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).

Peru: Castillo Surviving Against All Odds – So Far

By Cynthia McClintock*

Demonstrators clash with police officers during a protest against Peru’s President Pedro Castillo after he had issued a curfew mandate / Angela Ponce / Sunday Times / Creative Commons License

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has prevailed in two impeachment votes, but new impeachment threats are almost certain – and the President may continue to prevail but is unlikely to consolidate his administration. Castillo and the Congress have been at loggerheads since Castillo’s inauguration in July 2021. The reasons for the severe impeachment threat are manifold.

  • From the start, many Peruvians hoped for a “do-over” of the 2021 elections. In a field of 18 presidential candidates, Castillo won only 19 percent of the first-round vote, and many observers speculated that he would have lost the runoff to any of the other candidates except the actual runner-up, Keiko Fujimori, whose organized base was much smaller than in previous years due to corruption revelations. In the Congressional vote, Castillo’s party tallied only a tad less than one-third of the seats, with the rest split evenly between hard-right parties and non-programmatic, “centrist” parties.
  • While impeachment requires a two-thirds Congressional vote, the grounds for impeachment – in particular, “moral incapacity” – are vague. Since 2000, three Peruvian presidents have left office upon impeachment or imminent impeachment.

Castillo has steadily lost popular support; his approval rating has fallen to about 25 percent. Skyrocketing prices for food and fuel have taken a toll. Last week, a strike led by truckers paralyzed much of Peru’s highlands. This week’s massive protests are another sure indicator. Although the government continues to claim leftist credentials, it has not spearheaded significant new initiatives for social justice.

  • A large number of Castillo’s cabinet ministers have been unqualified. For example, a recent health minister, Hernán Condori, promoted “micro-cluster” water as a remedy for COVID‑19 without scientific evidence; the Peruvian Medical Federation repeatedly asked for his resignation – and he was finally ousted. Castillo’s first set of hapless appointments was widely attributed to his inexperience, but when he appointed his fourth cabinet last month, it appeared that he prioritizes loyalty, not competence.
  • Evidence of government corruption is considerable. Against Peru’s rules, Castillo holds irregular meetings with VIPs outside the Presidential Palace. As part of an expected plea bargain in late March, lobbyist and one-time friend Karelim López gave prosecutors information supporting charges against Castillo’s former chief aide (Bruno Pacheco) and two of Castillo’s nephews for illegal gains from state contracts in the Transport and Communications Ministry.

The President has survived through wily tactics and through legislators’ self-interest.

  • A key figure in Castillo’s party is its founder, Vladimir Cerrón, who recruited him to be the party’s 2021 candidate. Cerrón has been dubbed “El Otro Vladi,” in reference to Vladimiro Montesinos, the spymaster behind the crimes of former President Alberto Fujimori. Through promises of projects in their home areas or government positions, the government has co-opted numerous legislators. The perceptions of government guile are such that, after Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal last month pardoned Fujimori’s corruption and human rights charges, a prevalent rumor was that the government had made a backroom deal with pro-Fujimori leaders for their Congressional votes.
  • For the most part, the government has retained the votes of Peru’s “modern left” – legislators concerned not only about poverty but also gender rights, indigenous rights, and climate change, and committed to democracy – who hold about 5 percent of Congressional seats. At the start, dismayed by the hard-right’s hasty calls for Castillo’s impeachment and assuming that he would appoint a broad-based cabinet, the modern left supported the President. Now they are worried about the President – and also about whether or not their fate is linked to the government’s.
  • Peru’s Congress is as unpopular as Castillo. In particular, the Speaker of the Congress (next in line for succession to the presidency after the Vice-President), María del Carmen Alva of Acción Popular, is unpopular; she is perceived as arrogant and rude. In opinion polls, 80 percent of Peruvians say that, if Castillo is impeached, they want new elections not only for President but also for Congress. However, Peruvian law does not allow re-election of legislators, meaning that all the current legislators would lose their jobs and would fight the move.

While Castillo seems likely to continue to stumble and face challenges, there is some chance that Peru’s political impasse can be broken and a semblance of stable, effective governance restored. One possibility is that, at the end of Alva’s term in July, she is succeeded by a more capable and palatable Congress Speaker, and Castillo could be replaced without a popular demand for new Congressional elections. In its second search for a successor to an impeached president in November 2020, the Congress identified Francisco Sagasti, who was excellent. A second possibility, proposed by Sagasti himself, is a citizens’ initiative for a Constitutional reform that would shorten the terms of the President and the Congress – an initiative that would require only a simple majority in a Congressional vote.

  • Peru’s 2021 elections were held despite a devastating pandemic that obstructed campaigns and opinion polls. Last week’s ferocious protests in Huancayo – hometown of Presidential mentor Cerrón – and this week’s in Lima indicate that Peruvians are frustrated and angry as the war in Ukraine drives up fuel costs and Castillo’s agenda stalls. New elections may be the only way ahead.

April 7, 2022

* Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Honduras: Is the Coup Finally Over?

By Fulton Armstrong*

Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro/ hablaguante/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro’s actions since her election on November 28 reflect optimism that the country can turn the page on the 12 tumultuous years since the military coup that forced her husband out of the country at gunpoint – and realism about the monumental tasks ahead. The voter turnout (69.28 percent) and her 15-point victory over the incumbent party’s candidate were historic. So was the level of violence – 23 candidates murdered – during the campaign.

A similarly historic basket of problems awaits Xiomara when she’s inaugurated on January 27.

  • Experts say that the government is bankrupt because of corruption, mismanagement, downturns in commodities on which the country has traditionally depended, two major hurricanes last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s foreign debt burden is more than $16 billion (nearly 60 percent of GDP), and the economy contracted 9 percent last year. Former Finance Minister Hugo Noé, Xiomara’s senior policy advisor during the campaign, says his team is already dialoguing with the IMF on a new debt deal.
  • U.S. investigations into outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) are reportedly very close to seeking his extradition for trial – which would thrust Xiomara’s young administration into a potentially major political crisis. JOH’s broad network of accomplices are not likely to go quietly either.

Most of the President-elect’s early actions have centered on building an effective transition to what she calls un estado solidario – drawing positive feedback even from potential opponents so far.

  • A transition commission is beginning a national consultation on priorities, especially “the elimination of poverty and hunger” among the 74 percent of Hondurans who are poor and 53 percent extremely poor. Noting that corruption is a major root cause of the country’s economic mess, Xiomara is calling for vigorous anticorruption efforts, including some with UN support, and for repealing the “impunity laws” and “secrecy laws” that have allowed illegal dealing that saps government resources. To address the violence that terrorizes citizens and drives them to migrate, she says she “will fight narco-trafficking head-on.”
  • She has pledged to fight for the protection of women and their rights. Honduras has the highest rate of femicide (4.7 cases per 100,000 women last year, according to CEPAL) and gender violence in the hemisphere – an ugly reality that analysts say is another root cause of migration. She’s advocated an unspecified loosening of restrictions on abortion, which is currently forbidden even in rape cases.
  • Potential opponents have so far gone along. The military high command, whose loyalty JOH worked hard to win, has released a statement committing to working with Xiomara and stating that “she will be the President and commander of the Armed Forces.” JOH allies in the business sector and traditionally conservative media such as the country’s largest newspaper, El Heraldo, have welcomed her.

Rhetoric that the 2009 coup reversed a flourishing democracy is exaggerated – it has always been a flawed democracy and ousted President Mel Zelaya, like his peers, was a flawed leader. But this vote and early reactions indicate broad agreement that the past 12 years have exhausted the country. Xiomara’s Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) has soundly thumped the country’s two traditional parties, sending both back to re-think their strategies.

  • Governing is likely to be a learning process for Xiomara. Some of her early foreign policy statements – such as repeating her pledge to normalize relations with China (a sovereign decision the United States and most in the hemisphere have taken) and issuing unvarnished praise for Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro – have drawn unwelcome attention, but she pulled back and quickly put the focus back on her top domestic priorities. She also has to continue finessing coalition politics; her vice president, right-of-center sportscaster Salvador Nasrala, seemed to wander during the campaign but turned out to be a good asset. Her husband, to whom she’s referred as her “best advisor,” still has a reputation that will require some managing.

The U.S. reaction to her government will be crucial. Xiomara’s agenda, with its focus on the “root causes” of the country’s multiple crises, could make her an ideal ally to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s worked hard to focus U.S. policy on those drivers. Neither woman can be expected to do magic, but stopping Honduras’s slide, which started under the putschist regime in 2009 and continued under the two National Party presidents who came after, would be a major victory in itself. The surge in Hondurans encountered on the U.S. border – up to about 300,000 in the past 12 months – has grabbed Washington’s attention, but the real test will be whether the Administration and the Honduran government can seriously address the root causes as promised.

December 9, 2021

Venezuela: Lessons Learned from Failed Negotiations

By Nancy Haugh*

Protest in Venezuela/ MARQUINAM/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

As both sides to the Venezuela crisis express willingness to return to the negotiating table, a review of the shortcomings in previous talks – particularly their overly ambitious agenda and excessively narrow participation – should improve the odds of success in future rounds. Four dialogues between Chavistas and the opposition preceded the collapsed 2019 talks. In each case, both sides were willing to negotiate with the presence of a neutral, trusted third-party mediator and met several times, but other requisite conditions outlined in negotiation literature, such as including potential spoilers at the table, were missing.

  • The Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution worked hard to create a negotiating structure that did not aggravate the fears of both sides by, for example, not inviting the United States or the Venezuelan military to participate. It also declined a request from the International Contact Group (ICG), a coalition of Latin American and European countries, to a merge its negotiation process with one the ICG had already launched over concerns that the ICG’s goal was regime change through electoral reform, not a negotiated agreement.
  • Talks stumbled, however, because of a tactic used by self-declared President Juan Guaidó that negotiation specialists call “Type C coercive diplomacy” – his penchant for making maximalist demands and threats while borrowing power from the U.S. and other external sources – and because of problems with his “boundary role.” He was trying to represent constituencies that were not at the table, particularly his U.S. benefactors and Venezuela’s moderate opposition, to gain leverage over the government. But he could not credibly offer relief from Washington’s sanctions, which combined with the threat of military intervention were intended to effect the immediate removal of President Nicolás Maduro and hold new Presidential elections. Talks broke down in August 2019 when the U.S. imposed new sanctions, including freezing all Venezuelan government assets under U.S. jurisdiction, without consulting with Guaidó.

The government took advantage of the opposition’s “boundary roles” problem. Maduro’s team had no incentive to negotiate with a person who could not alter the U.S. sanctions. Government negotiators had previously said they were open to modifying the electoral calendar and engaging in legislative and electoral power-sharing if U.S. sanctions were lifted at least one year before the polling day. That offer fell off the table, but another – “inviting the opposition to seek a recall referendum against Maduro in two to three years’ time” – apparently still stands.

  • September 16, 2019, the day after a weakened opposition declared that negotiations had been “exhausted,” Maduro reached an agreement with an offshoot of the opposition movement, the moderate National Dialogue, and the opposition split was formalized. Under this deal, Maduro would neither need to resign nor be barred from running in future elections. Ultimately, the agreement was only partially implemented, with 29 of 58 promised political prisoners actually released from prison. Additionally, instead of fulfilling its commitment to “dialogue and reconciliation,” the government formed a commission to investigate alleged corruption on the part of Guaidó and his team.

Despite the efforts of the Norwegian team, the 2019 talks neither fully addressed the needs and fears of both sides nor defused the influence of external stakeholders. In March, Norwegian mediators began to quietly explore re-initiating talks between representatives of Guaidó and Maduro. Though previous rounds failed to meet their main objective, they demonstrated that progress is indeed possible with a modified strategy.

  • The literature on international negotiations suggests that increasing the number of parties at the table makes cooperation more difficult, increases information costs, and makes defection more likely, but the previous talks suffered from having too few at the table. By not including a wide array of opposition voices, a secondary channel opened for the government to reach an agreement and walk away from the process when the United States announced sanctions.
  • Negotiating partial agreements, instead of a comprehensive one, appears more promising as a means of solving problems and creating momentum. The country’s historic economic and humanitarian crises offer the best chance of finding agreement and building trust between the parties and, even if not resolving the parties’ biggest needs, will benefit the people they claim to care about.
  • Involving a balanced mix of regional actors as guarantors would comfort each side while pressuring them to be accountable. The members of the anti-Maduro “Lima Group” could help, as could Cuba, which has supported Maduro and has a strong record of supporting successful negotiations.

Four months into the Biden Administration, the position of the most important external actor has yet to go beyond broad statements about continuing “to work with international partners to increase pressure in a multilateral fashion toward [the] goal of free and fair elections.” In mid-May, Guaidó proposed a progressive lifting of U.S. sanctions in return for steps by Maduro toward free and fair elections overseen by a third party – suggesting a shift away from his maximalist stance – but Washington has remained publicly silent.

June 4, 2021

* Nancy Haugh completed their Master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, with a focus on dialogue, human rights, and foreign policy in Latin America.

Lula Is Back, But What About Brazilian Democracy?

By Fábio Kerche and Marjorie Marona*

Rally in Support of Lula/ Ricardo Cifuentes/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva recovered his political rights last month when the Supreme Court overturned his convictions on corruption charges, but Brazil will need more than a simple court decision to restore the country’s confidence in its democracy and institutions after years of political turmoil.

  • The court ruled that the conduct and decisions of then-Judge Sergio Moro and the Operação Lava Jato (Carwash) investigators that landed Lula in prison were not impartial and, therefore, the justices invalidated the conviction of the former president (2003-2011). The case began to unravel in 2019 when a Brazil-based U.S. journalist, Glenn Greenwald, published leaked private conversations between Moro and the prosecutors showing a highly politicized agenda. The ruling reinforced the public perception that Lula was innocent and that Lava Jato was used as a political weapon against him and his Workers’ Party (PT).
  • The action opened the door for Lula to be a presidential candidate in 2022. It also demands restarting the trial from ground zero, but the consensus among legal experts is that a re-trial cannot be mounted before the election.

Lula’s return coincides with a period in which President Jair Bolsonaro faces enormous difficulties. The Senate is currently investigating his government’s alleged negligence in the 400,000 deaths caused by its COVID policies. Furthermore, the Brazilian economy is not recovering, as the Bolsonaro team asserts. Unemployment is over 14 percent, and hunger has reemerged as a perverse reality for millions of Brazilians. According to a Datafolha poll, only 24 percent of Brazilians consider the government to be good. Bolsonaro suffers from the lowest polls among presidents in the democratic period, except for Fernando Collor as he resigned in the face of impeachment.

  • The same poll shows that Lula would handily beat Bolsonaro in a presidential election – 41 percent to 23 percent among intending voters. In a second round, Lula would beat Bolsonaro 55 percent to 32 percent. Moreover, the public narratives pushed by Bolsonaro supporters trying to identify Lula as a radical left-winger are being put aside. The press, despite repeated attacks by the current government, portrays Lula as a much more reasonable alternative than Bolsonaro. Lula is emerging as a conciliator and a moderate center-left politician.
  • Attempts to build a center-right candidacy, a so-called terceira via (third way), seem to be getting little traction so far. The growth of center-right parties in the 2020 municipal elections is not being reflected at the national level, and the TV pop stars cited as potential 2022 Presidential candidates are not gaining momentum.  

Far from radicalizing him, Lula’s 580 days in prison seem to have softened his sharp edges, and his immediate full-time focus on looking for solutions to the COVID crisis fits his strategy of reminding the public that Brazil was a better country under his government. He is not in a rush to officially launch his candidacy, but he’s talking to several parties and leaders – even those in favor of Dilma Rousseff’s controversial impeachment and of Lava Jato, which portrayed the Workers’ Party as a criminal enterprise. He is also looking into possible alliances in state elections in exchange for broad support for his candidacy. There are indications that his vice-presidential running mate will be someone closer to the center-right, signaling that his government will be of reconstruction and not of polarization. But the path ahead isn’t necessarily easy for Lula. Bolsonaro has a group of loyal supporters and, even with a slow pace of vaccinations, there is a chance that all Brazilians will be protected from COVID by the end of this year, bringing hope for better times. Bolsonaro is also providing financial aid to the poor, which will help him recover voter share.

  • The 2022 election is perhaps the most critical test for Brazil’s fragile democracy since redemocratization. The Bolsonaro government, whose handling of national challenges has been highly problematic, continues to flirt with authoritarian measures. Civil and human rights are being weakened. Whether Bolsonaro ultimately succeeds in consolidating a regime of his own design or becomes merely a stumbling block in Brazil’s democratic history now looks likely to depend on a 75-year-old former president and former union leader who’s returned from prison to provide, yet again, an alternative to the status quo.

May 19, 2021

* Fábio Kerche is a professor at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) and former CLALS Research Fellow. Marjorie Marona is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).

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).

In the War for the Soul of Peru, a Battle Is Won

By Cynthia McClintock*

Protest in Lima, Peru – November 2020/ Samantha Hare/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The political battles that have seized Peru this month have been intense because the prospects for a democratic, ethical Peru are at stake. On November 9, Peru’s Congress impeached President Martín Vizcarra, a champion of the war against corruption in the country. He was succeeded by the Congress’s Speaker, Manuel Merino, who – after six days of massive protests from all social classes and all regions of the country – resigned. Legislators then came together around a respected centrist, Francisco Sagasti, as Peru’s new president. Sagasti promises to continue the reform effort.

  • The most important cause of the impeachment was elites’ pushback against anti-corruption efforts, particularly the prosecution of under-the-table payments by companies to politicians, an entrenched practice in Peru for centuries. By the estimate of the historian Alfonso Quiroz, under no administration since Peru’s independence was the cost of corruption less than one percent of its GDP. Amid the kickbacks, sub-par companies won bids for state contracts, leading to huge cost overruns and outright project failures. All four presidents elected since 2001 and scores of additional authorities have been prosecuted for this reason. Approximately half the legislators feared an end to their own immunity from prosecution. Legislators of two of the nine political parties in Congress have personal stakes in for-profit universities, which were threatened by newly introduced higher standards for universities.
  • Political interests were also at stake. One political party was pursuing amnesty for its imprisoned leader. Many legislators were dismayed by the brevity of their term (March 2020-July 2021), an upshot from the previous Congress’s confrontation with Vizcarra in late 2019. They hoped to postpone the legislative and presidential elections due in April 2021 and tilt the playing field for the elections in their favor.

The crisis challenges some long-held observations about Peru.

  • The argument of many political scientists that the cause of Peru’s democratic deficits has been the fragmentation among weakly institutionalized parties is questionable. In recent years, Fuerza Popular, led by Keiko Fujimori, was strongly institutionalized; in 2011 and 2016, Keiko was the runner-up for the presidency and, in 2016, the party gained an absolute majority of legislative seats. Merino hails from Acción Popular, a historic party that had recently rebounded. The impeachment vote in the legislature was overwhelming: 105 of 130 legislators in favor. Neither strongly nor weakly institutionalized parties were putting the interests of Peru first.
  • The argument that the cause was the “permanent moral incapacity” clause in Peru’s Constitution per se is also questionable. The clause is vague, but it had also been used to impeach Alberto Fujimori and threaten the impeachment of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Although the allegations against Vizcarra – of kickbacks for public-works contracts during his governorship of Moquegua – were made by suspects in criminal cases aspiring to plea bargains, they are worrisome.

For Peruvians, especially young Peruvians, the fear that their country would remain in the throes of the “traditional corrupt political class” was immense. The protests were the largest in Peru since the 1970s. As Merino enabled repression resulting in at least two deaths and hundreds of injuries, the outcry grew ever stronger.

  • Vizcarra was enjoying an approval rating near 60 percent – in the stratosphere for presidents in Peru. Some 90 percent of Peruvians opposed his impeachment. Despite the allegations of corruption against Vizcarra, what mattered to Peruvians was that he was fighting corruption now.
  • In his six days in the presidency, Merino was disastrous. A three-term Acción Popular legislator from Peru’s north without any known achievements, he was perceived as the embodiment of the term “political hack.” His cabinet appointments were far to the right of most Peruvians. Merino and his ministers dismissed protestors’ concerns, refusing even to acknowledge the police repression.

The challenges in Peru are immense. Elections are to be held in five months even though the pandemic has hit Peru exceptionally hard. Its mortality rate is the worst in Latin America, and the expected contraction of GDP for 2020 is the second worst after Venezuela. But Sagasti is off to an excellent start and seems poised to continue Peru’s move in an ethical, democratic direction.

  • A policy analyst and professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Sagasti was serving for the first time as a legislator with the centrist Partido Morado. Like him, most of the new cabinet members have advanced degrees and considerable experience in the public sector; ministers in the interior and justice portfolios are sympathetic to human rights concerns. In his inauguration speech, he promised to continue the war against corruption and respect democratic principles. He spoke movingly of the youths who had lost their lives in the protests. He ended with a poem – setting a tone that the country desperately needs.

November 20, 2020

*Cynthia McClintock is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

Guatemala: Fiscal Challenges Await New President

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020/ US Embassy Guatemala/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2GeHS0U

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, inaugurated on January 14, faces a deeper public finance crisis than previously estimated, putting even greater pressure on him to undertake fiscal reforms and start the slow and difficult process of fiscal stabilization and recovery.

  • The Giammattei administration has inherited a fiscal mess from former President Jimmy Morales, during whose four-year administration public spending on principal social needs didn’t surpass 8 percent of GDP (7.9 percent in 2019). Despite slow, slight growth in the education budget in 2015-2019 and a growing population, the number of students enrolled at the elementary and high school level actually contracted. Spending on health – in a country with half of its children suffering from chronic malnutrition, one of the lowest health service levels, and one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world – remained around 1 percent of GDP. The military budget under Morales, however, expanded considerably, allowing the Armed Forces to purchase weapons and a ship and to at least try repeatedly to buy military aircraft.

The fiscal situation is worsened by the persistent inability of the national tax authority (SAT) to achieve its collection goals for almost a decade, as well as by the array of amnesties and fiscal privileges approved by the National Congress in 2015-19. As a result, the Morales administration ran up fiscal deficits from 1.1 percent of GDP in 2016 to 2.5 percent in 2019 – accelerating the increase in the stock of public debt from 24.7 percent of GDP in 2017 to 27.0 percent in 2019 – Guatemala’s highest in recent history.

  • Making things worse, the debt was principally handled through issuance of Treasury Bonds sold on the national and international markets at terms – higher rates and shorter maturity periods – less favorable to the Guatemalan government. Last September Congress passed a law, supposedly to formalize cattle growers and ranchers (a sector well known for not paying taxes), that many observers say is so badly written that it opens the door to more tax fraud and even money laundering by powerful drug cartels. ICEFI and even some members of Congress note this has the potential to cause even greater revenue losses in 2020.

Budgetary pressures seem very likely to continue rising this year, further complicating the new president’s challenges. The Constitutional Court in late November ruled that the Executive Branch must correct the way it calculates the transfers that the Constitution requires the Central Government make to the municipalities, the Judiciary, the San Carlos University (Guatemala’s only public university), and the federated and non-federated sports institutions. If this ruling is confirmed, it will generate a huge increase in those organizations’ budgets, seriously exceeding the government’s current fiscal capacity by more than US$1 billion (1.2 percent of GDP).

  • ICEFI’s analysis shows that the only way for the new government to overcome the public finance crisis is to undertake far-reaching fiscal reform – revitalization of tax administration, a credible fight against corruption and tax evasion, and correcting budget priorities. For a government more inclined to pro-business and liberal economic thinking, such reforms may represent a considerable political challenge.
  • President Giammattei also inherited a difficult political situation from his predecessor, whose conflict with the UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and whose alliance with persons widely believed to be involved in corruption further undermined popular confidence in the government. The new president will be judged harshly if he fails to demonstrate early on a commitment to fight corruption, increase transparency, and make government more accountable. Accusations that he himself has been involved in corruption are already arising. He faces these tough economic and political challenges – with diminished resources, fiscal chaos, and with the previous administration’s allies considerably strengthened – at a time that Guatemala can ill afford to continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.

January 23, 2020

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the fourth in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries. The others are here, here and here.

Honduras: A Renewed MACCIH with Teeth?

By Eric L. Olson*

President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, January 16,

Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras, January 19, 2016/ Flickr/Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/oasoea/24115247729/in/photostream/

As the January 19 deadline for renewing the Support Mission to Combat Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) approaches, the Honduran government — never enamored of it — has a chance to demonstrate a commitment to root out one of the principal problems that undermine the nation’s democratic institutions and the opportunities citizens yearn for.

  • The Organization of American States has been engaged for months in low-profile discussions with Tegucigalpa on the future of MACCIH, created by an agreement between Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro on January 19, 2016. Despite concerns that MACCIH lacked the independence and capacity to conduct investigations that its UN-based counterpart in Guatemala (CICIG) once had, it has demonstrated that Honduras can indeed conduct independent, non-partisan investigations into systemic corruption, and begin to prosecute and hold accountable senior officials.

Working with its partner in the Public Ministry, a special anti-corruption prosecutor’s unit (UFECIC), MACCIH has had a key role in 13 major cases involving 124 individuals, including 80 government officials and 44 private citizens. Several cases involve networks of corruption in the Honduran legislature as well as the former first lady (now sentenced to 58 years in prison), and graft and corruption in the country’s public health system (IHSS). The official evaluation of MACCIH’s first four years by the Mesa de Evaluación, a process established by agreement between the Honduran government and OAS, has recommended full renewal.

The brave work of the UFECIC prosecutors, who formalize the investigations that MACCIH first develops, has been crucial. MACCIH screens and recommends the prosecutors and investigators that make up UFECIC, but its mission is to support, not conduct, prosecutions. This distance is intended to strengthen capacity within Honduras’s justice system.

  • Honduran civil society, previously skeptical that MACCIH would work, is now largely on board. The Coalition for the Renewal of MACCIH has issued statements calling for the mandate to be extended — proclaiming ¡Renovación Ya! — as have the National Anti-Corruption Council, the Association for a More Just Society, the Catholic Bishops Conference and its Evangelical counterpart, and others. Even members of the business community, long leery of anti-corruption initiatives, support renewal.
  • At least rhetorically, the United States supports MACCIH renewal. Acting Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak and other State Department officials have endorsed it, and Democrats in the U.S. Congress have been strong advocates. Washington’s implicit approval of the Guatemalan government’s dismantling of CICIG, however, remains a concern for MACCIH supporters.

President Hernández’s foot-dragging on renewal has fueled worries. Renewal could be done simply with an exchange of letters in which the government signals its desire to renew the mandate as is; unless the agreement is to be amended, no congressional action or further steps are needed. The delay has given rise to fears that the government is seeking to limit the length of the new mandate (from the current four years to two or even one). There is further concern that the government, with pressure from Congress, seeks to limit the MACCIH mission to citizen oversight functions, prevention efforts, and technical training. These are all important elements of the mission, but the heart and soul of the MACCIH’s success has been its support for the UFECIC and its investigations. To undermine or limit investigations would likely lead to the demise of UFECIC and render the MACCIH toothless.

Renewal of MACCIH — with the investigative elements of its mandate intact — gives President Hernández, who labors under a cloud of allegations about involvement in narcotics trafficking and other illicit practices, an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and building judicial and democratic institutions. If the mandate is changed, not simply renewed, it will have to be approved again by the Honduran Congress, where odds are long. The Congress has already recommended MACCIH not be renewed and, as the official Mesa de Evaluación documented, it has already attempted to reverse anti-corruption legislation, such as by lowering penalties for misuse of government funds.

  • Hernández has the clout to direct his supporters in Congress, many of whom fear MACCIH’s investigations into their activities, to abandon their obstructionist tactics, while reaching out to opposition legislators who support MACCIH. Alternatively, he could ignore Congress altogether and simply reach an executive agreement with the OAS, something that would carry less legal weight but may preserve MACCIH’s essential elements.
  • The President’s inaction hurts MACCIH and broader anti-corruption efforts as well as Honduras. Failure to push renewal — with teeth — will not only damage his reputation and further erode his legitimacy in the eyes of Hondurans and the international community; it will send a message of hopelessness and despair to Hondurans seeking to build a better future for their country.

January 13, 2020

* Eric L. Olson is Director of Policy, Seattle International Foundation, and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

 

Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.