‘We must keep fighting for justice’: Guatemalans in the US will help choose 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 this experimental election, 734 votes were counted from the four polling stations that were set up in Los Angeles, Houston, New York and Silver Spring, Md. – a tiny fraction of the more than 5 million votes cast.

But in this year’s presidential contest, scheduled for June 25, there will again be polling centers in Los Angeles and Houston – the two US cities with the highest number 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 wracked by violence, corruption and economic inequality, and in expatriate communities in the United States, the upcoming elections are causing many concerns. For Alicia Ivonne Estrada, a native of Guatemala and professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge, they spark fear and mistrust stemming from her experience in 2019, when she went to the local consulate to vote but did not was allowed to vote. .

“There was an endless bureaucracy that was invented ‘at the last minute,’ and they didn’t allow the population who wanted to vote from abroad to do so,” said Estrada, a diaspora specialist from his country.

In the coming days, delegations from Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, or TSE, will hold registration events on U.S. soil with the goal of expanding voter rolls and promoting participation among the migrant population.

“The importance of the vote lies in the power of the people to seek the changes they want,” said Ingrid Soto, TSE’s foreign voting manager.

Soto said Guatemalans living in the United States who are still registered as voters in Guatemala will need to update their addresses, a process that can be done in person during registration or through the TSE’s web portal. To update an address or register for the first time, voters will need to produce 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 US Census Bureau data, in 2017, 1.4 million people of Guatemalan descent lived in the United States. But in the 2019 Guatemalan presidential elections, only 63,043 of them registered to vote.

As of March 6, the TSE website reported 86,703 registered voters, a figure that reflects both a continued lack of engagement as well as the limited information that has been released about the election.

“I didn’t know the truth,” said Gloria Méndez, 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 has a skeptical, even cynical view of politics in general.

“All governments promise, they never keep,” she said. “Whether I vote or not 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 starting her own business, she fell victim to one of the extortion rackets plaguing the Central American country, forcing her to emigrate.

“I was just asking my country for a chance, but there was none,” she lamented.

When she fled Guatemala with her first child, Urrutia was pregnant. As the election approaches, she thinks of the loved ones she left behind. She thinks the continuing problems facing the new government – job shortages, rising cost of basic foodstuffs, insecurity brought on by drug cartels – make it important for Guatemalans to register.

“We all have the right to choose and to vote,” she said.

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

“We have yet to see the final count of registrations,” said Hugo Mérida, who lined up voting centers and recruited volunteers. “For 600 people, there must be an extra table. In Los Angeles, we want to set up 29 tables because there are about 50,000 people on the registry.

Mérida said that since February 13, when he took office, he has worked twice as hard to set up and staff the centers, which will be overseen by regional electoral commissions. Election event organizers say they will need around 900 volunteers.

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

Once voting is complete on June 25, each vote will be counted by the electoral commissions under the supervision of TSE staff. This information will then be sent by IT staff to TSE headquarters in Guatemala City.

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

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

“The vote is important, but we must continue to organize and fight for justice in Guatemala,” she added.

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