Rachel Schwartz on How Guatemala Rose Up Against Democratic Backsliding

Rachel Schwartz

Rachel Schwartz is an assistant professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma. Recently, she cowrote an article with Anita Isaacs for the Journal of Democracy called, “How Guatemala Defied the Odds.” She also authored a book earlier this year called Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America.

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This was an election that was meant to cement authoritarian rule and it became a democratic breakthrough.

Rachel Schwartz

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:33
  • The 2023 Election – 2:46
  • A Weak State – 17:18
  • Democratic Backsliding – 30:53
  • Rejuvenating Democracy – 39:39

Podcast Transcript

On August 20th Bernardo Arévalo won the runoff election to become Guatemala’s next president. For many of you, maybe most of you, this is news. Very few people followed the elections in Guatemala. But those who did watched in astonishment as they saw a country take the first steps toward reclaiming its democracy.

Rachel Schwartz has studied the politics of Guatemala for years. Recently, she cowrote an article with Anita Isaacs for the Journal of Democracy called, “How Guatemala Defied the Odds.” Rachel is an assistant professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma. She also authored a book earlier this year called Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America.

Our conversation focuses on Guatemala and its politics, but I feel the conversation is about more than that. It’s about how the deterioration of the state leads to democratic erosion. But it’s also about how people can reclaim their democracy. Rachel and I will throw around some details about Guatemala and other countries in Central America, but that’s not what this episode is about. It’s really about those big picture questions about why democracies struggle and how it’s possible to reverse democratic backsliding.

So, over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to a number of different organizations and companies about potential partnerships. If you’re interested in a partnership with the podcast, please send me an email to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. I’d love to talk about some ideas. But for now… this is my conversation with Rachel Schwartz…


Rachel Schwartz, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Rachel Schwartz

Thanks so much, Justin, for having me.


Well, Rachel, I really loved your book, Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America. And even beyond the book you’ve written a great article recently in the Journal of Democracy, “How Guatemala Defied the Odds” and you even wrote a post on theDemocracy Paradox website soon after the Guatemalan elections. So, I’ve gotten to learn a little bit about what’s happening in Guatemala and it’s remarkable to me that I’m only now learning about the politics of this complicated country because of so much that is happening there right now. I mean, this seems to be one of the countries that’s really on the front lines in terms of the battle for democracy in the world right now.

Let me just open up in the middle of the story, if we will, with what’s happening right now, at this moment. I’d like to know whether Bernardo Arévalo is going to actually serve as the president of Guatemala after having won the elections with such a resounding landslide just a few months ago?

Rachel Schwartz

So, this is the million-dollar question. The one thing that I have learned in my 15 or so years of studying Guatemala and traveling to Guatemala is to not be certain about anything. I don’t have a firm answer to that question. But at the moment, I don’t see very many pathways for this group of predominantly political elites that currently control the Guatemalan government to throw a wrench in Arévalo’s inauguration on January 14th of 2024. I think that as a result of all of the turmoil that Guatemala has experienced since the first round of the election, and even prior to that, the eyes of the international community are on Guatemala.

Guatemalan civil society, a very broad multi sectoral swath of civil society, is quite mobilized and active and attentive to what’s happening. So, I think these elements in particular are ultimately going to successfully combat any attempt to overturn the election result and prevent Arévalo from taking office.


Well, it’s just so amazing because I don’t think most of the listeners understand the story and how powerful this moment really is. You wrote to me, sent me an email, shortly before the election happened that you wanted to write a blog post about the election with the expectation that the current government that was moving into a decidedly authoritarian direction was about to win and that this was going to consolidate the authoritarian regime. Then the day after the election you write me and you’re like, ‘I’m rewriting this post because it turns out that there’s really some serious hope that this candidate Arévalo came out of nowhere and it looks like he’s going to win this election’ and the article that you wrote for the website was just incredible.

It was something that just caught me completely off guard that this was happening in the world and I wasn’t even very familiar with it. Why was it such a shock that he won the presidential election in the first place? Why is this so important? Why is this such a big deal, because I doubt that many people have ever heard of Bernardo Arévalo unless if they’re following Guatemalan politics extremely closely?

Rachel Schwartz

The deck was completely stacked against the prodemocratic anti-corruption forces going into the 2023 election. In fact, the ruling regime, in cahoots with the judicial system, had successfully disqualified many of the anti-system, anti-status quo candidates that were in some sense threatening to actually win the election. But they failed to disqualify one very little-known democratic reformer named Bernardo Arévalo, who is an academic. He’s a sociologist. He also has a pretty lengthy career as a diplomat. He also was the head of an organization named Interpeace, which promotes peace and reconciliation in Guatemala. So, this is a bit of his background. He then, with his party called the Semilla Movement or the Seed Movement, became a member of Congress in the most recent electoral period and was really among the only clean parties in Congress that agitated for anti-corruption and pro-democracy reforms.

He was polling, prior to the first round of the election on June 25th, at slightly less than 3%. If you look at the poll that was released by the Guatemalan daily newspaper Prensa Libre the week before the election, Bernardo doesn’t even appear on the first page. He’s essentially somewhere between eight or 10 in the rankings.


Why was he? Because as the government is whittling down the different candidates and they’re actually removing people that are even bigger threats than Bernardo Arévalo, they’re getting rid of potential adversaries that they think could actually win this election. Bernardo, as you describe him, is the last man standing that’s really an anti-corruption candidate. In a lot of ways, it’s not surprising that if you remove all of the other potential candidates that they might consolidate behind the last person who’s left. Why was it that it caught so many people off guard if he really was the last person left? Why is it that more people weren’t identifying him in this crowded field of different candidates that didn’t have much to say about corruption and might have even made the system worse if they had been elected?

Rachel Schwartz

So, this is a really good question and I’m not sure we have very clear answers, but I’ll give my best take here. There’s this phenomenon in Guatemalan politics where essentially since the signing of the peace accords, there’s this pattern of the second-place finisher in one election winning the subsequent election. We see repeated elections in which this happened and there’s this sense of name and face recognition being particularly important for voters. So, Arévalo is an unknown in this sense. He is a member of Congress. He’s the head of the Semilla party, but at the same time, they have a mere seven seats. They are never part of the majority voting block because they are opposed to many of the corrupt and sinister pieces of legislation that are passed through the halls of the Guatemalan Congress.

So, there’s a sense that he remains a relative unknown. I think another important factor here, and this changes between the first round of the election on June 25th and the second round of the election on August 20th, is that the Semilla party, the Seed party, Arévalo’s party, is dominated by young urban professionals. This is important to note because Guatemala has a very large, rural, predominantly indigenous population concentrated in the western highlands of the country. These provinces have historically delivered very reliable voters to Arévalo’s second round opponent, Sandra Torres.

So, in addition to this sort of lack of name recognition generally, there was also a lack of reach on the part of his party across Guatemalan territory. We actually see the party change course after sneaking through the first round into the runoff. What’s really interesting is that as I talked to folks in Guatemala, I was actually there for the first round and for a couple of weeks after, and I said to them, ‘Does Arévalo need to pick up rural votes in order to actually win the second round on August 20th?’ Most of them said, no, he didn’t.

Yet, his party actually ends up hitting the roads, hitting Guatemala’s very, very poor roads, deteriorating roads and going to rural communities to pitch their message of combating corruption and strengthening democracy. I think this element is actually really important in understanding the mobilization that we see today. I think these two things in particular, lack of name recognition and lack of the party’s reach across Guatemalan territory, is why many people were so surprised that he ends up getting the nearly 12 percent of the vote that he gets in the first round.


This story is really inspiring and hopeful, but at the same time, I’ve seen things like this happen before where somebody wins this election and we think that just because there is a change of leadership that the country is all of a sudden going to move dramatically towards democracy. It often doesn’t happen because institutions outside of elections matter a lot. I think your book talks a lot about that. But before we get into some of the ideas of the book, I’d like to take a detour through some of Guatemala’s past. You talk about this in the book and you talk about it in the article too. But I’m thinking back to another president, somebody who won an election that people thought was going to be a reformer. It was Jimmy Morales.

He won and he was actually somebody who gave a lot of credit to that anti-corruption agency that you were talking about. It was a UN backed Commission Against Impunity, the CICIG. I don’t want to get into the details because it gets really complicated in terms of why the UN was involved, but he started out supporting them up until they started investigating him and then he becomes the person to actually shut down the process of pushing for anti-corruption efforts. So, I guess what’s in the back of my mind here is that we’ve got this person, Arévalo, who we believe is going to be somebody to actually stand up for Guatemalans and actually fight corruption, and we have no reason to be able to doubt that right now.

But I just worry that it’s not going to go as smoothly as we hope because he doesn’t have a lot of people in Congress supporting him. He’s relying on people that are outside of his traditional base to be able to get behind him, such as the rural countryside. It just really gets my head spinning that this is going to be a lot more complicated than just a single election to be able to change this country and to be able to move it onto a democratic path. Do you have those same worries that I do?

Rachel Schwartz

Absolutely. So, while I feel confident that these attempts to prevent Arevalo from taking office are not going to succeed, I am not terribly optimistic about the possibilities of him and his party achieving all the things that they want to achieve, particularly in the span of four short years that they will have. There are a few reasons for that. One, I think we have seen a broad coalition line up behind getting him into office, getting an actual transition in power. I think that that coalition is going to start to fragment once he is in office and actually attempting to change the system. This is a really important element and thing to consider.

Bernardo Arévalo and his party will have a whole host of extremely important and pressing social and economic challenges before them. Guatemala has the highest rates of child malnutrition in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Guatemala is ground zero in some ways for the effects of climate change in Latin America because of its location in an area known as the dry corridor. Guatemala continues to face challenges related to violence and crime and security. These are all really, really pressing issues. But at the end of the day, in order to tackle these issues, Bernardo Arévalo has to change the way Guatemalan politics happens. He has to change the rules of the game. He has to change the ways in which the legislature and the executive relate to one another.

This is a system in which legislators in Guatemala’s Congress are essentially given, in some ways, a blank check to negotiate public works projects for their districts and often do so in exchange for kickbacks, which leads to a tremendous amount of inefficiency within the system that further hinders social and economic development, of course. So, this is really the task that he faces. It’s not just addressing all of those substantive social and economic issues. It’s about changing the rules of the game, changing the way Guatemalan politics is done. He’s going to be really limited in what he can do on that front. The good news is that in this period of increasing authoritarianism in Guatemala, the executive has become much stronger.

So, there are certain things within the executive that he will be able to transform and even just doing that, cutting off these avenues of rent seeking and corruption within the executive, will be a huge achievement. But I very much worry that Guatemalans will be deeply disillusioned with a lack of progress that will be the product of gridlock and resistance from this old guard that does not want to see the status quo upended. My fear there is that in 2027, the next election brings a form of leadership that is less democratically inclined and that takes us backwards again in Guatemala.


Yeah, I think the challenge for him is twofold. I mean, on the one hand, there’s governance challenges that every state faces. A state like Guatemala has even larger governance challenges than others. Things like you mentioned before about poverty, about climate change, about other issues that you actually have to manage. One of the reasons why there are such dramatic governance challenges is because it has weak institutions. Weak institutions might even be the wrong phrase. You might want to say corrupt institutions. The institutions are not working the way that they are designed to work. We see that with the electoral commission that was stepping in to be able to override the election at different times. We see that in your book in so many different ways.

Like the way that the country has a history of extrajudicial killings, the way that the country has a history of corruption in terms of goods coming into the country through its ports and so forth. So many different institutions that have been corrupted to be able to make governance easier in the short term, but end up making governance significantly harder. In my opinion, in the long term, and it kind of goes against the grain the way that a lot of people think about democracy, because they think that strong states are necessary for authoritarian governments. But it seems to me the more that I learned that it seems like states that have weak institutions are more susceptible to descend into authoritarianism. Why do you think that is? Why is it that states with weak institutions end up becoming more autocratic rather than democratic?

Rachel Schwartz

So, I think that there are a couple of things at play here. One, I think when we’re talking about a context with weak institutions or corrupt or predatory institutions, one of the effects of that is the deterioration of public trust and views of the government as the legitimate authority within a territory. So, the deterioration of trust and the deterioration of legitimacy of the state often opens up space for non-state criminal actors like transnational organized crime, which is something that we see not only in Guatemala, but throughout Latin America. But it also opens the door to the kinds of political leaderships that essentially make the case that human rights and democratic institutions are actually a barrier to efficiently and effectively governing.

So, I think the clearest case we’re seeing of this right now is actually in Guatemala’s neighbor El Salvador with Nayib Bukele who has effectively co-opted the entire political system and has now been given the green light to run again in the February 2024 elections that are upcoming. He remains the most popular elected leader in Latin America today. He is certainly a populist authoritarian who has steadily dismantled democratic guardrails in the country in a very, very serious way. Guatemala does not have this tradition of personalist leaders who ascend to power and from there seek to dismantle democratic institutions. Guatemala’s system is much more coalitional in nature. It has different sectors who are not completely aligned all the time, but they close ranks when it comes to maintaining corruption and maintaining impunity.

My fear, going back to the previous question, is that this combination of weak governance and the disillusionment with the potential ineffectiveness of an Arévalo regime is going to pave the way for this type of an authoritarian figure to come forward and say all of these checks on institutions that are already eroding are actually a barrier to governing effectively. So as a sort of charismatic personalist leader, I’m going to come in and right the ship. I think that’s part of the dynamic here and part of my concern.


Yeah, Bukele and El Salvador are very much a different story because it’s one where Bukele has consolidated authoritarian control through looking for short term governance solutions, in my opinion. That he’s going to wipe out crime by putting everybody who is possibly a criminal, whether they are or not, into jail. And crime rates have gone down. I mean, he’s delivered results. But I wonder if they’re short-term results because he doesn’t have the institutions in place to be able to make them last beyond these draconian policies that he’s put in place. Guatemala is very different in the sense that the institutions wore away over time in a lot of places because people were making short term calculations and almost through an invisible hand where people did what they thought made sense at the moment and those institutions wore away.

That’s what makes your thesis so compelling about the way that civil war did not reinforce institutions but actually wore them away because the civil war provided the context that different people who were in power up and down the chain were making decisions in places that seemed innocuous, such as in customs that seemed to be a place to be able to raise revenue. But as a result, they were withering away institutions necessary for governance long term. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened and how that’s related to the fact that Guatemala’s civil war was ongoing for so long that that affected that very specific and again, seemingly irrelevant institution that had knock down effects further down the road?

Rachel Schwartz

So, the dynamic that we see in Guatemala and that I think we see in a lot of mid-late 20th century civil wars is a sense that in waging a counterinsurgent campaign in this effort to eliminate an internal enemy, which existed in the Guatemalan context, was not terribly strong. It was not necessarily at any point capable of toppling the state. But it existed and that was used as a justification by military actors at the time who were very much supported by US government military and political officials to seize control of every corner of the state apparatus.

So, for example, the Customs Administration, yes, it seems innocuous. But military officials made a pretty strong case that this is how guns and other weaponry and other material resources are entering the country and going to this internal enemy, these leftist insurgent groups that are sort of right at our doorstep. This is what ends up justifying this complete takeover of the state. It’s a takeover that’s not necessarily done at the hands of the military institution writ large. Instead, it’s done under the control of a relatively small, elite, specialized clique of military intelligence officers who are trusted by international partners like the United States who have gone through extensive professionalized training, which has been ramped up in the Guatemalan case in the 1970s.

These actors essentially use this broad discretion they are given to wage a counterinsurgent campaign, to essentially wither or erode existing institutions. But one of the things I point out in the book that I think is really important is that they also create new institutions. They implant these new rules of the game, these new arrangements, that essentially allow them to accrue private economic benefits at the expense of the state by doing the things that we expect a state and state institutions to do like collecting tax revenues.

This is how this unfolds and one of the things that I think is important about the book and connects this past story to the present is that the peace process, far from being a space to implant and build new, clean, efficient, strong democratic institutions, became a space for these elite military actors to figure out how do I continue to occupy, for example, this space within the customs apparatus within a new democratic framework and under civilian rule. So, peace doesn’t become a dramatic break with the past. Peace actually becomes a space in which these actors who have been empowered within war try to figure out how to maintain what they gained out of war.


Which again comes back to the corruption of institutions that I was talking about before. That the institutions didn’t disappear, like you said. New institutions are established. But more importantly, the idea of customs is supposed to be watching for things that are illegal coming into the country and to tax things coming into the country so that the state can gain revenues from those taxes. That institution withered away. It was corrupted into something that existed so that the military could exercise power, determine who was able to import stuff into the country, who was able to export stuff out of the country and to be able to bring in revenue to the military and to the officers directly. It changed the way the entire customs functioned.

It corrupted it from something that was supposed to work for the gain of the state and hence in a democracy for the people into something that was working for the benefit of the military and its officers. It changed the entire rules of the game, like you would say, but it changed the nature of those institutions themselves.

Rachel Schwartz

Absolutely. Absolutely. A hundred percent.


The extrajudicial killing is another one that, again, relates back to what’s going on in El Salvador. It relates to things that are happening in the Philippines. It relates to things that are happening in many parts of the world. How is it that that became normalized in Guatemala, because it relates back to things that are happening in the civil war? Why was it that that was something that people were willing to tolerate at the beginning, but then became an even larger issue over time?

Rachel Schwartz

So, these death squads that I write about in the book that engage in this systematic extrajudicial killing are in many ways rooted in the early period of the war. They actually are not generated by the state initially. These tend to be privatized groups of landowners, other landed elite and business owners who are very concerned, particularly in eastern Guatemala, about the rise of the leftist guerrilla insurgency and what that might mean for their own economic situation and security situation. So, they essentially forge these groups and beginning really in the late 60s, early 70s, we see the state and these more privatized groups begin to fuse and the state essentially takes these extrajudicial killing procedures and adopts them as their own essentially.

So, we end up seeing a practice that is carried out at a very localized level become part and parcel of the state and what the state does. It’s very convenient for the Guatemalan military government at the time to be able to say these are extreme right wing death squads. They’re not linked to the military at all. At the same time, they are doing the bidding of the Guatemalan state. So, fast forward, what we end up seeing is the persistence of these types of groups and activities as a result of the continuing power of these far-right military linked actors that are rooted in the private sector, in agriculture, as well as the ascent of some of these individuals to the top of the police hierarchy and within the security cabinet within the new civilian government.

So, these actors move around. But from these new positions within this new civilian led nominally democratic context, they’re able to maintain these rules of the game in order to both take out political opponents, as well as sort of criminal rivals, because we know that a lot of these groups, in addition to engaging in extrajudicial killing, were also involved in other organized criminal activities like drug trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping.


Yeah and again, it’s another corruption of those institutions, because institutions like the military, the police didn’t disappear or go away. But now they’re being used for purposes that are not what you would think of the police or the military to be used for. I mean, they’re now being used for the benefit of completely different actors that see the fact that we can be able to murder our rivals. We can be able to use force to be able to strengthen our own illicit trades in other businesses.

There are so many different things that it just opens up a Pandora’s box of different possibilities that, again, these are institutions that I think people would say are problems, but they’re not related back to democracy itself. Yet when you weaken these institutions of the state, it inevitably leads to a weakening of democracy. It inevitably leads to democratic backsliding eventually.

Rachel Schwartz

Yes, I would completely agree. I think that the challenge that places like Guatemala faces is that you have a nominally low-quality democratic context, where all of the institutions that you would expect to see within a democratic system exist on paper, but in order for the ruling elite, and here I’m talking about a mix of the traditional political class, certain members of the private sector, certain current and former military actors, when you have a system in which that’s anchored in impunity for those actors and the ability to engage in systematic corruption and rent seeking, you necessarily need it to weaken democratic institutions.

If you were those actors, you can’t allow an independent media to expose your corruption and malfeasance that’s going to generate societal backlash. You can’t allow an independent judiciary to investigate you and bring charges against you. Again, that’s going to threaten your political standing as well as the economic rents that you’re accustomed to accruing. So, even though we have a system in which the architecture of democracy exists on paper, in order for this group to maintain its political and economic power, those institutions are necessarily distorted. They’re necessarily weakened. I would argue that weakening is done in order to implant new rules of the game and to secure these new rules of the game.


I think it is even more so a direct assault on democracy in ways that if you elect people and the people speak and say we want to do X, we want to do Y, we want to do Z, and they put people in power to be able to do that, but those institutions don’t work the way that people would expect them to work in a normal state, democracy doesn’t function the right way anymore. If people said, we want to increase the revenue that we’re gaining through the customs through tariffs or if they said we’d like to be able to increase trade within the country and increase investment, so we’re going to lower tariffs and we’re going to encourage people to bring in goods and bring in businesses into our country, no matter what the people decide, the customs is being controlled by the military.

It’s not up to the people. It’s not up to the democratic institutions to decide how they’re governed. If you have extrajudicial groups going out and murdering people, it’s not up to the people to be able to change the laws and change the enforcement. It’s no longer subject to democratic deliberations, no longer subject to democratic decision making. It takes it out of the democratic context, even though it’s something that people would naturally think of as being within the context of people making those decisions, people electing leaders to be able to change those rules.

The leaders aren’t capable of changing those rules unless if they fundamentally change the institutions going forward and that seems to be the challenge for Guatemala is going to be the fact that so many institutions have withered away. So many institutions have corrupted in different ways that it’s not simply that you put a new leader in, but they’re going to have to find ways to be able to fundamentally change institutions that have eroded over time, not just democracy backsliding, but institutions of the state backsliding over time.

Rachel Schwartz

I completely agree. This reminds me of a few years ago, the Carnegie Endowment with a researcher who’s done a lot of work in Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes, published a report about Honduras and the main argument of that report is we’re talking about a context in Honduras where corruption and criminality are the operating system. They’re not the exception. They’re the norm. This is not an aberration. This is how the system works. This is how the wheels are greased. This is how things get done.

Of course, they get done in a way that benefits a very small part of society. They get done in a way in which these bedrock features of democracy, accountability, and participation don’t exist or are tossed to the side. So, the challenge is how do you engage in this big systematic change when you have four years and you are already backed into a corner by powerful actors that are seeking to undermine your rule before you even assume power?


Do you feel that one of the real challenges in Guatemala has been the fact that we’ve overstated how democratic the country really is? Because on paper and in process, they’ve been electing leaders. We’ve been able to declare them as having democratized, but we haven’t been pushing them to be able to truly transform those institutions of the state in ways that make it much more democratic. We’ve fallen short in a lot of ways and in ways the Guatemalan people have effectively fallen short. They haven’t taken that next step to be able to take their democracy to the next level. Do you think that we’ve overstated how democratic we believe that the country is because of the procedural institutions that they have in place on paper?

Rachel Schwartz

So, I think we’ve long overestimated the degree and quality of democracy in Guatemala. I think a lot of that has to do with this somewhat unique brand of authoritarianism that we see in the country. I think when we look at a case like Nicaragua, which is today a closed, highly repressive autocracy that is in the hands of a family dynasty, much like the one that was deposed in 1979 in the Sandinista Revolution, that looks a lot more authoritarian to us because we see the concentration of power in the hands of, in this case, a president and vice president who are husband and wife, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

When we look at the case of El Salvador where we have a year and a half long state of exception, the mass arbitrary arrest of 75,000 people accused of links to gangs who are being denied due process, who are facing torture and detention, when we see a coopted judiciary in El Salvador change the rules to allow a president to run for another consecutive term, when we see the president like Bukele did early in his term, bring the military into Congress to try to strong arm legislators into passing his security budget, those things look sort of in a classic sense, deeply authoritarian to us.

I think the Guatemalan context, because Guatemala’s ruling class is comprised of a somewhat diverse coalition of actors and we see the regular transfer of power even though it’s not meaningless, because it just sort of shifts between members of this criminal oligarchic coalition, but we see the transfer of power, we see elections that are generally free and fair and clean if at times violent at the local level, it looks a lot more democratic to us. The democratic facade of the Guatemalan system is much more well put together. It’s a much better facade in other words.


Twenty years ago, we would have said the same thing though about Nicaragua or El Salvador. Hopefully, this isn’t the case, but they could just be a more advanced form of what we’re seeing in Guatemala today. Because Nicaragua is the other case study within your book, they face some of the same issues Guatemala did, particularly due to institutional carryover from the Civil War. El Salvador was facing some similar issues before Bukele took power and we’re seeing the direction that their country is going. I guess the question that’s on my mind here is – When was the moment to really transform the country? I mean, it could be now. When is the moment that it would be easiest to have done something? Was it during the Civil War to be able to step in and make sure things didn’t happen? Was it during those nascent periods of democratization?

When do you think the moment was that there was the most momentum that things could be done there, because we’re seeing other places that I think are experiencing similar moments of democratic backsliding that in some ways kind of resemble Guatemala looking at the Philippines and some other countries like that. When do you think somebody should have stepped in and actually transformed the country and been able to succeed, at least been most effective to succeed?

Rachel Schwartz

I think now is actually the moment. I really do think now is the moment for change. Despite my pessimism about the challenges that Arévalo is going to face if and when he takes office on January 14th, I’m incredibly heartened by the kind of mobilization that I’ve seen in Guatemala. The title to Anita and my article is “How Guatemala Defied the Odds.” We can’t overstate how tremendous those odds that were defied actually were. Again, this was an election that was meant to cement authoritarian rule and it became a democratic breakthrough. It became a democratic breakthrough, I think, because a wide swath of society that I think had learned from the previous anti-corruption campaign said to itself, we don’t have to stand for this.

We do not have to elect another status quo figure that’s going to spend the next four years stealing from us while our roads crumble, while children continue to go without food, and while the devastation of climate change continues to lead to massive displacement. We don’t have to stand for that. We can choose something different and we can imagine something different. That’s something that I think is really powerful and that we shouldn’t underestimate in this moment. Part of my fears about a sort of Bukele-like figure emerging in 2027 are allayed by things I’m seeing now. I think people are coming to understand the value of democracy and what democracy means and how to come together and defend democracy in a way that we haven’t seen in Guatemala’s post-conflict period.

So, on the one hand, I’m pessimistic at the prospects of change over the next four years by the abiding power of this criminal oligarchic elite that is increasingly intent on not only maintaining impunity, but undermining and dismantling democratic institutions. But at the same time, I think we’re starting to see real counterweights within society and within the political system and within the international community too. This to me is encouraging.


Rachel, thank you so much. This is certainly becoming a story of hope right now. Let me mention the book one more time. It’s called Undermining the State from Within: The Institutional Legacies of Civil War in Central America. It’s a fascinating read that I think puts together not just two very important case studies that get overlooked, but also helps us think differently about some of the big picture questions that we have in terms of what the state is and how it relates back to democracy itself. So, thank you for writing the book. Thank you for joining me today.

Rachel Schwartz

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