Early in the morning and nine hours late, Bernardo Arevalo was sworn in as president of Guatemala in an eventful session on Monday, January 15. Arevalo was the clear winner of the August 2023 elections, with more than 60% of the votes. However, his accession to the presidency, which was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., was hindered by the judicial obstacles promoted by the conservative opposition, which had their last episode on the day of the swearing-in.
The opposition deputies boycotted the conformation of the board of directors of the parliament, the body that appoints the president. For a moment it was thought that the tension would boil over, as groups of demonstrators, supporters of the elected president, took to the streets and surrounded the headquarters of the Guatemalan legislative power. Outside the building there were confrontations between some of the demonstrators and the police, while inside the building the tension was shown in the form of shouting and some aggression between deputies.
Finally, the inauguration could take place, although the session was marked by the absence of former president Alejandro Giammattei, so it was the new president of the Congress, Samuel Perez, deputy for the Semilla Movement, Arevalo’s party, who swore him in.
An internationally condemned ruse
The plans to prevent Arevalo’s inauguration go back a long way. Already in December, the intention of the political opposition to judicialize the result of the presidential elections with the false accusation of fraud became evident.
This maneuver, described as an “attempted coup d’état” by foreign authorities, was quickly met with international condemnation. The European Parliament condemned what happened and asked the Council of the European Union to adopt sanctions against the Attorney General of Guatemala, Consuelo Porras, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, and Judge Fredy Orellana, who in August 2023 was added to the Engel List of the US State Department as an “anti-democratic actor”.
Orellana was in charge of the Seventh Criminal Court that ordered the investigation of the Registrar of Citizens of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, José Ramiro Muñoz, for not suspending the Semilla party of President Arévalo, less than a month before the second round of elections in Guatemala.
Months of tension and anti-democratic maneuvers
The last four months of 2023 were very tense in Guatemala, a country that experienced all kinds of maneuvers, internationally described as “anti-democratic”. These were encouraged by the opposition, in alliance with active elements of the judiciary in the Central American country. However, the president-elect remained calm and made constant appeals for the democracy recovered in 1985 to be respected.
In the end, the presidential transmission procedure was possible thanks to the actions of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Constitutional Court, judicial institutions that Bernardo Arevalo described as “fundamental” to guarantee democracy in his country.
“It fills me with deep honor to assume this responsibility, demonstrating that our democracy has the strength to resist, and that through unity and trust we can transform the political landscape in Guatemala,” said Arevalo before being sworn in as president.
“These past few months, we have faced complex tensions and challenges that led many to believe that we were destined for an authoritarian rollback. For thousands of people these months suggested the resurgence of dictatorship in Guatemala. However, the people of Guatemala have demonstrated their wisdom,” he added.
International endorsements of the new president
The delay in the ceremony meant that several international delegations had to leave the premises temporarily, including the Spanish delegation, headed by King Felipe VI. For others, such as Colombian President Gustavo Petro, it meant delaying his trip to Davos, where he was to participate in the world economic forum.
It was precisely this delay, and the last-ditch attempts by the opposition to ruin the president’s inauguration, which motivated the loyalty of these international delegations for the Guatemalan president-elect. Representatives of countries such as Colombia, Honduras, Costa Rica and the United States, as well as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union, made statements in support of the new president.
“Here in Guatemala, the Congress of the Republic still cannot agree to elect its board of directors, which is the one that has to install President Bernardo Arévalo,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who was present at the ceremony, shared on social networks on Sunday. Petro took advantage of the uncomfortable situation to send a message to Colombia’s attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, a fervent opponent of the Colombian head of state. “The prosecutor’s office, as in Peru, as in Colombia, has had a hostile attitude to the presidency, and has even tried to imprison the vice-president elected by the people”, he added in his comment.
Surname referent of Guatemalan progressivism
Bernardo Arevalo, the 52nd president of Guatemala, is a veteran politician who was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, 65 years ago, a product of his family’s exile. He is the son of Juan Jose Arevalo, who was also president of Guatemala between 1945 and 1951, the first democratically elected in the country after the pro-democracy revolution of 1944. This was led by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, among others, a legend of Guatemalan democracy, who succeeded Arevalo Sr. and was overthrown by a CIA coup d’état in 1954.
It was President Juan Jose Arevalo who, for example, banned child labor, created the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security, legalized the right to strike, and gave all men of legal age and literate women the right to vote. Arévalo Sr. also signed the Labor Code of 1947, which put an end to the so-called “vagrancy law”, which forced peasants to work 50 days a year in the haciendas. He also incorporated the eight-hour maximum, the minimum wage, rest on Sundays and trade union rights.
In short, President Arevalo promoted the most spectacular advance in labor and electoral rights in Guatemala’s history. These important social advances were the basis of the 1945 Constitution, which guaranteed respect for them – a respect which ended with the coup d’état against Arbenz nine years later and sent former President Arevalo to decades of exile.
The first progressive president since 1954
“I am not my father. I walk the same path as him, that of the revolutionaries of 1944 like Jacobo Arbenz, but I am not him”, said Bernado Arevalo at the closing of the campaign that allowed him to win the presidential elections in the second round on August 20, 2023.
Undoubtedly, especially for older people, being the son of Juan Jose Arevalo boosted the national center-left vote towards the candidacy of the current president. Arevalo’s government plan establishes the so-called “ten seeds to recover the future” which include reforms to improve the education sector, and infrastructure in education, health and culture; the strengthening of institutions to improve the social security of Guatemalans; the fight against malnutrition, as well as support for the agricultural sector or programs for entrepreneurs.
In his program there is also an important element against corruption and organized crime gangs, a real scourge throughout Central America. These measures include the effective control of the territory, as well as of the prisons, where today many criminals, as in other countries in the region, continue to commit crimes with impunity.
In the almost 40 years of free elections, since the country recovered democracy, there have been all kinds of presidents, some as important as Alvaro Arzu, who in the mid-nineties put an end to the internal armed conflict, after 36 years of war. For all political analysts, the recently inaugurated president is the most progressive president of Guatemala in this last stage of democracy.
In fact, he is the first president of this ideology since the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and will have an important and shared challenge in the history of the country and the region: the fight against insecurity, political corruption and poverty.