of irregularities in Semilla’s gathering of signatures and warning that arrests might happen after Sunday’s voting.

That’s only one problem Mr. Arévalo faces. Whereas he leads within the polls and is forecast to carry out effectively in most of Guatemala’s cities, Ms. Torres, the previous first woman, has her personal appreciable base of assist, particularly amongst rural voters who embrace her calls to increase social packages, together with money transfers to the poor.

Mr. Arévalo guarantees to create a big public jobs program by enhancing providers like water sanitation and likewise proposes growing money transfers, however has made rooting out corruption the centerpiece of his marketing campaign.

Smear campaigns on social media, particularly on TikTok and X, previously often known as Twitter, have sought to color Mr. Arévalo as supporting abortion and homosexual marriage.

Ms. Torres additionally used an anti-gay slur to consult with Mr. Arévalo’s supporters (she later mentioned she was not homophobic). Influential evangelical Christian pastors have insinuated that Mr. Arévalo helps communism and plans to shut church buildings.

However Mr. Arévalo famous within the interview that his get together stood alone in Guatemala’s Congress in looking for to sentence the authoritarian techniques of Nicaragua’s nominally leftist authorities.

Mr. Arévalo added that he has no plans to legalize abortion or homosexual marriage. Nonetheless, if elected, he mentioned his authorities would “not allow discrimination in opposition to individuals due to their sexual orientation.”

The marketing campaign has modified his life in different methods. Mr. Arévalo mentioned he had just lately change into conscious that Guatemala’s Division of Civil Intelligence, often known as DIGICI, was “monitoring me and different individuals on this motion on orders of superiors.” A spokesman for the ministry overseeing the intelligence company mentioned Mr. Arévalo was not beneath surveillance.

As issues for his security have grown within the marketing campaign’s waning days, Mr. Arévalo has elevated his safety element.

Whereas his marketing campaign has resonated amongst youthful, city Guatemalans, he mentioned he has needed to lean on his political lineage to succeed in different voters.

“Right here we don’t have Lincolns or FDR’s, these figures who assemble a way of nationwide belonging,” he mentioned. “Even so, the determine of my father stays alive. That’s essential.”

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