In Guatemala, Out with the Old, In with the Older

The incoming administration of former prison director Alejandro Giammattei threatens further destabilizing a region already in disarray.

August 12, 2019

President-Elect Alejandro Giammattei (Photo by Carlos Sebastián/Wikimedia)

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Following decades of foreign interventions and punitive economic policies that have led to a record-breaking surge of Central American migrant families and unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S. border, a major immigration deal between Guatemala and the United States arrives at a pivotal moment.

On Sunday, August 11, Guatemalans went to the polls amid uncertainty, indifference, and concern for the state of immutability among the country’s anachronistic political leadership. Two traditional politicians vied for the presidency in what the international press ironically branded as an “unpopularity contest.” In every voter’s mind, though, was the Safe Third Country Agreement, not the recent election.

Signaling this apathy, only 42 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls. They elected Alejandro Giammattei, a former prison director who ostensibly opposes the agreement. In his victory speech, Giammattei declared, “We can’t handle those that we have, much less foreigners.”

Outgoing president Jimmy Morales, on the other hand, had played into the xenophobic hands of President Trump with the Safe Third Country Agreement, thus sacrificing the lives of Central Americans at home and abroad. Morales’s rationale in signing the pact: to ingratiate himself with the White House before his immunity dissipates on January 14, 2020, when Giammattei will assume office.

Morales’s (Un)timely Emergence into Politics

Four years ago, Guatemala had its most consequential election in its young democratic history.

Following weeks of massive mobilizations across the country, a citizen uprising ousted disgraced former president Otto Pérez Molina, just days before the general election took place. The movement erupted in response to investigations that revealed Pérez Molina’s central role in a corruption network that had co-opted the state through a multi-million dollar kickback scheme at ports and customs.

Four years ago, Guatemala stirred with hope, knowing that the country stood at the brink of attaining a more representative democracy, finally unyielding to the interests of the colonially-inherited elites that had held a tight grip on political power since long before the turn of the century.

Among a crowded candidate field appeared Jimmy Morales, a former comedian with no prior experience in public administration. Morales’s apolitical background seemingly embodied the anti-establishment option that resonated with frustrated Guatemalans, and he won the 2015 election against all odds.

Morales participated with FCN-Nación (National Convergence Front) as his electoral vehicle, a political party founded by military veterans, many of whom had been accused of committing crimes against humanity during the country’s 36-year civil war. Some warned that Morales would simply serve as “the new face of Guatemala’s old military guard,” but the extent of his commitment to shielding elites and the status quo would still come as a shock for many Guatemalans who elected him into office.

Lasting Legacies

Four years after the historic uprising, the country finds itself yet again at the crossroads of a watershed political moment, where a constitutional crisis triggered by an inexperienced and reactionary president coincides with a humanitarian crisis catalyzed by increasing poverty and systemic corruption, whose causes were left unaddressed by the outgoing administration.

A series of concerted measures taken by Morales have substantially weakened Guatemala’s democratic institutions, reversing the great advances it had made in judicial matters with the help of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body over the past decade.

The Morales government will be most remembered for dismantling the country’s most important anti-corruption mechanism, the Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an initiative that earned praise from around the world. CICIG’s investigations uncovered graft networks that reached the highest echelons of the Guatemalan state, implicating high-ranking government officials from the Morales cabinet, including his own brother and son. 

To avoid being held accountable for its wrongdoings in office, Morales picked fights with members of the international community that supported the body’s prosecutorial efforts, ultimately declaring CICIG’s commissioner, Iván Velásquez, a persona non-grata and a threat to public security.

Against the will of its people, the government of Guatemala unilaterally terminated CICIG’s mandate. CICIG will leave the country next month. Furthermore, incoming president Alejandro Giammattei has already said that he has no intention of extending its mandate or creating a new iteration of the unit, as he believes that the commission launched campaigns to discredit his candidacy.

Besides institutional erosion, the Morales administration also enabled a more dangerous return to the past.

The last four years have seen the reemergence of a vociferous hard-right fringe segment of politicians and public figures in the public arena. Former members of the Guatemalan military, like FCN-Nación’s congressman Estuardo Galdámez, have disseminated a rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War.

“The globalist, abortionist, and communist agenda promoted by the United Nations will not be accepted in Guatemala,” tweeted Galdámez in response to CICIG’s expulsion. Galdámez would later become FCN-Nación’s presidential candidate, receiving only 4.12 percent of the vote, representing the party’s failed reelection campaign strategy. 

Far-right civil society organizations like Fundación Contra el Terrorismo (Fundaterror) and Guatemala Inmortal have joined the conspiratorial articulations, postulating that Guatemala “could become another Venezuela” given the recent anti-corruption efforts. These groups have decried that CICIG practices “selective justice,” since the investigation began targeting members of the business elites that were untouchable in the past. Fundaterror and Guatemala Inmortal had the faulty reasoning that, if the targets were part of an affluent segment of conservative businesspeople, then CICIG must be operating with an ideological agenda.

Community leaders have been at the receiving end of this renewed anti-communist fearmongering. The state has criminalized their causes and continuously persecuted their bodies. In 2018, Guatemala became the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. 

According to Jordan Rodas, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, “Jimmy Morales’s tenure in office is perhaps the worst administration of Guatemala’s democratic era.”

The Reckless “Safe Third Country” Agreement

Jimmy Morales’s most immediate legacy will be a suicide deal that allegedly saves face for the outgoing president, but sacrifices the country’s dwindling institutions, and most importantly, the livelihoods of its people. It is a deal that severely compromises the incoming Giammattei administration, which will now be forced to play by Trump’s rules.

In his last months in office, the lame duck Morales sent Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart to Washington to sign the infamous Safe Third Country Agreement with the Trump administration. The meeting in the Oval Office provided one of the most iconic images of the Morales administration: Trump creeping over Degenhart as he signs the pact, hinting at Guatemala’s diplomatic submissiveness. The photo is a bizarre 21st century reenactment of Diego Rivera’s 1954 “Gloriosa Victoria.”

Although the Constitutional Court an injunction blocking President Morales from signing the agreement, Morales agreed to rent out Guatemala’s territory to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency tasked with materializing Trump’s immigration agenda.

Rodas, alongside Manfredo Marroquín, the former director of the Guatemalan chapter of the global NGO Transparency International, filed a complaint at the Constitutional Court against the ratification of the criticized agreement.

“The pact only represents a priority for Donald Trump’s government,” said Ombudsman Rodas. “This is not part of Guatemala’s agenda. I have described it as an unethical, illegal, and opaque accord, since the lack of transparency of its contents has been astounding. It is a lose-lose deal for the country. We evidently do not have the capacity to host asylum-seekers from other countries.”

The reasons for agreeing to sign onto such compromise appear to be selfish.

According to Marroquín, “Morales’s motivation in signing the agreement is self-interest. He is the subject of criminal investigations, allegedly has ties with drug dealers, and wants to prevent an extradition to the United States if the accusations make it to a justice tribunal.”

Earlier this year, Morales met with former presidential candidate Mario Estrada just days after Estrada struck a deal with two undercover DEA agents posing as members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Estrada has been arrested in the United States on drug charges.

“Morales just wants to be in good terms with Washington. But his reverence does not mean that Washington will reciprocate,” warned Marroquín.

Even before the August 11 election took place, Guatemala held the de facto title of DHS detention center, where the United States will attempt to accelerate the deportation process of asylum seekers—mainly Salvadorans and Hondurans—by sending them to the Central American nation. The Trump administration coerced President Jimmy Morales and Guatemala to sign a controversial migratory pact that will serve as a backdoor deportation mechanism for Washington.

Going Forward, Going Backward

Against the backdrop of this sensitive political moment and historically-low voter turnout in the second round election, Guatemalans reluctantly elected surgeon and former prison director Alejandro Giammattei to become their next president. In a landslide, Giammattei surpassed former first lady Sandra Torres by a 20-point margin.

After failing to gain the voters’ approval in the 2007, 2011, and 2015 elections, each time with a different political party, the perpetual presidential candidate will finally assume office in January 2020.

Detractors believe Giammattei, a staunch conservative, represents a continuation of the Morales model: closed to criticism, on good terms with Guatemala’s powerful business elite, and indifferent to the struggles of marginalized communities.

Giammattei has a career in Guatemalan politics that spans over two decades. He is most recognized for allegedly participating in the extrajudicial killings at the Pavón Penitentiary in Guatemala City while he directed the national prison system. After 10 months in pretrial detention, a court exonerated Giammattei of the charges, but the legacy of his mano dura policies have lived on throughout his political life. Until this day, he claims this was persecution against him.

“He will be remembered for conducting a massacre against seven prison inmates,” wrote literary author Engler García. 

Journalists who have followed Giammattei describe him as a tenacious man obsessed with the idea of ruling. His impulses throughout the campaign include the incessant use of foul language, intense gesticulations, and populist policy proposals without any technical grounding.

“He certainly does not inspire trust,” says Marroquín, who also participated as a presidential candidate during this election.

Allegations against the credibility of his candidacy have raised speculation about his transparency as a politician. Local news source Nómada has reported that Giammattei might have ties to narcos in the states of Petén and Izabal, Furthermore, his party, the right-wing Vamos, includes former members of the Guatemalan military as part of his campaign team.

In a country like Guatemala, awash with narco-money, this allegation is unsurprising. What is troubling is realizing that the incursion of clandestine networks in the Guatemalan state—both in the shape of drug dealers and war criminals— is irreversible and pervasive.

Additionally, Giammattei issued a statement on the migratory agreement with the United States, criticizing the murky details of the agreement. Upon being declared the winner of the election, Giammattei said that he will seek to modify the deal, raising questions on whether his strategy will be one of abiding by the status quo or volatile decision-making.

The Pressure Cooker

An anti-establishment administration in Guatemala, powered by nationalist sentiments that found resonance among far-right hardliners, exacerbated the exodus among rural populations by repeatedly failing to address the systemic causes of inequality and poverty in Guatemala.

Now, a newly-elected administration, in many ways similar to the outgoing one—reportedly backed by the military and drug traffickers, with a dubious record on human rights, and resistant to judicial accountability—reached power without any tangible counterproposal to the constraining deal.

In Guatemala, it will take much more than a new president to change the structures of power. The country requires a dramatic structural change that has yet to be implemented by any politician in office.

What is worse is that, in the short-term, Guatemala’s future now represents an electoral battleground for U.S. electoral politics, whose parties have weaponized the Northern Triangle as a part of their migratory proposals for the 2020 election.  

“Under these new conditions, Guatemala will become a pressure cooker,” says Ombudsman Rodas. “It is a matter of time until it explodes.”

Vaclav Masek is a researcher and translator from Guatemala City, focusing on Central American politics and U.S.-Latin American relations after World War II.

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