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Bernardo Arevalo’s inauguration as Guatemalan president hits delay

Bernardo Arevalo’s inauguration as Guatemalan president hits delay

GUATEMALA CITY — The inauguration of a reformist president, Bernardo Arévalo, was delayed for hours on Sunday because of last-minute congressional wrangling, threatening a political crisis just as one of the hemisphere’s most notoriously corrupt nations had seemed to be turning a corner.

Spain’s King Felipe VI, the presidents of Chile, Colombia and other Latin American countries, as well as the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, were left cooling their heels after the congressional feuds pushed back the scheduled 3 p.m. swearing-in.

Arévalo, an anti-corruption crusader, stunned the political establishment by winning in a landslide the August election deemed free and fair by international observers. But the Guatemalan attorney general’s office has responded with investigations into alleged fraud. Prosecutors also have tried to strip the immunity of Arévalo and his allies, so they could be investigated, and have moved to invalidate the legal registration of the president’s party, Semilla.

Alexander Aizenstatd, a prominent constitutional lawyer, said that if Congress didn’t resolve its disputes and preside over the inauguration, Arévalo would still take office. “At midnight, he automatically becomes president, by law,” he said. Analysts saw the congressional maneuvering as an effort to weaken the new president and his party, which had hoped to form a coalition to head Congress.

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The chaos offered a sign of the obstacles Arévalo may face once he takes office. Guatemala has been ruled by what analysts dub the “Pact of the Corrupt” — an alliance of politicians, narcotraffickers, ex-military officers and unethical businesspeople.

After his surprise victory, Arévalo won crucial support from the country’s Indigenous population, which declared a national strike in October to protest the actions seeking to invalidate his election. The international community also pushed to avert what many have called a “judicial coup.” When Congress appeared to be jockeying to replace members of the top electoral court in December, the U.S. government canceled the visas of two-thirds of Guatemalan legislators.

In December, the country’s Constitutional Court ordered Congress to “guarantee” the inauguration of Arévalo on Jan. 14, as well as the other election winners.

But on Sunday, shouting matches broke out in Congress as lawmakers were unable to reach agreement on their new leader — normally a prerequisite for the presidential inauguration. Some lawmakers also claimed there were irregularities in the paperwork of some incoming members of Congress.

Meanwhile, in a last-minute decision on Sunday morning, the Constitutional Court upheld a temporary suspension of Semilla’s legal status, meaning its members could only enter Congress as independents. That removes the party’s ability to hold top positions in Congress or be part of the agenda-setting leadership.

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“They don’t want Bernardo to take the presidency with the executive power, the presidency [of Congress], popular support in Guatemala and international support,” said Daniel Haering, a political analyst. “At least with this decision, they are taking the leadership of Congress away from him.”

Guatemalans had been so hopeful about Arévalo’s inauguration that hundreds slept in the streets of the capital on Saturday night, to be present for his swearing-in. On Sunday, protesters shouting “Get out, coup-plotters!” threatened to storm Congress.

The European Union, the Organization of American States and numerous dignitaries stressed their support for Arévalo as the dispute went on Sunday.

“There is no question that Bernardo Arévalo is the President of Guatemala,” tweeted Power, who headed the U.S. delegation to the inauguration. “We call on all sides to remain calm — and for the Guatemalan Congress to uphold the will of the people. The world is watching.”

Sheridan reported from Mexico City.

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