© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arevalo addresses the media after meeting with Honduras President Xiomara Castro, at the Presidential House, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 4, 2024. REUTERS/Fredy Rodriguez
By Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arevalo is due to be sworn in Sunday for a four-year term, pledging to banish deep-rooted corruption, though he will come up against a divided Congress and string of judicial attempts to block him from wielding power.
Vowing to restore democracy in Guatemala, the most populous country in Central America with 17.1 million people, Arevalo, 65, won the August presidential run-off in a sweeping victory.
In the months after, Guatamala’s attorney general – seen as an ally of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei – has intensified attempts to discredit Arevalo’s victory and hinder his transition.
The attorney general has tried to strip Arevalo and his Vice President-elect Karin Herrera of legal immunity, suspend his Semilla party and annul the election. The “coup” attempt, as Arevalo terms it, has drawn tens of thousands of Guatemalans to the streets and the international community, including the United States, has piled vast pressure on Giammattei’s administration to proceed with the transition of power.
The events leading up to Arevalo’s inauguration underscore Guatemala’s fragile rule of law, with the country pushed to the brink of a governance crisis that could limit his ability to rule and keep campaign pledges to root out bad political actors, fight organized crime and create new jobs.
“Problems are not over for Arevalo,” said Roberto Alejos, former Guatemalan Congressional and political analyst.
“They are not going to let him pass any law in Congress and he will have plenty of difficulties governing,” he added.
Despite its overwhelming victory in the presidential elections, Semilla – a social democratic, environmentalist and progressive party – barely achieved 23 of the 160 seats in the legislature. Giammattei’s conservative Vamos party and UNE, the party of former first lady Sandra Torres who Arevalo defeated in the election hold a combined greater power.
That makes Arevalo more vulnerable to ongoing political attacks, experts said.
“Actions to criminalize Arevalo and other members of the party could continue,” said Ana Maria Mendez, Central America director of the Washington Office on Latin American Affairs (WOLA), a rights group.
“(Attorney General Consuelo) Porras’s altering of the constitutional order is a serious threat to governance, stability and peace,” she added.
The attorney general’s office has denied it is attempting a coup and defended its actions as within the framework of the country’s laws
MIGRATION, POVERTY, CHINA & TAIWAN
Arevalo, a career diplomat, sociologist and son of former President Juan Jose Arevalo, will grapple with a country with half its population living in poverty, rising costs of living and violence that is a main driver of Central American migrants to the United States.
His government will likely be “transitional” since poverty, economic and social rights are structural issues difficult to change in four years, analysts said.
“We don’t believe that the people of Guatemala at this moment are waiting for (us) to arrive with a magic wand,” Arevalo said in an interview with Reuters after his election victory in August.
“What they want to see… is authorities that finally assume the commitment to work for development and to work for the people, that is what we are going to do,” he said.
The government of Arevalo and Herrera will have to carefully balance demands by the United States to stem migration amid record-high remittances that keep the local economy afloat.
After winning the presidency, Arevalo said he will expand relations with China, which could imply a change in policy for Guatemala’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a move that could anger the United States. Arevalo, however, has denied that a closer relationship with China means breaking ties with Taiwan.