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.”
Current and former American diplomats are expressing disgust and horror over the White House’s willingness to entertain permitting Russian officials to question a prominent former U.S. ambassador.
.. “It’s beyond disgraceful. It’s fundamentally ignorant with regard to how we conduct diplomacy or what that means. It really puts in jeopardy the professional independence of diplomats anywhere in the world, if the consequence of their actions is going to be potentially being turned over to a foreign government,”
.. During President Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Putin pivoted a question about extraditing the 12 Russian intelligence officers whom Robert Mueller has indicted into a quid pro quo for going after longtime betes noire currently beyond his reach.
.. Putin singled out Bill Browder, whose exposure of widespread Russian tax fraud led to the passage of a U.S. human rights sanctions law Putin hates. Standing next to Trump, the Russian president accused Browder of masterminding an illegal campaign contribution to Hillary Clinton and alleging vaguely that he had “solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers guided these transactions.” Should Trump permit the Russians to question people around Browder, Putin hinted, he will let Mueller’s people be “present at questioning” of the intelligence officers... On Wednesday, Russian prosecutors escalated the stakes. The prosecutor-general’s office said it wanted to interview Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, another Putin bete noire. McFaul—the Obama-era ambassador to Moscow—replied on Twitter that the Russians know well that he wasn’t even in Russia during the relevant time frame for any case against Browder... Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to rule out permitting the Russians to question McFaul. Sanders said that there had been “some conversation” in Helsinki about the issue, though Trump made no “commitment.”.. Heather Nauert called the Russian request for McFaul “absolutely absurd”—which was closer in line with how former U.S. diplomats viewed Putin’s gambit.“If the U.S. would make a former diplomat avail for questioning by a foreign government without evidence of wrongdoing, then that would be quite horrifying,” said Ron Neumann,.. Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Barack Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted that the lack of commitment to protecting McFaul was “beyond outrageous... If the White House cannot defend and protect our diplomats, like our service members, they are serving a hostile foreign power not the American people.”.. “To even hint that there’s some element of credibility to Russian disruptions and distractions puts a bullseye on the back of any diplomat and invites authoritarian regimes to bully and threaten American public servants for the crime of doing their job.. Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman for the Obama National Security Council, said Sanders’ comments made Trump look “even weaker” than during Trump’s Monday press conference with Putin. “Trump has always been all too eager to cave to Putin, but, as far as we know, it’d been largely in the abstract. He sells out our intelligence community, attacks NATO, shelves our commitment to human rights. But Putin now has specific demands in the form of human beings—one of them formerly our designated representative to Russia,” Price said... “By failing to reject the idea out of hand – immediately and forcefully – Trump signaled that absolutely nothing is off limits when it comes to Putin. And just as shocking, he’s willing to play Putin’s brand of ball, in which the world is purely transactional and lives are expendable.”.. The current U.S. diplomat said the openness to turning over McFaul capped off a shocking week for U.S. geopolitics... “The president has first and foremost his interests at the top of his mind, as opposed to the government’s. That’s very clear over the past week and a half, between shitting on our NATO allies and kissing Putin’s ass,” the diplomat said. “He cares more about himself than the nation and any of us who serve it.”The diplomat continued: “Either he’s compromised by Putin or he’s a pussy, in which case he should grab himself.”
when this bill leads to these predicted deficits, Republicans will return to their sidelined deficit rhetoric armed with a sickle, aiming the blade at the social safety net, exacerbating the egregious imbalance of the tax bill’s original sins.
.. That’s the strategy: Appease the rich on the front end; punish the poor on the back. Feed the weak to the strong.
.. No matter how folks try to rationalize this bill, it has nothing to do with a desire to help the middle class or the poor. This is a cash offering to the gods of the Republican donor class. This is a bill meant to benefit Republicans’ benefactors. This is a quid pro quo and the paying of a ransom.
.. Last month at a rally in Missouri, Trump said of the tax bill, “This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me.” He continued:
.. “This is not good for me. Me, it’s not so — I have some very wealthy friends. Not so happy with me, but that’s O.K. You know, I keep hearing Schumer: ‘This is for the wealthy.’ Well, if it is, my friends don’t know about it.”
That, too, was a lie.
.. It also lines the pockets of people like Senator Bob Corker, who mysteriously “coincidentally” switched his vote from a no to a yes on the bill after the language was added.
.. Donald Trump is a plutocrat masquerading as a populist. He is a pirate on a mission to plunder.
.. Republicans in Congress rushed the bill through for other reasons: to combat the fact of their own legislative incompetence, to satisfy their donors and to honor their long-held belief that the rich are America’s true governing force.
.. They are simply a veneer behind which a crime is occurring: the great American tax heist.