Reformist Arevalo assumes Guatemalan presidency after opposition delays

Credit: REUTERS/JOSE CABEZAS

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Anti-corruption crusader Bernardo Arevalo took office as Guatemala's president early on Monday after a chaotic inauguration caused by a last-minute attempt by opposition lawmakers to weaken his authority.

After a delay of nearly nine hours, the newly sworn-in president and Vice President Karin Herrera made their first appearance at the National Palace of Culture to greet a crowd that had assembled at the capital's Plaza de la Constitucion.

In a speech, Arevalo pledged to Guatemala's indigenous peoples "not to leave you behind" and vowed "no more discrimination, no more racism". More than 40% of Guatemalans are indigenous, mainly Maya.

Guatemala's indigenous have historically suffered from discrimination and poverty, with 80% of their children suffering inadequate access to nutritious food according to U.N. studies.

Arevalo's unexpected election victory last August was seen as a watershed moment for Guatemala, where the 65-year-old has cast himself as a democracy advocate and leader of a progressive movement bent on reshaping a political landscape long dominated by conservative parties.

Arevalo faces formidable challenges as leader of Central America's most populous nation, to which he has pledged to bring sweeping reforms and tackle the rising cost of living and violence - both key drivers of migration to the United States.

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Arevalo and Herrera on their inauguration. Biden said he looked forward to continuing a strong partnership between the two nations as "we advance human rights, strengthen civilian security, combat corruption, address the root causes of migration, and expand economic opportunity for people across our hemisphere and around the world", according to a statement from the White House.

Arevalo's father Juan Jose Arevalo was Guatemala's first democratically elected president, taking office in 1945, but his successor was toppled in a U.S.-backed military coup.

Bernardo Arevalo replaces conservative Alejandro Giammattei, whose administration was mired in graft scandals and whose allies repeatedly tried to undermine Arevalo's election victory, delaying the transition. Giammattei did not attend the inauguration ceremony.

In her speech, Herrera said she hoped the new administration would "be the government of change", and she would not be content until Guatemala began to witness more justice, equality and opportunities for less-advantaged citizens.

Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Barcena, who attended the inauguration, described the new government in a social media post as a progressive and transformative entity.

Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States (OAS), congratulated Arevalo and Herrera, declaring through social media that "democracy has triumphed".

(Reporting by Natalia Siniawski with additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; editing by Mark Heinrich) ((natalia.siniawski@thomsonreuters.com;)) Keywords: GUATEMALA POLITICS/ (PIX)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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