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Guatemala's ruling class wants to stop Bernardo Arevalo from becoming president

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This past summer, a presidential candidate who opposes corruption defied all odds and won the presidency in Guatemala.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARDO AREVALO: (Speaking Spanish).

INSKEEP: He said that he accepted with humility this victory on behalf of the people. Bernardo Arevalo campaigned on fighting poverty and improving governance. Now the country's ruling class wants to stop him from becoming president. The government suspended Arevalo's political party, which the attorney general accused of wrongdoing. His supporters have since filled the streets to protest and demand that he take office in January. NPR's Eyder Peralta talks with the defendant - talks with the man defending his electoral victory.

AREVALO: So we didn't have any plans. And at some point, we look out of the window, and they say, did you see? They're here. And we go out. And with the vice president, we say, we need to go down. And then the security team comes and say, no way. You cannot go down like that.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: That was August 21. Bernardo Arevalo has just won the presidency, a stunning development considering he was an unlikely candidate leading an idealistic party backed by a bunch of young people, and he won with a 21-point lead. And now thousands of people were celebrating outside his hotel.

AREVALO: But we said, but we cannot leave them like that. I mean, we were behind a glass just waving. It was not what was required. So we went out completely unplanned, unscripted, just to say thank you.

PERALTA: I was there that day on the street, and it was euphoric.

This is a huge celebration in Guatemala because this was not supposed to happen. People are chanting, yes, we did it. Yes, it could be done. Now the president-elect and the vice president-elect are out on the balcony, and they're waving. And you can hear this crowd.

Did you feel the weight of that moment?

AREVALO: Absolutely. People never go to the streets to celebrate political wins. It's not in their hearts. But here, they were doing it. And so we understood the weight that this implied in terms of the hope and expectations that come attached to hope in terms of, yeah, we want to get rid of this. And you brought us hope. Now the challenge is deliver it. So, yeah, comes with a weight.

PERALTA: But almost immediately, that moment was followed by attempts to keep Arevelo from taking office. A court ordered that his party be disqualified. Authorities raided his party offices. And even after the election results had been finalized, the attorney general's office ransacked the electoral commission without saying what they were investigating. Arevalo has described this as a slow-motion coup, a modern way to subvert democracy.

AREVALO: The coup d'etats of the past was - were an affair that happened in two days with a lot of power, and then you use the armies of other security forces to generate a change of government, ousting the people at the point of bayonets. OK? So that was it.

PERALTA: (Inaudible) Guatemala come January. Do you not believe him?

AREVALO: Well, we have - I have asked him, and the OAS has asked him, and the international community has asked him to come out clearly and said that he is against these efforts for political persecution. He has not done so. So ask him.

PERALTA: To Bernardo Arevalo, what is happening in Guatemala is part of something bigger. In Central America, there has been a huge democratic backslide. In Nicaragua, institutions have been co-opted to keep President Daniel Ortega in power off and on for almost 30 years. In El Salvador, the courts have been used to reinterpret the constitution, allowing President Nayib Bukele to seek reelection. In Guatemala, judges, journalists, human rights activists had been sent into exile by an increasingly authoritarian government.

AREVALO: I think that at this point in time, not only in Latin America, not only in Central America, but all over the world, democracy is at a difficult moment. We have threats, some old, some new, emerging that are, you know, questioning the basic principles of democratic coexistence in a society. And we need to bring democratic institutions that also respond to the needs of the people, because one of the reasons why democracy is being questioned in many places is because it has stopped to deliver the social development, the social justice that everybody requires in order to develop our life in dignity and in security. So I think that we need to claim democracy back. And that's what we hope to do in our government.

PERALTA: Whether or not he gets that chance will be decided in the new year. Bernardo Arevalo is scheduled to become president January 14.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.