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Center-Left Sociologist Takes Office as Guatemala’s President – WSJ

Bernardo Arévalo’s inauguration was delayed for hours as congressional opponents sought to sabotage session; supporters clash with police. Arévalo durante la toma de posesión como presidente de Guatemala.(Mónica González/El Pais)

José de Córdoba and Juan Montes, WSJ

GUATEMALA CITY
EnergiesNet.com 01 15 2024

Bernardo Arévalo took office Sunday as president of Guatemala in a turbulent session of Congress where political opponents had made a last-ditch attempt to sabotage his inauguration and angry supporters clashed with police.

The 65-year-old center-left sociologist has pledged to tackle the corruption and poverty that have fueled a wave of migration to the U.S., but an open confrontation with the country’s establishment threatens to jeopardize his plans.

Arévalo’s inauguration was set back hours by departing opposition lawmakers who had refused to swear in the newly elected legislators of Arévalos’s Seed Movement party, part of an effort to prevent him from taking office.

Heads of state and leaders of international organizations attending the inauguration demanded Congress comply with its democratic mandate. In a joint statement Sunday, the foreign dignitaries called on legislators to “hand over power today as required by the constitution to the president-elect.”

Arévalo was sworn in for a four-year term shortly after midnight local time, donning the blue-and-white presidential sash to applause and shouts of “Viva!”

“The support of the world’s democratic nations has been crucial for us to be here,” he said.

Earlier, hundreds of Arévalo supporters who gathered in the capital for the inauguration were blocked from reaching the legislative building to demand that the ceremony go ahead. Many clashed with police.

Arévalo supporters clashed with police on Sunday. Photo: bienvenido velasco/Shutterstock
Arévalo supporters clashed with police on Sunday. Photo: bienvenido velasco/Shutterstock

Arévalo has been locked in a monthslong tussle for power with prosecutors, legislators and political adversaries since emerging as a surprise front-runner in last year’s election campaign. His landslide win in August has been marked by allegations of fraud against him and his party leveled by Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras and several prosecutors.

Guatemala’s electoral court has upheld Arévalo’s victory, and the Biden administration and U.S. Congress have backed the results. The Organization of American States last month called Porras’s attempts to overturn the election an attempted coup d’état. Before the election, Porras and other Guatemalan prosecutors and officials were included in the U.S. Engel list of corrupt actors on the grounds that they obstructed corruption cases and filed false complaints. A spokesman for the attorney general has said Porras and other prosecutors have acted in accordance with the law.

The delay was sparked after Guatemala’s constitutional court on Sunday upheld an order from a lower tribunal suspending the Seed Movement. The constitutional court later Sunday ordered the congress to guarantee the swearing-in of all legislators and officials whose election was confirmed by the electoral court.

The Seed Movement is the third-largest force in Congress with 23 out of 160 seats.

Last month, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on nearly 300 other Guatemalan nationals, including over 100 legislators, on the grounds that they undermined democracy and the rule of law. The Biden administration has also sanctioned dozens of officials from Nicaragua and El Salvador. Both governments have been widely criticized over authoritarian actions.

To counter the offensive against him, Arévalo appealed to international figures for support after his election victory. The presidents of Chile and Colombia and the King of Spain were among world leaders in Guatemala for the inauguration, but several left before the ceremony began. The U.S. was represented by Samantha Power, administrator of the Agency for International Development, and Brian A. Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Poverty in Guatemala has helped to fuel a wave of migration to the U.S. Photo: Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Poverty in Guatemala has helped to fuel a wave of migration to the U.S. Photo: Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Arévalo, a former diplomat whose father, Juan José Arévalo, was Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, has vowed to clean up corruption and provide more funds for education and healthcare. He wants to attract more foreign investment to help rebuild Guatemala’s aging infrastructure and maintain fiscal discipline.

He also says his government will work closely with the U.S. to stem migration. More than 213,000 migrants from Guatemala were apprehended at the U.S. southern border in fiscal year 2023, the second-largest nationality after Mexicans, U.S. government data show.

Arévalo’s rise to power comes after three consecutive right-wing administrations were rocked by corruption scandals. One president, Otto Pérez, was forced to resign and later imprisoned for corruption before being released to house arrest.

Now, the focus is turning to whether Arévalo can deliver on his campaign pledges. The core of his Seed Movement party includes many young, leftist social activists, among them university professors and students, and the incoming president has promised to fulfill his father’s legacy.

“I voted for the first time, and I did it for Arévalo,” said Valeria Juárez, a 19-year-old student. “I voted wishing for a real change in the country because there’s been a lot of corruption in recent years. All the young people of Guatemala have faith in Arévalo because he is not a corrupt politician.”

Juan José Arévalo was a leftist professor who launched a series of economic and social overhauls in the 1940s in favor of workers, the poor and the country’s indigenous Maya people. He went into exile a few years later when his successor, Jacobo Árbenz, was ousted in a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

Arévalo faces enormous political and legal challenges. Prosecutors are probing the alleged forging of signatures necessary to register Arévalo’s party. They are also investigating allegations that he participated in an illegal takeover of a public university in 2022. In December, prosecutors called for last year’s election results to be annulled on fraud allegations, but the electoral court dismissed the case. Arévalo says the charges were part of an effort to prevent him from taking office by officials who fear his anticorruption plans.

To pass any bill, Arévalo will have to negotiate with some politicians whom he accused of being corrupt during the campaign.

Inside the Guatemalan Congress on Sunday after the temporary suspension of the inauguration of the new legislature. Photo: maria jose bonilla/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Inside the Guatemalan Congress on Sunday after the temporary suspension of the inauguration of the new legislature. Photo: maria jose bonilla/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“It will be difficult to govern,” said Carlos Mendoza, the head of government-accountability nonprofit Dialogues who has been nominated by Arévalo to serve as a senior official at the president’s office.

Eric Olson, a Guatemala expert at the Seattle International Foundation, said obstacles are “numerous and powerful.” But Arévalo also has a strong public mandate, the support of indigenous movements and some in the business community, as well as allies in the Biden administration and U.S. Congress, he said.

Arévalo says he is confident that resistance in congress and the judiciary will ease once he takes office. He plans to ask Porras to resign. Porras has said she won’t quit.

More than half of Guatemalans live in poverty, most of them indigenous Maya people. The underground economy represents about half of Guatemala’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. The country relies heavily on remittances from Guatemalans working in the U.S.

Corruption has meant less money for education, health and infrastructure, analysts say. Guatemala scored 24 points out of 100 on Transparency International’s 2022 corruption perceptions index, ranking 150 out of 180 countries alongside Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Juan Carlos Rivera contributed to this article.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com and Juan Montes at juan.montes@wsj.com

wsj.com 01 14 2024

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