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Bernardo Arévalo would assume the Presidency of Guatemala weakened and constrained

The son of Juan José Arévalo, considered the first democratically elected president of Guatemala (1945-1951) after the 1944 revolution, has described himself as a social democrat long before entering politics, and he is bothered by being ideologically labeled.

By Marcia Perdomo | @Marcia_hn

Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
Guatemala's president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo, at a meeting with Central American journalists in Antigua Guatemala on Friday, October 24, 2023 | Coyuntura photography by Juan Daniel Treminio
Guatemala's president-elect, Bernardo Arévalo, at a meeting with Central American journalists in Antigua Guatemala on Friday, October 24, 2023 | Coyuntura photography by Juan Daniel Treminio

When it comes to impunity pacts, in Central America, one could write several volumes on how corrupt individuals immunize themselves against any legal process, and it seems that Guatemala is currently experiencing one of the most recent chapters.

In the lead-up to the inauguration of President-elect Bernardo Arévalo -scheduled for January 14, 2024- a series of machinations have unfolded. These include the annulment of presidential aspirations even before the first round of elections, raids on the offices of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) after the second round of elections, and attempts to revoke the legal status of the Semilla Movement Party, under which Arévalo's candidacy was launched, among other actions.

With democratic transition hanging by a thread, indigenous communities -particularly the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán- with the support of segments of the citizenry, staged a nationwide strike with up to 140 blockades across the country.

For a period of 24 days, the blockades were the most significant expression of frustration against those "seeking to violate the fundamental right of Guatemalans to choose and be elected," as stated by the board of the Council of Communal Mayors of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán on June 22, prior to the start of the strikes.

Indigenous groups and citizens during the sixth day of the protest camp demanding the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras in front of the Ministry of Public Health headquarters | Coyuntura photography by Jairo Videa
Indigenous groups and citizens during the sixth day of the protest camp demanding the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras in front of the Ministry of Public Health headquarters | Coyuntura photography by Jairo Videa

The widespread demand of the protests was the resignation of the Attorney General of the Public Ministry (MP), Consuelo Porras; the head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), Rafael Curruchiche; the seventh district judge, Fredy Orellana; the special prosecutor Cinthia Monterroso, and subsequently, even President Alejandro Giammattei. While the strikes have come to an end, indigenous leaders have indicated that the protests will be focused in Guatemala City, according to national and international media reports.

In this climate of uncertainty, public fatigue, and a National Congress with a majority hostile to him, Arévalo would assume the Executive Power of Guatemala on January 14, 2024. The political parties Vamos por una Guatemala Diferente (VAMOS) with 39 legislators and Unidad Nacional por la Esperanza (UNE) with 28, both right-wing, along with at least thirteen other political parties, would be an uncomfortable obstacle to Arévalo's governance, as he only has 23 out of 160 legislators.

Adding to this is an MP led by a controversial Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, who pursues anyone who questions her actions or investigates and reports on corruption cases. Meanwhile, from the current Legislative branch, opposition parties are already considering ways to protect themselves from future legal processes.

They aim to establish corruption mechanisms in the 2024 budget

Bernardo Arévalo is not oblivious to what lies ahead. During the thirteenth Central American Journalism Forum (Foro CAP) held in Antigua Guatemala, and attended by the and COYUNTURA team, the president-elect of the neighboring nation stated that the budget approved by the National Congress of Guatemala for 2024 is larger than what President Alejandro Giammattei managed.

For the fiscal year 2023 (January 1 to December 31, 2023), the Guatemalan Congress approved Q 115,443,737,000 ($15.5 billion). The proposed budget for 2024, currently under analysis by the Congress Finance Committee, amounts to Q 124,880,000,000 ($17.84 billion).

However, the president-elect of the Guatemalan people is aware that the trap set by the Congress Finance Committee lies in the inclusion of corruption mechanisms in the upcoming budget.

"There are fundamental problems there that, if they pass and are approved by the full Congress, will indeed imply that my government will be tied hand and foot because they are introducing measures that are questionably legal, such as requiring that each issuance of bonds, for example, be subject to approval by Congress, things that do not exist up to now but are being introduced at this moment", Arévalo declared.

He detailed that funding was cut from health and education areas, which were transferred to the MP and the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ). "The problem is not in the amount; we can manage it with the budget sent by the Government of the Republic this year or with the current budget with which we can also work. The problem is what they have introduced", Arévalo said.

For the president-elect, it is a setback for the Central American country to have a Finance Committee in the Congress of the Republic that does not understand that what the people are demanding is an end to corruption in the current conditions, where there has been a mandate for change. Instead, they are increasing corruption mechanisms to remain in place through the budget for the coming year. This obliges the new government to allocate sums of money to NGOs that serve no purpose and are part of the corrupt network at that time.

It is important to note that while Alejandro Giammattei will leave the Presidency of Guatemala in January 2024, the Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, will not vacate her position until 2026. Porras, reelected in 2022, was included by the United States Department of State on the list of "corrupt and anti-democratic actors", commonly known as the "Engel List", for obstructing justice, persecuting former collaborators or personnel within the judicial system.

Arévalo proposes rethinking leadership beyond charisma

When questioned by journalist José Luis Sanz of El Faro about whether the described obstacles would hinder fulfilling one of his main campaign promises, the fight against corruption, Arévalo responded: "The Congress of the Republic's Finance Committee has sent a message that essentially says, 'We don't care about what has been said; we will continue with corruption'".

However, the president-elect pointed out that efforts will be made in the current Congress of the Republic to "try to defeat this budget, and we hope that there are enough members of Congress who have understood this popular message and therefore refuse to accept this corrupt budget".

Faced with an adverse majority in the Guatemalan Congress, Arévalo proposed that, although they are aware they will have a minority faction, they must make "an effort to build social consensus and create a political force within society that balances this political situation".

Regarding a question about whether the leadership of indigenous movements stands out more than that of the president-elect, Arévalo responded that "the leadership of the indigenous movement is a spontaneous social and popular leadership that did not wait for instructions from any political actor to take to the streets to defend the democratic process".

When asked if he fears becoming more of a "mediator figure than a leader," Arévalo questioned why a mediator cannot be a leader and suggested that it might be necessary to "rethink our ideas of leadership and, instead of thinking of charismatic, heroic, Superman-type leaders who lead from the front, what we need are leaderships that bring together various sectors of society around this".

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