Guatemala’s new president takes oath of office, despite efforts to prevent him

Guatemala’s new president takes oath of office, despite efforts to prevent him

Despite fierce resistance from his government opponents, anti-corruption activist Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in as Guatemala’s president early Monday morning, a turning point in a country where tensions were simmering over widespread corruption and impunity.

His inauguration was scheduled for Sunday, but members of Congress delayed it and concerns persisted that it would not happen. But after an international outcry and pressure from protesters, Mr Arévalo was sworn in shortly after midnight, becoming Guatemala’s most progressive head of state since democracy was restored in the 1980s.

His rise to power – six months after an election victory that was a resounding rebuke to Guatemala’s conservative political establishment – ​​represents a sea change in Central America’s most populous country. His landslide election reflects broad support for his proposals to curb corruption and revive a faltering democracy.

But as Mr. Arévalo prepares to govern, he must assert his control while confronting an alliance of conservative prosecutors, members of Congress and other political figures who have gutted Guatemala’s government institutions in recent years.

“Arévalo has the most thankless job in Guatemala today because he arrives with exceptionally high expectations,” said Edgar Ortíz Romero, an expert on Guatemalan constitutional law. “He was given a budget for a Toyota when people want a Ferrari.”

Mr. Arévalo’s opponents in Congress moved to rein him in late last year, approving a budget that would severely limit his ability to spend on health and education, two of his top priorities.

But finding resources to spend is just one of the difficulties Mr. Arévalo faces. More urgently, as his congressional adversaries showed again on Sunday, he faces multiple challenges from Guatemala’s entrenched establishment, aimed at quickly crippling his ability to govern.

The power struggle playing out in Guatemala, a country of 18 million inhabitants, is closely followed throughout Central America, a region plagued by the growing influence of drug cartels, the exodus of migrants and the use of authoritarian tactics in neighboring countries like El Salvador. and Nicaragua.

“It’s a unique event in the country’s history,” said Javier García, a 31-year-old engineer, who was among thousands of people who came to celebrate the inauguration in the capital, Guatemala City. “Now I hope those who lost the elections understand this once and for all.”

The transition of power has been anything but orderly. After bursting onto the Guatemalan political scene last year, Mr. Arévalo faced a assassination plotthat of his party suspension and a series of legal attacks aimed at preventing him from taking office. His presidential opponent, a former first lady, refused to recognize his victory.

In the capital, rumors have swirled in recent days that prosecutors will seek the arrest of Mr. Arévalo’s running mate, Karin Herrera, which could derail the inauguration because the president-elect and vice president-elect must be present for the transfer of power to be legitimate.

Guatemala’s highest court issued a order last week, shielding Ms. Herrera from arrest, granting her and Mr. Arévalo a reprieve. But the same court sowed confusion Sunday by allowing his conservative opponents to remain in the running to maintain control of Congress.

Members of Congress opposed to Mr. Arévalo then spent hours trying to consolidate their hold on the House, delaying the transfer of power while much of the country remained in suspense. But on Sunday evening, in a twist, Mr. Arévalo’s party managed to take control of the Congress, thus paving the way for the swearing-in.

Prosecutors and judges opposed to Mr. Arévalo had already launched a legal offensive shortly after the national elections. Seeking to cast doubt on Mr. Arévalo’s victory in the election, where he won by more than 20 percentage points, prosecutors obtained arrest warrants for four magistrates who were part of Guatemala’s highest electoral authority , alleging corruption in the acquisition of electoral software. The four magistrates were all abroad when the arrest warrants were issued.

On Thursday, the attorney general’s office stopped Napoleón Barrientos, former Minister of the Interior, on the grounds that he had refused to use force to maintain order in October against demonstrators demanding the resignation of the Attorney General.

Such measures have become common in Guatemala since 2019, when conservative politicians ended a pioneering United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission. Dozens of prosecutors and judges trying to tackle corruption have fled to exile.

In response, the United States, the European Union and many Latin American leaders lent their support to Mr. Arévalo, a sociologist and former diplomat. That support was visible Sunday as delays appeared to cast doubt on the transfer of power.

“There is no doubt that Bernardo Arévalo is the president of Guatemala” said Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, who led a U.S. delegation to the inauguration. She added: “The world is watching. »

The Biden administration maneuvered for months to support Mr. Arévalo after he shocked many people in Guatemala, including members of his party, by embarking on a runoff election that he won handily. brilliant.

Washington’s support for reforms contrasts with the role it played in Guatemala decades ago. The United States supported the Guatemalan military during a long and brutal civil war; a military dictator in the 1980s was later convicted of genocide for attempting to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan Indian people. In 1954, the CIA staged a coup that overthrew a popular and democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz.

After this coup, Mr. Arévalo’s father, Juan José Arévalo, a former president who is still admired in Guatemala for allowing freedom of expression and creating the social security system, spent years in exile in Latin America.

The youngest, Mr. Arévalo, a soft-spoken sociologist and diplomat, was born in Uruguay around this time and grew up in Venezuela, Mexico and Chile before the family was able to return to Guatemala.

As efforts intensified last month to prevent Mr. Arévalo from taking office, the United States imposed punishments on Miguel Martínez, one of the closest allies of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, over extensive corruption schemes.

And, in a decisive move, the American authorities, in December imposed visa restrictions on nearly 300 Guatemalans, including more than 100 members of Congress, accusing them of undermining democracy and the rule of law by trying to weaken Mr. Arévalo and prevent his inauguration.

“U.S. pressure prevented a coup; without it we wouldn’t be here,” said Manfredo Marroquín, director of Citizen Action, an anti-corruption political group. “Americans are like insurance: there in times of crisis.”

Yet American support for Mr. Arévalo has exposed fissures in Guatemala. During his last weeks in power, Mr. Giammattei, who is barred by law from seeking re-election, became increasingly vocal in his speeches. critical American sanctions and international support for Mr. Arévalo.

Dealing a new blow to Mr Arévalo, Mr Giammattei withdrew Guatemala of an anti-drug task force created in 2020 with the United States. The move could weaken Guatemala’s ability to fight drug trafficking groups, which have expanded their influence in the country.

At the same time, Mr. Arévalo’s efforts to forge alliances have revealed how difficult it will be for him to govern. This month he announced the creation of the first Guatemalan cabinet in which women would make up half of all ministerial positions, but the celebration of the milestone was short-lived.

A member of a major business association was named to the new cabinet, sparking criticism that Mr Arévalo, who has adhered to centrist policies, was drifting to the right. Another cabinet candidate has withdrawn after old comments surfaced in which she criticized a prominent Indigenous activist.

Outrage also arose because only one minister in his cabinet was indigenous, despite the crucial role indigenous groups played in protests against efforts to prevent Mr. Arévalo from taking office. Nearly half of Guatemala’s population is indigenous.

“We expect this new government to be different,” said Sandra Xinico, an indigenous anthropologist and activist. “But we have seen once again how indigenous people are excluded from the political process.”

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Eric D. Eilerman

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