Guatemala: Cheers for Trump?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

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Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velásquez and his team face a difficult task of bolstering Guatemalan anti-corruption efforts. / US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have suffered serious setbacks in recent months, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president appears likely to hurt them further.  A number of media reports have already documented that efforts by right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war, politicians, and campaign financiers are seriously threatening anti-corruption efforts started in 2015, which swept former President Pérez Molina from office.  President Jimmy Morales, who campaigned that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief,” has failed to fulfill voters’ mandate to fight corruption, and instead has allowed Army friends to dominate his administration.  Called la juntita, Morales’s closest advisors are former military officers who operate in the shadows, are widely suspected of crimes against humanity during the war, and are alleged to be using their influence for personal enrichment.

  • The Supreme Court and Congress are also under pressure. Numerous media reports point to members of the Supreme Court, including its President, being tainted.  One magistrate, whose son has already been convicted of illicit use of public funds, is widely suspected as well.  In the legislature, the election of a new Directive Board increased the power of members long suspected of links with the mafias.  (Some local observers speculate that the internal voting was conducted on the U.S. Election Day because U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an advocate of anti-corruption initiatives, and his staff would be too busy to care about what was going on in the Guatemalan Congress.)

With the Central Square in Guatemala City empty and only memories remaining of the citizen mass demonstrations of 2015, the last line of defense against the “re-capture” of the Guatemalan State are Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana.  They have already started investigations and are prosecuting corrupt members of Congress, including members of the new Directive Board.  U.S. government support has been crucial.  Ambassador Robinson may have crossed the thin line between active diplomacy and intervention at times, but many observers note that – quite unusual in Latin America for a U.S. ambassador – he enjoys strong support and sympathy from Guatemalans, and he is disliked by the Army veterans and others who are part of what in Guatemala is known as the “old politics.”

Corrupt Guatemalans appear to believe that their first hope – to neutralize the U.S. Embassy – moved one step closer to reality with the election of Donald Trump last week.  Politicians and commentators opposed to U.S. support for CICIG celebrated.  One proclaimed that “Democrats shriek; Republicans vote,” while another interpreted the message of Trump’s victory for Ambassador Robinson: “You’re fired!”  The mafias would not expect a Trump Administration to support them, but rather – interpreting the President-elect’s campaign statements – simply adopt a policy of indifference toward Guatemala and its internal affairs.  The corruption networks of the “old politics” in Guatemala hope that Trump will stay focused on nothing in Latin America except stopping migration.  Analysts who say that everyone in Latin America is regretting Trump’s victory are wrong.  Trump’s election may help the corrupt win a battle or two, but the war against corruption in Guatemala is far from over.

November 18, 2016

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

Hope Fading for Guatemalan Spring

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Jimmy Morales

Photo Credit: Publinews Guatemala / YouTube / Creative Commons

The high hopes created by Guatemala’s peaceful, democratic change of government last year are hitting the shoals of reality.  Guatemalans managed a major political crisis in 2015 in an exemplary way: massive citizen demonstrations against authorities accused of corruption lasted four months without a single incident of violence.  Acceptably free and fair elections took place just three days after disgraced President Pérez Molina resigned, and a transition government was formed as mandated by the Constitution to govern until Jimmy Morales, the new Guatemalan President, was sworn in on January 14.  Although lacking experience, a cabinet, and a plan, Morales inspired confidence with a very good slogan (that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”) and good communication skills honed as a former TV comedian.  Voters had rejected and punished the “old politics” and felt hope that honesty would prevail.

Since Morales took office, however, serious mistakes have caused confidence to dim.

  • His reluctance or inability to answer questions from journalists and to refrain from underestimating audiences by telling silly jokes and childhood stories are raising concerns among observers of an emerging authoritarian personality.
  • Secrecy surrounding his cabinet selection process has led to missteps. His Minister of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing was forced to resign after just 11 days in office – in the face of evidence of tax fraud and a serious conflict of interest.
  • His first approach to Congress was only to reverse the position on 2016 public debt cuts that his representatives advocated last November. Asking Congress to reduce debt proved popular back then, but now transfers to the Public Prosecutor Office or to the public university can be made only if the original debt amount is restored by Congress.  That condition is not only unpopular; it risks hampering the effort to prosecute corruption.
  • Instead of asking Congress for an urgently needed budget increase to solve ongoing shortages of medicines and equipment in public hospitals and clinics – almost a humanitarian tragedy, he accepted pharmaceutical company donations of expired medications – in a deal redolent of past corruption.
  • Morales’s political party, Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), has grown substantially in Congress by receiving “turncoat” congressmen, directly contradicting an important campaign promise. “Turncoating,” jumping from party to party in Congress (always for a “price”), is one of the practices condemned in 2015 as part of the “old politics” and was strongly rejected by voters who trusted Morales.  The Public Prosecutor Office has received complaints denouncing bribes, government jobs, and contracts offered to “turncoats” now affiliating with the FCN.

Events in Guatemala over the past year present a huge contrast with what the country was a couple of decades ago – triumph for a society deeply marked by civil war, poverty, and brutal inequality, with the fresh hope of a new democratic spring.  Jimmy Morales appears to be squandering a historic opportunity to harness this democratic momentum.  Voters who set aside concerns about his links to right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war could soon feel deceived because the “old politics” is still in place.  Guatemala’s democratic spring may fade before it blooms, sowing the seeds of crisis and instability in the future.

February 22, 2016

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

Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

Civics Lessons from Guatemala

By Robert Brenneman*

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor with sign "We demand justice" Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor holding sign that proclaims “We demand justice.” Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemala’s popular movement for justice and transparency is suddenly and happily discovering that nothing breeds success like success.  Many Guatemalans have grumbled for years about rampant corruption among the political class, but in recent weeks a surging popular movement has finally emerged giving voice and energy to years of that frustration with impunity and graft.  The movement picked up steam after a public exposé of a shadowy tax fraud and contraband network called “La Línea,” orchestrated out of Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s office by her private secretary.  The report was produced by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  (Click here for analysis of the Commission’s renewal.)  President Pérez Molina not only renewed CICIG’s term until 2017; on May 7 he also accepted the resignation of Baldetti and her secretary, who had served as the key money-raising dealmakers for his administration.  The U.S. Embassy suspended the visas of many of the officials named in the report, including the luckless former vice president herself.

These actions have not been enough to appease the appetite for justice and transparency sought by the growing crowds of flag-waving nonviolent protestors converging each Sunday afternoon in front of the Guatemala City’s Municipal Palace.  An estimated 57,000 gathered under thunder and pouring rain on May 17.  Empowered by the relatively swift impact of their movement, and outraged by the mounting evidence pointing to the president’s personal connections to the corruption network, the crowds of protestors  led principally by students of the public university  have shifted to demanding that the president himself step down.  Pérez Molina, sensing that the wheels are coming off his administration, has requested the resignations of his closest advisors and top officials, including his Interior Minister and his Chief of Strategic Intelligence.  He has revoked or rescinded several of the most lucrative (and obviously corrupt) government contracts that he had vociferously defended only a few weeks ago.

President Pérez Molina’s political future remains up in the air.  Many Guatemalan political analysts believe he should step down.  José Rubén Zamora, founder of Guatemala’s influential daily El Periódico, argues that resigning is “the only way out of an impossible labyrinth” of the president’s own making.  But many others view the president’s fate as less important than whether the country takes advantage of the opportunity to use public pressure to pass sorely needed structural reforms.  For years Congress has ignored several bills that would tighten campaign finance rules and bring transparency to government contracting.  Since pay-to-play politics is not unique to this administration, fixing the problem will require legal and structural changes, not merely changing the nameplate on the presidential suite.  One hopeful sign is that Manuel Baldizón, leader of the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER), has not managed to coopt the popular outrage to kickstart his own election campaign.  A popular banner at the protests warns him “¡No te toca!” (“It’s not your turn!”).  The leaders of the movement recognize that Baldizón – who has many skeletons in his own closet and heads another investment-financed party – is hardly the answer.  The protesters’ focus on reform rather than politics suggests that the most certain – and long-lasting – outcome of all is the strengthened civic sphere that appears to have emerged as the protests grow and the newspapers report daily arrests and resignations.  In this civics lesson, the Guatemalan public is both pupil and teacher.

May 26, 2015

*Dr. Brenneman teaches sociology at St. Michael’s College and is author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press 2012).

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Children and Migrant Teens: Trapped with No Way Out

By Ursula Roldán Andrade*

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Alaks / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The 56,000 Central American children involved in the humanitarian crisis along the Mexico-United States border are trying to reach the United States not only to reunite with their families.  They are also driven by poverty, social exclusion and violence in their home countries of northern Central America.  The response of U.S. and Central American authorities, however, seems to be only to strengthen the barriers to migration – not only along the Mexico-United States border but also between Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.  The United States has emphasized immediate deportation, and its request for funding includes an increase in the number of courts to expedite deportations and in enhanced border security with military and police forces.  The Obama Administration also seeks resources to address the consequences of emigration in Central America, where the governments have done little more than begin criminal prosecutions against the “coyote” network.  In Guatemala there are rumors that parents responsible for migrating children could face criminal charges.  Caring for would-be migrants is a much lower priority; there are only two shelters, of a capacity of less than 80 children, in charge of the Social Work Program of the Office of the First Lady of Guatemala (SOSEP), which has also proposed the improvement of child reception conditions.

A mass media campaign in Guatemala promotes the idea of children staying to fulfill the “Guatemalan Dream” rather than risk their lives attempting to live the “American Dream.”  Yet, the “Guatemalan Dream” that authorities are referring to is lacking.  The Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Guatemala (ODHAG), which has tracked human rights for children in the nation for the past 15 years, reported in 2011 that simply being alive in Guatemala means surviving health risks, food insecurity, and violence.  The report’s most revealing data show that over 48 percent of Guatemalan children suffer from chronic malnutrition.  According to ODHAG, 51 percent of the deaths of minors in 2011 were teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.  The report called on the state to take preemptive measures to protect children and adolescents from malnutrition, hunger, violence, abuse, and human trafficking networks, but the government still spends only 3.1 percent of GDP on this population, whereas other Central American countries invest 6 percent.

Central American children are caught in the crossfire of political discourse in the United States – a migrant population that either gains protection or is cast aside, sometimes with xenophobic or even racist overtones.  Partisan politics, interest in cheap labor, and other factors short-circuit debate, creating conditions for exploitation of migrants without recognition of their citizenship, families, or rights.  The Guatemalan government neglects its vulnerable population, is rife with political corruption, and is cursed with the narrow-mindedness of its economic elite, which does not, in the least, attempt to change the structural conditions that exclude and eventually expel their countrymen.  Solutions to the resulting humanitarian crisis will remain elusive as long as Central American governments do not guarantee fundamental rights and undertake policies aimed at the defending the higher interests of children and adolescents. 

* Dr. Roldán Andrade specializes on migration issues at the Center for Research and Policy Management (INGEP) at the Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala.

Guatemala: The War of Paz y Paz

By Steven Dudley*

CLALS Paz y Paz

Law professor and human rights attorney Claudia Paz y Paz’s selection as Guatemala’s first woman attorney general was a surprise, but strident opposition to her reappointment from the dark interstices of the political spectrum is not.  More hippy professor than government bureaucrat, she’s a woman who defied the odds when she took office in 2010.  Paz y Paz speaks with a soft, gentle tone to the point where she almost needs a microphone to run a staff meeting.  Yet, from nearly the moment she walked into the attorney general’s office, she made a difference.  She and her team arrested previously untouchable figures such Juan López Ortiz, alias Chamale, and dozens of members of the feared Mexican criminal group, the Zetas.  The country’s murder and impunity rates fell.  Paz y Paz also prosecuted former military officers, including former military dictator Ríos Montt and others allegedly involved in atrocities in the 1980s, and helped set up special offices to deal with violence against women.

Paz y Paz also demonstrated how, employing best practices, Guatemalan judicial institutions can excel.  Her office’s reliance on forensic evidence, telephone intercepts and video analysis made for stronger cases.  This took the onus off of eyewitness testimony, a notoriously unreliable means of fighting powerful criminal groups, especially those who have deeply penetrated the state.  Paz y Paz also widened the investigative net, looking at entire criminal structures, rather than focusing on single criminal acts.  She won praise from a broad array of international partners and pro-democracy forces inside Guatemala.  She was a 2013 Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

In spite of – or because of – these accomplishments, Paz y Paz is struggling to keep her job for another four-year term.  She has to be approved by a “postulation commission” made up of 14 lawyers who select the final six candidates, from which the president picks one.  Special interest groups, using shady brokers (some with ties to organized crime), are maneuvering to make sure that her attempt to reform Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office ends sooner rather than later.  She has opened up many wounds and frightened Guatemala’s traditional elite, some of whose members worked with the Army during the civil war and believe they could be next on Paz y Paz’s list.  Efforts to block Paz y Paz’s second term underscore that Guatemala is a country that is still struggling to deal with its past civil war and its forever lopsided power structure.  Despite ending a nearly four-decade-old conflict in 1996, Guatemala is still at war –though the battles now take place in the courts – and the elites don’t want a formidable player like Paz y Paz to be in the game.

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  Click here for the full investigation of “The War of Paz y Paz.”

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).

Guatemalan President’s Mid-term Exam: A Failing Grade?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Guatemala Otto Pérez Molina President / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Pérez Molina’s second annual report to the nation last week at Guatemala’s National Theater featured statistics on the government’s progress, but it may be better remembered for an incident in which a protester threw white powder in the face of Vice President Roxana Baldetti.  A number of opposition deputies boycotted the session, and protestors outside drew headlines.  The President touted specific accomplishments, but his overarching plans –structured in three “pacts” welcomed even by the opposition – have fallen short of expectations.

  • The President in his speech said malnutrition has declined, but critics say that the Zero Hunger Pact is mostly unimplemented and chronic malnutrition persists. National surveys and several studies report that half of all Guatemalan children face a life with deficits in their abilities to learn and be competitive.
  • The Security, Justice and Peace Pact – expected to be a strong point for a former Guatemalan army general with a reputation as an “iron fist guy” – has fallen short.  Pérez Molina said the national homicide rate has dropped from 39 to 34 per hundred thousand inhabitants, but the National Institute of Forensic Sciences has reported a slight increase in murders in the capital and surrounding area.  Crime and insecurity remain a daily reality for Guatemalans, fueling popular frustration that Pérez Molina is not meeting one of his top campaign promises.
  • The Fiscal Pact for Change is also not delivering desired results.  According to Icefi, public finances are in crisis, not because of an external economic shock (2009-2010) or because tax reforms failed to increase revenues (corporate taxes rose 35 percent in 2013).  Rather, corruption is fueling fiscal shortfalls. According to President Pérez Molina and in Vice-President Baldetti’s own words, the influence of organized crime over the Customs System, whose duties and VAT on imports account for one third of Guatemalan tax revenues, is hampering collection.

For a student, a bad grade on a mid-term exam is an alert that things are not going well – but that a serious effort in the second half can save the course and achieve success.  For Pérez Molina, serious effort from now on is going to require more than a speech and applause at the National Theater.  The final exam for him and his government looms large on the horizon: elections will take place in September 2015, and campaigning will be well advanced in 2014. Voters are influenced by their daily reality, not an official report of success and accomplishments more reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland than real life Guatemala.  The President knows the clock is ticking.

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