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Guatemalan Voters Head To The Polls


Guatemalans go to the polls tomorrow to choose a new president. The election comes amid a migration crisis and increasing pressure from the Trump administration to keep Central Americans from heading to the U.S. Both candidates oppose an agreement with Trump that would force Guatemala to accept thousands of asylum-seekers, but they're finding a hard time connecting with the electorate. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: That asylum agreement is highly unpopular here. Guatemala can't be a safe haven for Central America's migrants, warns candidate and former first lady Sandra Torres. We are the most unsafe country for malnutrition and poverty, she says.

She wants to send more money directly to Guatemala's rural poor and fund more social programs.


TONO ROSARIO: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: At a recent late-night rally in the capital, her supporters, listening to music and watching fireworks, barely fill half of the island in the middle of a busy traffic circle.


KAHN: Jose Pablo Cruz (ph), a factory technician, says this election doesn't have the excitement like past ones. Voter turnout is predicted to be low. He's going for Torres. She would be Guatemala's first woman president.

JOSE PABLO CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "She's someone who has helped, especially the poor people," he says. "And we need that now more than ever," he adds.

Nearly 60% of Guatemalans live in poverty. That and the high levels of violence, corruption and persistent droughts are pushing people out of the country in record numbers. Torres' opponent, conservative Alejandro Giammattei, says he'll stop the exodus with his own wall, riffing on President Trump's border barrier pledge. He says he'll build an economic wall of jobs to stem the migrant exodus.



KAHN: At a recent rally, Giammattei's supporters tout his get-tough-on-crime credentials. He once ran the country's prison system. Jeffrey Enriquez (ph), 27, walks right through the rally on his way home from work. He works at a call center hunting down delinquent Sprint cellphone users. He doesn't think either candidate will make things better. He's looking for a way out, too.

JEFFREY ENRIQUEZ: And I don't want my kids born and raised in a country that is really risk, violence. You're not asking me, but I just get robbed a couple of days ago.

KAHN: He prefers Giammattei. Both candidates are unpopular, though, and have had unsuccessful runs at the presidency before. This is Giammattei's fourth time, all under different parties. His new Vamos Party is reportedly backed by the military. He's also spent time in jail for killings during his time as the prison head but was later exonerated.

And Sandra Torres is not well-liked in the populist capital. She's making her third run for the office. She's facing charges of illicit campaign financing during her last presidential campaign. Her opponents paint her as a dangerous leftist because of her pledge to provide assistance to the poor. Both vehemently oppose abortion rights and gay marriage.

DIONISIO GUTIERREZ: This election - it's another lost opportunity.

KAHN: Dionisio Gutierrez is one of Guatemala's richest men. He left his family's fried chicken empire years ago to fund a civic foundation and has a weekly commentary show on TV.

D GUTIERREZ: Guatemala is a country that has been governed by incompetence and corruption for so many years. I would say decades.

KAHN: And the bad political choices now are another sign of Guatemala's fragile democracy, he says. And there are a dozen parties now in the Congress, many with suspect backing. Corruption is high on the list of voters' concerns. The current president dismantled a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission soon after it began investigating him and his family. Both candidates say they will not renew the corruption commission's mandate that expires in September.

And former foreign minister Edgar Gutierrez says neither will have much leverage when it comes to standing up to President Trump's migration demands.

EDGAR GUTIERREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Once they get into power," he says, "they'll have to capitulate to the U.S., Guatemala's largest trading partner."

Voter Jose Pablo Cruz says he just hopes either winner works hard.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "And they better not trick us," he says. "They made all these promises and better stick to them."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guatemala City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
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