Guatemala’s new president Bernardo Arévalo was inaugurated on January 14. But it did not come off without a hitch. Outgoing opposition lawmakers did their best to try to stymie the swearing-in of Arévalo and some of his party members. Arévalo’s supporters rallied in Guatemala City.
As we looked at in Episode 2, Bernardo Arévalo is the son of Guatemala’s first democratic leader Juan José Arévalo, who ushered in the Guatemalan Spring. Bernardo Arévalo has promised to lift Guatemala once again, but… even after winning the election, he faced constant legal maneuvers, led by the attorney general, that aimed to overturn the results and block his inauguration.
In this update to our reporting on Guatemala, host Michael Fox speaks with political scientist Jo-Marie Burt. She was on the ground in Guatemala City for Arévalo’s inauguration. In this update, she takes us there, and looks at what it means for Arévalo’s incoming government.
Under the Shadow is a new investigative narrative podcast series that walks back in time, to tell the story of the past by visiting momentous places in the present.
In each episode, host Michael Fox takes us to a location where something historic happened — a landmark of revolutionary struggle or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument or a museum. But every place he takes us was once the site of history-making events that shook countries, impacted lives, and left deep marks on the world.
Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.
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Michael Fox: Hi folks. This is your host, Michael Fox. So, today is going to be a little different. Before I dive into Episode 6: “Honduras”, and the rest of the countries heading south in Central America, I wanted to bring you a quick update on Guatemala.
The country’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, was inaugurated earlier this month on Jan. 14.
But it did not come off without a hitch. Outgoing opposition lawmakers did their best to try to stymie the swearing-in of Arévalo and some of his party members.
Arévalo’s supporters rallied in Guatemala City. Political Scientist Jo-Marie Burt was there. We’ll hear from her in a minute.
[Under the Shadow theme music]
This is Under the Shadow — A new investigative narrative podcast series that walks back in time to tell the story of the past by visiting momentous places in the present.
This podcast is a co-production in partnership with The Real News and NACLA.
I’m your host, Michael Fox — Longtime radio reporter, editor, journalist. The producer and host of the podcast Brazil on Fire. I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years in Latin America.
I’ve seen firsthand the role of the US government abroad. And most often, sadly, it is not for the better: invasions, coups, sanctions, support for authoritarian regimes. Politically and economically, the United States has cast a long shadow over Latin America for the past 200 years.
In each episode in this series, I will take you to a location where something historic happened — A landmark in revolutionary struggle or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument, or a museum. But every place I’m going to take you to was once the site of history-making events that shook countries, impacted lives, and left deep marks on the world.
This is Under the Shadow Season 1: Central America. Update 1: “Guatemala. Arévalo, Presidente”.
So in Episodes 2 and 3, I took you to Guatemala to retrace the steps of the violent 1954 US-backed coup and bloody authoritarian regimes. In those episodes, released earlier this month, I noted that the country’s president-elect, Benardo Arévalo, was set to be inaugurated on Jan. 14.
Remember, he is the son of Guatemala’s first democratic leader Juan José Arévalo, who ushered in the Guatemalan Spring. As we heard, Bernardo Arévalo has promised to lift Guatemala once again, increasing access to health care and education, and fighting corruption and impunity.
He carries with him a lot of hope. But even after winning the election, he faced constant legal maneuvers, led by the attorney general, that aimed to overturn the results and block his inauguration.
For months, an Indigenous-led movement has been demanding the attorney general’s resignation. For more than 100 days leading up to the inauguration, Indigenous leaders camped out in front of the public prosecutor’s office to guard against what Arévalo called a “slow-motion coup”.
Even though the country’s top court ordered Congress to respect the vote and allow the new president to be sworn in, there was still a lot of uncertainty.
And so on Sunday, Jan. 14, thousands of Arévalo supporters took to the streets of Guatemala City for the inauguration.
Conservatives in Congress, however, had their own plans. In a last-ditch effort to grab power for establishment forces, Arévalo’s opponents repeatedly delayed the day’s events, pushing back the inauguration ceremony by several hours.
Jo-Marie Burt: The feeling that I got, being on the ground in Guatemala City the day of the inauguration, was that everyone thought it was a little bit of a miracle that we had finally reached this moment. Where, finally, Arévalo was going to be inaugurated, given all the multiple attempts by the ruling elites and their allies to prevent him from taking power.
Michael Fox: That is political scientist and former NACLA editor Jo-Marie Burt. We heard from her extensively in Episode 3 about 1980s Guatemala.
On Jan. 14, she was on the ground in Guatemala City. For the rest of this update, she’s going to take us there and look at what it means for Guatemala, and for Arévalo’s incoming government.
Jo-Marie Burt: And then, of course, as the day wore on, it became obvious that they had not given up, but they had a whole bunch of other tricks up their sleeve.
And people were getting very impatient. I think there was a little bit of tension. And I was initially in front of the main plaza where Arévalo was supposed to come after being inaugurated — He was supposed to be inaugurated at 4:00 PM. In the end, he wasn’t inaugurated until after midnight.
And when people realized that the Congress, that the outgoing deputies had set up this commission and were trying to prevent the newly elected deputies, especially from Arévalo’s party, the Semilla Party, from being inaugurated as members of Congress, the Indigenous authorities who were really, without a doubt, the leaders of the resistance movement said, OK, a group of us are gonna go down to the Congress, and we’re gonna protest in front of the Congress. It’s gonna be nonviolent protest. And off a group went.
And me and my friends went with that group. And there were a few moments of tension where some people were getting frustrated, and there was a little bit of a back and forth with police. A tear gas grenade was shot. But it didn’t amount to much more because, again, the Indigenous authorities directed the crowd and said, look, this is a peaceful protest. We are not here to get into conflicts with the police.
The police were blocking our ability to get to the front of the Congress, and that’s why people are getting stressed out. And they’re getting stressed out as they were listening to what was going on inside the Congress and all the efforts to prevent the Semilla deputies from taking their positions.
And it was like that the whole day. It was this constant tension between people being patient and waiting and having faith that Arévalo would be, in fact, inaugurated, and growing frustration at the ongoing efforts by the ruling elites to overturn the election results or obstruct, in completely ridiculous ways, Arévalo’s inauguration.
And so, finally, when the deputies were all inaugurated and taken their seats and new legislature was established, then it was another battle for who would be the leaders of the new Congress.
And again, the ruling the conservative parties allied with the outgoing elites were trying to impose a deputy who was closely linked to the previous government of Jimmy Morales, also a very corrupt government, very authoritarian government. That’s the government that kicked out the CICIG, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
In the end, though, the list with the Semilla Party leader, Samuel Perez, on it won the majority vote. They brought in individuals from a variety of different parties, and they managed to win a majority. And then they went on to go to the National Palace and inaugurate Bernardo Arévalo as president.
It was a little bit after midnight. It was 6, 7 hours after he was supposed to have been inaugurated. So he didn’t actually come to the Plaza until something like 3 in the morning.
And before he went to the Plaza, he went to the public Ministry, which had been the site of the 105 days of nonviolent resistance by Indigenous communities in Guatemala demanding that the authorities respect the popular vote and inaugurate Bernardo Arévalo as president.
And this was just an incredible moment where you could see the connection between this new dynamic. Newly elected, newly inaugurated president who stood for integrity, for anti-corruption, for democracy. And the people who voted him into office because they were tired of Guatemala being run by corrupt, kleptocratic, and oftentimes violent elites.
Of course, now we know, in the last couple of days we know that those elites have not given up. That they appealed the election of the leadership in Congress. Those individuals have decided to step aside and follow the Constitutional Court’s ruling, and so on and so forth.
So it’s gonna be an ongoing battle for this new government to take office, to establish itself, to develop a coherent plan to tackle some of Guatemala’s biggest problems, which are clearly anti-corruption and rule of law, judicial independence, but also poverty, unemployment. Infant malnutrition is extremely high in Guatemala. Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. So the government’s challenges are huge.
It’s unfortunate that these corrupt elites still have so much power. And I am afraid that they are going to distract the new government’s attention by forcing them to just fight for survival so they won’t be able to get any actual important policies put in place.
So there are some real challenges ahead. They’re gonna need the continued support of the international community, civil society, international organizations, and bilateral governments to help this government to see, to help democracy survive.
That’s what’s at stake here.
Michael Fox: And that was Jo-Marie Burt.
Next week, we’ll turn to El Salvador once again. Elections are being held there this Sunday, Feb. 4. President Nayib Bukele is expected to be overwhelmingly reelected, despite bending the country’s laws to allow him to do it.
I’ll be there to cover the vote. So next week, I’ll be bringing you an update from the ground.
The week after that, on Feb. 13, we’ll get back to our regular episodeson track, with Honduras, 1980s.
That is all for Under the Shadow.
If you like what you hear, you can check out my Patreon page. That’s patreon.com/mfox. There you can also support my work, become a monthly sustainer, or sign up to stay abreast of the latest on this podcast and my other reporting across Latin America.
This is Michael Fox. As always, many thanks.