August 2019, Week 3


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 		 [Alejandro Giammattei, Guatemala’s perpetual presidential
candidate, finally won his country’s “unpopularity contest” and
will take office in January. But what every Guatemalan wants to know
is what will he do about the Safe Third Country Agreement. ]



 Vaclav Masek 
 August 12, 2019
NACLA [https://nacla.org/news/2019/08/15/guatemala-out-old-older] 

	* [https://portside.org/node/20750/printable/print]

 _ Alejandro Giammattei, Guatemala’s perpetual presidential
candidate, finally won his country’s “unpopularity contest” and
will take office in January. But what every Guatemalan wants to know
is what will he do about the Safe Third Country Agreement. _ 

 Guatemala’s President-Elect Alejandro Giammattei. He has been
accused of participating in extrajudicial killings while director of
Guatemala’s prison system., Carlos Sebastián/Wikimedia 


Following decades of foreign interventions and punitive economic
policies that have led to a record-breaking
[https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/06/05/migrant-arrests-surge-us-mexico-border-trump-threatens-tariffs/1358895001/] 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
[https://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCAKCN1UX2DU-OCATP].” 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
[https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-12/ex-prison-boss-wins-guatemala-election-with-u-s-ties-in-flux] 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
[https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/08/giammattei-appears-win-guatemala-presidential-runoff-190812024805189.html] office.


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
[https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/americas/otto-perez-molina-guatemalan-president-resigns-amid-scandal.html] 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
[https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/guatemala-la-linea-customs-scandal-explained/] 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
[https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-34632485] 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
[https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/edgar-ovalle-caso-creompaz-diputado-fcn/] 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.


Four years after the historic uprising, the country finds itself yet
again at the crossroads of a watershed political moment, where
a constitutional crisis
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/world/americas/guatemala-corruption.html] 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

A series of concerted measures taken by Morales have substantially
weakened Guatemala’s democratic institutions, reversing the great
advances it had made
[https://www.wola.org/2019/01/guatemalan-government-moves-terminate-cicig-agreement/] 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
[https://nacla.org/news/2018/09/06/government-impunity-guatemala] the
country’s most important anti-corruption mechanism, the Commission
Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an initiative
that earned
[https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/18/world/americas/guatemala-cicig-aldana-corruption.html] 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
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
[https://www.wola.org/2019/01/guatemalan-government-moves-terminate-cicig-agreement/] CICIG’s
mandate. CICIG will leave the country next month. Furthermore,
incoming president Alejandro Giammattei has already said that he has
no intention
[https://agenciaocote.com/los-presidenciables-que-apoyan-el-regreso-de-la-cicig-y-los-que-no/] of
extending its mandate or creating a new iteration of the unit, as he
believes that the commission launched campaigns to discredit
[https://www.publinews.gt/gt/noticias/2019/05/31/alejandro-giammattei-denuncia-cicig.html] his

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
[https://twitter.com/Dip_GALDAMEZ/status/1148648536483012608] Galdámez
in response to CICIG’s expulsion. Galdámez would later become
FCN-Nación’s presidential candidate, receiving
[https://resultados2019.tse.org.gt/201901/] only 4.12 percent of the
vote, representing the party’s failed reelection campaign

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
[https://nomada.gt/pais/entender-la-politica/todos-cometimos-delitos-pero-la-cicig-no-fue-pareja-y-politizo-todo/] 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
[https://nomada.gt/pais/entender-la-politica/por-que-hay-gente-que-odia-a-la-cicig-es-tan-ruidosa-y-esta-tan-equivocada/] agenda.

Community leaders have been at the receiving end of this renewed
anti-communist fearmongering. The state has criminalized
[https://nacla.org/news/2018/06/21/terror-guatemala] their causes and
continuously persecuted their bodies. In 2018, Guatemala became
[https://www.globalwitness.org/fr/campaigns/environmental-activists/enemies-state/] 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.”


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
[https://www.publinews.gt/gt/noticias/2019/07/26/guatemala-degenhart-trump-eeuu.html] 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
[http://elperiodico.com.gt/nacion/2019/07/28/cc-admite-amparo-contra-jimmy-morales-por-la-firma-del-acuerdo-de-tercer-pais-seguro/] 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
[http://elperiodico.com.gt/nacion/2019/07/28/cc-admite-amparo-contra-jimmy-morales-por-la-firma-del-acuerdo-de-tercer-pais-seguro/] Manfredo
Marroquín, the former director of the Guatemalan chapter of the
global NGO Transparency International
[https://www.transparency.org/], filed a complaint at the
Constitutional Court against the ratification of the criticized

“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

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

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
[https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/us-drug-trafficking-probe-lands-guatemala-president-hot-water/] 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

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

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.


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

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

Detractors believe
[https://nomada.gt/pais/elecciones-2019/resumen-de-la-investigacion-que-enfado-a-giammattei/] 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

Giammattei has a career in Guatemalan politics that spans over two
decades. He is most recognized for allegedly participating
[https://www.20minutos.es/noticia/156191/0/prision/lujo/guatemala/] 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
[https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/a-11-aos-de-la-toma-de-pavon-no-se-aclara-responsabilidad-de-exfuncionarios/] 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
[http://nomada.gt/pais/giammattei-por-que-es-un-politico-fracasado/] 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

“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
[https://nomada.gt/pais/elecciones-2019/giammattei-20-anos-de-candidato-y-una-coleccion-de-criminales-cerca-suyo/] 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

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.


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

_[Vaclav Masek is a researcher and translator from Guatemala City,
focusing on Central American politics and US-Latin American relations
after World War II_.]

	* [https://portside.org/node/20750/printable/print]







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