‘A new spring’: Guatemala’s Arevalo becomes president after Congress delays

Joy briefly turned into anger for supporters after Congress stalled the anticorruption crusader’s inauguration.

Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo arrives for a news conference, alongside Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the night before Arévalo's inauguration in Guatemala City, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Anticorruption crusader Bernardo Arevalo was sworn in as Guatemala's president late on January 14, 2024, after hours of delay as conservative Congress negotiated key positions, sparking protests from Arevalo's supporters [Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

Guatemala City, Guatemala – Growing up, Joaquina Perez says her mother always told her that Juan Jose Arevalo was the country’s best president, as he ushered in progressive reforms into the Central American country between 1945 and 1950.

Decades later, the 63-year-old was filled with excitement as she travelled 193km (120 miles) from her home in the city of Retalhuleu in the country’s southwest with others from the local pro-democracy movement to see the former president’s son, Bernardo Arevalo, take office as Guatemala’s new president.

“We are happy because we have high hopes with [Bernardo] Arevalo,” Perez told Al Jazeera in Guatemala City’s Central Plaza.

“We saw an opportunity for [change] with the Seed Movement and with Arevalo,” she said, referring to the president-elect’s popular anticorruption platform that has drawn wide support from across the impoverished Central American nation. “That is why we are here.”

On Sunday, close to midnight, Arevalo was finally sworn in as Guatemala’s president after months of efforts by the country’s long-ruling elite and a conservative-leaning Congress to derail his rise to power, despite his landslide win in an August run-off against businesswoman and former first lady Sandra Torres.

But the inauguration followed hours of delay as Congress negotiated the formation of a new Directive Council, the body that guides the legislature’s sessions and helps shape its agenda. An atmosphere of joy and celebration on the streets of Guatemala City briefly gave way to anger. Earlier in the day, live music played across Guatemala City’s historic centre, as thousands of people like Perez travelled from across the country, with some sleeping in the plaza the night before, to witness the swearing-in.

As the hours ticked by, they gathered outside the congressional building to protest against delays after breaking down police barriers around Congress. The United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States, among others, issued messages reaffirming their belief in Arevalo’s election, and calling for him to be sworn in.

“We need this to happen right now,” Ingrid Arana, a 53-year-old resident of Guatemala City, told Al Jazeera on the peripheries of the protests. “Time has passed and the decision has not been made. Those in Congress have not finished the session.”

“Arevalo represents a new spring for the country,” she said. “A great opportunity for Guatemala, that will improve the conditions that have occurred [we live in] due to so much corruption.”

By late evening, Congress agreed to recognise the Seed Movement party days after temporarily suspending it and insisting that its lawmakers join the legislature as independent members. Arevalo’s party also won the presidency of the Congress, giving it influence in shaping the body’s agenda.

Yet, the last-minute hurdles to his inauguration only underscored the challenges he faces as he tries to reform a political system where many who wield power feel threatened by Arevalo.

Guatemala's Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of support for Arevalo [Jeff Abbott/ Al Jazeera]
Guatemala’s Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of support for Arevalo [Jeff Abbott/ Al Jazeera]

Outsider candidate

The 65-year-old career academic and diplomat-turned-politician has long spoken out against corruption in the Central American country and campaigned on the promise of reviving trust in state institutions that have abandoned communities for decades.

“Regaining confidence in the institutions of the state is the fundamental contribution to have a stable future in our country,” Arevalo told Al Jazeera in a July 2023 interview during a campaign stop.

Arevalo was an outsider progressive candidate ahead of the June 25 general elections, polling in eighth place with less than 3 percent of the vote. But he came a surprise second, before winning the run-off against Torres.

His Seed Movement party was born out of the massive protests in 2015 against the corruption in the administration of then-President Otto Perez Molina. “It is an immense joy,” Lenina Garcia, a former student leader and now learning director at the 25A Institute non-profit who was involved in the 2015 protests, told Al Jazeera, speaking of his win and ascendancy to the presidency on Sunday. “Since 2015 up until today, we can see how citizens have categorically rejected impunity and corruption,” she said.

Arevalo supporters march in Guatemala City on January 14, 2024 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]
Arevalo supporters march in Guatemala City on January 14, 2024 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Prolonged political crisis

The attacks against Arevalo and his platform began shortly after his surprise success in the general elections and increased following his run-off win.

In July 2023, prosecutors led by Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras and Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity, sought to suspend the legal status of Arevalo’s party over allegations of irregularities in the collection of signatures by Seed Movement to register itself as a political party.

Following the run-off victory, prosecutors raided the Seed Movement offices and the facilities of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, confiscating sensitive documents, including the official ballots, sparking concerns of election interference.

Prosecutors filed requests in the Supreme Court to strip the immunity of Arevalo, his Vice President-elect Karin Herrera, and other members of the party over their alleged participation in stoking protests at the country’s only national public university, the University of San Carlos in 2022. The Supreme Court has yet to recognise the requests, but prosecutors have sought to move ahead with the case nevertheless.

Porras and prosecutors have denied that they are not attempting to interfere in elections, but on December 8, Curruchiche requested in a news conference that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal annul the election results. The head of Guatemala’s electoral body responded to the request declaring the results were “official and unalterable”.

Police and Arevalo supporters face off in Guatemala City, as the country's Congress delayed new President Bernardo Arevalo's swearing in on January 14, 2024 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]
Police and Arevalo supporters face off in Guatemala City, as the country’s Congress delayed new president’s swearing in on January 14, 2024 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

People protest

Nearly every attempt to attack the democratic process was quickly responded to with protests, but beginning on October 2, Indigenous leaders started massive nationwide mobilisations led by Indigenous leaders to defend democracy. Protesters have gathered for more than 100 days outside the attorney general’s office, demanding her resignation and that she respect the results.

“Our goal was clear, we wanted to recuperate our democracy and the institutions of the state,” Jorge Gonzalez, a member of the Ancestral Authorities of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, who has participated in the protests since October 2, told Al Jazeera.

“And it is thanks to all the efforts of all the people of Guatemala that this coup d’etat was not carried out,” he said.

Meanwhile, the US and the EU imposed sanctions on Porras, Curruchiche and others trying to block the transition of power to Arevalo.

On December 14, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court – the highest court in the country – upheld the results of the election, ruling that Arevalo and the other elected officials must take office on January 14.

“In the end, the checks and balances worked,” Edgar Ortiz, a Guatemalan constitutional lawyer and political analyst who was among those who approached the court, told Al Jazeera.

“[Our] democracy is not in really great shape,” he said. “But in the end, it resisted the worst-case scenario.”

Supporters of Arevalo's Seed Movement in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on January 14, 2024 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]
Supporters of Arevalo’s Seed Movement in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on January 14, 2024 [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Lingering crisis

Arevalo’s ascension to office does not mean that the political crisis is likely to subside.

Arevalo must confront a political system that has seen corruption become further embedded following the 2019 closure of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, commonly known as CICIG. Since then, dozens of anticorruption prosecutors, judges, human rights defenders and journalists have been forced into exile due to political persecution.

But Arevalo has repeatedly defied the odds. For the moment, there is optimism among his supporters.

“We are going to achieve change, we can’t take it any more,” Perez said. “Now we have someone in the presidency who really supports the people.”

Source: Al Jazeera