Guatemala: After fears of a coup, new president is sworn in

January 31, 2024
two people embracing
Guatemalan president Bernardo Arévalo at the launch of a community health initiative on January 25. Photo: @BArevalodeLeon/X

Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo, took office in the early hours of January 15. The ceremony was delayed by 17 hours causing tension and fear that another coup attempt was afoot. There were last-minute political maneuvers in the Guatemalan Congress, as opponents tried to attack the ruling party and undermine the president.

Arévalo and his party Movimiento Semilla have been persecuted by the courts since his victory at the polls in August last year. They faced obstacles on the day scheduled for his inauguration, as a court decision determined that deputies elected by Semilla, would assume their positions as independents and not as representatives of the party.

After heated debates and international pressure, they managed to garner the support of other parties to reverse the decision, recover the legislative bench, which is a minority, and also win the presidency of the new Congress.

Amid the attempts to undermine the swearing in process, thousands of Guatemalans mobilised on the streets of the capital to express their support for Arévalo and the Semilla Party, demanding that the maneuvers by the judiciary cease.

Indigenous communities from across Guatemala converged in the capital to back the swearing in of Arévalo. They had mobilised for weeks in a national strike in October and November during intensified efforts by the judiciary to delegitimise the Semilla Party and annul the elections.

Due to the right-wing’s coup attempt, the president’s inauguration, which had originally been scheduled for January 14 at 4pm, only took place at 9am on January 15.

International representatives who were in the country for the ceremony even signed a document defending Arévalo’s mandate and demanding the completion of the inauguration. This included Brazilian Vice President Geraldo Alckmin, representatives of the European Union and the Organization of American States and foreign ministers and presidents of other countries. Colombian President Gustavo Petro even announced that he would not leave Guatemala until the new president was inaugurated.

The latest attempt to undermine the electoral process highlights some of the numerous challenges Arévalo faces as the leader of Central America’s most populous nation, where he has promised to bring sweeping reforms, fight corruption and tackle rising costs of living and violence, the central factors that drive migration to the United States.

“Our democracy has the strength to resist and, through unity and trust, we can transform the political landscape in Guatemala,” said Arévalo moments after taking office, replacing conservative Alejandro Giammattei, whose government was embroiled in corruption scandals. Giammattei did not attend the ceremony.

Arévalo reiterated that, in his government, he will combat the misuse of public resources. “We will not allow our institutions to bend again in the face of corruption and impunity.” The president also spoke of “boosting progress” in the country, inviting political, social, professional and business leaders to come together on a path of dialogue and peace.

“We are facing a historic opportunity to reverse decades of social abandonment and institutional deterioration,” he said as hundreds of supporters gathered in the Plaza de la Constitución in Guatemala City, the country’s capital, to celebrate. He emphasised that the Guatemalan people demonstrated “wisdom” and that the Superior Electoral Court and Supreme Court protected the “sovereign desire” to “live in democracy”.

Historic moment

The unexpected victory of the president and the progressive movement he represents is a historic moment for Guatemala, which has long been governed by conservative parties. As a career diplomat, sociologist, and son of a former president, 65-year-old Arévalo faced constant opposition from established political parties, which repeatedly tried to undermine his electoral victory. The attorney general of Guatemala, an ally of Giammattei, made several attempts to hinder Arévalo’s rise to the presidency, including attempts to suspend his and the vice president’s legal immunity, to suspend the Semilla Party, and to annul the election.

In addition to dealing with internal issues, the government of Arévalo and Vice President Karin Herrera will have to balance demands from the US to curb migration amid record remittances that support the local economy. Acting under US pressure, Giammattei frequently used the police and army to contain migrants passing through Guatemala and used aggressive tactics such as firing tear gas into crowds.

In his inauguration speech, Arévalo stated that his government is committed to treating migrants crossing Guatemalan territory with “dignity, respect and compassion, just as we will demand that Guatemalan migrants be treated abroad”.

However, the delays did not appear to dampen the joy of many of Arévalo’s supporters, who set off fireworks as they celebrated late into the night. “We have a lot of hope in the new president,” said Eli Montes, a 27-year-old doctor who waited for hours to hear Arévalo speak. “He has the opportunity to promote change and leave a Guatemala that is on the path to development to the next government.”

[Abridged from Peoples Dispatch. Based on reports by Brasil de Fato and Telesur.]

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