U.S.-Guatemala: What does Washington Really Want?

by Ricardo Barrientos*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras / Government of Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons license

Central America’s ongoing political, economic, migration, and narcotics-trafficking crises would normally allow a potential ally like Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to wriggle his way into Washington’s good graces, but his repeated efforts to thwart scrutiny of his and his allies’ corruption have been so blatant that the United States can no longer keep turning a blind eye.

  • Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua is now clearly authoritarian – elected fraudulently, arresting opponents, and openly supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele is increasingly aggressive in his anti-democratic and authoritarian actions, and explicitly defiant of the United States. Honduran Juan Orlando Hernández is in jail, but Xiomara Castro faces the monumental task of rebuilding the state – in the face of doubts, if not opposition, from many in Washington concerned about her supposed leftist views. All this comes against a backdrop of surging migration, massive drug-trafficking, and a hemisphere-wide “great powers competition” with China and some Russian advances in the region. Until recently, Guatemala could have put itself forward as a partner that, while regional problems festered, could – even if not as a friend – help the U.S. pursue its interests.

Nevertheless, Guatemala is now far from the ideal U.S. partner in Central America. In an explicitly defiant action, Giammattei reappointed Consuelo Porras as Attorney General in spite of the U.S. State Department’s inclusion of her on the so-called Engel List, because of her involvement in significant corruption. She has been blocking investigations of corrupt acts and allowed impunity by several individuals, including Giammattei himself. 

  • Giammattei has been unable to give Washington even the minimum image as a credible and reliable ally as his two most recent corrupt predecessors managed to do. Weak from the start, his presidency has been wracked by mismanagement of the pandemic, persistent scandals, and anti-democratic actions. Lacking the popularity levels of Bukele or even Ortega, he has had to purchase political support from tainted sponsors including former military officers accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide during the civil war; businesspeople accused of tax fraud or illicit electoral campaign financing; and corrupt officials – in return for promises that he preserve the impunity mechanisms that have so effectively protected them in the past. (Neo-Pentecostal groups are also an important part of his base.) For Giammattei, keeping control of the Attorney General’s office was paramount to fulfill that promise.
  • Under Giammattei, moreover, the government is failing in areas of direct interest to Washington, particularly addressing the “root causes” of the migration that ranks high on the U.S. agenda. Men widely suspected of collaborating with the drug cartels occupy high-ranking positions in Congress and government, making Guatemala a highway for drugs heading north. Cartel allies stand to increase their power in elections scheduled for June 2023.

Washington’s frustration with Giammattei is understandable, even though inconsistencies and favoritism in its own Central America policies have contributed to the estrangement. Guatemala’s democracy appears to be in its death throes – full of desperate people eager to risk their lives at the hands of a human-trafficking coyotes. While it remains high season for corruption, the government gives scant attention to public health (with the lowest vaccination rate and highest child malnutrition rate in Central America), and education. For many Guatemalans, the only hope of finding a better life is trying to reach the United States or cooperate with the burgeoning drug cartels.

  • Washington’s pressure on Giammattei (or any Guatemalan president) is long overdue, but it’s unclear whether it is driven by U.S. hubris at his failure to dump a corrupt Attorney General, or whether it represents a strategic shift toward a policy based on democratic values, wisdom, and prudence. Whatever the reason, the Biden Administration doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of the failed Alliance for Prosperity that he strongly supported as Obama’s Vice President, appealing to Central American leaders to clean up their acts. A passive, laissez faire stand on Guatemala is not the proper way to address complex issues like the cartels, corruption, poverty, violence, and the other “root causes” of migration that Vice President Kamala Harris pledged to combat.
  • The day after Giammattei announced that he would not attend the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles next month, Washington sent his formal invitation – adding to the confusion about U.S. intentions toward him. Many Guatemalans wonder if the Biden Administration puts issues like migration and drug trafficking before democracy and combatting impunity.

May 25, 2022

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

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1 Comment

  1. Roger Friedman

     /  May 25, 2022

    “Many Guatemalans wonder if the Biden Administration puts issues like migration and drug trafficking before democracy and combatting impunity.” They needn’t wonder. With a drugs-and-thugs guy as head of Western Hemisphere at State, with Menendez and Rubio in charge of Latin American policy, with immigration and Cuba being handled as domestic political issues, with Biden, Sullivan, and Blinken clearly relieved to be back in Cold War times when friends were friends and enemies were Commies, is there really any chance for a creative, post-COVID, post-neoliberal policy?

    Reply

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