As the marathon 16-hour day ended in the early hours of January 15, when Bernardo Arévalo was finally sworn in as president of Guatemala, then-Congress President Samuel Pérez pulled a small package from his suit pocket and handed it to his party partner. Amid euphoric cries of “Yes, we could” from his fellow bankers, the congressman of the Semilla movement gave him a mirror, intervened by an artist, with the image of the new president on the, after a session that was deadlocked for several hours due to obstructions by opposition deputies on one side and that of his father, former President Juan José Arévalo, on the other.
Bernardo Arévalo had confessed on one occasion to Samuel Pérez that his greatest wish was to be able to continue looking in the mirror without shame after the end of his presidency and he wanted to give his friend a gift so that he would not forget his goal. The moment he put the presidential sash on him, it felt as if he had “completely suffocated and could have breathed again,” the deputy recalled days later in an interview with EL PAÍS. After several months of attack by the judiciary and the legislature to prevent investiture at all costs, something happened that night that the two founding fathers had not even imagined in their best dreams just a few months ago. Semilla., a party that comes from the The feeling of weariness of many Guatemalans towards corruption was founded. “It was like saying, 'We finally did it.' And finally we did it because what really happened that night in Congress was not improvised at all,” emphasizes Pérez. “We had a single goal: to win, because if someone else won, there was no transition process and no transfer of power. So we had to risk everything.”
Samuel Pérez hugs President Bernardo Arévalo after introducing the presidential sash in Guatemala City on January 14. Monica González Islas
To define that “iconic night” in which he was finally elected president of the Congress, Pérez says that the 23 deputies of Semilla, the third force in Parliament, launched a perfectly timed choreography to attract support get to the board and overcome obstacles from opponents. In their search for allies, they gathered data about the relationships they had with the other 137 members of Congress, focusing on those they believed could build consensus. According to him, his party used “governance and legislative agenda deals” while the opposition party – led by the conservative Valor party, one of those that have dominated traditional Guatemalan politics in recent years – “negotiated with corruption funds.” “, with threats and blackmail,” he denounces.
They finally did it, but this David versus Goliath victory, Guatemalan style, was short-lived. Four days later, Pérez was forced to resign from the presidency after the Constitutional Court (CC) ordered that the election of the congressional leadership be repeated. He made this decision when he accepted a preliminary appeal by the opposition against the new government. due to a court case that disqualified Semilla representatives from these positions. The deputy then held a press conference surrounded by his allies, in which he announced that he would resign to “protect the governability of the country.” “We will not engage in a rigged fight. The Central Committee will not agree with us even if we were, because its aim is to attack popular sovereignty,” he denounced.
Samuel Pérez announces in a press conference on January 18 the decision to give up the presidency of the Congress among his allies.Edwin Bercián (EFE)
In a new vote the next day, MP Nery Ramos of the Blue Party was elected as the new president, a candidate who had the support of Semilla. “We have succeeded in strengthening the capacity to govern in Congress, which also significantly strengthens the stability and advancement of a legislative agenda that will deliver results for the Guatemalan people, regardless of whether we have taken the lead or not,” said he him Friday. Pérez to EL PAIS.
For him, putting the well-being of the country above personal or party political interests is a sign of the end of a regime and the beginning of a new stage. “If there had been a dispute with the Constitutional Court before, there would have been threats and money would have been under the table. At the moment that doesn't exist. There are political agreements, there is discussion, there is openness, people have gone into the lodge and are watching the plenary sessions again. I believe it is the moment of transition between a regime that is coming to an end and a new one that we are starting to build, but this process takes time,” he says.
The face of a new generation
The 31-year-old Pérez, who just began his second term in Congress, speaks with the poise of a veteran but with a fresher manner that appeals to a new generation of Guatemalans who are tired of the tricks of the old politics and are uncomfortable with ” let's be satisfied with “They're all leaving”, but they decided to get into the game to change it. Semilla emerged in the heat of the anti-corruption protests in 2015 and was fed by many urban young people like him who came from university politics. In the 2019 elections, the party entered Congress for the first time, winning seven seats, including those of Pérez and Arévalo.
When the peace accords were signed in Guatemala in 1996, ending a 36-year war that left more than 200,000 people dead, Samuel Pérez was only four years old. And despite growing up in a wealthy part of the capital, it didn't take long for University economics graduate Rafael Landívar to understand the inequalities in his country, especially when he became a professor. “It is very difficult to have to explain every year that you have to teach a new generation, that poverty indicators have increased, that unemployment has increased, that lack of opportunity and migration are increasing and that ultimately it is not a coincidence or.” “It is not an irreversible trend, but rather a political decision,” he emphasizes. “Knowing this, I decided to have an impact on changing this trend in social indicators.”
Since being elected deputy, Pérez became something of an influencer within Semilla and it was not uncommon to see him expressing his opinions in relaxed conversations with YouTubers, going viral in Tiktok videos for wearing a leather jacket, or in videos , in which he sharply accused Cacif (the powerful economic committee) of maintaining a system of privilege that is “bringing down Guatemala.”
After Arévalo's unexpected victory in the first round in June last year, younger MPs like him were instrumental in bringing the then candidate to new generations through the networks, promoting the figure of “Uncle Bernie”, as they called him They also intensified the tour of the various departments of the country to obtain support in the areas furthest from the capital.
In some of these places, such as Petén, they remember how Pérez arrived a few years ago with Arévalo or his colleague Román Castellanos to promote the new ways of politics in the markets and squares. Although, as Semilla sources confirm, they were not always well received as they arrived with only ideas and empty hands. For Pérez, traveling to the departments helped him “overcome barriers,” get to know the diversity of his country and understand that “there are different solutions to different problems.”
And when it comes to finding solutions, this time it is he who looks into the mirror of President Arévalo, for whom he says he has great admiration: “He has been my party colleague and my friend for years, and he has one.” What is characteristic is the ability to listen and be able to change one’s own position on the basis of rational arguments,” he emphasizes. “Perhaps that is something very basic that one should expect from a presidency, but I think it is actually something that is underappreciated and not easily found in political leadership.”
And as for him: can we expect a new, more conciliatory version in this new legislative period than in the last, in which he stood out, for example, by openly speaking out against the privileges of the Cacif? “During the last electoral period, we and our bloc consciously decided to take on an opposition role. Right now we are overthrowing a regime together with the people of Guatemala. “So we are in the construction phase and that requires a broad consensus in the social spheres, with different legislative blocs represented here,” replies the MP. “But that doesn’t mean we’re no longer dealing with structural problems. Personally, I continue to be of the opinion, and this is also the party's position, that inequalities must be combated, and this is sometimes because market structures are too concentrated. And we have to talk about it.”
It is no secret to anyone that Semilla's commitment to changing the old ways of politics will not come easily or quickly. Pérez is aware of this and believes that in order not to disappoint his voters, it will be essential to practice pedagogy and communicate decisions well. “This new legislative period faces the challenge of finding consensus through dialogue and political positions, which works in any consolidated or more or less established democracy, but that does not exist here,” he says. “Perhaps there will be times when it will not be so easy to reach agreements and that can be seen as a lack of political maneuverability and a lack of effectiveness, but in reality it may simply be because there is no political agreement. “And you can’t win everything. I think the ability to do pedagogy will allow us to raise expectations.”
Samuel Pérez, President of the Congress, during an interview in Guatemala City, Guatemala, January 16, 2024. Mónica González Islas