A stark choice for some Guatemalans: watch crops wither, and maybe die with them, or migrate.
NENTÓN, Guatemala — To understand why President Trump’s new sanctions and other flailing to end Central American immigration aren’t working, step into the dark, melancholy hovel of Ana Jorge Jorge.
She lives in Guatemala’s western highlands in the hillside village of Canquintic, near the town of Nentón, and she’s a widow because of the American dream.
Her husband, Mateo Gómez Tadeo, borrowed thousands of dollars and migrated north to the United States several years ago after his crops here failed. He found work in Alabama cutting flowers but then caught an infection and died, leaving hungry children back home and a huge debt hanging over the family.Two of their sons, aged 7 and 14, soon died as well, apparently of malnutrition-related illnesses. Jorge Jorge pulled another son, Juan, out of school in the second grade so that he could work in the fields and help pay off the debt. If it isn’t paid, lenders will seize the family land.
“We all suffer now,” Jorge Jorge told me grimly. “I have to struggle daily.”
If any family understands the risks of traveling to the United States, it’s this one. Yet Juan, now 11, is talking about trying to make his own way north. And Jorge Jorge, while terrified at the prospect of losing him, approves.
“I say, ‘Go,’” she said bleakly. “‘There’s nothing here, so go.’”
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student on a reporting trip, and we’ve come to Guatemala to report on migration. My student winner, Mia Armstrong of Arizona State University, and I have heard from innumerable Guatemalans that the most fundamental driver of emigration is desperation — and, to an extent that most Americans don’t appreciate, this desperation often reflects drought and severe weather linked to climate change.
“Food doesn’t grow here anymore,” Jorge Jorge said. “That’s why I would send my son north.”
There are other factors as well, and the despair also reflects a marginalization of Mayan communities that goes back hundreds of years, presided over in the capital by an incompetent kleptocracy. But climate change is aggravating the desperation.
“The weather has changed, clearly,” said Flori Micaela Jorge Santizo, a 19-year-old woman whose husband has abandoned the fields to find work in Mexico. She noted that drought and unprecedented winds have destroyed successive corn crops, leaving the family destitute, adding, “And because I had no money, my children died.”
A third son, now 14, will be the next to try his luck. Remaining as crops fail and children suffer is not an option.
“There’s no rain, and no way to grow crops,” Mateo Mateo said. “One can’t live here.”
Why else would he pursue so many policies in Latin America that do not serve the national interest?
Americans can be forgiven if they struggle to find any coherence in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It zigs and zags, with senior administration officials saying one thing and President Trump contradicting them without warning the next day. It punishes our allies and coddles our adversaries; it privileges demagogy over democracy. Mr. Trump’s approach appears impulsive, improvisational and inchoate — devoid of clear purpose, values or even ideology.
Yet, upon closer examination, there is indeed a consistent logic staring us in the face. The unifying theme of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is simply to service his domestic politics.
Mr. Trump welcomes and encourages Russia, a hostile adversary, to interfere in our elections so long as the manipulations benefit him. He discards decades of bipartisan policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to curry favor with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and thus right-wing political support. The president follows a basic, if unorthodox, playbook: He and his party over our country.
Nowhere is this pattern more consistently apparent than in the administration’s dealings with Latin America. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has taken a series of actions that are not tied to coherent strategies and will not deliver the desired results — if those results are to be measured in terms of achieving American foreign policy objectives. Rather, they may succeed only to the extent that they help Mr. Trump gain re-election by dishing up red meat to energize the Republican base.
Take Cuba. Last month, the Trump administration turned the clock back to the Cold War, imposing the harshest forms of sanctions against Cuba allowable under United States law. Mr. Trump reversed the policy of his Republican and Democratic predecessors by permitting Americans to sue foreign companies that use property confiscated without compensation by the Castro regime.
The administration also canceled a deal to allow Cuban baseball players to play in the United States, sharply constrained remittances and promised to end most forms of nonfamily travel, actions that will directly harm Cuba’s people and nascent private sector. In triumphantly announcing this policy shift before veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the national security adviser, John Bolton, repeatedly stressed the contrast with President Obama’s approach and pledged relentless pursuit of regime change.
Anyone familiar with the 60-plus years of failed United States policy toward Cuba before Mr. Obama’s opening in 2014 knows that the embargo only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on its long-suffering people. Instead of causing the collapse of the Cuban government or the abandonment of its ally Venezuela, Mr. Trump’s approach will again bolster hard-liners in Havana, entrench policies we oppose, drive Cuba closer to Russia and China, further isolate and impoverish the Cuban people and punish our European and Canadian allies, whose companies will now be sued.
Yet, this policy reversal surely pleases the old guard among Cuban émigrés, as it did the Bay of Pigs celebrants who cheered Bolton. Given the changing attitudes among younger Cuban-Americans who largely supported Mr. Obama’s engagement, it remains to be seen how much political sway the hard-liners still have in the crucial battleground state of Florida. Still, Mr. Trump is betting on firing up that faction.
Not content to bank only on the Cuban community in Florida, Mr. Trump is also courting the state’s many Venezuelan immigrants, who justifiably detest the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. To hasten Mr. Maduro’s exit, the Trump administration has rightly joined with regional and international partners to impose sanctions against Mr. Maduro, his government and cronies, and to recognize the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as interim president.
Rachel Bowen, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of The Achilles Heel of Democracy: Judicial Autonomy and the Rule of Law in Central America (Cambridge University Press, 2017), talks about the constitutional crisis inside Guatemala that is causing increased migration to the U.S.
After Guatemala joined the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration has been working to weaken an international commission on corruption that is targeting the Guatemalan president, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The Trump administration is still debating what specific changes it wants to pursue, but talks between agencies have alarmed supporters in Guatemala and Washington who feel the changes could undercut the role the United Nations-backed body plays in combating official corruption and other root causes of illegal immigration.
Proposed changes to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, include changing the body’s mandate to more narrowly redefine corruption, increasing reporting requirements for donors, limiting terms of the commissioner and appointing a deputy commissioner which Guatemala would help select, according to the sources.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who with his family is a target of CICG’s investigations, has accused CICIG of abusing its power and has tried to oust the commissioner, Iván Velásquez.
Until recently, the criticism largely went unheeded as the agency got credit for tackling crime and corruption. But the body now faces its own accusations of corruption and abusing its power that Republicans say has gone unchecked for too long.
The White House was particularly grateful to Morales for backing Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital amid international uproar. Guatemala was the second country to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv after the U.S. did earlier this year. Jerusalem is a divided capital with part of it in Palestinian territory.
“The only reason why the U.S. is all about it is because they’re so happy with Guatemala that they moved the embassy to Jerusalem,” said one U.S. source with direct knowledge of the conversations. “Just because the president (Morales) is upset that CICIG is investigating some of his family members then he makes a decision to do the whole thing in Israel to get in front of the Trump administration and then tell Trump, ‘Help me on CICIG.’ “
The United States has spent $44.5 million – the largest individual donor – supporting CICIG since it was established in 2007.
Created to confront and dismantle illegal security forces and criminal networks that have infiltrated all levels of government and society, CICIG has largely received bipartisan support in Washington and international praise around the world for its work providing democratic stability in a violent country that thousands of migrants flee each year to come to the U.S.
It has identified more than 60 criminal networks and helped the Guatemalan attorney general convict more than 200 people for corruption, including politicians, judges, police officers and drug traffickers.
The most high profile case was in 2015, when CICIG helped uncover a customs fraud scheme that led to the resignations of then-President Otto Perez Molina, his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and members of his cabinet.
State Department officials acknowledged CICIG’s role in fighting corruption helps stop illegal immigration to the United States. A spokesperson for the department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau wouldn’t address specific proposed changes, but said CICIG must continue to tackle corruption and impunity that undermines security in Guatemala.
“Any reform of CICIG should only serve to strengthen the commission and preserve its important, independent mandate,” the spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Republicans say CICIG began fighting transnational criminal networks, but Velázquez has led CICIG to focus more on splashier, white-collar investigations that were not what the body was created for.
“They seem more interested in these high-profile, publicity-garnering initiatives like going after Morales’s brother and third cousin, I mean, come on, and then basking in the adulation, to be blunt about it, from the international do-gooders,” said José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials.
Some Republicans became alarmed about CICIG after it helped prosecute a Russian family who was convicted of buying false passports in Guatemala. Igor Bitkov and his family argued they fled Russia in 2009 and looked for safe haven in Guatemala after receiving physical and legal threats from the Russian government looking into their paper business.
The congressional Helsinki Commission held an emergency hearing in April on whether the U.N. body helped “the Kremlin destroy a Russian family.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., one of CICIG’s most powerful critics and who has Trump’s ear on this issue, wrote to Morales, questioning “CICIG’s ability to remain free from the corruption that it has been charged with prosecuting.”
Rubio pushed for a hold on $6 million in U.S. funding for CICIG and credited it with generating momentum for needed reforms.
“Until recently, there has been little congressional oversight on how CICIG spends millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Rubio told McClatchy. ”Recent examples, especially the case of the Bitkov family, demonstrate the need for increased transparency.”
Morales was elected in the wake of Pérez Molina’s downfall and ran with the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief.” Morales pledged his strong support for CICIG and worked with the team until it uncovered more than $800,000 in campaign financing that he couldn’t explain.
Morales declared Velásquez persona “non grata” and ordered him to leave the country. The courts blocked the move.
But Velásquez and members of the private sector didn’t give up.
Wealthy Guatemalans are spending $80,000 a month for Washington lobbyists to promote “the rule of law”, a campaign some say is designed to target CICIG. And Morales has been currying favor with Trump, including the embassy move, which some U.S. allies slammed as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous.’
After the U.N. passed a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley invited those countries that voted with Washington to a reception to thank them for their “friendship to the United States.” She then traveled to Guatemala where she told CICG that the U.S. saw room for improvement and they should work more quietly — like the FBI.
Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration, said it’s unusual that the Guatemalan president is spending so much political capital “begging the White House to neuter CICIG.”
“You’d think he’d be seeking foreign aid from the United States, or defending the rights of Guatemalan migrants,” Gedan said. “Instead, he is colluding to undermine one of the country’s most effective, and popular, institutions.”
CICIG officials said any changes to its charter must be approved by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.
CICIG spokesman Matías Ponce told McClatchy it is committed to transparency and open to suggestions on how to improve its work. But he slammed attempts to tie the Kremlin and the U.N. body as part of a campaign to undercut the group’s work.
He added that investigations into the private sector and political arena were natural progressions of their pursuit after clandestine security networks that have infiltrated Guatemalan society.
“It is natural for the groups affected by the investigations to react against the commission,” Ponce said. “Currently there are hundreds of people belonging to groups and very powerful sectors affected by investigations or already convicted. The opposition and campaign against is therefore great.”
To make any changes, the United States would also have to convince other major donors to CICIG.. Some, like the government of Holland, have publicly praised CICIG and the commissioner.
“We are 100% behind the valuable work of the @CICIGgt and its Commissioner @Ivan_Velasquez_ in the fight against impunity and in favor of justice,” the embassy of Holland tweeted after Reina Bujis, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with the Velásquez two weeks ago.
A 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University showed that 70 percent of Guatemalans support the CICIG.
Fernando Carrera, former Guatemalan foreign minister, sees room for improvement, but said any changes must not weaken CICIG and should be timed after the next election so as not to encourage corrupt political forces.
“Let’s put it this way, for those who defend the commission, there are some extremist people who believe that only commission as it is and only the commissioner that exists can provide the right leadership for the fight against corruption,” Carrera. “I don’t go that far.”