Just like reality television star Donald Trump, nobody took Guatemalan TV comedian Jimmy Morales very seriously when he threw his hat in the ring to run for president in 2015.
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After all, the political newcomer had a 16-year career in sketch comedy that included playing “bumbling drunks, spies, gangsters, a toga-wearing Socrates, even a blackface character with an Afro wig and a painted white mouth,” as the Washington Post noted during the Morales campaign, which played out alongside Trump’s.
But like Trump, it was Morales who had the last laugh when he too beat a former first lady, riding a wave of public disgust with the political elite and a “rigged” system. And again like Trump, while he headed a right-wing party and preached conservative values – opposing abortion and favoring the death penalty – nobody was quite sure where he stood on key issues.
Where Morales stands now on one key foreign-affairs issue is clear: He followed in Trump’s footsteps once again on Sunday, becoming the first leader to follow his lead and announce he will move his country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Why would the 48-year-old president of a small Latin American country make a surprise move that won him a wave of gratitude from Israel’s leaders?
There doesn’t seem to be a single reason – but a multitude of factors likely played a role.
First of all, Morales always strives to please the powerful U.S. president whose career he has so closely tracked. This wasn’t the first time the Guatemalan leader has bent over backwards to endear himself to Trump.
Building the wall
Unlike many of his Latin American counterparts, Morales has made no resentful statements regarding Trump’s desire to “build a wall” to keep out immigrants from Central America. Instead, in April 2016, Morales offered the U.S. president “cheap labor” from Guatemala to help build the border with Mexico.
“We have high quality labor and we’ll gladly build,” Morales said in a Facebook interview with the New York Times en Español. “Tell us the dimensions, and we know how to do it.”
It is also likely he was listening closely when Trump threatened to cut off U.S. financial assistance to countries that supported the recent UN resolution that criticized the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. By not only voting against the resolution along with the Americans – as did neighboring Honduras – Morales was working to ensure continuing support in an era where Trump says he will scrutinize foreign aid with an eye to “America First.”
Another reason for Morales’ surprise announcement (and which Trump can probably identify with) is the need to solidify international support at a time when he has troubles at home.
The political newcomer, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, took a hit at the beginning of the year when his older brother and close adviser, Samuel “Sammy” Morales – as well as one of Morales’ sons, José Manuel Morales – were arrested for suspected corruption and money laundering in connection with their handling of campaign finances during the 2015 presidential race.
And in August, Morales caused a stir when he ordered the head of an international anti-corruption mission, Iván Velásquez, out of the country for allegedly interfering in Guatemala’s domestic affairs. This came after Velásquez, a Colombian, and Guatemala’s chief prosecutor, Thelma Aldana, said they would ask the Supreme Court to strip Morales of his presidential immunity from prosecution in the matter. The court has since agreed and the matter has gone before Guatemala’s congress for consideration.
The charges, Morales and his supporters say, are a political witch hunt against him spearheaded by leftist opponents.
But alongside his reasons to appease Trump and rally U.S. support is Morales’ – and Guatemala’s – long-standing friendship with Israel.
It is notable that Morales was raised, and remains, an evangelical Christian – a community in Guatemala and overseas that is consistently supportive of Israel’s position that a united Jerusalem must remain in Jewish hands and one that strongly supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel was the first Western country Morales traveled to after he was elected. He paid a four-day visit to the Jewish state in November 2016, where he was feted by Israel’s top leaders and granted an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
During that visit, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein pointed out it was exactly 69 years since Guatemala had led the countries that supported the UN Partition Plan for Palestine at the end of British Mandate times. Edelstein said, “It could be that without Guatemala, the resolution on that fateful day would not have passed and history would be very different.”
He was referring specifically to Jorge García Granados, the Guatemalan ambassador to the UN at the time. Granados was a member of the UN Special Committee on Palestine and cast the first vote for Israel’s creation, actively lobbying other countries to do the same. Later, Granados served as Guatemala’s first ambassador to Israel.
There are several streets named after him in Israel, along with a “Guatemala Street” in various Israeli cities, including Jerusalem – as Edelstein, President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu all pointed out to Morales.
If, as promised, the Guatemalan Embassy opens in Jerusalem, it won’t be the first time one was situated there. Guatemala was among the 16 countries that opened embassies in Jerusalem in the country’s first decades. It was moved, along with 13 others, in 1980 when the Knesset passed a law declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. The UN Security Council condemned the move as a violation of international law, and Security Council Resolution 478 called upon member states to remove their diplomatic missions from the city.
During Morales’ 2016 visit, the two countries signed bilateral agreements in agriculture, science and development, with Morales stressing that he was eager to follow Israel’s example in harnessing technology to replenish the water supply of his own drought-plagued country.
Strong military links
Security cooperation was likely on his mind as well, because there has been a history of close military cooperation between Guatemala and Israel. It reached its peak in the 1970s and ’80s, when Israel sold Guatemala’s repressive military regime armored cars, artillery and guns, as well as supplying technicians and military advisers.
Over the years, the Jewish state became, by many accounts, Guatemala’s main source of military supplies – filling a vacuum left by the United States in 1977 when then-President Jimmy Carter distanced itself from a country it believed to be a violator of human rights, suspending military aid and financial assistance.
Israel sold weapons and defense systems to Guatemala on a larger scale in the Reagan era, helping the regime fight insurgents using Israeli-trained intelligence teams, security and communications specialists, and military training personnel in Guatemala. At the time, the human rights community looked askance at Israel using its expertise to train and help a police state repress insurgent groups and, most brutally, indigenous Mayan Indians.
In the following decades, following the end of the Guatemalan civil war in 2000, the relationship between Israel and the Guatemalan military remained intact.
The fact that Morales' party, the National Convergence Front, was founded by a group of right-wing, retired army generals is likely another factor in Morales’ warm relationship toward Israel and his decision to announce the embassy move.