People demonstrate outside the Attorney General’s Office headquarters in Guatemala City on July 13, 2023. (Photo by Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images.)

When Guatemalans go to the polls this Sunday, they’ll find something startling on the ballot: hope. And, though most Americans wouldn’t know it, the election offers the United States something equally rare: a chance for redemption for one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the post-war era.
Sunday’s election pits an earnest, wonky center-left reformer against Guatemala’s deeply entrenched kleptocratic elite. The reformer, Bernardo Arévalo, barely made it to the second round ballot after a portion of that elite tried to have him disqualified after he shocked them by placing second in the first round back in June. They failed.
If you’ve heard anything at all about Bernardo Arévalo, you’ve likely heard he is the son of a former Guatemalan president. That’s true, but it hardly puts across the resonance of the Arévalo name in Guatemalan history. Bernardo’s father, Juan José, was Guatemala’s first democratically elected president in 1945—the founding figure of a fledgling democratic regime bound for tragedy.
For most of the first half of the 20th century, the storied, Boston-based United Fruit Company had run Guatemala as a virtual fiefdom in collaboration with local military dictators. Systems like Guatemala’s before the Arévalo era are where we get the phrase “Banana Republic” from—not a mid-market casual fashion label, but a quasi-colonial system of exploitation at the hands of private interests.