When election season rolls around in Guatemala, politicians make bombastic speeches about how migrants are national heroes for settling in the United States, at great personal sacrifice, and sending back the millions of dollars in remittances that keep the Central American country’s economy afloat.
But in practice, these migrants often have been treated by their homeland as second-class citizens, stripped of their right to take part in national elections. Although Guatemalans living in the United States were permitted in 2019 to vote for first time in a presidential contest, many have complained on social media, WhatsApp chats and via letters and emails to election officials that they’re being stymied by a shortage of polling stations and difficulties in accessing the voter registration website for the June 25 election.
“We are the ones who are least taken into account,” said Alba Rojas, a clothing designer originally from Quetzaltenango who settled in Los Angeles in the late 1990s and voted in 2019.
Rojas and other Guatemalans living in the United States have denounced Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) for what they perceive as its persistent mishandling of the electoral process. And they are angrily criticizing the appointment of Hugo Mérida, whom they view as a partisan political ally of President Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei, to be the coordinator and the electoral board’s liaison for the voter abroad process.
Mérida and other Guatemalan officials respond that they have invested significant resources in this year’s foreign voter process, and that critics are unfairly downplaying these efforts and are themselves politically motivated.
Like many of her compatriots, Marta Castillo, a Guatemala native and activist who settled in the New York City area in 1969, is deeply suspicious of election administrators and highly skeptical that the entire process will be free or fair. Her fears are compounded by her awareness that voting is being allowed only for Guatemalan expatriates in the United States and not for those in Canada, Mexico, Spain and other Central American and European countries.
“It’s a hoax, it’s a dirty political maneuver and corruption, because it’s not convenient for those of us who are abroad to vote,” Castillo said.
The 2019 election received little promotion in the United States, where only four polling stations were available, in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Silver Spring, Md., outside Washington, D.C. Although immigrants in June will be able to vote in more than 12 cities, activists here believe that number is still insufficient and that the electoral board hasn’t adequately promoted the event.
In 2019, Guatemala’s electoral rolls numbered about 63,000 voters abroad. For this election cycle, by March 25 — the final date to register — the figure stood at 89,554.
In the first round of elections in 2019, a mere 734 votes were counted for Guatemalans living in the United States; even fewer, 521, cast ballots in the second round.
“The way this is going, the elections are going to be the same as a failure [as in 2019], because I don’t think the TSE has done an appropriate job,” said Ben Monterroso, 64, president of the Vote of Guatemalans Resident Abroad, an organization created in 2021 to promote electoral participation, and co-founder of Mi Familia Vota. He attributes the limited participation in part to many expatriates lacking a personal identification document (DPI) issued by the Guatemalan government, which serves as a requirement for voting.
“From the beginning the TSE has not done its job of documenting and registering people, and to this day there has been no campaign to inform and motivate people to register,” Monterroso said. “From the beginning, the party goes badly.”
Four years ago, the TSE invested a total of 47 million quetzales ($6 million) to cover the entire foreign voting process. For the June 25 election the budget is $2.5 million.
Last August, Walter Batres, president of the Guatemalan Migrant Network, a nonprofit advocacy and assistance group, proposed that the TSE and various other Guatemalan government agencies hold a mass documentation day in Los Angeles. But his idea gained no traction with the Guatemalan government, he said.
“This is nothing more than makeup,” Batres said of this year’s election process. “Postal voting and electronic voting work, but they don’t want Guatemalans to vote, because if the people vote en masse we would say goodbye to the corrupt pact.”
Equally troubling to U.S. activists is the role of Mérida, who helped finance Giammattei’s 2019 presidential campaign and who has been contracted by the TSE “to provide technical services” for about $2,000 per month.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mérida said that local activists are simply envious. He attempted to justify his financial support of Giammattei four years ago by asserting that he also supported six other presidential candidates.
“We held meetings and receptions for each of them,” said Mérida, a professional accountant who at the time was president of the National Coalition of Guatemalan Immigrants in the United States.
Mérida also said that in his role as coordinator he will oversee the selection of the approximately 900 volunteers needed at U.S. polling stations for first-round voting on June 25. If no candidate receives a majority of first-round votes, a second round of voting will take place in August.
In the interview with The Times, Mérida also confirmed that at least four of the five TSE magistrates are his friends. The TSE office did not a respond to The Times’ request to speak with the TSE president. Two TSE magistrates did not respond to phone calls from The Times.
Activists are disturbed by Mérida’s expansive influence.
“This is a Giammattei appointment. How do you want the community to accept something from a president we don’t respect?” said Juan Carlos Méndez, a Guatemalan community leader and bishop of the Centro Cristiano Bet-El church in South Gate. “When they come out with this nonsense, it is an insult to the migrant community.”
What some U.S. activists fear above all is that the suspicions aroused by this year’s foreign voter process will feed the apathy of expatriate Guatemalans, leading to their further disenfranchisement and alienation from their native country.
“It is a rigged situation and generates distrust with something so special. The purity of the vote is immediately lost,” said Aroldo Ramírez, a native of Izabal and advisor to the organization Misión Guatemala USA, which provides aid through social projects and defends immigrant rights. “My request would be to name a suitable person, who generates a lot of trust and honesty, who has nothing to do directly with the official party.”
Alicia Ivonne Estrada, a professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge, said that the corruption within the TSE reflects the broader corruption of Guatemalan politics, stemming from the genocidal civil war of 1960-1996.
“Guatemala is a co-opted state, it is co-opted by corrupt people,” she said.