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‘We have to keep…fighting for justice’: Guatemalans in the US will help elect the next president

Four years ago, when Alejandro Giammattei was elected president of Guatemala, immigrants living in the United States were able to vote for the first time. In that experimental election, 734 votes were counted among the four polling stations that were set up in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City, and Silver Spring, Maryland, a small fraction of the more than 5 million votes cast.

But in this year’s presidential race, scheduled for June 25, there will be polling places again in Los Angeles and Houston, the two US cities with the highest numbers of Guatemalan immigrants, as well as 13 other locations, including Miami, Atlanta, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Chicago. Guatemalans living in the United States have until March 25 to register to vote.

Both in Guatemala, a country ravaged by violence, corruption, and economic inequality, and in expat communities in the US, the upcoming elections raise a great deal of anxieties. For Alicia Ivonne Estrada, a Guatemalan and professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Northridge, they generate fear and mistrust stemming from her experience in 2019, when she went to the local consulate to vote but was not allowed to cast her ballot. .

“There were endless bureaucracies that were invented” at the last minute, “and did not allow the population that wanted to vote from abroad to do so,” said Estrada, a specialist in the diaspora of his country.

In the coming days, delegations from the Supreme Electoral Tribunalo TSE, from Guatemala, will hold registration events on US soil with the aim of expanding electoral rolls and promoting the participation of the migrant population.

“The importance of the vote lies in the power that the people have to seek the changes they want,” said Ingrid Soto, head of the TSE’s external vote.

Soto said that Guatemalans residing in the United States who are still registered as voters in Guatemala must update their addresses, a process that can be done in person during registration or through the TSE web portal. To update an address or register for the first time, voters will need to present a personal identification document, which can be processed at any of the 23 Guatemalan consulates in the United States.

According to the Pew Research Center, based on data from the US Census Bureau, in 2017 there were 1.4 million people of Guatemalan descent living in the United States. But in the 2019 Guatemalan presidential election, only 63,043 of them were registered to vote.

As of March 6, the TSE website reported 86,703 registered voters, a number that reflects both the continued lack of commitment and the limited information that has been published about the elections.

“I didn’t know the truth,” said Gloria Mendez, a Los Angeles resident who emigrated 25 years ago from Villa Nueva, a few miles south of the capital, Guatemala City. “The people who are here, if we don’t know anything, we can’t vote.”

Like many Guatemalans, Méndez takes a skeptical, even cynical, view of politics in general.

“All governments promise, they never deliver,” he said. “Whether I vote or not, it doesn’t matter anyway.”

Despite the apathy of many of her compatriots, Elizabeth Urrutia signed up in January. The young mother, who arrived in California three years ago, said that before leaving Guatemala she studied legal sciences. Later, after setting up her own business, she was the victim of one of the extortion networks that plague the Central American country, forcing her to emigrate.

“I was only asking my country for an opportunity, but there was none,” he lamented.

When she fled Guatemala with her first child, Urrutia was pregnant. With the elections approaching, she has been thinking about the loved ones she left behind. She believes that the current problems the new government will face — job shortages, the rising cost of basic foods, insecurity fueled by drug cartels — make it important for Guatemalans to register.

“We all have the right to choose and cast our vote,” he said.

In Los Angeles, 29 registration tables will be distributed in four voting centers. Guatemalans in San Francisco, San Diego, New York City, Atlanta and Houston will also be able to vote at polling places close to their homes.

“We still have to see the last count of the registration,” said Hugo Mérida, who has been lining up vote centers and recruiting volunteers. “For every 600 people there must be an additional table. In Los Angeles we want to set up 29 tables because there are about 50,000 people registered”.

Mérida said that since February 13, when she took office, she has been working double shifts to set up and staff the centers, which will be supervised by the regional electoral boards. The organizers of the election event say they will need about 900 volunteers.

“Our mission is to bring the polling stations as close as possible,” Mérida said.

After voting ends on June 25, each vote will be counted by electoral boards under the supervision of TSE staff. That information will then be sent by computer personnel to the TSE headquarters in Guatemala City.

Estrada, of Cal State Northridge, emphasized that the TSE and election management are under the control of a corrupt system, and that Guatemala’s elections have historically not been transparent. Whether that ever changes may depend in part on this year’s result.

“In these elections, it is at stake to go back to the 1980s, where there were massacres, disappearances and military repression,” Estrada said.

“Voting is important, but we have to keep organizing and fighting for justice in Guatemala,” he added.