SAN JUAN SACATEPEQUEZ, Guatemala (AP) — Over the past decade, Guatemalan presidential candidate Sandra Torres has been drifting rightward on the political spectrum as she repeatedly has tried to win the presidency.
Now, in her third bid, the former first lady has drafted an evangelical pastor as her running mate and is leaning heavily on her firm commitments to keeping abortion and same-sex marriage illegal in Guatemala.
Her opponent in the Aug. 20 runoff, Bernardo Arévalo of the progressive Seed Movement, also has said Guatemala’s abortion ban should remain untouched. But he has declined to make any such declaration on same-sex marriage, saying only that his government would be against any sort of discrimination, without elaborating.
Torres made a recent campaign stop in jeans and a national soccer team jersey at a school in San Juan Sacatepequez, an impoverished suburban city of more than 250,000, where she told several hundred supporters that she wanted the government to respect life from conception. She promised she would never accept same-sex marriage, quickly adding that she wasn’t homophobic.
“I want to run this country with the fear of God,” she told the crowd.
Torres, 67, leads the National Unity of Hope party that once was considered the country’s social democratic party but has moved rightward with Torres, though she also promises many social programs to benefit the country’s “forgotten” poor. Her party is the second-largest in the unicameral legislature.
In the administration of her ex-husband, Álvaro Colom, Torres led the government’s social programs, giving her significant government experience. His campaign, plus three of her own, also give her a long history of trying to court voters across Guatemala.
Torres was the leading vote-getter in the first round of this year’s presidential election on June 25. Both of her previous defeats came in the second-round runoff. So while it was no surprise to find Torres in a runoff, her opponent surely has come as a shock.
In the days before the first round vote, Arévalo, who largely campaigned on rooting out corruption, was barely in the country’s political conversation. He was polling below 3%, behind seven other candidates. But the results gave him 11% of the vote — enough to give him the second slot in the runoff.
In the first round, Torres’ competition came mostly from other conservative populists. Now, voters face a real choice between conservative and progressive proposals, and Torres is appealing to Guatemalans’ conservative social values at every opportunity.
Luis Mack, a political scientist with San Carlos University, said that Torres’ current campaign is part of a trend across the region of bringing religion into elections. “It is an open manipulation of politics and faith,” he said.
Torres did not previously have the support of the country’s evangelical churches, which had been more closely associated with the administration of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, said David Pineda, president of the Guatemalan Secular Humanist Association.
But if Arévalo should win, the churches would be afraid of losing the close relationship they had with the government, and might face unwelcome scrutiny of their finances, Pineda said.
Until he registered as Torres’ running mate, 47-year-old Romeo Guerra was pastor of the Christian Sion Mission church founded by his father in Guatemala City. An opposing party tried to block Guerra’s candidacy on the grounds that Guatemala’s constitution bars clergy from running for office. But the nation’s top court allowed it.
Guerra has not been a fixture in Torres’ campaign stops and seems uncomfortable speaking outside the pulpit. But he recently met with dozens of evangelical pastors alongside Torres, who has proposed creating a ministry of religious affairs.
Evangelical pastors in Guatemala have a history of siding against leftists, with some of them disseminating government propaganda against leftist guerrillas in late 1970s and early ‘80s during the country’s civil war.
Shortly after Arévalo won his place in the runoff, evangelical pastor Sergio Enríquez of Ebenezer Ministries told his congregation “we have to pray a lot to not allow this communist from (the Seed Movement) to make it.” Other pastors in mega churches across Guatemala haven’t been as explicit but have emphasized issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, as Torres has done.
In San Juan Sacatepequez on a recent Sunday, hundreds of Indigenous women lined up for a free reusable shopping bag before Torres was scheduled to speak. Four hours later the candidate arrived in a helicopter.
Torres’ campaign is unabashedly populist, filled with promises for poor communities. She has said that as president she would distribute 1 million computers to schoolchildren, scholarships to cover school costs and big bags of basic foodstuffs delivered monthly to families’ doorsteps.
She reminds families that they received similar bags of products when she was first lady, and heads nod.
“I remember her very well,” said Azucena Sarpec, holding her 6-month-old in her arms. “When she was in government, years ago, because of her they brought us the solidarity bag” of food, Sarpec said, adding that the promise of more such bags was enough to earn her vote.
She said that since Torres’ ex-husband left power nearly a decade ago, the streets which are mostly dirt haven’t been maintained, and there’s more malnutrition, poverty and crime.
Now, her family has to pay protection money to gangs to guarantee their safety, she said. “They ask for $65 to start and then $45 every month. You can’t do it,” said Sarpec, whose husband works for minimum wage in an assembly plant.
Lázaro Borror, 38, said he came to hear Torres so that he can decide which candidate to support. He said he believes Torres would distribute bags of food if elected, “but I don’t think she’s going to stop corruption.”
Borror said he’s accustomed to candidates making promises at election time, but then forgetting those who put them in office.
“They only do something the first few months, then they forget us,” he said.