Opinion / Politics

The Long Road Ahead for Arévalo’s Presidency

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Tuesday, January 23, 2024
Álvaro Montenegro

Leer en español

We woke up on Monday, January 15, bathed in magical realism: Bernardo Arévalo is president of Guatemala, protected by the Constitution and legitimized by four months of popular mobilizations to defend the vote. Our grandparents remember the good times of his father, Juan José Arévalo, who brought Guatemala into the 20th century with the vote for women, creating social security, approving labor laws, and promoting infrastructure. Now, Bernardo and Vice President Karin Herrera offer to push our country towards the 21st century from a logic of sustainable development, defense of the values of democracy, promotion of parity and social rights, and banishment of institutionalized racism.

The 10 years that Guatemala lived from 1944 to 1954, which began with the first Arévalo, are known as the “Democratic Spring” amid the endless winter of dictatorships that the country and the region experienced. That is why spring accompanies Movimiento Semilla as a leitmotiv. It is a call to return to that path, cut short in 1954 with a coup d'état sponsored by the United States that plunged the country into four decades of horrendous internal war.

More recent struggles also fuel the new government. The crisis of 2015, when the Guatemalan people came out to demonstrate against corruption —the CICIG was also investigating the most powerful in those years— and managed, at times, to shake the structures of impunity, was drowned out by the ensuing governments. The struggle is not over and is still waiting to be resolved. Now, a path to a solution opens if the president keeps his promise to promote institutional transformations instead of clinging to the old patterns of protecting the corrupt status quo and the co-optation of justice to persecute those who fight for changes.

The consolidation of Semilla, founded and nurtured by anti-corruption mobilizers —young people, students, owners of medium-sized businesses, academics, and social leaders— exemplifies the emergence of a new political generation that despises the old clientelistic schemes that dictated the governing practice of the state in recent decades.

Guatemala stands out as a democratic flame, cutting through a fog of conflicts without solutions. Dozens of countries with governments of diverse ideologies supported the transfer of power in Guatemala because they saw its difficult birth under threat of an outdated system of privileges and repression that is refusing to die. Now, already constituted, the new government must advance a delicate balance to clear the remnants left by the criminal networks that kidnapped and brought the state to its knees, and embark on a course toward better courts of justice, more technical institutions, and a correct use of public money.

Arévalo has announced that he will demand the resignation of Consuelo Porras, the attorney general who, in recent years, has persecuted, imprisoned, and exiled dozens of democratic actors. The new officials have also discussed an aggressive roadway construction plan and incorporating climate change mitigation and adaptation into their policies and public finances.

On Sunday, after congresspeople allied to former president Alejandro Giammattei refused to hand over legislative power, Semilla demonstrated its unprecedented strength and obtained the votes to place two of its members on the Executive Board. Samuel Pérez was briefly elected as the new president of Congress at 31 years old, only nine years after directing the economics student association of Rafael Landívar University and calling for protests wearing yellow and blue scarves; and Andrea Villagrán, 32 years old, who chaired the political science student association, also at Landívar, as Legislative Secretary.

Three days later, on Wednesday, the Constitutional Court ordered a do-over in the election of the Executive Board, arguing that efforts prior to the inauguration to suspend the legal standing of the party rendered Semilla legislators ineligible for executive positions in Congress. It was a clear attempt by the Court, controlled by corrupt elites, to prevent the new President from having a Congress in his favor.

Semilla decided to comply and will no longer sit on the Executive Board this one-year term, but managed to have a Board re-elected in alignment with his interests. The new president of Congress, Nery Ramos, elected as representative of Azul (Blue), a small party, endorsed Arevalo in the runoff, and was the National Civil Police director until 2018, when he was removed to prevent the Police from supporting CICIG operations.

The political achievement is still considerable, given Arévalo’s promise not to make concessions under the table and the articulation of a parliamentary majority without offers of bribes — a common Congressional practice until now. The Arévalo administration will need this miracle consolidated into a permanent practice to advance its legislative agenda.

Arévalo currently has popular support. In the early hours of Monday, January 15, dressed in the presidential sash, he met with the resistance organized by the Indigenous Authorities in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and then in the Constitutional Plaza with thousands who had waited for him for ten hours (maybe for six months, or even for 70 years?) to celebrate hope. The next morning, President Arévalo summoned the Army to the same Plaza for roll call — a break from his predecessors, who received the salute in the barracks. It was a rare reminder that the military must submit to civilian power.

The inauguration of Bernardo Arévalo is the result of a long process that began well before the 2023 election, and that has cost many Guatemalans anxiety, persecution, exile, and prison. A long storm is starting to clear, one in which the justice institutions were cruel against judges, prosecutors, and journalists who wanted to cleanse the country of corrupt people and criminals. As a friend told me, embers were left under the bonfire's ashes. The democratic struggle was never snuffed out. A struggle in protest, in organization, in criticism. In the vote.

There is joy in Guatemala after a long period of suffering. The working hours to rebuild the country from the rubble begin now.

Álvaro Montenegro is a journalist and co-founder the #RenunciaYa movement, later renamed #JusticiaYa, which played a central role in the protests that led to the resignation of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. He is seeking his LL.M. from American University in Washington, D.C.

*Translation by Vaclav Masek

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