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Chaos in Guatemala Congress Delays Swearing-In of New President

(Bloomberg) -- Anti-corruption campaigner Bernardo Arevalo was sworn in as president of Guatemala more than ten hours late after his inauguration was held up by furious disputes in congress.

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The King of Spain and the presidents of Chile and Colombia were among the foreign leaders kept waiting on Sunday while lawmakers screamed abuse at each other. In downtown Guatemala City, enraged Arevalo supporters stormed through a line of riot police near congress, and demanded that legislators allow the ceremony to go ahead.

For much of the day, the nation appeared to be on the brink of a constitutional crisis as congress refused to swear in lawmakers for the 2024-2028 period, insisting that members of Arevalo’s Semilla movement must be sworn in as independents due to investigations into their party.

A further delay was caused by a battle over two opposing lists of candidates to lead the board that sets the legislative agenda, ultimately electing Semilla lawmaker Samuel Perez as head of congress for the next year.

The swearing-in ceremony scheduled for 2 p.m. eventually took place after midnight.

The US government, the European Union and the Organization of American States had all backed Arevalo as he faced down repeated attempts to block him from taking office after his landslide election win. But prosecutors still have multiple legal cases outstanding against him and his party, which threaten to dog his 2024-2028 presidency.

Arevalo pledged to create an anti-corruption commission, and boost public works spending, while his finance chief said the new government will target an investment grade credit rating within two years. But in a cabinet presentation on Monday, Arevalo accused his opponents of a scorched earth policy, saying that they would sabotage his administration and make it hard for him to govern.

Arevalo has faced repeated attempts by prosecutors to overturn his landslide win in the Aug. 20 election. In December, the US imposed sanctions on nearly 300 Guatemalan officials, including private sector leaders and more than 100 members of congress for “undermining democracy and the rule of law.”

Prosecutors allege that his party, Semilla, forged signatures and laundered money during its founding in 2017. They also claim he and his vice president had knowledge of a violent takeover of a public university’s campus, accusing them of sedition and vandalism.

The nation’s constitutional court ruled that Arevalo that could take office, but that prosecutors could also continue their investigations.

Presidential Immunity

The Attorney General’s office has requested that courts revoke Arevalo’s immunity from prosecution, which is granted to elected officials. The request would also require 107 votes in the 160-member congress where his party will hold 23 seats, according to Aquiles Faillace, an attorney who helped draft the constitution. If revoked, the president could be arrested to face charges.

The cases will likely obstruct Arevalo’s legislative agenda, said Guatemalan political analyst Marielos Chang.

“In a way, it’s like constantly a holding razor blade to his throat,” Chang said. “The investigations against his party and against his government won’t stop the day he takes office. It is the first chapter of many battles he is going to have to fight.”

Investment Grade

Guatemala’s low-debt economy proved resilient to the political turmoil and will expand 3.5% this year, unchanged from last year, according to the central bank.

Arevalo named economist Jonathan Menkos as his finance minister. During the campaign, Menkos said the administration would seek to improve Guatemala’s credit rating by improving the rule of law and cracking down on corruption to boost the country’s governability score.

S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings both upgraded the country to BB last year, two notches below investment grade. Moody’s Investors Service rates the country one notch higher at Ba1.

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