Guatemala is the Future: Neoliberal Democracy and Authoritarian Populism

Photo by Corrado Scropetta | CC BY 2.0

For decades the US was held up as Guatemala’s future. In this article, I argue that Guatemala’s experience with neoliberal democracy and authoritarian populism foreshadowed trends in the US. Trump is a symptom of neoliberal democracy’s inability to resolve or contain the social dislocations produced by neoliberal policies and the concomitant annihilation of leftist politics. Authoritarian populists feed off the harms caused by neoliberalism without addressing their root causes. Authoritarian populism cannot be defeated by neoliberal democracy, only by movements that challenge the limits of neoliberalism itself. 

Inversion of Progress Narratives

For decades the United States held itself up as Latin America’s ideal future even as it crushed post WWII nationalist projects for economic independence and social democracy. After decades of brutal counterinsurgency, the US promoted neoliberal democracy—free elections and free markets—as the path to peace and prosperity in Guatemala. Twenty years after historic peace accords, Guatemala’s democratic transition is a failure by every standard metric. Modest reforms were gutted while poverty and inequality grew worse, perpetuating the exploitation of working people and the indigenous underclass—the root causes of the armed conflict. Crime has skyrocketed. Dozens are murdered weekly in the capitol, and brutal killings of hundreds of women go uninvestigated. Gangs rule giant swaths of territory by terror. Narco-violence has killed thousands. Millions flee to the US for work and safety. Institutionalized corruption drains public coffers while infrastructure and state services decay. Food insecurity and malnutrition are epidemic. These appalling conditions are the predictable result of the violent imperialist imposition of free market reforms on a poor, unequal, and war torn country. Guatemalan society convulses in a permanent state of collapse, at war with itself, riddled with expanding zones of environmental sacrifice and social abandonment and lives in a constant state of risk and precarity, not unlike a prison or labor camp. This year, when forty-three girls died in a fire in an overcrowded and understaffed state run “safe home” for victims of violence, abuse, and abandonment, it became for many Guatemalans a perfect symbolic condensation of patriarchy, economic violence, and official negligence.

Surprisingly, events have positioned Guatemala as a dystopian near future of the United States, flipping developmentalist narratives on their head, ironically due to the ways Guatemala—a notable exception to Latin America’s anti-neoliberal turn in the 2000s—has failed to reform. To understand how Guatemala could be a model for the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, we must ask in whose eyes is it a failure and what failure accomplishes. Rather that separate polities, Guatemala and the US are unequally connected nodes in a global network in which states, elites, and corporations form strategic alliances to produce geographies of security and capital accumulation. In both contexts, neoliberal democracy operates as a governing assemblage—a composition of elements designed to redirect politics that challenge neoliberal capitalism, foundational inequality, or imperialism onto the narrow terrain of elections, law, and markets. Hardly a mistake, Guatemalan’s social ills are externalities of a capitalist utopia built through centuries of colonial and imperial state formation. As neoliberal democracy manages opposition to systemic harms without resolving root causes, it creates conditions for authoritarian populism. Similar processes plague neoliberal democracies globally.

Counterinsurgent Democracy in Guatemala

A dynamic alliance of working people resisted Guatemala’s post-coup military state. Peasant organizations, indigenous communities, mestizos, progressive Catholics, labor unions, teachers, students, and insurgents came to see themselves as sharing common interests and possessing the collective capacity to change the world. National Security Doctrine collapsed these groups into the category of ‘subversives’ and ‘guerrillas’, notoriously defining indigenous communities as the ‘internal enemy’, setting the stage for genocide. Intensive counterinsurgency razed villages, displaced millions, rearranged landscapes and livelihoods, and instilled fear, mistrust, betrayal, and uncertainty into social life. The army repressed memories of shared struggles, tore apart kin and communal networks, killed hopes for a better world, and obliterated social and political organizations far beyond the guerrilla. Fear, displacement, mistrust, and forced complicity undermined community solidarity. Postwar movements are weak and divided. Extreme violence cleared the ground for neoliberal peace.

Neoliberal democracy’s function as a regime of power is most evident in postconflict transitions when its edges line up against competing national projects and histories of struggle. Neoliberal democracy in Guatemala was built on counterinsurgency, and designed to contain popular movements during a free market transition. Its main components include: targeted repression of radical organizations, ‘official’ truth that blames the violence on the guerrilla, market-oriented development, multiparty competition, clientelism, state multiculturalism, Christian morality, and liberal notions of human rights. Neoliberal democracy excludes popular demands, criminalizes and represses dissent, and deepens the fragmentation of the rural working class. Targeted state violence incites pessimism and reroutes politics into neutralized domains of market activity and electoral politics where individuals and private interests compete for access and advancement. In a context where memories of past struggles are conflicted and uncertain and where autonomous organizations are decimated, when most have lost faith in structural change, in which selected individuals and groups benefit through market and electoral advancement, and where trust has eroded, building alliances is difficult.  Neoliberalism has provoked new movements against privatization, austerity, resource extraction, impunity, and corruption that propose alternative nationalist projects. These movements are working to build a shared alternative vision to refound the nation.

Guatemala was an early warning that the failure of neoliberal democracy to meet citizens’ needs creates fodder for authoritarian populism. Party politics confronts villagers with candidates who do not represent their interests, and offer a stark choice between development projects or abandonment. Clientelism operates directly on life processes and bodily anxieties to enjoin villagers into bitter competition for meager resources. With limited choices, many Mayan peasants voted in 1999 for the far right Guatemalan Republican Front, and in 2003 for FRG leader, Efrain Ríos Montt, a former dictator responsible for genocide. In 2011, urban middle class voted for Otto Perez Molina who promised to use an iron fist against criminals.

In rural Guatemalan villages, authoritarian populism feeds off of precariousness and division produced by counterinsurgency and neoliberal democracy. Exclusion and grievance are structurally inevitable in a system of ‘democratized sovereignty’ created by neoliberal multicultural decentralization that ‘empowers’ rural Mayas to govern their own marginalization. Authoritarian populists interpellated villagers as powerless, reinforcing counterinsurgency violence, and promised the spoils of corruption to loyal followers. They also tapped into the local moral claim that projects should go to the neediest, and criticisms of local elites who monopolize projects and power. Authoritarian populism offered relief to villagers excluded by patronage networks and hierarchies of class and development. It inflamed these divisions and reified them as the sole focus of politics, while framing national inequalities as inevitable. In the squalor of violence and uneven deprivation, authoritarian succeeds despite deep ambivalence for the candidates and without faith in their vision for a future.

The United States: White Victims in an Imperial Superpower

Neoliberalism in the US has caused deunionization, militarism, rapid increases in economic and racial inequality and poverty, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, debt, mass migration from Latin America, and the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The left has been destroyed. The groundwork for Trump’s improbable victory was laid years before by the dominant model of US democracy, whose main elements consist of: compulsory nationalism; corporate media self-censorship; centering of Judeo-Christian culture; historical narratives that frame settler colonialism and imperialism as the expansion of freedom; national security discourses (anticommunism and antiterrorism); market rationality and market triumphalism; narratives of racial and gender progress; multicultural inclusion; a hyper-partisan two party monopoly; wedge issues; data driven PR and media strategies; celebrity culture; private (billionaire) financing; criminalization of racial minorities and radical movements; election rigging (voter suppression, gerrymandering); and the electoral college.

With the right’s historical enemy all but defeated, the election of a black president touched off an illiberal counter-reaction that tapped into longstanding backlash to civil rights and feminism, and frustration with economic decline. Obama bailed out Wall Street, passed an inadequate Keynesian stimulus, embraced free market policies and national security rhetoric, and ignored radical movements. Conservatives demonized him as un-American, framed his moderate reforms as socialist, and blamed him for the recession. Make America Great Again is a billionaire class project to further dismantle the already weakened power of the regulatory/redistributive state and unions relative to corporations and individuals, and the influence of international institutions and laws over US empire; to lower taxes, reduce spending, and privatize the commons; and to make these victories permanent. Its micro-targeted populist appeals promise to use democratic and illiberal means to empower whites over nonwhites, citizens over immigrants, men over women, straight over LGTBQ, able bodied over disabled, and Christians over non-Christians. They want a full rollback of the limited gains made by labor and civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, tribal sovereignty, anti-militarism, secular humanism, and human rights—all of which are depicted as threats to America, growth, morality, freedom, etc. Support for this project is built through performances of intolerance, and by promulgating a narrative of white collective victimization while downplaying class, gender, and ideological divisions among whites, in order to extend the alliance between corporatists, white nationalists, and evangelicals to broad sectors of the white working and middle class. Trump traded multiculturalism for overt racial demagoguery, while pursuing a standard conservative agenda. Trumpism displacing systemic harms of neoliberal imperialism onto convenient scapegoats—PC liberals, the government, racial others, and the national border—while accelerating neoliberalization. It is a revolt against the ‘rule of experts, technocrats who are proximate class enemies unlike the distant one percent. This white supremacist populism also runs through Central America, painting gangs and migrants as threats to Americans. Trumpism presages a future of oligarchic capture of democracy, restricted civil liberties, expanding precariousness, social polarization, extractivism, environmental destruction, and militarization. Calls to build a wall normalize indifference to the suffering of noncitizens left to die in wrecked landscapes, prefiguring a future of acute ecological apartheid.

The abiding hope in the U.S. American left that Trump generates a counter-reaction against neoliberalism that addresses social and environmental injustice. Such hopes are nurtured by the success of Bernie Sanders, and the sense that Trumpism was not simply an orgy of racism, but also reflected a breakdown in the neoliberal consensus, evident in his attacks on free trade and promises to preserve social protections—bait that has been switched for poison. Harnessing anti-neoliberal sentiment leftward seems achievable if progressives can overcome divisions and advance a concrete alternative to neoliberalism that appeals to a wide range of working people. In a bleaker scenario, ultra-conservatives maintain power through a combination of democratic and illiberal means, aided by division, corporatism, and incoherence on the left. While their success is by no means guaranteed, and their agenda lacks popular support, they have a veritable stranglehold on democratic institutions, an endless ability to ability to capitalize on chaos, and singularly inept competition—a Resistance™ bent on restoring a status quo ante that will never return and produced Trump. 


Neoliberal democracy is at once a field of contestation and an apparatus of political regulation that defends national and international hierarchies and corporate interests. In each case, neoliberal democracy is assembled out of available materials and distinct histories of state and class formation to achieve particular effects of rule by producing particular subjects, affects, conceptual horizons, and repertoires of action. In Guatemala, it relies more heavily on corruption and violence, and more on legal procedures and hegemony in the US. Despite significant differences, this comparison underscores how neoliberalism proceeds through the annihilation of working class power and how this works through the democratic process. In both cases, authoritarian populism feeds off fragmentation, uncertainty, and resentment and the lack of alternatives. Authoritarian populism generates vehement defenses of liberalism, but also energizes alternative conceptions of democracy that challenge the violent foundations of liberal order and neoliberalism itself. Only the latter is capable of stemming the rising tide of fascism.

Nicholas Copeland is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at Virginia Tech. He can be reached at: ncopel@vt.edu.

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