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How the Opposition Won Guatemala’s ‘Free but Unfair’ Election

The Seed Movement got lucky, but it also made its own luck.

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo celebrates the results of the presidential runoff election in Guatemala City.
Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo celebrates the results of the presidential runoff election in Guatemala City.
Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo celebrates the results of the presidential runoff election in Guatemala City on Aug. 20. Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: A Guatemalan opposition movement gets an unexpected win amid democratic erosion, Ecuador votes on presidential candidates and oil policy, and BRICS invites new members to join the club.


Planting Seeds

Bernardo Arévalo, the centrist anti-corruption candidate from Guatemala’s Seed Movement party, won last Sunday’s presidential runoff vote in a landslide. Arévalo, a sociologist and anti-graft campaigner, received 58 percent of the vote, far surpassing former first lady Sandra Torres’s 37 percent.

Though Arévalo was a favorite to win the runoff, what’s shocking about this election is that he was able to run at all. Since the mid-2010s, a network of judges, prosecutors, and politicians who are linked to Guatemala’s economic and political elite have worked to shut down a groundbreaking U.N.-backed anti-corruption body and its spinoffs. In 2019, then-President Jimmy Morales allowed the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala to expire, and in the years since, anti-graft prosecutors and judges have been forced to leave the country. In this year’s presidential campaign, Guatemalan courts disqualified a string of anti-corruption candidates who appeared competitive on charges widely denounced as politically motivated.

Arévalo, however, flew under the radar in polls and was allowed to compete in the first round of voting on June 25. When he advanced to the runoff alongside Torres, a longtime political insider on her third presidential bid, a prosecutor tried to suspend the Seed Movement, accusing the party of falsifying citizen signatures. The motion, however, was ultimately blocked by a higher court amid domestic protest and international pressure.

Sunday’s contest was declared clean by international observers, and Guatemala’s outgoing president, Alejandro Giammattei, an ally of Torres, pledged to support an orderly transition late Sunday night. Torres had not officially conceded as of Thursday afternoon, and plenty of officials hostile to Arévalo remain in positions of power in Guatemala’s justice system.

Because of that, it remains to be seen how easily Arévalo will be able to take office in January. Even if he is successfully sworn in, it is unclear how he will be able to implement his policies on jobs, education, and restoring institutional stability, given that his party is only expected to control roughly 15 percent of Congress.

While the post-election drama continues to play out, observers have mused about what broader lessons can be drawn from the Seed Movement’s resounding victory in a country that has been on the front lines of democratic erosion in the region.

The party, founded in 2017, has never performed particularly well in national elections. Still, it continued its grassroots organizing efforts and managed to grow support over time.

“It’s not just that [Seed] got lucky,” Salvadoran political scientist and doctoral candidate at Harvard University Manuel Meléndez Sánchez tweeted. “In a sense, the party made its own luck by working diligently and patiently for years, building an organization based on democratic principles when NO ONE—not even themselves—thought they stood a chance.”

Meléndez Sánchez told Foreign Policy that the Seed Movement carries lessons for democratic opposition movements in “free but unfair” elections­ all over the world. In Latin America, he said there were two countries where expected 2024 elections are well on their way to meeting that description: El Salvador and Venezuela.

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele took the unusual liberty of packing the Supreme Court with loyalists early in his term, and in Venezuela, international monitors have flagged problems with elections for years under the Nicolás Maduro government. Opposition parties are expected to run in both contests, though serious doubts remain about the integrity of the vote.

Even if competitive authoritarian regimes seem invincible, Meléndez Sánchez said, they eventually make strategic mistakes, “face crises or scandals, or simply wear out their welcome with voters.” Opposition movements should be ready, and it helps if they have “genuine leaders, real democratic credentials, and internal cohesion.” Above all, he said, they should stay in the game of electoral politics in order to take advantage of autocrats’ slip-ups, as the Seed Movement did in Guatemala.

Such a gradualist strategy can take years or even decades to pull off, and it’s often full of disappointments along the way. That’s why scholars of democratic backsliding are paying extra attention to the Seed Movement’s victory, as they did to Honduras’s opposition victory in 2021.

Democratic erosion may be on the rise in some parts of Latin America, but Arévalo’s hard-won victory offers an example of strategic resistance that bore results.


Upcoming Events

Friday, Aug. 25, to Saturday, Aug. 26: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Angola.

Wednesday, Sept. 6: Mexico’s ruling Morena party will announce its next presidential candidate.


What We’re Following

From left to right: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend the 2023 BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
From left to right: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend the 2023 BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

From left to right: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attend the 2023 BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Aug. 24.Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

Grouping on the move. The BRICS group, currently composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, announced Thursday at its annual summit that it has extended membership invitations to Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Potential expansion has been intensely debated within the bloc: China pushed hard to bring in new members, while Brazil and India were initially skeptical, the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s Oliver Stuenkel wrote for Foreign Policy in June.

Argentina’s addition to BRICS, backed by Brazil, comes at a time of great uncertainty for the country. Its presidential front-runners, Javier Milei and Patricia Bullrich, both oppose Argentina’s entry. The country’s financial instability is potentially risky for the bloc, but its vast lithium deposits make it an attractive partner amid the global scramble for critical minerals. Moreover, its status as a democracy may help to push back against criticisms that the group is a “club of dictatorships.”

Some members of BRICS have sought to maintain a nonaligned position amid tensions between the West and China and Russia, which makes the inclusion of Iran in particular surprising. Now, Stuenkel tweeted, “I do think we may see [Brazil, India, and South Africa] pivot towards the West in other areas [in] order to maintain a certain equilibrium between Washington and Beijing.”

More broadly, the Quincy Institute’s Sarang Shidore tweeted, the expansion shows that the global push toward multipolarity is very much underway: “Almost all Global South states in BRICS—old and new—are by no means anti-American (many of them are close U.S. partners), but they want to evolve alternative geoeconomic structures that can fill the deep gaps and deficiencies in the current U.S.-led order. They still have quite some ways to go to get there. But this is a grouping on the move.”

Mine the gap. When Chile announced in April that it would increase state control over its lithium mining industry—the world’s second largest by output—it was unclear at first how mining companies would react. Chilean President Gabriel Boric outlined plans that would allow previously untouched areas of the country’s reserves to be mined if companies were willing to partner with the government.

The new approach is a midway point between Argentina, where lithium mining is largely privatized and has expanded rapidly in recent years, and Bolivia, where the industry is largely nationalized but has yet to yield any exports.

Companies, it turns out, are happy enough with Chile’s offer to bite: Over 50 have expressed interest in the new contracts thus far, Bloomberg reported this week. As part of this rollout, Chile’s government courted potential mining firms in Germany and France last month and plans to do so in Korea, Japan, and China in October. Bidding for new contracts is expected to take place early next year.

Venezuela’s migrant comedians. Of the over 7 million Venezuelans who have left the country since 2015 amid economic and political crisis, the majority have settled elsewhere in Latin America. A new piece by Lizandro Samuel in the Mexican news magazine Gatopardo examines their experience through the eyes of three prominent migrant comedians who have spent time in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and briefly the United States.

Venezuelan migrants chose their new host countries for a variety of reasons, but comedian José Rafael Guzmán originally sought out Mexico because he considered it, “in terms of entertainment,” the “Los Angeles of Latin America,” he told Samuel.

Guzmán, Víctor Medina, and Estefanía León have all gained larger followings since leaving Venezuela, but with plenty of crises and indignities along the way. After having to learn new Spanish accents, navigate a raft of changing protocols for Venezuelan migrants across the continent, and trying to “make it” in an entirely new artistic scene, they now incorporate many of the challenges they’ve faced into comedy routines. “Jokes, as you know, are ways to alleviate fears,” Samuel wrote.


Question of the Week

Which satirical news site has been referred to as the Onion of Venezuela?

Though Maduro has cracked down on most of Venezuela’s independent media outlets, the Bipolar Capybara has managed to stay afloat.


FP’s Most Read This Week


In Focus: Ecuador’s Snap Vote

Members of the "Quito Without Mining" collective celebrate the results of a historic referendum during a press conference in Quito.
Members of the "Quito Without Mining" collective celebrate the results of a historic referendum during a press conference in Quito.

Members of the “Quito Without Mining” collective celebrate the results of a historic referendum during a press conference in Quito on Aug. 21.Rodrigo Buendia/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, Ecuadorians voted in the first round of general elections triggered by President Guillermo Lasso’s decision to dissolve Congress in May. Facing an impeachment probe, Lasso—for the first time in the country’s history—used a constitutional power that allows the president to boot out both himself and the legislature.

Sunday’s election results suggest Ecuador’s next Congress may be slightly more right-leaning than its current one, though the leftist party of former President Rafael Correa remains the largest. The presidential vote will go to a runoff between left-wing candidate Luisa González, a protégée of Correa’s, and center-right businessman Daniel Noboa. Though he polled near the bottom of the pack of candidates for most of the campaign, Noboa’s strong debate performance in the final week before the election gave him enough momentum to become a front-runner.

Notably, amid a bloody campaign in which one presidential candidate and two other politicians were killed within a month, a candidate who pledged a militarized security crackdown to quell the violence, Jan Topic, did not make the runoff. Topic has praised El Salvador’s response to crime, but his poor performance suggests the majority of Ecuadorians are not currently on board with Bukele’s controversial tactics.

Also on Sunday’s ballot was a referendum over whether new oil drilling should be allowed in the Amazonian Yasuní National Park and whether mining should be prohibited in a region near the capital, Quito. Voters opted against resource extraction in both cases. The Amazon vote is thought to be the first nationwide referendum on an oil-drilling decision anywhere in the world.

Environmentalists far afield watched the vote. The energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine has caused some governments and companies to backpedal on their commitments to draw down fossil fuel exploration. But citizens have pushed back on drilling decisions—“legislatively, at the courts, or in local referendums,” said Maria Ramos, who monitors extractive industries for Oxfam America. Votes on drilling rights have occurred at the regional level in Quebec, Canada, and at the city level in Los Angeles with the same result.

“Despite the massive security challenges facing Ecuador, the country has much going for it, and the referendum can accelerate the shift to a more secure, inclusive, and sustainable economy,” said Guy Edwards, a former consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank and former manager of Huaorani Ecolodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

On Wednesday night, Lasso’s energy minister said he would not respect the result of the referendum, sparking cries of protest from those who campaigned for it. He argued that the only portion of the vote that matters for the decision is the result from the region home to the oil exploration zone, where residents voted in favor of extraction. As of Thursday afternoon, it appeared the matter might head back to the courts.

Analysts have pointed out that Noboa’s support may have been boosted by his opposition to drilling in Yasuní. González, meanwhile, is pro-exploration. Alongside the ongoing security crisis, the role of oil in Ecuador’s economy will likely be a major source of debate ahead of the next round of the presidential vote on Oct. 15.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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