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).

OAS: More of the Same in Almagro’s Second Term?

By Fulton Armstrong

Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General

Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General/ OEA – OAS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro pledged “an active OAS with clear objectives on the regional political and democratic agenda” upon his inauguration to a second term on May 27, but unfulfilled priorities of his first term and the COVID‑19 crisis appear likely to overshadow any new initiatives. In his address, Almagro boasted that the OAS is “once again the Organization that is the main political forum of the Americas” and said it “must normalize democracy as the ideal political system for the Hemisphere, without discussion or exceptions.” He also spoke of the need to strengthen social inclusion and support “those most vulnerable to poverty who face injustice and discrimination.” He did not use the occasion to announce any concrete proposals.

  • The pandemic has made evident how fragile democracy in the region is. Several governments in the Americas have resorted to undemocratic practices and temporary breaks in Constitutional order. In Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Peru, and Chile, police have used disproportionate violence to control protests or enforce pandemic regulations. Although the OAS General Secretariat issued guidelines on how to apply extraordinary measures in a manner that complies with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the organization has been silent on violations.

Almagro’s deeply personal role in efforts to promote regime change in Venezuela dominated his first-term agenda but did not yield concrete results. His initiatives to drive change in Nicaragua have also failed to achieve stated goals. Even though many member nations are deeply critical of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, critics argue that Almagro’s actions, often without formal consultation with the Permanent Council, have been excessive and harmed the OAS’s credibility – particularly at a time that the United States has been pushing parallel efforts as part of a revival of its 19th-century Monroe Doctrine.

  • Almagro’s inaction in other areas has raised doubts in some quarters about his and the OAS’s impartiality. He has been silent on the excesses of Brazilian President Bolsonaro in political and environmental matters; on human rights violations during Chile’s protests last year; and on U.S. and Mexican cooperation on migration, which many experts say have led to systematic violation of asylum-seekers’ rights. He acquiesced in Honduras’s decision to shut down MACCIH, the anti-corruption and anti-impunity mechanism he personally helped fashion, suggesting that his commitment to the transparency and accountability it was supposed to force was weaker than his rhetoric. The OAS’s assessments of the Bolivian elections last October, which gave an international imprimatur to the military removal of President Evo Morales, has also raised questions about whether his commitment is to democratic process or regime change in left-leaning countries.
  • The OAS has also been largely missing in action in facing the health and economic threats posed by COVID‑19. Central America, through SICA, tried to develop a subregional strategy in the early days of the pandemic, and Mercosur presidents had important conversations about possible measures to take. Almagro said recently that the OAS had been “quick to leverage our platform for greater coordination … between the states for sharing best practices and models for a successful response,” but the organization has largely remained on the sidelines.

Many of Latin America’s problems are structural, have deep historic roots, and defy ready solutions that any Secretary General could drive. Almagro’s statements suggest continuation of the relatively narrow focus of his first term – heavy on driving political change in leftist countries that coincide with policy priorities of the United States and right-leaning governments in the hemisphere. Reducing poverty and increasing inclusion seem significantly lower priorities. Leftist and left-leaning governments will continue to grumble about the tilt toward interventionism under Almagro, notably his endorsement in principle of military action to remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, but fatigue and more compelling issues, such as the pandemic, probably will blunt challenges to his approach.

  • The pandemic, however, is a good opportunity for the OAS to pivot toward implementation of a collective defense of democracy that reduces partiality, confrontation, and ideological drifts; stresses impartiality, mediation, and neutrality; and addresses the underlying challenges of economic and political inequality. 

July 20, 2020