Guatemala: Anti-Corruption Still Losing Momentum

By Ricardo Barrientos*

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala looks upward

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala. / OECD / Andrew Wheeler / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), Attorney General, and civil society remain bulwarks in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Guatemala – and occasionally score big hits – the Administration of President Jimmy Morales is slowly grinding them down and generating opposition to much-needed reforms.  In a speech at the signing of the National Development Agenda last month, the President attacked provisions in the law requiring transparency in public procurement and budgeting as counterproductive, while also lashing out at the judges, congressmen, general comptroller, and civil society leaders who support such measures.  He claimed on that occasion and others that anti-corruption measures have hindered his ability to govern.

  • The Morales Administration has not just complained; it has tried to remove anti-corruption controls. On July 14, CICIG and the Ministerio Público (MP) made the first of dozens arrests of persons involved in a corruption network run by former Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister (CIV) and potential presidential candidate in the 2015 elections, Alejandro Sinibaldi.  Three days later, the government responded to the case, known as “Corruption and Construction,” with a Presidential Decree declaring a “State of Emergency” on conditions of the nation’s roadways.  The order would allow the government for 30 days to sign new contracts and modify existing ones with companies involved in the scandal, including Brazilian contractor Odebrecht, free of all anti-corruption controls.  Congress not only rejected the Decree, but also impeached current CIV Minister, Aldo García, and forced him to take the blame for decrepit road conditions.

Despite such high-profile cases, Guatemalan anti-corruption advocates are concerned the MP and CICIG could still lose the war against corruption.  In addition, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez has publicly lamented that structural reform – the Commission’s other mandate – has been too slow.  Last month, he said that “with current [circumstances] it is very difficult to defeat corruption and impunity.”  Some local observers believe that Velásquez’s focus on constitutional reforms to enhance the Attorney General’s powers is overly ambitions, and that other important initiatives are more attainable, but they acknowledge the generally hostile political environment he faces.  Advocates also believe that the Morales Administration is waiting out the term of fiscal general (attorney general) and head of the MP Thelma Aldana, who steps down next year.  The President even excluded her from his delegation attending a summit in June with U.S. Vice President Pence and Central American counterparts.

The strident complaints of some Guatemalans about U.S. support to CICIG and other anti-corruption initiatives has fueled perceptions that external support for clean government is more important than local demands for good governance – and coincided with a decline in the civic engagement that helped bring down the corrupt government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  Much attention in Guatemala City has focused on outgoing U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and is now naturally shifting to the man confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 3 to replace him:  Luis Arreaga – most recently a deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement – is a Guatemala-born naturalized U.S. citizen who, nominated to the post by President Trump in June, is expected to distance himself from the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to anti-corruption programs.  Even though Attorney General Aldana was bumped from President Morales’s delegation at the June summit, Pence publicly praised Morales’s “personal dedication” to fighting corruption.

August 21, 2017

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

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).