New Leader Takes Over in Guatemala, Raising Hopes for Fragile Democracy

Since Bernardo Arévalo burst onto Guatemala’s political scene last year as an anticorruption crusader, he has faced an assassination plot, his party’s suspension and a barrage of legal attacks aimed at preventing him from taking office as president.

Now comes the hard part.

Mr. Arévalo’s inauguration on Sunday — six months after his presidential victory delivered a stunning rebuke to Guatemala’s conservative political establishment — will mark 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 Mr. 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 in recent years gutted Guatemala’s governing institutions.

“Arévalo has the most thankless job in Guatemala today because he arrives with exceptionally high expectations,” said Edgar Ortíz Romero, a constitutional law expert. “He’s been given a budget for a Toyota when people want a Ferrari.”

Mr. Arévalo’s opponents in Congress have already moved to try to handcuff him by approving a budget late last year 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 difficulty Mr. Arévalo faces. More urgently, 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 already on edge over the expanding sway of drug cartels, the exodus of migrants and the spread of authoritarian tactics in neighboring countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The transition of power in Guatemala has been anything but orderly, marked by arrests, rumors of arrests and fears that the officials opposing Mr. Arévalo would go even further to prevent his inauguration from ever happening.

Mr. Arévalo’s opponent in the presidential race, a former first lady, refused to recognize his victory.

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

Guatemala’s highest court issued an order shielding Ms. Herrera from arrest, giving her and Mr. Arévalo a reprieve.

Still, prosecutors and judges opposed to Mr. Arévalo intensified a judicial onslaught that began soon after the national election, raising doubts about whether there would even be a transition of power.

Seeking to cast doubt on Mr. Arévalo’s victory at the polls, where he won by more than 20 percentage points, prosecutors obtained arrest warrants for four magistrates on Guatemala’s top electoral authority over claims of corruption in the acquisition of election software.

The four magistrates were all traveling outside the country when the warrants were issued.

The attorney general’s office on Thursday also arrested Napoleón Barrientos, a former interior minister, saying that he 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 conservative political figures shut down a pioneering U.N.-backed anticorruption mission in 2019, transforming the country from a testing ground for rooting out graft to a place where dozens of prosecutors and judged who have tried to take on malfeasance have fled into exile.

Brian Nichols, the top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, condemned what he called “the latest actions by anti-democratic actors in Guatemala,” including the arrest of Mr. Barrientos for “defending the right to peaceful protest.”

That expression of support followed months of maneuvering by the Biden administration in support of Mr. Arévalo after he shocked many in Guatemala, including members of his party, by squeaking into a runoff that he then resoundingly won.

Such positioning stands in contrast to U.S. support for the Guatemalan military during a brutal civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996 and resulted in a conviction of genocide for a former dictator who tried to exterminate a Mayan people, and to the C.I.A.’s engineering of a 1954 coup that toppled a popular, democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz.

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

The younger Mr. Arévalo, a soft-spoken sociologist and diplomat, was born in Uruguay during that time and raised in Venezuela, Mexico and Chile before the family could return to Guatemala. He is the most progressive figure to get this far in Guatemala since democracy was re-established in the 1980s.

As efforts intensified last month to prevent Mr. 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, American authorities in December also imposed visa restrictions on nearly 300 Guatemalan citizens, including more than 100 members of Congress, for undermining democracy and the rule of law in their efforts to weaken Mr. Arévalo and keep him from being inaugurated.

“The gringos have made the impossible possible because Congress is now much more docile,” said Manfredo Marroquín, the head of Citizen Action, a Guatemalan anti-corruption policy group.

Mr. Marroquín said that pressure from the United States might even open the way for members of Mr. Arévalo’s party to take part in the leadership of Congress, potentially easing a big source of tension for his government. One of Mr. Arévalo’s top allies in Congress, Samuel Pérez, said on Friday that he was preparing to serve as the speaker of Congress, though the president-elect’s opponents in the chamber were maneuvering to keep control of the chamber.

“The pressure from the United States has prevented a coup d’état; without that, we wouldn’t be here,” Mr. Marroquín said. “The Americans are like insurance: there in times of crisis.”

Still, Washington’s support of Mr. Arévalo has revealed fissures in Guatemala. In his last weeks in office, Mr. Giammattei, who is barred by law from seeking re-election, has grown increasingly shrill in his criticism of the sanctions by the United States and international support for Mr. Arévalo.

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

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

The naming of a member of one of the country’s top business associations prompted calls that Mr. Arévalo, who has hewed to centrist policies, was drifting to the right. Another cabinet nominee withdrew after old comments surfaced of her criticizing a prominent Indigenous activist.

In a country where Indigenous peoples make up nearly half of the population, indignation also arose because only one minister in his cabinet was Indigenous, despite the crucial role that Indigenous groups had in protesting against the efforts to keep Mr. Arévalo from taking office.

“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 seen how Indigenous peoples are excluded from the political process.”

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