Guatemala’s Anti-Corruption Star Dims
Once a laboratory for U.S.- and U.N.-backed anti-corruption efforts, the country is now backsliding.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Guatemala’s U-turn from being an anti-corruption success story, a Brazilian-sparked outcry over racism in Spanish soccer, and booming demand for a new U.S. migration program.
Another Tick in the Autocracy Column?
Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country at over 17 million people, will hold presidential and parliamentary elections next month. A drumbeat of evidence of democratic backsliding has preceded the vote.
Last week, the top-polling presidential contestant became the latest candidate to be disqualified on grounds that were disputed as political, while leading newspaper elPeriódico ceased publication amid a suite of government investigations targeting its journalists as well as the arrest of its founder and four of its lawyers. The events sent a chilling effect across Guatemalan media, as the newspaper had a long history of scrutinizing corruption within the Guatemalan government.
Even if there is no overt tampering with ballot boxes on June 25, the congressionally chosen electoral court’s use of “lawfare tactics to veto legitimate candidates” has already resulted in a vote that “lacks electoral integrity,” political scientist Lucas Perelló wrote in a briefing for consultancy Politico Tech Global.
Conservative President Alejandro Giammattei cannot run for reelection due to term limits, but he is highly unpopular and his party’s candidate is trailing in polls. Still, analysts including Perelló told Foreign Policy that the entrenched financial and political elites that Giammattei represents extend far beyond his party, and that their influence on institutions like the courts appears to be neutralizing any true threats to the political status quo. The presidential hopeful that perhaps posed the biggest such threat, left-wing Indigenous organizer Thelma Cabrera, came near the vote threshold needed to make the presidential runoff in 2019—but she was among the first candidates disqualified for this year’s race back in February.
Guatemala’s democratic decline is all the more striking given the fact that it was celebrated as an international anti-corruption success story just a decade ago.
After the country emerged from a decadeslong civil war in 1996, local reformers and international aid organizations worked together to try to establish a Guatemalan justice system with integrity. The U.S. Agency for International Development has contributed to those efforts since the 1990s, and in 2007, the United Nations partnered with Guatemalan prosecutors to set up an anti-corruption task force that went on to investigate some of the country’s most powerful politicians. It was called the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG by its Spanish acronym.
In 2015, revelations from the CICIG prompted mass anti-corruption protests in the country, leading some observers to say that a “Guatemalan Spring” was underway. But after the task force started investigating President Jimmy Morales in 2017, Morales’s government began to effectively shut it down. In the years since, authorities from the Giammattei administration have removed some of the boldest anti-corruption judges and prosecutors.
Activists, judges, and reports by nongovernmental organization monitors have all concluded that “what we’re experiencing in Guatemala is a kind of revenge against all the actors who worked with the CICIG,” journalist Jody García of Plaza Pública told Foreign Policy.
A permissive U.S. stance played a role in Morales’s closure of the CICIG. After Donald Trump became U.S. president in 2017, Washington went from being the CICIG’s public champion and biggest financial backer to staying largely silent about its dismantling. Former CICIG head Iván Velásquez told Reveal that Trump made a deal with Morales in which Trump stayed silent about corruption in Guatemala in exchange for Guatemala accepting asylum-seekers who were trying to travel north to the United States.
Officials in the Joe Biden administration, for their part, have repeatedly said that promoting good governance—including supporting both anti-corruption champions and journalists—is a key part of their strategy toward Central America. But in practice, jailed elPeriódico founder José Rubén Zamora told the New Yorker last month, press freedom appears to have been subsumed by other policy priorities. Washington is currently counting on Guatemala’s partnership to create regional processing centers for northbound migrants. U.S. officials have issued some statements about Zamora’s case, but “a tweet is not going to get me out of here,” he said.
Guatemala’s democratic backsliding is part of a broader Central American trend that includes dramatic crackdowns on dissent in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Yet there is one important exception in the neighborhood. In Honduras, political organizers remarkably threw off 12 years of rule by the same political party in November 2021. Perelló and political scientist Will Freeman wrote in the Journal of Democracy that “for opposition parties and movements elsewhere, Honduras offers an instructive example”: Even in what appeared to be a competitive authoritarian regime, years of “refusing to abandon the electoral area and investing in grassroots organizing” can bear fruit.
In Guatemala, it’s far harder to build the type of national grassroots movement that triumphed in Honduras because of the huge diversity between urban and rural communities, Freeman told Foreign Policy. Over 40 percent of Guatemalans identify as Indigenous, and many speak a variety of different Indigenous languages rather than Spanish. In Guatemala, both the opposition and the groups in power “are each more diverse than in Honduras,” he added.
Still, both scholars said, that doesn’t mean political organizing would be in vain. The opposition “should really engage in a meaningful process of party-building within the country,” Perelló said.
Thursday, May 25, to Saturday, May 27: EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell visits Cuba.
Tuesday, May 30: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva hosts a summit for South American leaders in Brasília.
What We’re Following
New legal immigration pathways. Data reported this week by CBS News and the Miami Herald provides a glimpse into how recently created legal migration channels to the United States are working in practice. To reduce crowding at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration has implemented what a White House spokesperson called “the largest expansion of lawful pathways for protection in decades.”
In January, the U.S. government announced that it planned to grant two years of humanitarian parole—a temporary authorization for migrants with sponsors—to up to 30,000 people per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Washington also added an extra 20,000 temporary nonagricultural work visas for Guatemalans, Haitians, Hondurans, and Salvadorans for the 2023 fiscal year, which began last October.
The Miami Herald reported on Tuesday that Haitian applicants were only granted four of those temporary nonagricultural work visas in the first six months since the extra slots became available in October, however. The low success rate for Haitians may help explain why the two-year humanitarian parole applications have boomed: Over 1.5 million people have applied to those slots so far across all four nationalities, according to CBS. U.S. immigration authorities said they choose half of the applications they review each month on a first-come, first-served basis and choose the other half to review via lottery.
If Haitians find they cannot participate in these temporary work programs, a director at an advocacy group for Haitian migrants told the Herald, “people will continue to show up at the border.”
More setbacks for “total peace.” Colombian President Gustavo Petro began the year by announcing cease-fire agreements with five different armed criminal groups as part of a plan to negotiate lasting peace deals with the fighters. The peace deals would follow in the vein of a 2016 deal that ended decades of fighting between the government and the largest armed group at the time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But killings by three of those five groups have now led to the collapse of the cease-fire deals. The Central General Staff (EMC) carried out the most recent attacks last week against four Indigenous Colombians. Petro’s government insists it has not abandoned its goal of achieving peace deals, which Petro calls “total peace,” but it is reevaluating its approach. Petro tweeted that future truces must ensure that armed groups hold their fire against civilians, not just against government forces.
A reckoning in Bolivia. A Vatican sex crimes investigator is in Bolivia this week in the wake of revelations of sex abuse by local Catholic clergy in the 1970s and 1980s. On April 30, El País published a report based on the personal diary of Alfonso Pedrajas, a Jesuit priest who recounted abusing dozens of young Bolivians during that time. Since April, some 200 victims have come forward with their stories. Church members who were confidants of Pedrajas are now under scrutiny for allegedly acting to cover up his behavior.
Question of the Week
Evangelical Christianity is growing in Bolivia as it is elsewhere in Latin America, but Catholicism is still by far the country’s biggest religion. When did Pope Francis last visit the country (hint: He also toured Ecuador and Paraguay the same year)?
FP’s Most Read This Week
- Russia’s Convict-Soldiers Have Their Own Brutal Rules by Kristaps Andrejsons
- Russia Is Already Looking Beyond Ukraine by Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
- How to Understand Brazil’s Ukraine Policy by Oliver Stuenkel
In Focus: Spanish Soccer’s “Normal” Racism
Many Latin American soccer stars have played professionally in Spain, perhaps most famously Argentina’s Lionel Messi for Barcelona. But Messi is white and never faced the same scale of racist jeering as that aimed at Black Brazilian players such as forward Vinícius Júnior, a star at Real Madrid. The taunts against Vinícius have grown as his profile at the club has risen. On Sunday, after fans at a game in the Spanish city of Valencia called Vinícius a monkey, the player took to Twitter and Instagram to denounce how “normal” racism is in both the top Spanish soccer league, La Liga, and Spain itself.
“It wasn’t the first time, nor the second, nor the third,” he wrote.
La Liga’s chief executive, Javier Tebas, who has been open about his support for right-wing political parties in the past, scolded the player on Twitter, saying Vinícius should “adequately inform yourself” about the league’s efforts against racism. Vinícius shot back: “Instead of criticizing racists, the president of La Liga appears on social media to attack me.”
The events prompted an outpouring of support from fans, brands such as Nike, and public figures including the Spanish prime minister, the Brazilian president, and the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights. In Vínicius’s home state of Rio de Janeiro, the famous Christ the Redeemer statue went dark in solidarity with the player on Monday night. By Wednesday, Spanish authorities had arrested seven people for alleged hate crimes again Vinícius, including four people who publicly displayed a hanging effigy of Vinícius in January but had gone unpunished.
Spain is currently in the running to co-host the 2030 World Cup, which may have increased scrutiny of this week’s incident. Tebas eventually publicly apologized for his comments, and the head of the Spanish soccer federation that includes La Liga as well as other leagues held a press conference to address the racism that he said “stains our entire country.”
One-third of people born in Spain today are of foreign descent, most born to Latin American and African parents, and reports of racial hate crimes in the country increased by 31 percent from 2020 to 2021. Black Cuban writer Abraham Jiménez Enoa, who has been living in Spain for 16 months, was among those who wrote articles this week about his experiences of racism in the country.
Vinícius is one of the highest-profile figures in recent years to call for stronger action against racism in Spain. “Vinícius Jr. does well to raise his voice,” Black Spanish anti-racism campaigner Moha Gerehou tweeted. “Soccer fields are not an exception. They are the norm.”
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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