Bernardo Arévalo is inaugurated as Guatemala’s new president, Argentina’s Javier Milei makes his Davos debut, and why Brazil’s Spotify Wrapped is a regional outlier. Sign up to receive Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday. Around one year after opponents of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stormed the country’s capital complex, Latin America experienced another tumultuous inauguration this week. In Guatemala on Sunday, the presidential swearing-in ceremony of progressive Bernardo Arévalo was delayed for nine hours as conservative legislators refused to take the procedural steps necessary to allow the event to move forward. The inauguration finally occurred just after midnight on Monday after lawmakers allowed Guatemala’s Congress to elect a new president from Arévalo’s party, who then initiated the proceedings.
It was a victorious moment for Arévalo as well as the 61 percent of Guatemalan voters who backed him and his Seed Movement party in a runoff vote last August. Arévalo was greeted by cheers from thousands of supporters who had gathered to celebrate his swearing-in at a Guatemala City plaza. Since Arévalo’s surprise election victory, Guatemala’s economic and political elites have sought to block Arévalo and Seed Movement legislators from taking office. Legal challenges—roundly denounced by international observers as political obstruction—marred Guatemala’s presidential transition period and were arguably only kept at bay by grassroots nationwide protests and concerted international pressure. Many of those lawsuits are still ongoing, suggesting elite obstruction will also be a major feature of Arévalo’s administration. The new president’s most active opponents included state prosecutors and even Guatemala’s attorney general.
In an editorial this week, Guatemalan news outlet Plaza Pública compared Arévalo’s inauguration to “a crack in the implacable wall that was diligently built by the criminal alliance that holds considerable economic and political power” in the country. A network of Guatemalan economic and political elites successfully disenfranchised many anti-corruption actors in recent years, including a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission that carried out a series of high-profile probes. In 2017, then-President Jimmy Morales himself fell under investigation and moved to limit the commission’s capabilities, eventually shutting it down. Since then, anti-corruption prosecutors and independent media have faced a barrage of legal threats, and many have left the country. V-Dem, one of the world’s most respected indexes on the quality of democracy, significantly downgraded Guatemala’s indicators in that timeframe.
Arévalo’s supporters say they hope to bring about a democratic transition in the country—in part by installing prosecutors and judges with records of integrity. Arévalo also seeks to promote job creation and provide more state resources to Indigenous communities. But because the wall of Guatemalan elites remains robust, the grassroots street mobilization and international support that ensured Arévalo could take office will likely need to continue for him to be able to govern. A slew of foreign envoys, including European, Latin American, and U.S. officials, were present at his inauguration. They pledged to continue backing his agenda.
On Wednesday, the Seed Movement’s battle for legitimacy faced new hurdles. Guatemala’s top court ruled that the party’s legislators should be classified as independents in Congress due to a previous lawsuit against the party alleging that it was improperly registered. It also decreed that the congressional leadership election must be redone. Meanwhile, the United States announced a visa ban against former President Alejandro Giammattei, accusing him of taking bribes while in office. Giammattei is a member of the country’s old elite.
While the legal tussles in Guatemala can be hard to keep up with, they prove that strengthening democracy is possible—even in the face of steadfast opposition. that central banks in many of Latin America’s large economies successfully stamped out post-pandemic inflation, in part by raising their interest rates higher and faster than the Fed. Latin America’s major hikes began in 2021, rather than on the Fed’s 2022 schedule. Prudent management by the Latin American central bankers helps explain how they avoided some of the negative effects of U.S. rate hikes that have hit the region in the past. Those include currency instability and capital flight. But investor and CAA chair Jonathan Hausman proffered an additional explanation at the council’s annual outlook event last week: The fact that Latin American economies now trade and borrow more in non-dollar currencies, specifically the Chinese renminbi, made them more insulated from dollar-related risks. After the Fed’s recent rate hikes, “we would all expect that a country like Brazil would be flat on its back. Not one large [emerging market] in Latin America got even close to financial trouble. I’m putting aside Argentina because it’s special,” he said. “The tyranny of the dollar, if you will, has been lifted.”
As South Africa’s petition accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza moves forward at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), several Latin American countries have voiced their support for Pretoria. The leaders of Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Venezuela endorsed the petition. Chile and Mexico, meanwhile, on Thursday requested that the International Criminal Court open an investigation into “the situation in the state of Palestine,” including Hamas’s attacks and “subsequent hostilities in Gaza.” Guatemala—which in 2017 followed the United States in moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—said it rejected South Africa’s lawsuit at the ICJ. The balance of Latin American positions tracks broadly with countries elsewhere in the global south, which, as FP’s Nosmot Gbadamosi wrote in this week’s Africa Brief, tend to back Pretoria’s case.
Spotify’s lists of most listened-to artists in 2023 reveal a divide in Latin American pop music: Of the 150 most heard artists on Spotify Brazil, none sing in Spanish. (A handful, such as Taylor Swift, sing in English.) Linguistic difference plays a major role, El País reported, but that’s not the whole story. Brazil’s own musical landscape is so large, with multiple subgenres, that it also exists—to some degree—as a world of its own. While many fans of Spanish-language music listen to reggaetón, Brazil has its own equivalent genre, Brazilian funk. “It’s the same niche,” Analía Chernavsky of Brazil’s Federal University of Latin American Integration told El País. Brazil’s Anitta is a very rare crossover artist who performs in Portuguese and Spanish, amassing fans in both languages. She has spoken openly about how she learned to sing in Spanish to jump into global markets. Brazil’s most streamed artist of 2023 on Spotify was from a Brazilian genre akin to country western.
Last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, officials from newly inaugurated left-wing administrations in Brazil and Colombia sought to charm a pro-business audience of elites. This year, the new Latin American leader in the spotlight is Argentine President Javier Milei, a libertarian who took office last December. Milei traveled to Davos to try to woo investors and to meet with officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Buenos Aires owes the IMF more than $30 billion. Ideologically, Milei is a better fit for the Davos audience than the Lula and Petro administrations.