Internationalizing the Fight Against Corruption: the Guatemala Showdown

Guatemala shows how a beleaguered citizenry can fight a thoroughly corrupt leadership.  A joint United Nations/Guatemalan agency, known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has for several years been waging all out war against corruption in Guatemala (details here).  Besides winning corruption convictions against countless senior politicians and military leaders, its investigations led to the 2015 ouster of then President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for orchestrating a massive corruption scheme in customs.  CICIG has been able to withstand the inevitable backlash that cases against the powerful generate thanks to a remarkable alliance between Guatemalans fed up with corruption and impunity and those in the international community willing to provide not only financial support but political backing too.

Fearing he is about to become the target of a CICIG investigation, Guatemala’s current president Jimmy Moralesis is testing the strength of the alliance. On August 26 he issued a decree expelling CICIG’s head, claiming the commission was compromising the country’s sovereignty.  Given Guatemala’s experience with foreign intervention, one would expect his claim to resonate, but so far outside far right circles it has gained little traction. The day after his order issued the Guatemalan Constitutional Court granted an amparo (protective order) staying the expulsion order pending a hearing on its lawfulness.  Guatemalans have taken to the streets, and commentators to the airwaves and op-ed pages, to protest Morales’ action.

International backers of CICIG have come to its defense too.  The U.N. Secretary General, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the Latin American Association of Ombudsmen have all denounced Morales’ order.  CICIG’s most important international ally may well be U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres.  Guatemalan by birth, she is a leading voice on U.S. policy towards Guatemala, from shaping a responsible foreign assistance program, to devising a humane immigration policy, to supporting the fight against corruption. In an August 29 opinion piece in a Guatemalan daily (reprinted below in English) she not only strongly backed CICIG but reminded Morales his actions were putting millions of dollars of U.S. aid at risk. However much cheap demagoguery about foreign intervention and “Yankee imperialism” might undermine the credibility of CICIG’s other international supporters, the Congresswoman would seem immune.

Guatemala is a model for how a small country stuck with entrenched, powerful and corrupt leaders can mobilize international organizations, friendly governments, and key members of the diaspora to help purge the nation of corruption.  The outcome of the showdown between President Moralies and that alliance in Guatemala will be a critical test of the model’s viability.

Iván Velásquez and the Future of Guatemala
by Congresswoman Norma Torres

Like many chapines [Guatemalans] in Guatemala and abroad, I was shocked and dismayed by President Morales’s decision to declare Iván Velásquez “persona non grata.”  This decision is not only a devastating step back in the progress that has been made in anti-corruption efforts, it will delay justice in the important investigations and that are currently underway. It may also have lasting repercussions for Guatemala’s future by putting at risk millions of dollars in critical assistance.

When I arrived in Washington in 2015 as the first Guatemalan-born Member of Congress, I was determined to work to find a way to help improve the situation in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, especially after the heartbreaking child migrant crisis of 2014.  This was a moment when the United States Congress was debating whether to approve a $750 million assistance package for Central America. I started a bipartisan group of U.S. Members of Congress called the Central America Caucus to bring attention to the situation in Central America and how the United States could help to make a difference.

Many people in Washington were skeptical about a big increase in aid to Central America. They thought the governments were too corrupt, and the problems were too challenging. But the “Guatemalan Spring” of 2015 offered a glimmer of hope. Many of us were profoundly encouraged by the fact that the Guatemalan people—young people, business people, people of all political stripes—had come together to stand up for the rule of law. We were impressed by how CICIG and the Public Ministry had played such an important role in supporting the Guatemalan people through the Guatemalan Spring, and in building off the progress that was made. We were inspired by the courageous leadership of Iván Velásquez of CICIG and Thelma Aldana of the Public Ministry.

Jimmy Morales was elected president because the Guatemalan people wanted change. At his inauguration in 2015, he asked the Guatemalan people to join him in a pledge against corruption. By declaring Iván Velásquez persona non grata, he has betrayed that pledge. This action will bring consequences, most importantly in Guatemala, but also in Washington, where it will become more difficult to advocate for additional U.S. financial support for Guatemala.

At the end of 2015, Congress agreed to a generous aid package to support the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle. We agreed to a second tranche of funds this spring, and here in Congress, we are currently debating a new spending bill that includes a third Central America funding package. The progress made in Guatemala and the work of CICIG has helped to maintain bipartisan support for U.S. assistance to Central America, and in May of this year, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming support for CICIG and the fight against corruption in the region.

It is no secret that the political climate in Washington is difficult, and President Trump has advocated for cuts to the State Department and U.S. foreign assistance.  Despite these challenges, there has continued to be bipartisan support for continuing to send U.S. assistance to help improve rule of law, security, and economic development in Guatemala.  However, this assistance is and will continue to be tied to assurances that the government is doing its part to address the corruption that has plagued the country for so long.

As a Member of Congress in the United States, I cannot in good conscience risk the hard-earned money of the people who elected me to serve them, if the Guatemalan government is not willing to do its part to fight corruption.

One of the great heroes of U.S. history, Martin Luther King, Jr., said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Former U.S. president Barack Obama often used that quote to remind Americans of progress that had been made, despite many setbacks along the way. Even with the many challenges that both Guatemala and the United States face today, I continue to believe that Dr. King was right, so I will continue to stand with those in Guatemala who are fighting against corruption, and working to build a better future for the next generation. I hope Morales will change course and do the same.  The consequences are just too large to do otherwise.

 

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