Latin America Advisor

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What Challenges Face Guatemala’s New President?

Bernardo Arévalo, who faced repeated attempts to prevent his inauguration, was finally sworn into office early Monday, just after midnight, in a ceremony that his opponents delayed for 10 hours
Arevalo being sworn in

Bernardo Arévalo, who fought off attempts by the country’s attorney general to derail him from taking office, was finally inaugurated early Monday, just after midnight, following a failed last-ditch attempt by his opponents in Congress to prevent him from taking office. Days before being sworn in, Arévalo named an equal number of men and women to cabinet posts, and he tapped both political stalwarts and younger leaders to ministerial positions. What do Arévalo’s cabinet picks reveal about his incoming administration and its priorities? What are the biggest challenges facing Arévalo? What policies will he seek to push through, and how well will he be able to work with the country’s Congress?

María Fernanda Bozmoski, deputy director of operations and finance at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center: “Bernardo Arévalo’s cabinet choices, which balance gender and blend experienced politicians with fresh faces, signal his commitment to inclusive governance and new perspectives. His administration is poised to address longstanding, systemic challenges with a modern approach. Arévalo’s picks reveal several priorities: gender equality; a blend of experience and innovation through the mix of political veterans and younger leaders; and a focus on pragmatism given some continuity in his team (notably in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). These are deliberate choices of an administration ready to tackle Guatemala’s complex issues. The challenges facing Arévalo are formidable. He confronts entrenched corruption, economic stagnation and deep-seated political division. Over half of Guatemala’s population lives in poverty, and inequality remains high. Additionally, political hurdles loom, particularly in working with a Congress where his party, despite securing the presidency for one year, ranks only third in seat count. This scenario will require the skillful negotiation and consensus-building that the 65-year-old diplomat is known for. As indicated by his pre-inauguration pledges, Arévalo’s policy focus is likely to center around unlocking economic growth, poverty eradication and educational reform. His plan to establish an autonomous national anticorruption task force suggests a strong anticorruption stance. Successfully pushing these policies through Congress will depend on his ability to leverage the diverse expertise and perspectives of his cabinet and those who have supported him (such as the Indigenous groups), and forge alliances across party lines. His administration’s success also hinges on maintaining international support, especially from the United States, in these endeavors.”

Mario Polanco, director of Grupo de Apoyo Mútuo in Guatemala City: “After decades of being governed by the same political and ideological tendency, something happened that surprised the world. In the recent election, society turned its back on the establishment, favoring a political expression that has traditionally been excluded from decision-making. The new president, Bernardo Arévalo, has led a life characterized by honesty and transparency. He appointed a high-level team, and his agenda has clear objectives and high goals, which are important for a society in which priorities have been far from the needs of the population. However, they may face obstacles. The first obstacle is the low tax burden, which is around 10 percent, so this means that the country’s budget remains low—typical of a poor country—and therefore there will be little money to achieve the plans that have been proposed. Second, there is the battle that will have to be fought on various fronts against those who have governed previously, who surely must already be preparing to make governing impossible over the next four years. The new leaders have the challenge of laying the foundations for positive change, ones which are real, and which are perceived by the population. Only in this way will Guatemala be able to begin its transformation toward a more just and equitable society in the future.”

Salvador Paiz, president of Funsepa and board member of Fundesa in Guatemala City: “Semilla is a small and young party. Given the shallow internal talent pool, President Arévalo seems to have used merit (40 percent of his cabinet members have prior public service experience, and 30 percent have relevant academic preparation) and general alignment with his four-year plan as the primary selection criteria in selecting his cabinet. This led to some initial reactions from party militants and supporters who did not see themselves adequately represented among his choices. An initial challenge has already become evident from criticism toward the announced candidate for the Ministry of Energy and Mines, who ultimately decided to decline the nomination. Arévalo’s most vocal supporters expect to have a say, even if that say contradicts Arévalo’s plan or creates unnecessary friction with other national stakeholders. Delivering on his agenda will be complicated given 2024 budgetary constraints and allocations from the prior administration. Poor execution capabilities at each ministry worsen the problem. A supportive Congress will be necessary but is contingent on the relatively ‘fluid’ alliances that his minority party has created with the entrenched political parties that he had so vehemently criticized during his campaign. Irregular migration will be a hot topic in the 2024 U.S. elections, and the only real way to address it will be by accelerating local job creation. Alleviating the primary developmental constraints (infrastructure, human capital, rule of law) will require broad alliances across sectors. A joint plan with the private sector seems like a smart move to mobilize real dollars toward increasing local/foreign investment and job creation.”

Ursula Roldán, director of the Instituto de Investigacion en Ciencias Socio Humanistas at the Universidad Rafael Landívar: “President Arévalo formed his cabinet, as he stated, from three aspects: from the Semilla party, from civil society proposals and from technocrats suitable for their positions. Gender parity was highly valued. Indeed, it is a cabinet that denotes the origin of a good part of civil society sectors, especially those who have held positions in international cooperation entities and Guatemalan nongovernmental organizations. Some are also related to the productive private sector. The balance is positive in technical matters and knowledge of the subject of each ministry. Arévalo’s great debt, as he has acknowledged, is with the plurality of the country, Indigenous peoples specifically. It is a cabinet to kick-start and lay the foundations for future leadership. His biggest challenges include dismissing the attorney general to completely deactivate the criminal investigation for the purposes of political persecution of public administration. He also must rescue the institutions from all the actors who have captured the state to maintain their privileges and corruption. Arévalo also should implement a transparent public management system that involves consultation and participation with relevant actors in the country (such as Indigenous peoples and territorial societies) and policies that begin to combat poverty and exclusion. The new president should also advance economic policies that strengthen the small- and medium-sized businesses. He should also expand the labor market and make substantive improvements in wages, as well as seek resolution of agrarian conflict. On Sunday night, it was evident that a new negotiation dynamic began using the Semilla party’s margins of maneuver. This bloc offers the possibility of promoting important initiatives of consensus.”

Stephen G. McFarland, former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala: “President Arévalo’s swearing-in, and his party’s surprise win to lead Congress, represent not just a change in government, but a crucial start in transitioning from a corrupt autocracy to a democracy. He faces several challenges. They include 1.) high expectations by the population for quick results in social justice, jobs, and anti-corruption; 2.) a non-stop effort by sectors that benefited from corruption and state capture to weaken and possibly overthrow the government, relying upon Attorney General Consuelo Porras to stymie governance; 3.) a government apparatus and civil service weakened by over 12 years of increasing malfeasance; 4.) an economic model based upon profound inequalities that relies increasingly upon migration—about 300,000 people each year—to the United States, and remittances (persuading the economic elites to embrace reforms will be difficult); 5.) the increasing presence of drug cartels in politics and the economy. However, Arévalo’s government has strengths: Arévalo himself is confident, non-dogmatic, honest and conciliatory. The Semilla party leads Congress, although it must negotiate every bill. The new president is committed to social justice; his final cabinet included a historic number of female ministers, and he committed to including more Indigenous people in senior positions. Also, there is a paradigm shift among much of Guatemala’s people, and some of the elites, that governance and politics can and must change. There is also huge international interest in supporting the new government, including from the United States.”

Virginia Garrard, professor emerita of history at the University of Texas at Austin: “Bernardo Arévalo, the leader of Semilla, Guatemala’s new reformist party, was sworn in as president of Guatemala in Monday’s wee hours, 10 hours later than scheduled. That number of hours is nothing compared to Arévalo’s hard road to the presidency; he has already fought off attempts by the country’s attorney general, backed by an alliance of deeply entrenched political and economic forces—the so-called ‘Pacto de Corruptos,’—to prevent him from taking office after his surprise popular election in August. The transfer of power to Arévalo, who is the youngest son of Juan José Arévalo, who launched Guatemala’s last true era of reform in the 1940s, promises a new era for justice and democracy in the long-troubled Central American nation. In the popular slogan ‘que florezca, Guatemala’—may you bloom, Guatemala—citizens express the hope that promise is not ephemeral. Mindful of the fact his administration faces challenges from the very start, Arévalo has been quick to act decisively. His first act in office—at 2 a.m. on Monday—was to thank a huge crowd of organized Indigenous supporters who had demonstrated in his favor in front of Congress for 106 consecutive days. In late December, Arévalo appointed his cabinet ministers, who reflect a broad range of political and societal interests and expertise; although this initially caused some concern that he might have negotiated a deal with the dark actors, leading observers now suggest that Arévalo’s choices sent a signal of consensus and gives him a technical team capable of negotiating. There is already evidence that this is the case: as recently as Sunday—the thwarted inauguration day—Semilla’s leadership used the downtime to craft alliances with congressional legislators, many of whom are now opportunistically eager to cast their lot with the winners. By the end of the day, Semilla’s Samuel Pérez, now president of Congress, had added 23 members to Semilla’s progressive coalition, thus giving Arévalo’s party the power to set the legislative agenda for at least the coming year.”

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