For a decade, the United States backed an international body investigating corruption in Guatemala. Now experts are asking why the White House is silent as the country’s president, Jimmy Morales, wages war on the panel
In May, Guatemala became the first country in the world to follow in the Trump administration’s footsteps and move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The White House promised at the time that it would reward the small Latin American country for its decision. Could that reward come in the form of turning a blind eye to attacks by Guatemala’s president on an international anti-corruption body?
Experts and former U.S. officials see a possible link between Guatemala’s decision to move the embassy and the Trump administration’s change of policy with regards to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-supported panel that has uncovered vast corruption scandals in the country.
The administration, according to experts on U.S. policy in Latin America, is looking the other way while Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales tries to dismantle CICIG by sending military forces to its local office and barring the panel’s head, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country.
“The American position on this issue has shifted dramatically – not just in comparison to how the Bush and Obama administrations treated it, but also in comparison to how the Trump administration treated it just last summer,” said Benjamin Gedan, an expert on Latin America at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Gedan said he has no direct knowledge of a connection between Guatemala’s policy on Jerusalem and Trump’s policy on the Latin American state. He notes, though, that “this seems like a possible explanation. The change in American policy on CICIG makes no sense.”
The Guatemalan government has accused CICIG of being a “super-national entity that dictates to governments how to exercise their duties” on behalf of the UN. An article in The Economist called this accusation “flimsy”... Mac Margolis, a columnist on Latin America for Bloomberg News, wrote last week that a “quid pro quo” over the embassy issue could potentially explain the administration’s policy shift on CICIG.He mentioned another possible explanation: That, unlike other Latin American countries, Guatemala has not cozied up to China and continues to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.CICIG was established in 2007 with the strong backing of the George W. Bush administration. “Fighting corruption in politics is an urgent need in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America,” said Gedan, who worked on Latin America policy in the Obama White House. Over the past decade, he added, the panel has contributed to the downfall of a number of senior politicians in Guatemala, including the country’s previous president, Otto Pérez Molina. He is currently in detention and awaits trial on corruption charges.
Molina was replaced in 2016 by Morales, who was a comedian prior to entering politics. Over the past year, Morales has been showing an increasing level of hostility toward CICIG, probably as a result of an investigation regarding his campaign finances. The panel is looking into allegations that Morales’ party received more than $1 million of illegal campaign donations in the 2015 election, according to a report last week in The Washington Post.
Morales’ attacks on CICIG first surfaced in the summer of 2017 when he tried to expel Velásquez from the country and get him replaced. The Trump administration reacted quickly and forcefully, signaling to Morales that the United States had the anti-corruption body’s back.
- The U.S. ambassador in Guatemala posed for a photograph with a sign proclaiming “I love CICIG.”
- Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, also expressed support for the panel’s work, and Morales eventually backed down.
This was not the first time a U.S. administration thwarted attempts by the Guatemalan government to weaken CICIG. Under the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden at one point threatened to cancel all U.S. aid to Guatemala, in light of attempts by the country’s previous president, Molina, to shut down the panel’s investigations.
“When you compare those past responses to how the Trump administration is reacting to Morales’ current attack on CICIG, there truly is no good explanation for what they are doing,” said Gedan.
Morales announced last week he was shutting down the panel and barring Velásquez from entering Guatemala. He also sent military forces, driving U.S.-manufactured vehicles, to CICIG’s offices. While the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala released a statement expressing support for CICIG’s work, the statement did not include direct criticism of Morales’ actions.
On September 6, at the height of Morales’ attacks on CICIG, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the Guatemalan president over the phone. The State Department readout of the conversationcontained no criticism of Morales’ actions. Instead, it opened by stating that Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ support for Guatemalan sovereignty.”
According to the readout, Pompeo “expressed continued support of the United States for a reformed CICIG and committed to continue working with Guatemala on implementing the reforms in the coming year.”
A former senior U.S. official who worked on Latin America policy told Haaretz that this statement was “a huge achievement” for Morales in his fight against CICIG.
The former official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “Pompeo basically told Morales that America had his back, and that CICIG is viewed as a problematic organization that needs to go through reforms. The fact that the readout included no mention of Morales’ aggressive steps against CICIG is a sad capitulation to violence, and it sends a message that has already been received by other leaders in the region,” the official added.
“Since 2007, across the Bush and Obama administrations, and in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a bipartisan commitment to CICIG has been a fundamental element of our foreign policy,” the legislators wrote in their letter. They also mentioned Morales’ use of U.S.-manufactured military vehicles against CICIG, writing that “such a gesture is unacceptable and does not comply with the purpose for which the United States donated the vehicles.”
It should be noted that all four lawmakers are considered strong supporters of Israel. This could indicate that, on the congressional level at least, Guatemala’s decision on Jerusalem has not affected, so far, their response to Morales’ attacks on his own investigators.
Flight on Adelson’s private jet
Morales may be losing popularity on Capitol Hill, but there are other places where he still enjoys support and appreciation. One such place is Jerusalem.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement congratulating Guatemala on its Independence Day, personally applauding Morales for his leadership.
Morales is also popular in pro-Israel circles in the United States. Last May, for example, when Morales visited Israel to celebrate the relocation of his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, gambling tycoon and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson let Guatemala’s government use his personal Boeing 767 aircraft for the journey. The plane carried government officials and other guests, according to a statement by Guatemala’s foreign minister.
Morales also spoke in March at the annual conference of the AIPAC pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, where he received a warm welcome from thousands of participants. An AIPAC official told Haaretz that it was not doing anything to help Morales push back against the current criticism he is facing in Congress. “We are not involved,” the official said.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington also said it was not aiding Guatemala on Capitol Hill or with the Trump administration.
But perhaps Morales doesn’t need any help. Hector Silva Avalos, a journalist and former diplomat who has written extensively on corruption in Latin America, wrote in InSight Crime last week that “mixed messages from Washington have left the door open for Morales to strengthen his fight against the institutions investigating him for alleged illicit campaign financing.”
Avalos added that “with several Trump administration officials in his corner, Jimmy Morales has the advantage in his battle against CICIG.”
The administration’s silence empowers President Jimmy Morales to continue ruling with impunity.
When President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala announced last monththat he would not reauthorize a joint United Nations-Guatemala anticorruption commission to remain in the country, he set in motion what some are calling a slow-motion coup.
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as Cicig, has been operating there since 2007. In the mid-2000s, Guatemala was on the verge of becoming a narco state — and Cicig’s international prosecutors and investigators, and their Guatemalan counterparts, were tasked with fighting organized crime and ending the institutional impunity that gave free rein to powerful criminals and corrupt officials.
Cicig has become especially effective since Ivan Velazquez, a renowned Colombian prosecutor, was appointed commissioner in 2013. In the last five years, more than 60 criminal groups, many deeply embedded in the government, have been exposed, and some 680 people have been jailed for corruption and related crimes.
President Morales, a former television comedian, is widely regarded as corrupt. His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos” for its efforts to pass legislation granting members impunity from prosecution for corruption and other crimes.
Cicig has been investigating Mr. Morales for accepting undeclared campaign contributions, and the commission recently asked Congress to lift his immunity from prosecution. In response, Mr. Morales not only refused to extend Cicig’s right to operate in the country, but he sent armed military vehicles to the United States Embassy to intimidate the American ambassador, who publicly supports Cicig.
Last week, Mr. Morales went on to bar Mr. Velazquez, who was in Washington for meetings, from re-entering the country. On Sunday, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that Mr. Morales had to readmit Mr. Velazquez. The Morales government responded by demanding that the United Nations nominate a new commissioner.
The United States supplies 40 percent of Cicig’s funding, and historically Cicig has received firm support from American presidents, both Republican and Democratic. But as tensions have risen between Mr. Morales and the commission, the Trump administration has been too quiet.
The administration’s tough-talking foreign policy chiefs — including President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton — are not standing up to a leader who faces credible accusations of corruption and is aggressively defying a United States ambassador.
The administration’s silence helps pave the way for a possible coup, and chaos and violence that would most likely result. One firm step by the Trump administration could be enough to stop Mr. Morales’s dangerous gambit. Mr. Trump or his lieutenants could
- join the United States Congress in threatening to cut off economic assistance to Guatemala. They could
- slash military aid. They could
- reiterate their support for Cicig’s anticorruption work, including its investigation of Mr. Morales.
Some commentators say that the Trump administration wants to reward Mr. Morales for moving the Guatemalan Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Others speculate that Mr. Trump’s advisers fear provoking Mr. Morales into swapping American patronage for that of China.
But it’s important to remember why Cicig was founded. In the post-civil war period, elite Guatemalan military officers, politicians and other powerful groups and individuals, recognizing that the era of Cold War American largess and unconditional support was over, found a new master: organized crime.
And the country remains a key transit point in the drug corridor between Colombia and Mexico. As recently as 2014, the State Department estimated that as much as 80 percent of the cocaine that eventually reached the United States passed through Guatemala.
An international solution is needed to fight transnational crime. This insight led to the establishment of Cicig.
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, wrote in a Sept. 10 article for CNN: “Corruption spurs revolutions, enables extremist groups and fuels civil wars. Combating corruption is not just about good governance, it’s about maintaining peace and security.”
Those are important words. But when it comes to Guatemala, the Trump administration appears to have a different standard. Instead, in his silence, Mr. Trump is embracing corruption and organized crime.