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Guatemalans living in the United States could help sway their homeland's politics when they vote in its June 25 presidential election.
But despite the diaspora's potential clout, only a handful of candidates turned out for a May 5 candidate forum in Los Angeles. That left Southern California's Guatemalan community frustrated and angry, feelings that many know all too well when it comes to national politics.
Twenty-three candidates are vying for the top office of the profoundly troubled Central American nation. They will be chasing the 89,554 registered voters who reside on U.S. soil. The metropolitan triangle that comprises Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana is home to the largest share of the U.S. Guatemalan diaspora, about 230,000 people out of a total estimated to be as large as 1.6 million.
But the dismal turnout for the third presidential forum — organized by the Guatemalan Migrant Network and held at the Church of Scientology's Celebrity Centre International in Hollywood — left many local Guatemalans doubtful about the integrity of the immigrant voting process, which already has been beset by allegations of official mishandling and technical mishaps.
In his opening remarks at the forum, Walter Batres, president of the Guatemalan Migrant Network, praised the three candidates who showed up, in language that jabbed at the 11 other invited aspirants who opted out.
"You did not get off the plane, you did not make excuses, you are complying with an invitation that the migrants made to you," Batres told the three participants, prompting loud applause from the roughly 200 people who packed an auditorium.
“That shows that you do have a visa,” Batres said to a chorus of laughter.
The three who came were Amílcar Pop of the Winaq URNG Party; Bernardo Arévalo of Movimiento Semilla; and Edmond Mulet of the Cabal party. Of those, only Mulet reached double digits in a May 2 poll, with 10.1%.
Among the no-shows were Carlos Pineda (Citizen Prosperity), a right-wing businessman who led the poll with 23.1% but whose candidacy recently was barred by the Constitutional Court over alleged violations of electoral law; and Zury Ríos (Valor-Unionista), daughter of the late right-wing dictator and evangelist Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military man and briefly de facto president whose tenure coincided with one of the most violent periods of Guatemala's 35-year, genocidal civil war that ended in 1996 with more than 200,000 people dead and 1 million displaced.
For decades, Guatemalans living in the U.S. have helped shore up their ancestral nation's revenue stream by sending back remittances. If for no other reason, many immigrants believe, that should give politicians an incentive to care about their votes. Guatemalan leaders and activists in Southern California said they're most concerned about stemming the flow of Guatemalan emigration, lifting the country's economy and restoring the rule of law.
“The oligarchy has co-opted the entire state,” said Mario Ávila, a local activist and organizer sympathetic to the leftist Movement for the Liberation of Peoples, whose presidential candidate is Thelma Cabrera. “If we fill Congress with a large number of MLP deputies, we are going to create a Congress of dignity and we are going to make more structural changes and we will be able to remove all those corrupt judges and prosecutors."
In 2019, the first year that expatriate Guatemalans were allowed to vote, 19 candidates ran for president. A total of 8.1 million voters at home and abroad were registered, and 5 million participated. In the first electoral round, Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party finished first, with 1.1 million votes (25.53%), followed by Alejandro Giammattei of Vamos (13.96%), Mulet (11.22%) and Cabrera (10.37%).
The electoral trend in the United States, though of exponentially lesser volume, was notably different. Among migrants, Cabrera received 235 votes, more than double those of Giammattei, who went on to win the election.
“There is great discontent,” said Ávila, who attributes the differing results to greater opposition among immigrants to the political ruling class. This year, he and other L.A. activists have been trying to drum up local support for MLP candidates, focusing on the Maya community in the Westlake-MacArthur Park area.
“The migrant is more alert,” said Batres, adding that candidates cannot easily buy the vote of U.S. immigrants, whereas in Guatemala it is customary for politicians to bribe voters with as little as a T-shirt or a bag of rice.
The three candidates who appeared in Los Angeles spoke to similar preoccupations.
Pop, 45, of Indigenous Qeqchi descent, is a lawyer who identifies ideologically as a leftist. He was elected to two terms in Congress and is currently a legislator of the Central American Parliament.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said he wanted to focus on improving economic conditions in Guatemala to curb the brain drain of young, educated professionals fleeing the country.
“We want to technify and industrialize Guatemalan agriculture, generate enough technology and bet on micro-enterprises, get out of underdevelopment,” he said. He would hope to achieve that, in part, by improving services at Guatemala's consulates — which, he believes, have lapsed under President Giammattei — and by shoring up diplomatic relations with the U.S. government, he said.
Arévalo, 64, a sociologist and former diplomat, said his four-year budget proposal for foreign services would double that of the Giammattei administration from $118 million to $237 million. He also pledged to review consulate staffing to determine whether there needs to be personnel changes.
He also stressed the need for the federal government to invest more in job creation and healthcare.
“The people who are leaving Huehuetenango, San Marcos and Quetzaltenango are not people who want go on vacation or have an adventure. Those people are leaving because there is no other possibility to survive than going to look for work where it exists,” Arévalo said, referring to the western regions of Guatemala close to the Mexican border.
Mulet, 72, emphasized the need to combat corruption, which drains resources and undermines economic development. The center-right lawyer, who is a former president of Congress and former ambassador to the United States, vowed to attract more investment by bolstering the rule of law.
“The culture of care for migrants is going to change,” said Mulet, who has been critical of the Giammattei government.
At the end of the forum, Yolanda Nish, originally from Quetzaltenango, believed that the three candidates largely echoed one another.
“They were all almost the same," the San Fernando Valley resident said. “I like to participate, but I wouldn't vote for anyone even if they convinced me, because even if I were there [in Guatemala] they won't keep what they promise."
Emilsa Bautista, originally from San Marcos state, traveled all the way from Dallas to attend the forum. The restaurant owner arrived in the United States 30 years ago.
“I want to know who I am going to vote for," said Bautista, a native of the city of Tecún Umán, on the border with Mexico.
To U.S. voters accustomed to choosing between two political parties, the idea of having to sort through 23 candidates may be unimaginable.
Cristhians Castillo, a researcher at the Institute of National Problems at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, said that there are 30 registered political parties in Guatemala and that all are required by law to field candidates for Congress and municipal councils, whose elections also will be held June 25. In these elections, 160 deputies, 20 members of the Central American Parliament and 340 mayors will be elected for four-year terms beginning in 2024.
Castillo said the large number of parties reflects the presence of many satellite parties that orbit around major parties. They are useful mostly for forming coalitions with major parties that then can pass or block legislation, as well as shield the major parties and their representatives from legal prosecution and political scrutiny. The 160 deputies who will be elected will appoint judges and magistrates to the Supreme Court of Justice.
Like those of most of its Central American neighbors, Guatemala's democracy is shaky, and its electoral institutions arouse deep suspicions about their competence and impartiality.
One prominent recent example involved Cabrera, 52, the MLP candidate, from southwestern Guatemala's Retalhuleu state, who is a leftist of Mam Maya descent and represents one of the country's most impoverished rural areas.
But her candidate registration was denied by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, setting off a legal battle. On May 2, the Constitutional Court rejected the appeal filed by the MLP, arguing that Cabrera's vice presidential candidate, former human rights attorney Jordán Rodas, lacked a routine registration document.
In an interview with The Times, political scientist Anita Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College, said Cabrera and Rodas were blocked because both have a vision of social change that breaks with the political establishment's status quo.
“They represented the option to resume the peace accords, resume the hope of building a society where the rule of law prevails and where a more inclusive and democratic state and society, in every sense, is deepened," said Isaacs, referring to negotiations between the government and the leftist guerrilla rebel forces that ended the civil war but have been undermined by corruption and the widespread granting of impunity, according to human rights groups.
The chance of minor-party candidates advancing to the Aug. 20 runoff, if no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes in the first round, is slim. Of the three candidates who visited Los Angeles, Mulet stands the best chance of advancing, Castillo said.
"What the survey does is expose the wear and tear that the traditional political class has had," he said, noting that the three candidates with the highest disapproval ratings all have close ties with former presidential administrations.
L.A. resident Leonel De La Cruz has been sharing his preferences for candidates without shady pasts on WhatsApp.
"You know who can do something for the country, and we know those who have dark ties," the Guatemala City native said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.