The intense year that awaits the new president of Guatemala

President Bernardo Arevalo He took office after midnight on January 15, after a series of chaotic delays. His opponents in Congress tried to buy time to maintain control of the House Steering Committee, but after hours of drama, Arévalo’s Semilla party took the lead of a majority coalition.

This tumultuous start to Arévalo’s term indicates the challenges that await his ambitious anti-corruption program in a year that will probably be as turbulent as the last. There will be opportunities, but with the feeling that there are traps around every corner.

In the week before the inauguration, a Constitutional Court judge asked for protection from death threats. A court ruled that four judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal they had to be stopped. A former Minister of the Interior was taken from his house by the Police and from prison he said it was because he refused to shoot at the massive October protests in support of a democratic transition.

“We will not allow our institutions to be defeated by corruption and impunity again,” Arévalo said in his inaugural speech. “We now have the historic opportunity to reverse decades of state neglect and institutional deterioration,” he added.
It won’t be an easy task. Years of corruption have corrupted the country’s institutions from within, said Alexánder Aizenstatd, a constitutional lawyer in Guatemala City. “Not only do they not fulfill their functions, but “They actively violate people’s rights,” he said.

But Arévalo and his party are determined to attack the roots of this degradation. Opposition to Arévalo was so intense because he promised to continue the unfinished work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), closed after it revealed corruption on a massive scale, implicating everyone from politicians and business elites to unions and religious leaders. and university students. The head of the CICIG was Iván Velásquez Gómez, today Minister of Defense of Colombia, who is prohibited from entering Guatemala, after revealing a report on the dangerous tentacles of corruption in that country, and after the then president, Jimmy Morales decided to end the Commission.

We will not allow our institutions to be defeated again by corruption and impunity

Those corruption networks that managed to expel CICIG in 2019 have metastasized for decades and seemed to be firmly in control of the 2023 elections.

They disqualified the candidates of “change”” that they perceived as threats and imprisoned or forced into exile dozens of journalists and anti-corruption prosecutors and judges.

But they left Arévalo alone because he never registered more than 2% before the first round of the elections. While the authorities clung to power more tightly than ever, the vote for change had quietly gathered around him. The way Arévalo rose to the presidency despite the obstacles – through a combination of mass demonstrations led by indigenous organizations, international pressure and his own calm, conciliatory style that seeks agreement over conflict – is cause for optimism.

Meanwhile, the success of the Semilla vote in Congress realigned the legislature, fracturing the two main traditional parties and offering hope that he can cooperate with Arévalo.

This dramatic realignment means that Semilla’s (Arévalo’s party) legislative agenda may have a chance, said Inés Castillo, a three-term member of Congress and expelled from the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party for breaking ranks. “UNE, Come on, all these parties have acted based on the electoral financing of powerful groups that do business with the State… Today, Guatemala has the opportunity to carry out a legislative agenda through legislators who are more independent,” he said. to ConCriterio. And she added: “This is historic.”

A difficult year awaits

Beyond Semilla’s immediate legislative agenda, focused on laws to regulate the country’s water use, end monopolies and reduce drug prices, Arévalo’s ability to carry out structural change will depend on three key fronts. : reforms of the public procurement system, at the center of a series of corruption scandals; the recovery of the Attorney General’s Office; and the appointments to high courts.

Contracting reforms may offer Arévalo the best opportunity to achieve concrete improvements in the quality of life.

By making spending more transparent and efficient, especially in infrastructure and healthcare, citizens will see better roads and more medicines on hospital shelves before the end of the year. It could also increase private investment in the country.

The other two fronts are thornier. The Attorney General’s Office is controlled by Consuelo Porras, sanctioned by USA for “significant corruption” (she denies any wrongdoing). She was also sanctioned by the European Union on February 2, for her attempts to prevent the president’s inauguration. Her second term as prosecutor (2022-26) has produced a series of decisions that have undermined anti-corruption investigations.

The Odebrecht prosecutions in Guatemala are a case study in impunity; Prosecutors who sent corrupt officials to jail were themselves imprisoned or forced to leave the country. Arévalo does not have the constitutional authority to dismiss her and although he has tried to ask her to resign, the official has refused an official meeting with the president. She may achieve this by depriving her of resources. If she resigns, it is likely that Arevalo have to choose his replacement among the other five candidates approved by a commission in 2022, a list that includes relatively clean options.

Meanwhile, by 2024, important changes are expected to occur in the judicial system, on the order of 250 new judicial appointments, including 13 positions on the Supreme Court. This is a great opportunity for reform, but the appointments come from the National Lawyers Guild, beset in turn by accusations of corruption, and must go through Congress.

Arévalo’s key challenge

This battle will be slow, and its outcome will depend on whether Arévalo can calm tensions within his various social coalitions and in Congress. This will be his most important challenge. Private sector leaders and indigenous grassroots organizations have very different visions of what development should look like, and this is just one of many lines of argument. precarious fracture.

But the good news is that Arévalo inherits an economy that is growing reliably above 3% annually and that the public – well aware of the obstacles it faces due to the spectacular nature of recent months – is likely to forgive slow progress as long as it’s going in the right direction. He has also moderated his economic proposals and included representatives of powerful private sector lobbyists in his Cabinet to maintain a positive relationship with them.

The singularity of the moment seems to point in favor of Arévalo. Guatemalan voters, truly disheartened by a status quo that keeps most of the country in poverty, demanded a big break. But its breakup was democratic and peaceful, and it did not give the presidency to an autocrat or a populist, as so many other disheartened peoples have done, but to a radical conciliator with a reputation for reasonableness.

This will make it especially difficult for Arévalo’s antagonists to mobilize the opposition. Still, this year is likely to be, as the past six months have been, a week-to-week struggle.

CLAUDIA MÉNDEZ ARRIAZA

AMERICAS QUARTERLY

GUATEMALA CITY

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