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Guatemala's Arevalo Takes Office, Vows to Fight Corruption

Guatemala's new President Bernardo Arevalo gestures at supporters from a balcony of the Miguel Angel Asturias Cultural Centre in Guatemala City, after the inauguration ceremony, early on Jan. 15, 2024.
Guatemala's new President Bernardo Arevalo gestures at supporters from a balcony of the Miguel Angel Asturias Cultural Centre in Guatemala City, after the inauguration ceremony, early on Jan. 15, 2024.

Guatemala's new President Bernardo Arevalo promised early on Monday to fight corruption and stand firm against global authoritarianism, in his first speech after being sworn in.

"We will not allow our institutions to be bent by corruption and impunity," he said at the inauguration ceremony — held in Guatemala City more than nine hours late after a last-ditch effort to prevent the anti-corruption crusader from taking office.

The 65-year-old former lawmaker, diplomat and sociologist pulled off a major upset when he swept from obscurity to win elections last August, firing up voters weary of graft in one of Latin America's poorest nations.

He took the oath of office after warding off a barrage of attempts to prevent him from taking power — including by prosecutors facing accusations of graft who are closely aligned with the country's political and economic ruling class.

The prosecutors had tried to overturn the election results and strip Arevalo — who enjoyed strong support from the international community — of immunity from prosecution.

His Semilla (Seed) party had its registration suspended on fraud allegations widely seen as trumped up.

The opposition-dominated Congress engaged in hours of tug-of-war Sunday over the status of 23 Semilla lawmakers due to the party's suspension.

The lawmakers were finally accepted and the inauguration ceremony got underway around midnight.

With the presidential sash across his chest, Arevalo warned of "a wave of authoritarianism, the spread of intolerance, the restriction of dissent."

"During these last months we have faced complex tensions and challenges that led many to believe that we were destined for an authoritarian setback," he said, adding that Guatemala's "painful passage of uncertainty" was now giving way to hope.

'Scoundrel governments'

The inauguration was attended by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, Colombia's President Gustavo Petro and Spanish King Felipe VI.

Chile's President Gabriel Boric had to leave before the ceremony, due to the lengthy delays.

In a nearby square, thousands of supporters had gathered to await the ceremony, waving flags in a festive atmosphere with music and dancing.

Indigenous Mayans had earlier lit incense and danced along to the rhythm of drums, celebrating the pending change in government.

Guatemala's Indigenous community has spearheaded roadblocks and protests against the efforts to keep Arevalo from power.

"We have had mediocre, corrupt, scoundrel governments that do not have the slightest love for their country, and I hope that this government does not fail the people," said Indigenous leader Alida Vicente, 43.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm, there is a lot of hope from the population."
Arevalo takes over from Alejandro Giammattei, under whom several prosecutors fighting graft were arrested or forced into exile.

Rights groups accused him of cracking down on critical journalists.

He was also accused of propping up Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who headed the campaign against Arevalo alongside senior prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche and Judge Fredy Orellana.

All three are listed as corrupt and undemocratic by the U.S. Justice Department.

'Rebuilding democracy'

Guatemala is ranked 30th out of 180 countries by Transparency International, which lists nations from most to least corrupt.

It is also one of Latin America's most unequal countries, a reality that has, along with high rates of violent crime, compelled hundreds of thousands to risk the perilous migrant journey to the United States in hopes of a better life.

Arevalo is the son of reformist Juan Jose Arevalo, who in 1945 became Guatemala's first democratically elected president after decades of dictatorship.

The chess-playing, jazz-loving polyglot is facing a tricky task ruling Guatemala.

To start with, he inherits an attorney general who "attacked and criminalized" him and "threatened democracy to a degree we had not thought possible," said Edie Cux of Citizen Action, a local version of Transparency International.

Arevalo himself has acknowledged there would be "difficulties, since these political-criminal elites, at least for a time, will continue to be entrenched in some branches of the state.