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Guatemala

The Challenges Facing Guatemala's Next President

Even after a wild election winds down, the country's biggest challenges won’t.
Sandra Torres and Alejandro Giammattei will face off in a runoff election on August 11.
Torres: JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images; Giammattei: ORLANDO ESTRADA/AFP/Getty Images

This piece was updated on Aug. 8

Guatemala’s presidential campaign has had it all: dozens of candidates. Controversial disqualifications. Even alleged murder plots.

Throughout the campaign, experts consulted by AQ described the state of the race as chaotic. The disqualification of the two frontrunners, Thelma Aldana and Zury Ríos, and new rules around campaigning generated voter confusion over who to support among the 19 candidates on the ballot.

On Aug. 11, former First Lady Sandra Torres – in her third presidential bid - and four-time presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei will face off in a runoff election. In the first round on June 16, Torres received a plurality of the votes, with 25.5% of ballots cast in her favor. Meanwhile, Giammatei finished in second with just under 14%. Despite his low support in the first round, polls give Giammattei, a former surgeon who has never won an election to public office, has the advantage over a highly unpopular Torres in the second round.

Voter enthusiasm is low. Going into the runoff, about a quarter of voters planned to cast blank or null ballots, rather than vote for Torres or Giammatei, according to polls

Whoever wins will also have to work with a divided Congress made up of over a dozen parties. 

When the dust settles, Guatemalans’ pick to lead the country will face a host of challenges at a time when public frustration with politicians is high.

AQ spoke to a group of experts and activists about the pressing issues that will shape Guatemala’s future – and the decisions the next president will need to make to confront them.

The Economy and Emigration

Reversing declining rates of school enrollment, improving healthcare and jump-starting inclusive economic growth will be essential to curbing the growing migration out of Guatemala. The next president will have to do this in the midst of increasingly strained relations with the U.S., which cut economic aid to Guatemala in March.

Both candidates have expressed concern about a deal that President Jimmy Morales made with the U.S. that requires migrants to seek asylum in Guatemala if they pass through the country, rather than apply in the U.S. Torres has called on Congress to ratify the deal, and has cited the country's high poverty rates when voicing her doubts over the deal.

While Guatemala's economy grew 3.1% last year and is projected to grow between 3% and 3.8% this year, growth continues to be unevenly distributed.

“Productivity-wise there is a large gap between Guatemala City, where GDP per capita is around $10,000, and in the western highlands where GDP per capita is on average $1,500,” said Juan Carlos Zapata, the executive director of FUNDESA, a non-profit focused on development.

The passage of an infrastructure bill currently in Congress would go a long way in addressing this, Zapata said. The reform would create a framework for infrastructure investment in a country with one of Latin America’s lowest urbanization rates. 

“If we want to reduce migration toward the U.S., we have to generate investment within our countries, specifically in the Northern Triangle of Central America,” said Zapata. Both Torres and Giammattei have proposed running bigger debts in order to fund infrastructure. 

If either can figure out how to work with a divided Congress, there are a number of bills already in the legislature that could help boost investment, including those that would regulate two International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions – one on flexible wages and another on prior consultation for projects near indigenous communities. Zapata also stressed the need for clearer frameworks around private-public partnerships.

“The reality is that the state does not have the capacity to invest, so there are no new schools or hospitals or water systems being built,” Zapata said. “The next government is going to have to think about how to increase its capacity to make those investments.”

Corruption

“We thought corruption would be the dominant theme in this election,” said Evelyn Espinoza, co-founder of Diálogos, a Guatemalan public policy organization. But after courts ejected former Attorney General Thelma Aldana from the race, Espinoza said corruption took a back seat.

The future of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) did have a presence in the campaign, however. Candidates have been pressed on whether they would try to bring back the UN-backed anti-corruption body if they were to take office next January – four months after its mandate ends in September 2019. Torres has been unclear about where she stands. Giammattei doesn’t support bringing it back.  

“There is little hope for CICIG,” Álvaro Montenegro, a journalist and anti-corruption activist, told AQ.

But given the lack of support for CICIG from the leading candidates, “people are very tired,” said Edie Cux, head of Acción CIudadana, Guatemala’s chapter of Transparency International. “The government that enters is going to have a credibility problem with citizens.”

To earn some credibility, Cux said the next president should push for a long overdue reform to Guatemala’s civil service law and an overhaul of Guatemala’s public contracting laws.

“There are concrete actions that each of the institutions that make up the criminal justice supply chain in Guatemala can take,” said Zapata. “Unfortunately there are no short cuts toward fighting corruption and reducing impunity.”

Security

Guatemala’s next president will preside over a country that has halved its murder rate in the past decade. But with 22.4 homicides per 100,000 people in 2018, there is still much work to be done.

Unfortunately, the candidates in this year’s election didn’t debate security in depth, said Pedro Cruz, the Guatemala director for the Latin America chapter of Crime Stoppers and founder of Primero Guatemala, a civic participation non-profit.

Cruz told AQ that the chief priorities for Guatemala’s next president should be prison reform and an overhaul of conditions and salaries for police. He said it takes 70% of a cop’s salary to cover the equivalent of one’s basic food needs.

“Many cops unfortunately fall into being allies of drug traffickers or criminals because that pays better,” Cruz said.

Among the candidates, Giammattei had the most comprehensive security proposals, said Espinoza. Giammattei is focused on reducing overcrowding in prisons, which are operating at 300% of their capacity.

As the director of Guatemala’s penitentiary system between 2005 and 2007, Giammattei struggled to retake prisons from organized crime. One police operation resulted in the deaths of seven inmates. Giammattei went to prison for 10 months for his alleged role, on charges that were later dropped.

Now with a good shot at becoming president, “his chief proposal is to address overcrowding by building more prisons,” Espinoza said. He also supports reinstating the death penalty.

Torres, for her part, wants to send troops into the streets to fight crime, a practice Morales ended last year. She has also proposed building new prisons farther away from cities, which she says would curb extortion – a solution that’s not proven to work, said Espinoza.

“There’s no vision among the candidates for addressing why there is so much violence in our country,” she told AQ. “They don’t analyze its causes.”

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O’Boyle is a senior editor at AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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