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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

A letter from Plaza Constitución – Guatemala’s indigenous-led fight for democracy

Written by: Zach Wandalowski 🇵🇭 and Mendel Backman

People gathering in the Plaza Constitución to watch President Arévalo be inaugurated. (Guatemala City) in Guatemala City. (Zach Wandalowski)

Swarmed by crowds pushing closer to the action, we found ourselves in the Plaza Constitución, the heart of Guatemala City. As the tension around us simmered off, leaving only pent-up energy and excitement, the people burst into spontaneous fits of dancing and celebration.

Under waving Guatemalan and Mayan flags, conga lines broke out. Crisscrossing the vast plaza, the exuberant dancers were cheered on from all sides. People from all parts of society – young students, retirees, urban professionals, and rural campesinos – joined in the 1 AM celebrations; thoughts of tomorrow’s work and responsibilities overtaken by the sheer historic nature of what had just occurred. 

As the newly-elected Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo walked onto the balcony of the Palacio Nacional, the hope of the long-awaited “Nueva Primavera” filled the expectant crowd. 

Since the June election, we had been captivated by the unfolding political situation in Guatemala. We followed the evolving election and gradual coup attempt through Twitter and other mainstream news reports.

Bernardo Arévalo had come out of nowhere to place second in the presidential election’s first round, and a potential sea change in the country’s politics suddenly seemed possible. A few months later, Arevalo handily beat the establishment candidate (a perennial candidate and the former first lady), and the Pacto de Corruptos used every tool at their disposal to prevent his assumption of office. 

As winter break arrived at UMD, a coup attempt had seemingly been averted. With the presidential inauguration weeks away, we decided to travel to Guatemala and join the proceedings in person. 

This historical moment was never a given. Guatemala has often been characterized by a politics that rarely considered the popular will. When self-obsessed dictator General Jorge Ubico was deposed during the 1945 revolution, Guatemala held its first democratic election. Elected by an overwhelming majority, President Juan José Arévalo ushered in sweeping societal reforms that were soon strengthened and expanded by his successor, Jacobo Árbenz.

Land reform, nationalization of critical industries, and state efforts to build ports and railways all addressed the monopolizing power of the United Fruit Company (UFC), an American corporation that dominated Guatemala’s politics and economy. Arbenz’s efforts, not particularly radical for the time, brought the fury of UFC and its American backers, who convinced the US government to bankroll and lead a coup against Arbenz.

A succession of dictatorships, some explicitly military and some purportedly civil, continued until the early 90s, waging war against left-wing militias and persecuting Guatemala’s majority-indigenous population, which the United Nations would later recognize as a genocide. Since the peace accords signed in 1996, the country has been primarily controlled by the so-called Pacto de Corruptos, a group of elites that maintain power, money, and influence over society. 

This corrupt cabal had seemingly positioned itself to hang onto power in the 2023 election. The co-opted courts disqualified several popular non-establishment front-runners. Apathy drove the results of the first round, and no candidate garnered even close to the majority of votes required to win outright. A record number of voters spoiled their ballots, and blank ballots outnumbered any individual candidate's vote total.

From the chaos of the first round, a surprise contender emerged. Bernardo Arévalo, the son of the above-mentioned Juan José Arévalo and a leader of the newly ascendant Movimiento Semilla, an anti-corruption, social democratic political party. Once polling at a measly 4%, Arévalo surprised pre-election prognostications to place second in the first round, advancing to the second round with 12% of the votes. Despite widespread election manipulation by the Pacto de Corruptos, a people-driven movement persisted nevertheless. 

With their unexpected first-round win, Arévalo and the Movimiento Semilla channeled the widespread popular anger and political apathy into a mass movement that embraced students, indigenous Guatemalans, and the middle class to break the hold of the establishment. In the second round of the general election, Arévalo won in a landslide, defeating the runner-up (Sandra Torres) by more than 20%.

Despite this overwhelming victory, Torres alleged voter fraud. The courts and prosecutors, led by Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, sought to intimidate and disqualify Arévalo and Semilla. Indigenous voters, who had previously been sidelined, ignored, and exploited by the very political establishment now trying to overturn the popular will, protested in the street for 104 days. In historic fashion, the Pueblos Originarios were making their political voices heard, mobilizing to protect the election results.

Eventually, and largely due to the efforts of this indigenous-led activism, the constitutional court upheld the election results and declared that the presidential transition would continue unimpeded. 

Despite these legal rulings, there was palpable fear among many that the Pacto de Corruptos would once again prevail.

When conversing with a human rights lawyer prior to the inauguration, we were incredulous that the incumbent government could be so bold as to steal the election or use violence - even as foreign dignitaries had already touched down in Guatemala City and congratulated Arevalo on his assumption of the presidency. Yet, the lawyer warned us that these establishment politicians would do anything to stay in power, and the people needed to be ready to defend democracy. 

As dawn struck on the morning of the inauguration, the streets surrounding the Ministerio Publico, home to the office of Attorney General Porras, once again filled with hundreds of indigenous activists. These activists had been on the front lines of the protests for 104 days in a row. Yet rather than feeling apprehensive, the crowd’s mood was hopeful. The day began with a Mayan fire and incense ritual. The ritual celebrated the inauguration of a president whose platform detailed a new, mutually beneficial relationship between the government and its indigenous citizens, nearly half the country’s population. 

Indigenous citizens perform a Mayan ritual to bless the inauguration outside the Minister Publico building. (Zach Wandalowski)

Campesinos clothed in indigenous garb specific to their region bused in from across the country to join their compañeros, who had formed their base of support on the street in front of the Ministerio Publico. They set up temporary shelters, food distribution tents, and tables of supplies for the protesters and anyone in need. People lined up for coffee, tamales, soup, and rice and beans. We jumped into action and assisted other volunteers (and our new friends) who were distributing water, toiletries and toilet paper. An indigenous community representative told us then that until this moment, he had never felt represented by the Guatemalan flag or anthem, much less its politics.

We sensed a feeling of earned confidence from the people around us. A parody troupe marched by, depicting Consuelo Porras holding her lackeys by the leash while others held up signs portraying the incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei inside the toilet. Crowds watched cultural performances and listened to a DJ spinning tunes in the Plaza Constitución, everyone anticipating the eventual ceremonies of Arevalo’s inauguration. 

Yet, as the day dragged on, confusion set in. According to the schedule, Arévalo should have been sworn in at 3 PM, after which he was expected to show up at the plaza. At first, many attributed it to the typical tardiness of the Guatemalan government and bureaucracy. Yet as more time passed, we realized something was up.

People began to expect the worst. News trickled out from social media and through word of mouth that the previous congress was refusing to seat the new crop of legislators despite being legally mandated to do so. Without the new legislature taking its place, Arévalo could not be officially sworn in. Embodied by the old congress, the establishment was making its final stand. We thought back to the lawyer’s comments the night before and realized our naivete in believing that those in power would ultimately allow someone who threatened the status quo to be president. 

The people in the street, however, were not going to back down so easily. 104 days of protests would not be ignored. On a day that meant so much, one that was supposed to herald a paradigm shift, they would not allow the presidency they had fought for to be stolen from them. Indigenous groups who had been waiting outside the Ministerio Publico marched down to the Congress building, joining up with students and other civil society groups.

Lined up against the riot police, we were witnessing a population that was no longer apathetic. They knew their power, and they were willing to use it. 

Met with endless rows of protesters lining the streets, the riot police were continuously pushed back. Police caps, helmets, batons, and riot shields were thrown back into the crowd as protesters (including us!) took pictures with them: souvenirs of the history we were living. A group of transgender activists who had been at the frontlines of the protests posed with a police baton and shield while exuding the joy that permeated this movement.

One moment in particular seemed to represent the attitude of the gathered protesters. When the police came back through the crowd to retrieve their lost items, people began to throw the police caps onto the nearby roofs, jeering at the cops' efforts to get them back and yelling “go fetch.” 

By 9 PM, the Plaza Constitucion had filled back up. The Congress had fulfilled its duties due to a last-minute intervention by the court, and the presidential swearing-in ceremony was finally set to begin. At 1 AM, nearly 12 hours later than scheduled, we all watched the livestream of the inauguration. 

After a collective sigh of relief, the joy took over, and spontaneous dancing erupted throughout the plaza. For over an hour, the plaza was filled with dancing and singing. Everyone came together, friend and stranger alike, to express their appreciation of what had been accomplished and their excitement for the future. 

Spontaneous conga lines break out at 1 AM in the Plaza Constitución in Guatemala City. (Zach Wandalowski)

In a region rife with a history of state violence, authoritarianism, and corruption, Guatemala has bucked the trend, electing a government that aims to strengthen institutions and be truly representative. Though challenges remain with a divided Congress full of the entrenched establishment and Consuelo Porras still at her position of attorney general, the Guatemalans we talked to were nevertheless full of hope. 

As the newly-elected President Arevalo took the stage in the plaza to deliver his speech at nearly 3 AM, fireworks exploded in the sky, and chants of “Sí, se pudo!” rang across the packed plaza. The people had triumphed over the corrupt establishment and protected democracy, and a new future for Guatemala could be imagined. 

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