Guatemala: Simmering Under the Surface

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Three people stand on a dias with Guatemalan flags in the background

New U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga is officially welcomed to the country by President Jimmy Morales. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has survived the backlash against his efforts in August to shut down corruption investigations by the Attorney General and the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), but tensions remain intense.  Two days after Attorney General Thelma Aldana filed papers to suspend the President’s immunity from prosecution on campaign finance corruption charges in late August, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez “persona non grata” and ordered his expulsion from the country.  (The expulsion order was blocked by the Constitutional Court.)

  • On September 13th, more than two thirds of the Congress – driven by most of Morales’s party as well as opposition members accused of corruption – voted in favor of altering the Penal Code in ways that weakened accountability for all politicians (including Morales and themselves). Two days later, after massive protests akin La Plaza, the civic movement that achieved the removal of former President Pérez Molina and most of his administration in 2015, Congress backtracked.
  • The Morales Administration tried to curtail the CICIG’s activities again in October, when the Foreign Ministry renewed the Commissioner’s visa for one year with a stern warning to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs” of the country. The Constitutional Court again intervened, ordering the Ministry to revoke the warning.

Despite the attacks, Commissioner Velásquez and Attorney General Aldana continue their efforts.  Last week Velásquez said publicly that illicit campaign finance is “the ‘original sin’ of the system of corruption that has captured the Guatemalan state … and the distortion of the democratic model.”  He and Aldana keep scoring points: former President Pérez Molina, his vice president, Roxanna Baldetti, and two dozen others were sent to trial last week on corruption charges originally brought to light by CICIG – the now-famous Customs corruption scheme called La Línea. 

  • They’ve also presented a new corruption case, nicknamed Pandora’s Box, which links Guatemala City Mayor and former President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen with an illicit campaign financing network, speculation, misuse of public funds, and dirty business with former “King” of the Guatemalan prison system, Byron Lima Oliva. This news re-opened old wounds over issues such as the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in 1998, when Arzú was President and Lima a member of the Presidential General Staff.  Arzú has been one of Morales’s most fierce defenders, so his travails hurt the President – even if it is uncertain that the Guatemalan justice system will withstand Arzú’s counteroffensive against CICIG, the Attorney General and La Plaza.

The arrival of a new U.S. Ambassador may be contributing to a momentary drop in open political warfare between reformers and corrupt politicians.  Compared to former Ambassador Robinson, incoming Ambassador Luis Arreaga has kept a low profile on the issue.  During his confirmation hearing last July, he restated “a commitment by both governments to fight corruption and build upon the successful efforts by President Morales, CICIG, and the Attorney General to end impunity.”  Since presenting his credentials in Guatemala last month, he has held familiarization meetings with a broad array of Guatemalan leaders in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, emphasizing the themes of friendship and partnership.  Meeting with Velásquez and Aldana together, he confirmed the “U.S. commitment to their efforts to fight corruption and impunity,” according to the Embassy’s website.  Arreaga’s honeymoon – during which he has the luxury of being friends to both reformers and their corrupt targets – will endure only until CICIG uncovers more blockbuster evidence of corruption or Morales, sensing his political support sinking with his credibility, tries to capture the hearts of other vulnerable politicians to further hem in the meddlesome reformers.

November 9, 2017

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

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).

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

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).

Belize: The UDP Wins Again

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas*

Dean Barrow, now elected for his third term as Prime Minister of Belize. Photo Credit: The Commonwealth / Flickr / Creative Commons

Dean Barrow, now elected for his third term as Prime Minister of Belize. Photo Credit: The Commonwealth / Flickr / Creative Commons

Belize’s national elections on November 4 gave the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) an unprecedented third term in office.  The opposition People’s United Party (PUP) had expected to return to power, for the first time since 2008, in view of the country’s lackluster economic performance (except for a tourist boom), a wave of corruption scandals, and falling prices for Belize’s leading commodity exports.  A new third party, the Belize Progressive Party, also participated, representing a coalition of smaller parties.  The UDP won an increased majority (19 out of 31 seats, the rest going to the PUP).  Dean Barrow has therefore started his third, and last, term as Prime Minister.

Public spending on infrastructure, education, and health funded by borrowing from Petrocaribe was a key factor in the election.

  • The concessional loans from Venezuela had a major impact on the government’s popularity. The possibility that they may be cut in future was one reason why the Prime Minister called the elections 18 months earlier than necessary.  (This privilege, known as the “Westminster convention,” is no longer available in the United Kingdom, where elections are now subject to fixed terms.)
  • Many voters in Belize have also become accustomed to receiving party support in cash or kind in the last 20 years in return for their votes. The PUP, reliant in the past on cash from Michael Ashcroft (a British billionaire with Belizean citizenship), was strapped for cash this time because Ashcroft reached an agreement on most of his outstanding disputes with the government and no longer had much incentive to support the opposition.
  • The PUP also suffered from a weak – albeit honest – leader in Francis Fonseca, who had performed badly in municipal elections earlier in the year and who had failed to impose discipline on the party. He has now resigned, although he will stay as leader until a new one is elected.  The PUP, the dominant force in Belizean politics since its formation in 1950 and the party that took the country to independence in 1981, is now in danger of disintegrating.

The UDP government faces a number of challenges.  The sugar market in the European Union is being opened to unrestricted competition, which could lower prices further.  Concessional funding from Petrocaribe could be reduced or even ended as the economic situation in Venezuela deteriorates.  And Belize continues to face considerable pressure from the U.S. government both with regard to its offshore financial center and as a result of sanctions against various individuals under the “kingpin” anti-drug legislation.  Last but not least, Belize will have to pay compensation to Michael Ashcroft for nationalization of the telecommunications company at a rate to be determined by arbitration over which the government will have no control.  The biggest threat to Belize, however, comes from Guatemala.  The disputed western frontier is porous and Guatemalan poachers have become bolder in recent years, even panning for gold in the mountains.  Both governments had previously agreed to take their territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice, but they must first put it to voters in a referendum – a prospect in which Guatemalan President-elect Jimmy Morales has so far shown no interest.  With a population of only 350,000 (compared with 16 million in Guatemala), the new government of Belize may face an uphill struggle.

November 16, 2015

*Dr. Bulmer-Thomas is a professor at the University College London Institute of the Americas, fellow (and former director) at Chatham House, and author of numerous books, including The Economic History of the Caribbean Since the Napoleonic Wars (2012).

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.