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Guatemala finally swears in reformist Bernardo Arevalo as president

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In the early hours today, Guatemala's new president was finally sworn into office. It was a moment that nearly didn't happen. Despite winning the election by a landslide back in August, anticorruption campaigner Bernardo Arevalo faced months of opposition from political opponents, and those efforts to prevent the transfer of power continued right up until the last minute yesterday. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In Guatemala City, the morning started off hopeful. Big groups of indigenous people came into the city on buses. Across the boulevards musicians played on stages, and kids carried balloons. An inauguration felt inevitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Yelling in non-English language).

(CROSSTALK)

PERALTA: But the celebration came to an end first in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: The outgoing Congress chained doors and threw up parliamentary roadblocks to keep the new Congress from taking office. The young, idealistic people who had just won elections forced open the door and began shouting, respect the popular will.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: In Guatemala City's main plaza, that video ricocheted across cellphones, and indigenous authorities called for a march.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: The protesters rammed through a security perimeter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: Irma de Dieguez, a lady in her 60s, stood just behind the crowd, hugging the Guatemalan flag, marveling at what was happening.

IRMA DE DIEGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "We used to be few," she says. "But now look, all of Guatemala is here." The Guatemalan American writer Francisco Goldman calls what's happening in Guatemala a civic miracle. Somehow, the young urban progressives in the rural indigenous communities that make up about half this country formed a coalition and outsmarted a system that had been rigging elections for decades. They made a reformist anticorruption candidate president. So the focus, says Goldman, has been on Bernardo Arevalo. But he says, look at the streets.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: The most hopeful thing in Guatemala is not Arevalo, per se. The most hopeful thing in Guatemala is the democratic awakening that brought them there.

PERALTA: Maybe it was the street protests. Maybe it was a statement calling for a transition from the dignitaries who had waited for hours. But the congressional roadblocks melted away suddenly at around 10 p.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: And as the firecrackers exploded in the middle of the street, Rigoberto Juarez, an indigenous leader who's been jailed by the government for his activism, walked through the smoke with a smile on his face. For 200 years, he says, this country has tried to destroy his people.

RIGOBERTO JUAREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "And it's about denying us any action, any credit. But today," he says, "they couldn't do it." Juarez, who was once feared as a guerrilla fighter in the city, walked through a mostly mestizo crowd, and a lady holding flowers told him without the indigenous people Arevalo would not be taking the oath of office right now.

(CHEERING)

PERALTA: Rigoberto Juarez said, prepare for a long fight.

JUAREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: "If today was possible, imagine," he said, "what tomorrow will bring."

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Chanting in non-English language).

PERALTA: Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Guatemala City.

(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.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.