Who is Guatemala’s new President Bernardo Arévalo?

January 16, 2024
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GUATEMALA CITY — Bernardo Arévalo was sworn in early Monday as Guatemala’s new president.

Many doubted they would ever see the day as powerful interests aligned against his anti-corruption campaign and authorities threw various legal challenges at him and his party.

Arévalo is now president, but those disputes will continue and with little support in Congress he will be hard-pressed to deliver the deep changes in Guatemalan government and society that fueled his support and a surprise electoral victory.

Who is Arévalo?

Arévalo is the 65-year-old son of former Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo.

The elder Arévalo was credited with implementing fundamental protections for workers and spaces for the country’s Indigenous population. Bernardo Arévalo was born in Uruguay, where his father was in exile following the ouster in a 1954 CIA-backed coup of his successor, President Jacobo Árbenz, whom the U.S. saw as a threat during the Cold War.

He came to Guatemala as a teenager before leaving again to continue his studies overseas. Arévalo studied sociology and anthropology abroad in Israel and the Netherlands, served as Guatemala’s ambassador to Spain, and for years worked in Geneva for the nongovernmental organization Interpeace.

He held a variety of roles there, but among his contributions was pioneering the organization’s peacebuilding work in Central America.

Arévalo returned to Guatemala and eventually was part of the founding of the Seed Movement party. Those who know him — and it appears in his extensive academic writings — say Arévalo is a political moderate, though in Guatemala’s distorted political spectrum he was painted by opponents as a radical leftist. He was elected to Congress in 2019 for the Seed Movement party that eventually carried him to the presidency.

What does he want to do?

Following his second-place finish in the first round of voting last June, Arévalo seemed as surprised as everyone else.

He hadn’t been polling among the top half-dozen candidates before the election, but his message of change, battling corruption and an optimism about Guatemala’s potential resonated among a portion of the disaffected population.

In an interview, after that vote, Arévalo said that if he eventually won the presidency in a runoff, the executive branch would cease to be the source of “that fundamental lubricant of the corrupt system.” Instead, his administration would focus on battling corruption and recovering co-opted institutions.

Early Monday, Arévalo said in a speech that “the political crisis from which we are emerging offers us a singular opportunity to build an institution, a democratic, realist and healthy democratic unity on the rubble of this wall of corruption that we are beginning to take down brick by brick.”

Arévalo also talked about the “historic debt” that Guatemala owes to its Indigenous peoples. He said he would expand Guatemalan’s access to health care and education, and work toward the country’s continued development.

“The most critical and urgent challenge without doubt is climate change,” he said Monday.

What stands in his way?

Most immediately, the continued legal persecution by Attorney General Consuelo Porras will continue to draw Arévalo’s attention and energies.

Her office is pursuing multiple investigations of him — for allegedly encouraging the monthslong takeover of a public university by students — and his party — for how it gathered the signatures required to form years earlier.

Porras’ term extends to 2026. Arévalo has said he would ask her to resign, but he can’t remove her from her position under Guatemala’s separation of powers.

Also unclear is what those who really hold the economic power in Guatemala and the increasingly powerful drug traffickers who control dozens of local and federal politicians will do when Arévalo tries to dismantle their corrupt networks.

Arévalo has said he wants to bring back the prosecutors and judges who had led the fight against corruption until Porras turned the justice system against them, forcing them into exile.

In the medium term, Guatemala has deep structural problems. Intense poverty and a lack of employment opportunities continue to drive high numbers of Guatemalans to emigrate to the United States. The poorest are also the most vulnerable to the intensifying drought and flood cycles made worse by climate change.



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