Guatemala: Can the OAS Help Solve a Political Crisis?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Protest in Guatemala, 2015./ hrvargas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who has faced a number of challenges since his inauguration in January 2020, called in the Organization of American States (OAS) for help in the wake of last month’s protests over the 2021 budget, but the OAS’s impact was more negative than positive. As if the COVID pandemic, two tropical storms, and a series of corruption scandals weren’t enough, protests triggered by Congressional approval of the budget, which was plagued with allocations for corruption schemes and other anomalies, evoked the 2015 citizen mass demonstrations that brought down the government of President Otto Pérez Molina. Demands for the Giammattei’s resignation spread widely and became the main citizen demand: after only 10 months in office, the government was reeling.

  • Guatemala City’s Central Square was filled again with peaceful protesters, but a radical difference distinguished these from the 2015 protests. Away from the Central Square, small groups of individuals whom reliable sources have identified as infiltrators carried out violent acts, including setting the Legislative Palace on fire. These incidents were brutally repressed by the police, which brought back tragic memories of the civil war period. Two young boys lost an eye due to the police beating.
  • The crisis escalated even within the Government. The differences between Giammattei and his Vice President, Guillermo Castillo, deepened to the point that in a press conference the latter proposed that both resign, veto the budget, dismiss the Minister of the Interior and the police chief, and dissolve their highly controversial “Center of Government,” an entity headed by a close friend of the President that duplicated functions already assigned to ministries and state secretaries.

One of the government’s main responses was to invoke the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, based on an alleged coup threat. The OAS announced a mission to gather information and interview diverse Guatemalan sectors and actors. Right after the announcement, however, the lack of evidence of a coup d’état triggered distrust about the mission’s purpose.

  • Making things worse, the appointment of Fulvio Valerio Pompeo as mission head was not well received because, while serving as Strategic Affairs Secretary of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, he was directly involved in the failed sale of military aircraft to Guatemala last year. Almost immediately, the Guatemalan press highlighted this fact, feeding the perception that Pompeo might be seriously biased in favor of the government and against civil society, which had denounced the attempted plane deal. Moreover, OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro’s representative in Guatemala, Diego Paz Bustamante, and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo are long-time friends. Brolo worked for Paz Bustamante in the OAS’s office in Guatemala in 2005-2011, further raising concerns of OAS bias in favor of the government. Due to this distrust, many civil society organizations, and even Vice President Castillo, declined an invitation to meet with the OAS mission.

An agreement earlier this month between the President and Vice President has moderated the crisis and reduced tensions. At a joint press conference, Giammattei announced dissolution of the Center of Government and assigned to Castillo control over the budget readjustment and reconstruction programs for storm damages. They also announced a review of the fitness of the Minister of the Interior and top police authorities to remain in their positions.

  • The Guatemalan crisis is far from over, and serious questions about the rationale for calling in the OAS – invocation of the Democracy Charter – and its response remain.  The OAS actions appeared based more on personal relations between its representatives and Guatemalan officials, particularly the appointment of someone with a clear conflict of interest stemming from the failed plane deal . Perhaps one lesson for OAS member countries from this latest round of Guatemalan convulsions is to think twice and carefully before asking for help from that regional organism, and to first use all local means to deal with an internal crisis.

December 16, 2020

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

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