16 Jan No honeymoon for Bernardo Arévalo
Above photo: Bernardo Arévalo greets supporters after being announced the winner in Guatemala’s presidential election, August 2023. Courtesy: Vaclav Masek
The incoming administration, a legislative minority, will govern in an environment of confrontation with the Guatemalan prosecutor’s office
Since the unexpected success of the Semilla Movement in the first round in June, and with the increase in its persecution following the resounding victory of that party in the second round in August, Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s office had attempted to undermine the incoming government of President-elect Bernardo Arévalo de León and Vice President Karin Herrera up to four times before he took office this Sunday, January 14.
Similarly, the new president’s father, the former revolutionary president Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, who was in power for 72 months (six years between 1945 and 1951), sustained 29 coup attempts. Although the times are different, the anachronisms remain: Arévalo de León will continue to be staunchly confronted with anti-democratic forces, whose vestiges are linked to the counterrevolution that dates back to the Cold War.
President Arévalo de León has already said he will meet with the attorney general and head of the Public Ministry (MP), María Consuelo Porras Argueta, to ask for her resignation from office. Since last September 1, Arévalo de León publicly accused her of orchestrating an attempted coup d’état to prevent him from assuming the Presidency. The attorney general’s second term ends in 2026, so the MP’s chronology of hostilities is expected to be extended.
Even so, the opportunities that emerge today to reverse autocratization in Guatemala are unprecedented. Placing that measuring bar on the incoming Government so that it assimilates its role as a brake against democratic regression will be vital to demand accountability from civil society. The window of opportunity to promote reforms is well seen by the international community, whose role in the supporting cast in the defense of democracy in 2023 was crucial. This is materialized in the broad representation of heads of state, covering the entirety of the Ibero-American ideological spectrum, who will attend the inauguration.
The clash between the executive and judicial bodies was the precursor to the debut of the Government of the Semilla Movement, a minority with 23 deputies in the 160-seat chamber. It is surpassed by the National Unity of Hope (UNE) with 28 and that of the Vamos party with 39. In the last four years, it has been evident that the official alliance was mostly made up of both benches.
Ninety-six deputies from the 10th Legislature will arrive at the Congress of the Republic for the first time this January 14. Furthermore, since the political ecosystem in Congress represents 17 parties, the fundamental question is: will the ruling party, in only its second Legislature, be able to build a governing coalition from its minority position?
Arévalo will not have a honeymoon. It will be difficult to please an electorate exhausted by decades of clientelistic partisan offers, now demanding a transparent programmatic agenda. Proof of this is that, even before assuming power, Arévalo and Herrera’s cabinet had already been the object of criticism and praise. A former representative of the Association of Renewable Energy Generators, who questioned the legitimacy of the fight in defense of rivers and assured that communities resisting hydroelectric plants in Guatemala were financed by international organizations, declined the nomination to the Ministry of Energy and Mines after being subjected to social media opprobrium.
It is also the first time the cabinet demonstrates a selection based on gender parity. But more than being a convenient arithmetic metric, the cabinet reflects a certain inclusive meritocracy that underlines quality in comparison to previous experiences, mainly during the administrations of unpopular former presidents Jimmy Morales (2016-2020) and Alejandro Giammattei (2020-2024). Morales’ Cabinet fractured when it began the frontal fight against the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). At the same time, with Giammattei, 13 of the 14 ministers still needed to complete the four years. Before reflecting a moderate progressivism in the first round, the appointments point to the reforming centrism that marked the second round of the Semilla Movement.
Mainly, the criticism from the most progressive sectors is based on the fact that there continues to be a marginalized sector that demands greater representation: indigenous peoples. This situation allowed them to gain a voice and reaffirm themselves as political actors, historical subjects in Guatemala, and protagonists of transformational social change. The people’s decision to call for mobilization to prevent a criminal group from deepening a coup d’état was not to defend Arévalo or Semilla but to reestablish the incipient post-conflict democracy and recover its institutions.
That will be up to the new administration, which begins indebted to the courage and determination of the people in a situation of great volatility and conflict between State bodies. Its success would not only greatly benefit the rule of law in Guatemala. Still, it would also send a powerful message: liberal democracy remains a viable option in the countries of northern Central America—demonstrating to Latin Americans that it is possible to challenge the status quo while maintaining the at the same time democratic values.