Bernardo Arévalo and the challenge of tearing down the ‘corrupt pact’ in Guatemala

During the last five months, the new president has repeatedly faced attempts by a sector of the judiciary to derail the transition of power

The president of Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo, and his wife, Lucrecia Peinado, on Monday in Guatemala City.
The president of Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo, and his wife, Lucrecia Peinado, on Monday in Guatemala City.JOSE CABEZAS (REUTERS)
Francesco Manetto

Bernardo Arévalo assumed Guatemala’s presidency Sunday after an agonizing obstacle course that nearly thwarted his inauguration. The leader of the Seed Movement, a progressive sociologist and an expert in conflict resolution, won the elections last August and has during the last five months repeatedly faced attempts by a sector of the judiciary to derail the transition of power. The Public Prosecution, headed by Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who was sanctioned for corruption in 2022 by the U.S. State Department, attempted unsuccessfully to disqualify his political party and even to annul the electoral process. What was witnessed Sunday in the Guatemalan Congress, with a maneuver by a group of deputies that delayed Arévalo’s inauguration ceremony for nine hours, was the umpteenth example of a web of power dedicated to doing everything possible to hinder the mandate of the new president, who in recent weeks has denounced an attempted coup d’état.

This plot is known in Guatemala as the “corrupt pact,” an informal alliance of politicians, bureaucrats and business elites that prospered during the presidential terms of Jimmy Morales and Alejandro Giammattei, whose government was marked by a profound deterioration of the institutions. The fight against corruption is the key to everything. It was for Arévalo’s unexpected triumph, in the wake of a growing social discontent that emerged from the student protests of 2015. And it is so now for his government program and its main obstacles.

“The first obstacle facing the president is a Public Prosecution that tried to prevent him from taking office and will probably now try to limit his ability to govern,” says Ricardo Sáenz de Tejada, political scientist and professor at the School of History, Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala. Arévalo himself acknowledged upon taking office that he will face “monumental challenges” to eradicate corrupt practices. One of his first actions, as he announced weeks ago, will be to demand the resignation of Porras, although in all probability he will face resistance from the attorney general. “As long as the Public Prosecutor’s Office remains in the hands of illicit networks, there is a serious challenge,” notes Sáenz de Tejada. The administration of justice, however, is only one of the corrupt fronts Arévalo faces. Another concerns economic management, a crucial area for one of the central goals of the president, who has pledged to step up the fight against poverty, an issue that affects 55% of the population.

According to Sáenz de Tejada, businesses, which have been questioned over their transparency and even legality, and which the Giammattei government left severely compromised, are at the heart of the matter. “That includes the container terminal in one of the Pacific ports, oil concessions, and highways that the government is going to have to address.” In addition, there are other structural challenges such as infrastructure, the health system, education and the backlog accumulated during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the problems facing rural schools and security, following a term of office that was characterized by the persecution of opponents, first and foremost judicial officials dedicated to the fight against corruption.

However, in the opinion of Marielos Chang, political scientist and co-founder of Red Ciudadana, an organization that monitors transparency, “we are witnessing the weakest moment of the dominant political coalition, which had co-opted the most important institutions in the country, from the government to the Presidency of the Legislature to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. If it was January 2023, and they said that Bernardo Arévalo and Samuel Pérez were going to be, respectively, presidents of the Republic and of Congress, nobody would have believed it,” Chang continues. “That does not mean they are defeated, but they are extremely weakened.”

Even the poisoned session to decide the composition of Congress ended with a positive balance for the Seed Movement, which holds just 23 seats out of 160. “One of Arévalo’s challenges is in the first place to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption, but with the presidency of the Congress he can create a package of reforms that can reduce those black holes. We didn’t know this a few weeks ago either; what we envisioned was a Congress completely hostile to the president,” Chang notes.

If there is room for optimism, reasons political analyst Raquel Zelaya, president of the Association of Investigation and Social Studies think tank, it is that Arévalo “knows that he will have to dampen the over-expectation” generated. “He has talked about the fight against corruption and his spheres of action have to begin with making the government transparent. He can do that; no nepotism, no favors, no questionable contracts, and accountability.” In short, in Zelaya’s opinion, the president has to lead by example and, in the meantime, try to reach agreements, since legislative activity is one of his main challenges.

During Arévalo’s investiture, there were two decisive sectors who defended the transition and ultimately prevented the takeover from getting bogged down: Guatemala’s Indigenous peoples exerted pressure during more than 100 days of resistance, which began on October 2 through the authorities of the 48 cantons of Totonicapán. This powerful indigenous organization, notes Chang, is now “a new actor with power that is going to represent a significant force, but not necessarily allied with Arévalo” — another challenge for the president. The second was the so-called international community, led by the United States, the European Union and Latin American governments including Colombia and Chile, which deployed a very broad bloc of support for Arévalo. Its role will be decisive during his term of office, as it was during the long transition, to prevent the forces of the “corrupt pact” from frustrating the profound change supported by more than 60% of Guatemalan voters.

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