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Guatemala’s liberal new leader faces huge obstacles to anti-graft drive

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala’s new leftist President, Bernardo Arevalo, took office on Monday after a tortuous delay that underlined the uphill struggle he faces to meet high expectations and enact a sweeping anti-graft agenda in opposition-controlled Congress.

Arevalo, the Central American country’s most liberal leader in years, powered to victory in August, vowing to crack down on corruption and protect a democracy that has been under attack.

Guatemala’s President Bernardo Arevalo gestures on the balcony of the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on 15th January, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Jose Cabezas

But in a sign of the battles to come, Arevalo’s foes in Congress delayed his inauguration on Sunday by nine hours, signalling that efforts under way since his election to undermine his authority are unlikely to stop soon.

Now Arevalo’s upstart Semilla party, which has only 23 lawmakers in the 160-seat legislature, must broker deals with conservative lawmakers who spent months working with right-wing prosecutors to try to thwart his assumption of power.

“Given the institutionalised opposition to the new President, and the government’s limited financial resources, he has his work cut out,” said Donald J Planty, a former US ambassador to Guatemala.

Arevalo has signaled he plans to follow moderate, centrist policies, Planty noted, but it remains to be seen whether he will be accepted by conservatives suspicious of the political left due to Guatemala’s history of leftist insurgent groups.

Arevalo’s unexpected election victory was seen as a watershed moment for Guatemala, where the 65-year-old has cast himself as a leader of a progressive movement bent on reshaping a political landscape long dominated by conservatives.

In a speech in the early hours of Monday, Arevalo pledged he would not leave behind Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples, saying there would be “no more discrimination, no more racism”. More than 40 per cent of Guatemalans are Indigenous, mainly Maya.

Guatemala’s Indigenous have historically suffered from discrimination and poverty, with 80 per cent of their children facing inadequate access to nutritious food, according to UN studies.

But the challenges confronting Arevalo are formidable, from rising living costs to gang violence – both key drivers of migration to the United States.

US President Joe Biden congratulated Arevalo on his inauguration and replacement of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei, whose administration was buffeted by graft scandals.

Biden vowed to work with Guatemala to advance human rights, improve security, combat corruption, address the root causes of migration and expand economic opportunities for people in the Americas and the rest of the world, the White House said.

Guatemala’s new President Bernardo Arevalo holds a baton during a ceremony to recognised him as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on 15th January, 2024. PICTURE: Reuters/Jose Cabezas

Arevalo also faces a battle for control of institutions that have been firmly in the grip of conservative adversaries.

Last week he said he wanted to see the resignation of Guatemala’s Attorney General – an ally of Giammattei – who had moved to hinder his accession on several fronts, including attempting to suspend Semilla and annul the election.

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Still, Arevalo received a boost on Sunday when Semilla’s Samuel Perez Alvarez was elected president of Congress, a move some saw as a dividend of US pressure after Washington last year slapped visa restrictions on 100 outgoing lawmakers for “undermining democracy and the rule of law”.

“It was incredible how it hit the lawmakers when their visas were revoked,” said Mario Taracena, a former lawmaker of the center-left UNE party. “Then the new [legislators] were very afraid their visas would be taken away.”

Arevalo’s father, Juan Jose Arevalo, was Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, taking office in 1945. His successor was toppled in a US-backed military coup.

–¬†Additional reporting by CASSANDRA GARRISON in Mexico City, Mexico; NATALIA SINIAWSKI in Gdansk, Poland; and FRANK JACK DANIEL in London, UK


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