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Tensions rise ahead of the presidential election in Guatemala


These are tense times in Guatemala in the run-up to the final vote in the presidential election. Days of protests followed a recent Justice Department decision to investigate one of Guatemala's political parties. Their reformist candidate surprised everyone by winning a place in next month's runoff. The U.S. has expressed deep concern about this latest turn of events, as well as others in the region who will be watching the next few weeks closely. Reporter Maria Martin has more from Guatemala.


BERNARDO AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Bernardo Arevalo, the candidate no one expected to win, continues his tour of heavily attended campaign stops.


AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: In largely Indigenous Totonicapan, thousands showed up to hear Arevalo say it's time to end not only corruption, but centuries of racism and discrimination in Guatemala.


AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Last month, Arevalo, the candidate from the small reformist party Semilla, won the second-highest number of votes to qualify for an August runoff. He now faces former first lady Sandra Torres, whose candidacy is supported by the establishment and who once spent time in prison for corruption. Arevalo's message of change is resonating with many Guatemalans fed up with a system of politicians who they think want to cling to power at all costs.

CARLOS TEJEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "They are just messing with us," says 65-year-old Carlos Tejeda of Jocotenango who lost his legs to diabetes and uses a wheelchair.

TEJEDA: (Through interpreter) It's a mockery that they tell us to go to the polls, and then this small group wants to manipulate everything so our vote doesn't count. Democracy is ending here.

MARTIN: Nevertheless, Tejeda's looking forward to voting for Arevalo.



MARTIN: Maya Weaver Melissa Lopez is part of the increasingly important youth vote. She says she and her friends in the community of San Antonio Aguas Calientes are also looking forward to casting their ballots for Arevalo soon.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) They like his background as a public figure - and because of his father, who was also president.

MARTIN: Arevalo's a sociologist who served in Congress and as an ambassador. And he's the son of Juan Jose Arevalo, revered as the first democratically elected president during the so-called Guatemalan spring in the 1940s, which ended when a 1954 CIA-sponsored coup brought decades of civil conflict and military dictatorships.

ENRIQUE NAVEDA: I've been covering Guatemala for almost two decades now, and I think I've never seen this kind of popular enthusiasm for a political candidate.

MARTIN: Journalist Enrique Naveda is with the investigative site Plaza Publica.

NAVEDA: Most of the time, the only choice people face, as they see it, is voting for the lesser of two evils. It doesn't seem to be the case now for many citizens that are responding in many ways to the unexpected result of the first electoral round.

MARTIN: Many Guatemalans took to the streets after the Justice Department initially suspended Arevalo's party.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: Since then, a court decision has allowed campaigning to continue, but an investigation still hangs over the Semilla party. In the meantime, five weeks remain before the August 20 runoff. And because this is Guatemala, anything could happen.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Martin