Guatemala’s Arevalo takes office despite delays, attempts to block him

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Bernardo Arevalo was finally sworn in overnight as Guatemala’s president after the ceremony was delayed for over nine hours Sunday, capping months of judicial machinations to block the anti-corruption crusader from office.

The 65-year-old lawmaker, ex-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 graft-accused prosecutors closely aligned with the country’s political and economic ruling class.

Tensions soared Sunday as the opposition-dominated Congress engaged in hours of tug-of-war over the status of the 23 lawmakers from Arevalo’s Semilla (Seed) movement, due to the suspension of his party on fraud allegations widely seen as trumped up.

The lawmakers were finally accepted as full party members and the ceremony could get underway around midnight.

The delays prompted the European Union, Organization of American States and other Latin American governments to issue a statement urging Congress to “fulfill its constitutional mandate to hand over power as required by the Constitution.”

Samantha Power, leading the U.S. delegation to the inauguration, wrote on social media that Congress should “uphold the will of the people. The world is watching.”

Arevalo received the strong backing of the international community amid the onslaught of efforts to block him from the presidency.

Graft-accused prosecutors had tried to overturn the election results and strip Arevalo of immunity from prosecution. His Semilla party had its registration suspended.

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.

 ‘Scoundrel governments’ 

In a nearby square, thousands of supporters had gathered to await the ceremony, waving flags in a festive atmosphere with music and dancing, where Arevalo was expected to address them after the ceremony.

Earlier, Indigenous Mayans 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 Giammattei, several prosecutors fighting graft were arrested or forced into exile. Rights groups also 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 US 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.”

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