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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Guatemala’s new president is sworn in, despite efforts to stop him

Protesters outside Guatemala’s Congress building in Guatemala City on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2023. Opponents of the anticorruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo delayed his inauguration as president of Guatemala on Sunday, ratcheting political tensions higher in Central America’s most populous country. (Daniele Volpe/The New York Times)

By Simon Romero and Jody García

Despite staunch resistance from his opponents in the government, anti-corruption crusader Bernardo Arévalo was inaugurated early Monday morning as Guatemala’s president, a turning point in a country where tensions have been simmering over widespread graft and impunity.

His inauguration had been scheduled for Sunday, but members of Congress delayed it, and concerns persisted about whether it would happen at all. But after an international outcry and pressure from protesters, Arévalo was sworn in shortly after midnight, becoming Guatemala’s most progressive head of state since democracy was reestablished in the 1980s.

His rise to power — six months after his victory at the polls delivered a stunning rebuke to Guatemala’s conservative political establishment — amounts to a sea change in Central America’s most populous country. His landslide election reflected broad support for his proposals to curb graft and revive a teetering democracy.

But as Arévalo prepares to govern, he must assert control while facing off against an alliance of conservative prosecutors, members of Congress and other political figures who have gutted Guatemala’s governing 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’s been given a budget for a Toyota when people want a Ferrari.”

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 care and education, two of his top priorities.

But finding resources to spend is just one of the difficulties confronting Arévalo. More urgently, as his opponents in Congress showed again 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 nation of 18 million, is being closely followed throughout Central America, a region on edge over the expanding sway of drug cartels, the exodus of migrants and the use of authoritarian tactics in neighboring countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua.

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

The transition of power was anything but orderly. After he burst onto Guatemala’s political scene last year, Arévalo faced an assassination plot, his party’s suspension and a barrage of legal attacks aimed at preventing him from taking office. His opponent in the presidential race, a former first lady, refused to recognize his victory.

In the capital, speculation swirled in recent days that prosecutors would seek the arrest of Arévalo’s running mate, Karin Herrera, potentially derailing the inauguration because both the president-elect and vice president-elect need to be present for the transfer of power to be legitimate.

Guatemala’s highest court issued an order last week shielding Herrera from arrest, giving her and Arévalo a reprieve. But the same court sowed confusion Sunday when it allowed his conservative opponents to remain in the running to retain control of Congress.

Members of Congress opposed to Arévalo then spent hours trying to consolidate their hold on the chamber, effectively delaying the transfer of power as much of the country remained on tenterhooks. But in a twist Sunday night, Arévalo’s party managed to win leadership of Congress, clearing the way for the swearing-in.

Prosecutors and judges opposed to Arévalo had already gone on a judicial onslaught soon after the national election. Seeking to cast doubt on Arévalo’s victory at the polls, where he won by more than 20 percentage points, prosecutors obtained arrest warrants for four magistrates who served on Guatemala’s top electoral authority, alleging corruption in the acquisition of election software. The four magistrates were all outside the country when the warrants were issued.

On Thursday, the attorney general’s office arrested Napoleón Barrientos, a former interior minister, on the grounds that he had refused to use force to maintain order in October against protesters demanding the attorney general’s resignation.

Such moves have grown common in Guatemala since 2019, when conservative political figures shut down a pioneering United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission. Dozens of prosecutors and judges who had been trying to take on graft fled into exile.

Pushing back, the United States, the European Union and multiple leaders in Latin America threw their support behind Arévalo, a sociologist and former diplomat. That support was visible Sunday as the delays seemed to put the transfer of power in doubt.

“There is no question that Bernardo Arévalo is the president of Guatemala,” said Samantha Power, the 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 in support of Arévalo after he shocked many in Guatemala, including members of his party, by squeaking into a runoff election that he went on to resoundingly win.

Washington’s support for reform stands in contrast to the role it played in Guatemala decades ago. The United States backed the Guatemalan military during a long, brutal civil war; one military dictator during the 1980s was later convicted of genocide for trying to exterminate the Ixil, a Mayan Indian people. In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup that toppled a popular, democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz.

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

The younger Arévalo, a soft-spoken sociologist and diplomat, was born in Uruguay during that time and was raised in Venezuela, Mexico and Chile before the family could return to Guatemala.

As efforts intensified last month to prevent Arévalo from taking office, the United States imposed sanctions on Miguel Martínez, one of the closest allies of the departing president, Alejandro Giammattei, over widespread bribery schemes.

And in a pivotal move, the U.S. 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 as they tried to weaken Arévalo and keep him from being inaugurated.

“The pressure from the United States has prevented a coup d’état; without that, we wouldn’t be here,” said Manfredo Marroquín, the head of Citizen Action, an anti-corruption policy group. “The Americans are like insurance: there in times of crisis.”

Still, the U.S. support of Arévalo has revealed fissures in Guatemala. In his last weeks in office, Giammattei, who was barred by law from seeking reelection, grew increasingly vocal in his criticism of the American sanctions and the international support for Arévalo.

Dealing another blow to Arévalo, Giammattei withdrew Guatemala from an anti-drug task force created in 2020 with the United States. That move could weaken Guatemala’s ability to combat drug trafficking groups, which have been expanding their sway around the country.

At the same time, Arévalo’s efforts to forge alliances have revealed how challenging it will be for him to govern. This month, he announced the first Guatemalan Cabinet in which women would account for half of all ministerial posts, but the celebration of that milestone was short-lived.

A member of a major business association was named to the new Cabinet, prompting calls that Arévalo, who has hewed to centrist policies, was drifting to the right. Another Cabinet nominee withdrew after old comments surfaced in which she criticized a prominent Indigenous activist.

Indignation also arose because only one minister in his Cabinet was Indigenous, despite the crucial role that Indigenous groups played in protesting against the efforts to keep Arévalo from taking office. Nearly half of Guatemala’s population is Indigenous.

“There is an expectation that this new government will be different,” said Sandra Xinico, an anthropologist and Indigenous activist. “But we’ve seen once again how Indigenous peoples are excluded from the political process.”

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