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Guatemalans hope for a peaceful transition of power with Bernardo Arévalo's upcoming inauguration


GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo’s imminent inauguration and the unrelenting pursuit of him and his party by the attorney general are recurring topics over dinner tables in this country, reflecting a political awakening in a population weary of corruption and impunity.

Despite Arévalo’s wide margin of victory in elections certified by Guatemalan authorities and declared fair by international observers, he has been a target of prosecutors since his surprise second-place showing in June’s first round of voting. His anti-corruption stance and outsider status are threats to deep-rooted interests in the Central American country, observers say.

For many Guatemalans, Sunday’s inauguration represents not only the culmination of Arévalo’s victory at the polls but also their successful defense of the country's democracy.

Walter Cruz, a 55-year-old businessman from Guatemala City, said that at his family’s Christmas dinner, they discussed what the new year would bring and expressed concern over rising crime and the economy.

“What we hoped for was that the inauguration would happen without any problems, that it would be a good administration that benefits everyone as a country,” Cruz said. “I feel like the country’s development has stagnated.”

The election drama and protests have awakened many Guatemalans politically, said Stephanie Rodríguez, a lawyer in the capital.

“I believe there is a process of politization in families,” she said. “There are people who don’t consider themselves supporters of a specific political party, but who have been drawn into the streets by the issue of the elections. It seems like something new to me.”

That Arévalo has made it to within a day of his inauguration is largely owed to thousands of Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples who took to the streets last year to protest and demand that Attorney General Consuelo Porras and her prosecutors respect the Aug. 20 vote.

Prosecutors have sought to suspend Arévalo's Seed Movement party and strip Arévalo of his immunity three times. On Friday his vice president Karin Herrera announced that the Constitutional Court had granted her an injunction, heading off a supposed arrest order. Prosecutors have alleged wrongdoing in the way the Seed Movement collected signatures to register as a party years earlier, that its leaders encouraged a monthlong occupation of a public university, and that there was fraud in the election.

Guatemalan sociologist Vaclav Masek said that “the decision of the Indigenous peoples to mobilize to avoid that a criminal group advance or orchestrate a coup d’etat in the country was made not to defend Arévalo, but rather to defend the democracy, to defend the right to vote, elect and be elected.”

“They were the protagonists of transformational social change,” Masek said.

Another factor that appeared to keep Arévalo’s inauguration on track was the early and strong support from the international community. The European Union, Organization of American States and the United States government repeatedly demanded respect for the popular vote.

The U.S. government has gone further, sanctioning Guatemalan officials and private citizens suspected of undermining the country’s democracy.

On Thursday, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere, Brian A. Nichols, said the U.S. government would continue identifying and holding accountable those who tried to undermine Guatemala’s democracy.

Masek said the international community has played an important role in what "we call the defense of democracy.”

“The diplomatic sanctions were an important deterrent and I believe they mark a watershed in the way that Guatemala is seen at a geopolitical level," he said.

He noted that the aggression toward Arévalo will not likely stop with his inauguration. Porras’ term as attorney general extends to 2026.

Arévalo is a 65-year-old academic and diplomat who had worked for years in international conflict resolution before launching a political career. He was not even polling among the top five contenders going into the first round of voting in June.

He ran on a platform of resuming the fight against corruption, something Guatemala had made strides in. Under Porras, the country's prosecutors and judges who led that effort have become targets, forcing dozens to flee the country or be arrested.

Arévalo is the son of former President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo who implemented important social reforms in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The younger Arévalo founded the left-leaning and youthful Seed Movement party that carried him to victory.

Luisa Godoy, a health worker, said she didn’t have high expectations for Arévalo’s administration, but hoped he would carry out what he promised during the campaign.

“It’s clear to me that the change isn’t going to be immediate, but there (should be) more investment in health, in education, in the environment which is in ruins, more work opportunities and improvements to infrastructure,” Godoy said.

“I don’t claim that we’re going to be an advanced country one day to the next with this new administration, but (they should) take steps so that it could succeed and we become a prosperous country.”