GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — TV comic and political neophyte Jimmy Morales was sworn in as Guatemala's president on Thursday amid uncertainty over how he plans to run the Central American nation beset by entrenched poverty, rampant corruption and violent criminal gangs.
Dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by wife, Morales received a hug from his mother and applause from friends and party members as he mounted the stage.
United States Vice President Joe Biden met with Morales and the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras before the swearing in Thursday.
Biden congratulated Morales for his commitment to fight corruption. He noted that thousands of Guatemalans had gone into the streets to demand change and elected Morales to do the job.
Morales petitioned Biden Thursday to add Guatemala to the list of countries granted temporary protected status, which provides its eligible citizens in the U.S. a degree of temporary protection from deportation and allows them to work and travel.
El Salvador and Honduras already have the status known as TPS. It is usually granted in cases in which the country is suffering from an armed conflict or natural disaster that makes it difficult to receive its citizens.
Guatemala has been beset by corruption scandals that forced President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president from office.
Last year, the U.S. Congress approved $750 million in aid to the three countries contingent on their efforts to reduce migration to the U.S. and the factors driving it.
Morales has yet to say who will make up his Cabinet, and he already suffered one political setback when prosecutors formally asked for the equivalent of impeachment proceedings against an allied lawmaker suspected of human rights violations dating to Guatemala's civil war.
"He is a president who takes office without a party, without well-qualified people he trusts and with a state apparatus that's really in financial and institutional ruin," said Edgar Gutierrez, an analyst at San Carlos University in Guatemala.
Morales won office in a runoff Oct. 25 after huge anti-corruption demonstrations. Perez Molina and his vice president are behind bars and facing prosecution, and the outsider's triumph was seen as a punishment vote from an electorate that wanted a fresh break.
Two and a half months later, Morales' most visible activities have included a tour of Central American nations and a visit to Guatemalan migrants' advocacy groups in the United States.
Gutierrez said the president-elect would have been well-advised to spend the last two months creating alliances to construct a government, "but he didn't do that."
Morales spokesman Heinz Heimann vowed that the incoming team will be of the high quality necessary to respond to Guatemalans' needs and expectations.
"There is nothing suspicious about our actions," he told The Associated Press via text message. "The government reserves the right to give information in a pertinent manner to keep the people informed."
Heimann promised the Morales administration will be marked by "strict adherence to the law" and called on different sectors of civil society to play a role in leading the country, but did not advance any more information on the new government's plans.
Prosecutors last week moved to lift the immunity of office for Edgar Justino Ovalle, a lawmaker and adviser to the president-elect. He and others are suspected of human rights abuses during the 1960-1996 civil conflict when some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared, many of them indigenous Guatemalans slain in countryside massacres.
More than a dozen retired military figures were arrested in the same case. Many of them are members of a veterans' group that supports the National Convergence Front, the party Morales ran with during the campaign. Ovalle is a party founder.
Although Morales has denied links to the former military officials, some say the allegations amount to a black eye for his new administration.
"You can read it as saying: 'Look, Mr. Morales, do a better job of picking your allies ... because these are unqualified people who have serious accusations against them,'" Gutierrez said.
Biden is the highest-level Washington official to attend a Guatemalan inauguration in 30 years of civilian-democratic governments.
Biden visited the country last year for talks with Central American leaders about a billion-dollar aid package requested for the region that aims to improve security and quality of life, and lower migration rates after the surge of unaccompanied minors showing up at the U.S. border.
Those impatient for reform have signaled they intend to hold Morales to his promises to clean up government. A public protest has been called for Saturday, just two days after the inauguration, to remind the new president of his campaign slogan: "Neither corrupt nor a thief."