Latin America

Former comedian sworn in as Guatemala’s new president

Morales faces a growing crisis after a key supporter is charged with human rights abuses

Ciudad de Guatemala -
Guatemala's new President Jimmy Morales, with his wife Gilda Marroquín.
Guatemala's new President Jimmy Morales, with his wife Gilda Marroquín.JOHAN ORDONEZ (AFP)

Promising more honesty in government and asking his constituents to work with him in the fight against corruption, Jimmy Morales Cabrera was sworn in Thursday as Guatemala’s new president following a serious political crisis last year that resulted in the country’s last leader going to jail.

Morales, a former television comedian, was swept into office after a major corruption scandal involving payoffs at customs houses across the country led to the downfall last September of his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who are both in custody awaiting trial.

Morales takes over a country emerging from a major political crisis, which saw the downfall of a president

Facing severe shortages in hospital supplies and medicines, thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets when they learned about the customs fraud case, known as La Línea (the line), early last summer.

The new president has pledged to reduce his country’s malnutrition rate by 10% and expand public healthcare for Guatemalans, including the construction of more hospitals.

“Without contributions from society as a whole, Guatemala cannot move forward,” Morales said during his inaugural speech.

But the 46-year-old newcomer to politics will have to deal with another political crisis that is just starting to simmer.

Last week Guatemalan authorities arrested 18 former military leaders on human rights crimes allegedly committed during the country’s 36-year civil war. One of the officials facing charges is Colonel Edgar Justino Ovalle, a co-founder of Morales’ FCN-Nación party.

More information
Guatemala’s president resigns amid corruption scandal
How the Línea corruption scandal toppled Guatemala’s government
Guatemala’s jailed ex-leader: “I didn’t want any deaths just to save my skin”

Ovalle wasn’t arrested because as a deputy-elect he enjoys immunity. Nevertheless, prosecutors are seeking to strip him of his parliamentary privilege.

“The arrests of the military officials are a direct message to the president-elect, especially the charges filed against Colonel Ovalle, who was a key figure in the party that has now come to power,” said Raquel Zelaya, president of the Association of Research and Social Studies (Asíes).

US Vice President Joe Biden, who attended the inauguration, met privately with Morales to discuss the recent influx of illegal migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have arrived in the United States in recent months.

Pressured by Democrats on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration has announced a new plan to make it easier for migrants who would face danger if deported to apply for amnesty.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Biden also expressed Washington’s growing concerns about the rampant political corruption in Central America.

“It seems right to me if Washington is raising its voice. The warning is clear, even though it may have been given to late. The new president must be aware of the type of people he should associate with,” said independent analyst Héctor Rosada.

English version by Martin Delfín.

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