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High stakes elections lie ahead in Guatemala, Ecuador and Argentina

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

From leftists to the far right, reformers fighting corruption, even a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, candidates from all over the political spectrum are riding waves of popular discontent in Latin America. This Sunday a runoff election could determine the direction of Central America's biggest country. That would be Guatemala. Crime and corruption are rampant there, and a surprising reform candidate has emerged. Sunday is also the day of the first round of elections in Ecuador, where one leading candidate was assassinated just days ago. And this is all just the beginning of a busy political season. To talk it through, I am joined now by NPR correspondents Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro and Eyder Peralta in Guatemala City. Hello, hello.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hello.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. OK. Eyder, you start with what's going on there in Guatemala, the vote on Sunday. This is a country - is it fair to say it's sort of a microcosm - a lot of problems, also so much promise in the region? What's the choice that voters there are about to make?

PERALTA: Well, look. They're coming to terms with a huge surprise from the first round. A reformist candidate somehow managed to squeeze into the second round, and it has left the establishment here trying their best to subvert his chances in these elections. And that fight is not subtle. The latest opinion polls give reformist Bernardo Arevalo a 20 or so percentage point lead against Sandra Torres, the favorite of the establishment. And the old guard has launched a full-scale assault against Arevalo. Police raided his party offices. A court tried to disqualify him, and last night a prosecutor threatened to launch a criminal investigation of him. And, you know, not long ago there was an anti-corruption movement in Guatemala, but the people leading it were thrown out of the country. And people seem to have lost hope. Now this election is asking a big question. Does Guatemala get back on a path toward democracy and rule of law, or does the impunity and corruption that have plagued the country just become rooted?

KELLY: All right, Carrie, give us a preview of the election you're keeping an eye on on Sunday. This will be Ecuador. This is the first round. And Ecuador has been known for being safe and stable for years, although more recently that has not been true. Catch us up.

KAHN: The violent turnaround in Ecuador is stunning. It's terrifying, and it's clearly a disturbing example of the challenges to democracy in the region. Ecuador has some of the highest murder rates now in the world, Mary Louise. Look. Briefly, what's happened is international organized crime and drug gangs have infiltrated the country, using it as a major transportation hub for cocaine to Europe and the U.S. Ecuador sits between the two largest cocaine producers in the world, Colombia and Peru. And these cartels, mafias, working with local gangs, have co-opted security forces. Corrupt politicians add to the whole mess. And the violence slammed into Sunday's election when one of the main candidates was gunned down leaving a campaign rally. He had vowed to crack down on the gangs and political corruption. Voters there are just left grappling with who to vote for, and there is a lot of dissatisfaction with their choices and their future.

KELLY: And you're also keeping an eye, Carrie, on what's happening in Argentina, another country with its share of problems. It used to be rich. Argentinians are now dealing with triple-digit inflation. And this is - I mentioned an anarcho-capitalist is running. I don't even - I'm saying those words. I'm not even sure what it means. Who is this?

KAHN: Right. It's a totally different political landscape there. But there are commonalities. Voters in Argentina are also fed up with the status quo and are ready to vote for radical change. Argentina is grappling with soaring inflation around 115%, if you can even imagine such a thing.

KELLY: No, yeah.

KAHN: The economy is a mess. Public debt is astronomical. Nearly 40% of Argentines now live in poverty. The peso devalues daily. So enter this radical libertarian in the race for president. He is the quintessential outsider. His name is Javier Milei. He's 52 years old, and he calls himself an anarcho-capitalist. And, Mary Louise, I had to look that one up, too. He says that means he wants to dismantle, he says, take a chainsaw to the entire state apparatus, from the central bank to ministries to getting rid of the peso and replacing it with the dollar. He sports this wild mane of hair, long sideburns. He likes to hold raucous rallies with heavy metal and rock music. He's anti-abortion and pro-guns, and he was the top vote-getter in last week's primary elections and has the two mainstream left and right parties in Argentina on the run. Voters I talked to there may not fully agree with all of his plans or all of his ideas, but they are in for radical change.

KELLY: It's so interesting. And as I listen to you, Carrie, I'm hearing you describe something that doesn't fit the mold of, you know, the traditional right versus the traditional left. What about you, Eyder - similar thing?

PERALTA: Same thing. A lot of the current leaders in Central America defy that left and right label. In El Salvador, a president who once said he was a socialist aligns himself with Donald Trump. Here in Guatemala, a candidate who used to be a social Democrat is now allied with the right-wing military veterans. And I think there's an element of political opportunism here, right? That's for sure. But I think it's also because voters are not thinking ideology. They're not concerned, for example, about whether the government should provide free health care or unemployment benefits. What's driving voters is apathy. The democratic experiment in Latin America has devolved into corruption and violence, and they want radical solutions from their leaders. They want leaders to dismantle the system, like what Carrie said, that they view as broken and beyond repair. And that makes ideology an afterthought.

KAHN: Ecuador is a good example of that, too. There's a lot of polarization, and many want the return of the leftist government of Rafael Correa, and his candidate is currently first in the polls. But both recent left and right governments in Ecuador did little to stop corruption and crime, and voters are sick of it.

KELLY: Well, let's circle back to where we began - this big vote on Sunday in Guatemala, where you are, Eyder. Just give us a little bit of sense of what you're seeing, what you're hearing, whether people have any hope that good government is going to come out of this.

PERALTA: On the hope question, I mean, we may not know the answer to that for many months, but here's what I can tell you. When I was here a couple of months ago, all I heard was despair. And that has changed dramatically today. I think people here feel that suddenly a vision for a just and democratic country with a functional and responsive government still exists. And I would call that hope.

KELLY: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Guatemala City. I hope you are right. We also heard from Carrie Kahn in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to you both for your reporting.

KAHN: You're welcome.

PERALTA: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.