GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Bernardo Arévalo’s experience in peacebuilding and diplomacy eminently qualify him to lead Guatemala as the conflict-riven country’s next president, those who know him say. But first he will have to overcome forces that could keep him from taking power.
Guatemalans voted for Arévalo in a landslide Sunday, but his opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres, has not conceded, or said anything for that matter. The election results have not been certified, a legal step necessary for Arévalo to become president.
That’s not the only hitch: The attorney general’s office also continues to investigate the registration of his Seed Movement party and has already asked a judge once to suspend it. And even if Arévalo takes the presidency, Guatemala’s powers that be could hamstring him as leader when he takes power in five months.
Arévalo and those who know him say that he wants to unite his country. It’s his platform of eradicating corruption that has earned enemies among the political and economic elite.
The 64-year-old son of former President Juan José Arévalo was born in Uruguay, where his father was in exile following the ouster in a 1954 CIA-backed coup of his successor President Jacobo Árbenz, whom the U.S. saw as a threat during the Cold War.
He came to Guatemala as a teenager before leaving again to continue his studies overseas. Then Arévalo did what few Guatemalan children of privilege do these days, he went back. The country suffers a continuous brain drain, not only from hundreds of thousands of migrants travelling illegally to the U.S. in recent years, but also among the best-educated, who study abroad and never return.
Arévalo studied sociology and anthropology abroad in Israel and the Netherlands, served as Guatemala’s ambassador to Spain, and for years worked in Geneva for the nongovernmental organization Interpeace.
He held a variety of roles there, but among his contributions was pioneering the organization’s peacebuilding work in Central America.
Interpeace started as a United Nations pilot program and one of its early projects was Guatemala. The country was emerging from a 36-year internal conflict and the goal was to support Guatemalan society.
Torres tried to make Arévalo’s time spent outside Guatemala a liability. In their only debate, she repeatedly called him the “Uruguayan lawmaker.”
Renée Lariviere, now Interpeace’s senior program director, worked closely with Arévalo for years in conflict resolution around the world. She said Arévalo’s approach was collaborative, seeking input from various sectors in Guatemalan society rather than trying to impose a top-down plan from outside.
“It was really about putting Guatemalans at the forefront of their efforts of how to help facilitate a process to find solutions, what makes sense for their country,” Lariviere said, describing Arévalo as humble, wise and a person of integrity.
She still remembers him telling her that he was considering moving back to Guatemala about eight years ago. He had collected experiences from around the world and learned a lot.
“And now I feel it’s time for me to give back, to go back to my roots, to give back to my country,” Lariviere recalled from their conversation. He moved home into his father’s old house, just blocks from the president’s offices.
“There’s not a lot of hope in terms of the new styles of leadership that are emerging across the world, not just in the region, and I think he really believed that he could actually make a difference,” she said.
In the two months between the first round of voting in June and Sunday’s runoff, Torres made Arévalo out to be a radical leftist, a communist who wanted to establish an authoritarian regime like Venezuela or Nicaragua.
But in his writings — dozens of academic articles and books – Arévalo comes off much more as a policy wonk than a radical.
Several weeks before the runoff, Arévalo was the star of Guatemala’s book fair. Copies of what had been his doctoral thesis published as a book – “Violent State and Political Army: State Formation and Military Function in Guatemala (1524-1963)” — sold out and he spent nearly six hours signing autographs.
His diagnosis in 2008 of problems that still plague Guatemala today was clear-eyed and told within the context of the country’s internal conflict.
“The political culture of Guatemalans is undergoing a process of change, but is still permeated by perceptions and notions forged in a society submitted since its pre-Hispanic origins to authoritarian forms of government,” he wrote in a 2008 article published for New Society, a Latin American social-sciences journal. “Within this framework, even today an authoritarian notion of security prevails, that conceives the solution to the problem exclusively from the angle of repression.”
Edmond Mulet, who competed in the first round of presidential voting for the conservative Cabal party, said he counts Arévalo as a friend. He said Torres’ characterizations of Arévalo were absurd, saying he was a moderate with the skills of a mediator.
“He will want to unite people,” Mulet said.
In an interview with AP in late June, shortly after it appeared he had won a spot in the runoff, Arévalo said that the Seed Movement was trying to rebuild Guatemalans’ hope. Corruption had fed cynicism, desperation and exhaustion to the extent that good people didn’t want to engage in politics.
His appeal to Guatemalans was, “We have to take a step forward and recover that hope, because if not we’re not going to be able to get out of this situation.”
Allowing himself to look ahead for a moment, Arévalo said, “As an administration we have four years to be able to establish the foundation for a change, but change for our country is going to take much more time.”
Lariviere from Interpeace said that she was in close contact with Arévalo in the days ahead of the runoff. She said he seemed confident in his campaign, but uncertain about the outcome.
“I thought I could maybe make it to the second round because enough is enough,” she recalled him telling her. “But I’m probably not going to win. I’m just being realistic.”
“He’s the kind of leader that the world needs today,” she said.
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