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Why Guatemala has never had an indigenous president

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story we incorrectly say “not a single” Guatemalan presidential candidate is Indigenous. In fact Amilcar Pop, a Maya Q’eqchi’, received about 1.6 percent of the vote.]


Guatemalans will go to the polls this weekend to elect a new president. By some estimates, about half the country identifies as Indigenous. Yet in an election with nearly two dozen candidates, not a single one is Indigenous, and Guatemala has never had a Native president. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on why.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The man on the stage begs people in the park to gather in front of him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Otherwise," he says, "our presidential candidate will not come on stage." We're in the mountains of Quiche, smack in the middle of Guatemala's Indigenous heartland. But the candidate they're waiting for, Zury Rios, is controversial here. She's not Indigenous, and her father is infamous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Efrain Rios Montt was a military dictator in the '80s, and in 2013, he was convicted of genocide against the Mayan people in these same lands. So for 10 minutes, the man on stage cajoles, begs, threatens. Yet the people here don't move closer to the stage. Most are dressed in their Indigenous outfits. Most have their arms folded. So the organizers give up.



PERALTA: Zury Rios walks on stage to near-silence and almost immediately rubs history in their faces.

ZURY RIOS: (Speaking Spanish).


PERALTA: "Thank you for the love you always showed me when I came here with my father, the general Rios Montt."


PERALTA: Rios leaves. The people go to the party offices to get their free lunch, a tamale and a Coke. And I ask a young woman, why even come here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

PERALTA: "Curiosity killed the cat," she says. "But in all seriousness," she explains, "it's a Saturday. The politicians sent trucks to the villages, so it was a chance for a day trip." But on the way here, she talked to the women on the trucks and told them not to vote for Zury Rios.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Maybe it's not her fault," she says, "but Zury Rios should know what her father did here." She was a kid, and she remembers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "There were soldiers everywhere. We couldn't talk. We were forced to walk with our heads down."


PERALTA: Guatemala has had Indigenous presidential candidates in the past. The Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu ran in 2007 and 2011, but she only got about 3% of the vote. In 2019, Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous human rights activist, got 10% of the vote. In a country where 13% can get you into a second round, Cabrera became a real contender. So this time around, in what was widely viewed as a political move, the courts threw out her candidacy.

THELMA CABRERA: (Laughter). (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: We meet her not far from the rally, and she says it doesn't surprise her that her people showed up to Zury Rios' campaign rally.

CABRERA: (Through interpreter) People are afraid of revealing themselves. People are scared of organizing because if they do, they get tagged as thieves, terrorists, criminals.

PERALTA: Since 2018, she says, about 27 Indigenous activists have been murdered here. As she sees it, in Guatemala, colonialism ended. Civil war came. A peace treaty was signed. Rios Montt was convicted of genocide. That conviction was overturned. But one thing never changed. The Indigenous community remained marginalized. The statistics are stunning. Six in 10 kids don't reach high school in predominantly Indigenous regions. Nearly 80% live in poverty. Cabrera herself has a sixth-grade education. As she sees it, when politicians throw crumbs, the Indigenous population shows up.

CABRERA: (Through interpreter) With their economic power, with the freebies, they buy wills, and they divide the population.



PERALTA: The next day, we joined Thelma Cabrera on the campaign trail in Santa Cruz del Quiche. She should be a rock star here, but her campaign is basic. She rolls up in a pickup truck with handmade signs and homemade fireworks.

CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).


CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She's not running for president, but she rolls around the country decrying a government she says is hopelessly corrupt...

CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: ...And begging voters not to be swayed by money or gifts.

CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "People, let's choose dignity," she says. But the crowd around her is small, the cheers muted. People tell me they're worried about more concrete things - security, clean water, a health system that keeps them alive. Olga Leyva, who's selling bread just a few steps away, says she doesn't trust any politician because they've always been on their own here.

OLGA LEYVA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "All humans make mistakes, and we've had Indigenous mayors in nearby towns," she says, "and things still don't change."

LEYVA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "The Bible even says it. Cursed is the man who trusts in man." I asked Thelma Cabrera why she didn't call for protests when she was thrown off the ballot, why Zury Rios wasn't booed offstage.

CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We're not going to use our people as cannon fodder against our masters," she says. "The truth," she admits, "is that the Guatemalan people aren't ready for that confrontation." They're processing centuries of subjugation, and politicians like her are paying for apathy they had no part in building.

CABRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "The people will decide," she says. "Time will decide." Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Santa Cruz del Quiche in Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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

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