U.S.-Guatemala Relations: What Is Going On?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

U.S. Assistant Secretary Brownfield and Guatemalan President Pérez Molina Photo credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

U.S. Assistant Secretary Brownfield and Guatemalan President Pérez Molina
Photo credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

Actions by the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and the State Department have fueled speculation that something is askew in relations between Washington and Guatemala.  In January, the U.S. Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, with unusually severe measures for Guatemala.  Congress ordered the Treasury Department to direct its executive directors at the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (Guatemala’s two main multilateral lenders), to support the reparations plan for damages suffered by communities during construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in 1976-1983.  The project, funded by the two banks, resulted in numerous human rights violations, including the displacement of local communities, mostly of Maya Achi ethnicity, and the death of thousands in the Río Negro massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan armed forces.  Additionally, the U.S. law conditioned U.S. assistance for the Guatemalan armed forces on credible advances in the Chixoy issue as well as the resolution of adoption cases involving Guatemalan children and U.S. adoptive parents since the end of 2007.

President Pérez Molina, a former army general, and his vice-president reacted with inflamed nationalistic rhetoric – just to be eclipsed by more U.S. actions.  After the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled that internationally acclaimed Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz – a key actor in bringing to trial former Guatemalan Army General Ríos Montt on genocide charges – must step down in May (and not in December, as Paz y Paz supporters claim is the correct interpretation of the law), the U.S. Ambassador made a public statement supporting her.  A few days later, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield visited Guatemala, reiterating U.S. support to Paz y Paz and formalizing a $4.8 million donation supporting the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  This further angered rightwing and pro-army sectors, dedicated detractors of both Paz y Paz and CICIG.  Brownfield tempered his message with praise for the “sensational” U.S.-Guatemala collaboration in counternarcotics.

These recent actions come from a combination of U.S. policy “hawks” and “doves” operating simultaneously.  U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and his staff have the reputation in Guatemala as Capitol Hill hawks on human rights throughout Latin America, and acted accordingly by fostering the harsh legislative provisions for Guatemala.  U.S. Ambassador Chacón acted like a resident hawk, directly supporting Paz y Paz and praising her as a proven ally on the drugs issue.  Then, Mr. Brownfield, playing the role of the visiting dove balancing the harshness of the previous two actions, gave the badly needed financial aid to CICIG and supported Paz y Paz, consistent with his drug cooperation portfolio.  Guatemala’s role as a transit point for drug traffickers gives it leverage in the bilateral relationship, but that’s not enough.  Regional or global perspectives are important too: Guatemala recently completed its rotation on the UN Security Council, and the preliminary results of the elections in El Salvador and Costa Rica show that the region will continue under the influence of leftwing or left-leaning governments.  After Mr. Brownfield’s public statements, tension has eased and the angry rhetoric calmed down, but the chapter has not ended.  The bottom line is that Guatemala received an emphatic message: it must keep aligned with what the U.S. wants.  The problem for decisionmakers in the region is that it is not always clear what the U.S. wants.

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

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