Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: A grassroots campaign shakes up Guatemala’s presidential election, Barbados and France hold a climate finance summit, and OPEC courts Guyana amid an oil boom.
The first round of Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday was a shock to pollsters. Center-left lawmaker Bernardo Arévalo, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, had ranked lowly, in eighth place in the last major poll released prior to the vote. But Arévalo shot up to second on election day itself—and made an Aug. 20 runoff alongside Sandra Torres, who was Guatemala’s first lady from 2008 to 2011 and had long been polling in the lead.
To understand the scale of the upset, political scientists Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez and Lucas Perelló crunched data from all available first-round Latin American presidential elections since 2015, comparing candidates’ final preelection poll numbers to results. In proportional terms, Arévalo’s jump was the highest of any candidate in the region during that period.
The results were surprising for reasons beyond the polling discrepancy. Throughout the course of the campaign, Guatemalan election authorities steadily disqualified a string of candidates who looked as though they had a shot at unseating candidates from the country’s political elite. Torres—a socially conservative centrist who has run unsuccessfully for president twice before—is firmly within this establishment.
The suspensions were part of a pattern. Under outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, who cannot run again due to term limits, Guatemalan authorities have forced out several anti-corruption judges and prosecutors and targeted independent media with investigations that were slammed by press freedom advocates.
A European Union election observation mission said in a preliminary statement that while the disqualifications ahead of the election “reduced genuine competition,” election day was “largely calm and well-organized.” Among those who voted, around 24 percent cast blank or spoiled ballots in deliberate protest of the options. Around 16 percent voted for Torres, and around 12 percent voted for Arévalo. The candidate representing Giammattei’s party came in third.
Arévalo’s party, the Seed Movement, has a strong anti-corruption identity. In 2019, it fielded popular anti-corruption Attorney General Thelma Aldana as its presidential candidate before she was disqualified on graft charges that her supporters disputed. But this year, Arévalo’s poor performance in polls may have shielded him from being a target of similar efforts.
When he entered the race, Arévalo was less well-known than Aldana had been; he is a sociologist and former diplomat who only recently entered the legislature. Arévalo’s father was president of Guatemala in the 1940s, but a coup in 1954 led the family to flee to Uruguay, where Arévalo was born.
Now 64 and lacking the political connections and money to ensure heavy television coverage, Arévalo and his party launched a grassroots campaign. They also worked to build his audience on Twitter and TikTok, sometimes referring to him by a folksy nickname embraced by fans: Tío Bernie. Arévalo promised more investments in health care and education and an end to “dirty politics.” He was especially popular among young and urban voters.
At a taping of the Guatemalan podcast TanGente on Monday, analysts mused over how Arévalo’s support could have gone undetected, given that the anti-establishment mood was evident throughout the campaign.
Analyst Daniel Haering said it initially appeared many voters were planning to strategically support candidates to block the most right-wing choice from reaching the runoff. But in the days before the vote, as disillusionment with the whole election process simmered, “young people and people whom young people could convince by talking about Tío Bernie” prevailed. Sociologist and election observer Gustavo Berganza told Confidencial that Arévalo “started to have lots of engagement on social media” over the past two to three weeks.
Arévalo’s party grew from winning seven seats in Congress in the last election to winning 24 seats in this one, becoming the third-largest bloc in the 160-seat unicameral legislature. Giammettei’s party performed well and earned 40 seats.
Ahead of the runoff, a ProDatos poll found that 41 percent of voters said they would never vote for Torres. For Arévalo, a long-shot victory suddenly appears within reach.
“We have yet to really understand this phenomenon,” Haering’s cohost Xavier Soria said during their discussion.
Tuesday, July 4: Argentina hosts a leaders’ summit of the Mercosur customs union.
Wednesday, July 5: The United Nations Human Rights Council discusses Venezuela.
Monday, July 17 to Tuesday, July 18: Leaders of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States countries meet with European Union leaders in Brussels.
OPEC-Guyana relations. Guyana, one of the world’s fastest-growing oil producers, has been invited to attend a July summit of oil cartel OPEC. While the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that OPEC aimed to add Guyana in as a member, Guyanese Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo denied the report and said that Guyana was not interested in joining the bloc at this time.
OPEC membership would almost certainly introduce requirements that Guyana control its oil production—which would run counter to the country’s plans to ramp up drilling in the coming years. By 2027, Guyana could be pumping around 1.2 million barrels of oil per day, according to a forecast by energy firm Hess. That’s more than the daily amount produced by OPEC member Angola in May.
U.S. trade overtures. Last week, the U.S. Senate advanced a treaty with Chile to lower tax rates on economic activity between the two countries. The measure overcame the bipartisan mood in the United States against new trade deals in part due to U.S. interest in Chile’s burgeoning lithium sector. It is expected to be signed into law.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill designed to ease bilateral trade and investment with Uruguay through tariff reductions and new business visa eligibilities. The Uruguay bill represents opportunities that have arisen through a U.S. approach of “friendshoring” its economic links to democratic partner countries, Guy Mentel of the U.S. think tank Global Americans told Uruguayan newspaper El País.
The bill also represents Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou’s efforts to cement trade relations beyond the boundaries of the Mercosur customs union. Lacalle Pou met with U.S. President Joe Biden on June 13 in Washington, where the leaders discussed trade and Biden praised Uruguay as “a regional and global model for democratic governance.”
A historic Argentine airplane. After its whereabouts were unknown to the public for decades, a plane that was flown by agents of the 1976 to 1983 Argentine dictatorship and used to toss dissidents into the sea was located in the United States, where it had been sold and used to carry private mail in Florida and skydivers in Arizona. Flight logs that were found with the plane were used in a trial in Argentina, and it became the first plane ever proved in court to have been used for the so-called “death flights.”
This month, the 1970s-era jet was flown to Buenos Aires, where it is due to go on display in a museum on historical memory of the dictatorship. “It must come back and stand as proof of the brutalities of the past,” Mabel Careaga, the daughter of one of the plane’s victims, told NPR.
Who was the Guatemalan president who was overthrown in the country’s 1954 coup?
Juan José Torres
Árbenz’s leftist profile and push to enact land reform in Guatemala alarmed Washington during the Cold War. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped Guatemalan military officers and elites overthrow him.
Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley co-hosted a summit with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week on reforming global financial institutions to combat the climate crisis. Most heads of state who attended hailed from the developing world, and included Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Colombian President Gustavo Petro. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and the heads of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund also participated.
Existing international finance mechanisms fall drastically short at getting developing countries the money they need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Officials from developing countries have long flagged this financial gap to foot-dragging from the rest of the world. But Mottley and her advisor Avinash Persaud stand out because they have been able to rally leaders from rich countries and organizations behind some of their proposals to fix it. The world’s most famous Barbadian, musician Rihanna, amplified Mottley and Persaud’s cause by tweeting a call for results ahead of the summit.
In Paris, World Bank President Ajay Banga committed to allowing debtor countries hit by climate disasters to temporarily pause their repayments to the bank—one of the policy proposals in a list of reforms known as the Bridgetown Initiative, which Mottley and Persaud began shopping around last year. The United Kingdom also pledged to test similar clauses in some of its lending.
Participants in the conference laid out a wish list of further reforms, some of which were mapped onto a timeline of international summits over the next year. Thanks to a joint proposal from Colombia, France, and Kenya, for example, the timeline includes a deadline of December for the launch of a “global expert review” on how sovereign debt loads affect low- and middle-income countries’ ability to decarbonize. The document did not specify who would direct the review.
At the summit, some participants also announced that Zambia and its bilateral creditors had reached a deal to restructure its sovereign debt and that wealthy countries planned to help finance a group of projects that are part of Senegal’s green transition.
While the summit did not yield immediate commitments on other items in the Bridgetown Initiative, Persaud celebrated it as “a significant point along this journey.” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said at the event that reform measures being considered by multilateral development banks, some of which are already being implemented, could jointly introduce $200 billion in new lending capacity over the next 10 years.
One of Persaud’s key proposals that was included on the road map for future discussion is a mechanism to reduce the high interest rates that developing countries face when trying to borrow money for climate projects from private lenders. The extra cost is often driven upward unnecessarily by overly conservative banks, Persaud told Lee Harris as part of a recent Foreign Policy profile on Persaud.