In a region where autocracy is rising, Bernardo Arevalo’s ascension in Guatemala this week is being seen as a blow for democracy.

Incoming Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo waves to supporters from the National Palace on his inauguration day in Guatemala City, early Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

GUATEMALA CITY — Residents of this largest city in Central America are waking up this week with hope in their new president, Bernardo Arèvalo, who took office in the pre-dawn hours Jan. 15 after a day of tension when his political enemies made last ditch efforts to delay the inauguration.

In a region where autocracy is rising, Arevalo’s ascension in Guatemala is being seen as a blow for democracy.

“He came in like a fish under water, nobody expected him,” said Marta Cuevas, 74, a tortilla-maker and mother of four whose face wore a look of glee as she watched Arèvalo take command of the armed forces in an open-air plaza later that morning.

Arèvalo, a 65-year old academic and diplomat, won a surprise landslide victory in August, but weathered assassination plots, exiles and arrests of allies, and legal maneuvers by judicial authorities until finally being sworn in, before an audience of heads of state and other official guests forced to cool their heels for nine long hours when no-one knew whether Congress members in a boisterous session across town would agree to validate the election.

“Democracy has overcome its hardest test,” read a local newspaper headline.

A turning of the page

Change was quickly evident. The ceremony Cuevas and others witnessed would once have been unthinkable. In a purposefully public display, hundreds of military forces in unformed ranks, including mounted cadets, naval officers, and camouflage-clad army special forces called Kaibiles, a unit responsible for some of the most egregious massacres in Guatemala’s civil war (ended 1996), pledged obedience to the civilian, democratically elected president, who took command with a discourse emphasizing human rights and adherence to the constitution.

Guatemalans carried flags representing “The Four Peoples” of Guatemala:Maya, Garifuna, Xinca, and ladinos in celebration of the inauguration of Bernardo Arévalo. (Credit: Mary Jo McConahay)

New Minister of Defense Major General Henry Saenz Ramos committed the military’s “subordination and respect” to elected officials and spoke to the “dignity of the person.” A flyover of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters tipped its wings over the plaza, which once housed the presidential palace. The last time many in the crowd had seen that was during coups.

Arevalo’s father, Juan Jose Arevalo (d. 1990), was the country’s first democratically elected president, inaugurating what is sometimes called the “Ten Years of Spring,” an era of progressive reforms that ended in 1954 with a CIA-sponsored coup that ushered in decades of government led by, or beholden to, the military. The younger Arèvalo, with academic degrees in philosophy and sociology, worked for years in Geneva on projects that provided counsel to states in transition to democracy, and is considered well prepared for working with the military.

‘An end to corruption’

In numerous interviews about what they wanted from the new administration, Maya indigenous Guatemalans, who make up nearly half the population, spoke of an “end to corruption and delinquency,” better access to schools, respect for the territories where they lived and their natural resources, including woods and water.

Amparo Conseulo, 72, of San Andres Ixtahuatan, in the country’s far west, led her expectations with a reduction in the cost of the “canasta basica,” or basic “basket” of food items such as beans and rice. “We want electricity, water, decent houses, work.”

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