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Guatemala's presidential inauguration brings an air of hope

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In Guatemala, tens of thousands of people are gathering to celebrate a stunning victory for democracy. Despite long odds and blatant attempts by the government to keep a reformist president from taking power, today is inauguration day. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Guatemala City. Good morning, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So it's a big day where you are today. Like, what are you hearing? What are you seeing?

PERALTA: So right now, I'm in the middle of downtown Guatemala City, and thousands of Indigenous Guatemalans are pouring into this city, and they're here to welcome their new president, Bernardo Arevalo. Right now, they're holding a ceremony, giving thanks to the universe. And they view this as an enormous victory that they were able to defend democracy. And they're viewing this as a new beginning. I see a sign right now that says spring is beginning.

RASCOE: Elation, celebration, hope for a new beginning - you know, those are big words. Is there real good news in this?

PERALTA: Look. I had a talk, a long talk with Francisco Goldman. He's a Guatemalan American writer who might know this country better than anyone. And you know what he called it? He said, what is happening in Guatemala is a, quote, "civic miracle," and we have to give a little context here. Guatemala is a country that has long suffered. It's been through colonialism and dictators and military rule and genocide. And just before this election, the country was going through one of its darkest moments - deep poverty, corruption, organized crime, the persecution of activists and journalists and a sham democracy where the elite would essentially rig elections. Let's listen to how Francisco Goldman described it.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: It's something in a Marvel movie or something, or, you know, as if the ice walkers had won in "Game Of Thrones." You know, it's like, who's in charge and where does the evil come from? And yet it's taking over everything, and its tentacles go everywhere. And everyone it touches turns into a zombie.

PERALTA: And these ice walkers were working these elections. They pulled every stop to try to keep Arevalo from becoming president. They even threatened to arrest him. But Guatemalans, mostly young urban progressives and the rural Indigenous communities, didn't let that happen. They gave him a landslide win, even though the campaign was run with very little money. And they stayed on the streets for more than 100 days to make sure he made it in office. And we should note that the U.S. played a huge role. They sanctioned hundreds of politicians. They essentially arm-twisted them into letting Arevalo take office today.

RASCOE: And we're hearing the celebration behind you. Tell us a little about the man who's about to become president.

PERALTA: So he's this 65-year-old academic, the son of the country's first democratically elected president. And his party and his campaign are run by a bunch of idealistic young people. His candidacy started at a university. It was born out of an anti-corruption protest movement. And that is Bernardo Arevalo's central message. He promises to put an end to corruption, and that means putting an end to the pillaging of this country by the politicians and businessmen and organized crime - the ice walkers, if you will.

RASCOE: That sounds really difficult, though. Is it possible?

PERALTA: Is it possible? I mean, look. The ice walkers are still in Guatemala. In fact, we should be careful and say that Arevalo has not yet been sworn in. Gustavo Petro, the president of Colombia, said yesterday that he was coming to Guatemala, so there could be important visitors and make a coup less likely.

But I'll leave you with something Francisco Goldman said. He said, yes, this will be incredibly hard for the incoming president. But what is important here is that Guatemalans have found their voice. They organized, they beat a system and then protected their vote. And I'm going to quote Francisco here. He said, "the most hopeful thing in Guatemala is not Arevalo, per se. The most hopeful thing in Guatemala is the democratic awakening that brought him here." Guatemalans, he says, are now empowered, and that's what's important.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Guatemala City. Thank you so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.