Manuel Baldizón, Guatemala's Runner-Up Turned Prez?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s a small country. But it’s at a historic turning point.
By Shannon Sims
The camera pans on today’s scene in Guatemala — historic upheaval, corruption investigations, nearly every person in the government swimming in dirty money. We see Cabinet members scatter like roaches from the light. We watch the country’s first female vice-president get arrested and sit wide-eyed in courtrooms en route to jail. Citizens call for the immediate impeachment of President Otto Pérez Molina. And in the dramatic scene just yesterday, his supporters formed a human chain around the Guatemalan Congress building to prevent lawmakers from voting on a measure that would strip him of his cushy immunity. No dice — his immunity is gone, and prosecutors spent last night drafting the documents that could lead to his arrest.
This was the season finale to Guatemala’s biggest corruption mess — one “on a scale we haven’t seen before,” says Regina Bateson, political science professor at MIT. But that was last season. We’re about to launch into a new season, one that (if we’re honest) reviewers have yet to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, simply because we don’t know much about its new protagonist. As the presidential election approaches on Sept. 6, so too does the moment for 45-year-old Manuel Baldizón — the presumptive new leader.
That’s because, in the last few elections here, there has been a “tacit understanding that who comes in second will win the next election,” says University of Texas professor Virginia Garrard-Burnett. And so, just like on the TV dating show The Bachelor, coming in second in a Guatemalan election can actually be a good thing: Even if you don’t get the final rose, you’re positioned to be the new Bachelorette the next time around. And with lawyerly glasses, a twinkling smile and slick, parted hair, Baldizón, who didn’t respond to our eager pleas for comment, looks like someone you’d want to invite on the hometown date. (OK, he’s married with two kids — details.)
His competition: a former first lady who may not be legally eligible to run and a former comedian who employs blackface.
Viewers might not naturally tune into what amounts to a political telenovela, but what happens in this country of nearly 16 million people, just about two decades removed from a 36-year-long civil war, matters. Guatemala’s murder rate is nearly double Mexico’s, according to U.N. data — and the nation also has one of the world’s highest femicide rates, according to the Small Arms Survey. That instability is visible in the U.S., where (until we have Donald Trump’s “big, beautiful, powerful wall” or something else) migrants from Guatemala continue to make their way across American borders. In 2013, for example, the $5.4 billion (up almost a billion from 2008) in remittances that the million-plus Guatemalans living abroad (almost all in the U.S.) sent home accounted for more than a tenth of Guatemalan gross domestic product.
But despite the fact that most count Baldizón a shoe-in, all we’ve really got to go on is a catalog of contradictions: He’s campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, but his running mate is under investigation for money laundering. He’s positioning himself as a tough-on-crime guy with a pro-death-penalty stance, but for years he has been reported, in local and international media, to have ties to narcotraffickers. He fancies himself a pedigreed intellectual, though he’s been accused by some local media of plagiarizing both his political stump book and his doctoral thesis. (Plenty of other outlets ardently defend him here.) His party stands for center-right populism, but he represents the “new elite,” most Guatemalans don’t really know much about him and he has “no genuine popular support,” says Garrard-Burnett.
It helps that his toughest competition is coming from a former first lady who might not even be legally eligible to run and a former comedian who employs blackface. “There is no better option,” says Ana López Molina, a Guatemalan social scientist living in Argentina, “and that is the root of the problem.” But just look at that smile!
Baldizón comes from the Petén region of the country, a thick panhandle jutting into Mexico and boxing out Belize, with a Wild West reputation and some of the best Mayan ruins in the world. In the middle of the region, a known favorite narco-hideout, sits a large lake; it was there, on a tiny island called La Isla de Flores, that Baldizón, son of a wealthy doctor, lived out an idyllic childhood — Edenic romping, artisan fishing. One of his childhood friends (who declined to use his name for this article because “things might be OK now, but we don’t know what’s about to happen in Guatemala”) recalled Baldizón running free and barefoot across the island with his three siblings, in a friendly environment where the families all knew each other. “The island was like one big field to play in,” our source recalls. In the late ’80s, then-17-year-old Baldizón joined the military; by then, the worst of the civil war had already ended and he didn’t rank high. It wasn’t his moment. If elected, Baldizón will be the first president lacking a wartime record to either help or hurt.
Instead, Baldizón’s strength comes from his connections, says Garrard-Burnett, connections he accumulated studying law and business in Chile and Spain, and as a monied tycoon. Those ties helped him pivot into Congress in 2003, as a member of the conservative PAN party. He then switched to the former president’s social-democrat party and was re-elected to Congress. And then he (again) switched, founding his own party, LIDER, under whose banner he ran for president in 2011. (Party switching is common: Guatemala has one of the “most fluid, volatile political party systems in the world,” says Bateson.)
Though Baldizón got sent home in a limo, he’s back, ready to dole out the roses to new Cabinet members and advisers soon enough. And Baldizón is ready — just look at his face, on grinning billboards around the country: “It’s his turn,” they read.