Trump's Administration Used to Fight Corruption in Guatemala. Then Guatemala Moved Its Embassy to Jerusalem

For a decade, the United States backed an international body investigating corruption in Guatemala. Now experts are asking why the White House is silent as the country’s president, Jimmy Morales, wages war on the panel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales Cabrera at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom GPO
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

In May, Guatemala became the first country in the world to follow in the Trump administration’s footsteps and move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The White House promised at the time that it would reward the small Latin American country for its decision. Could that reward come in the form of turning a blind eye to attacks by Guatemala’s president on an international anti-corruption body?

Experts and former U.S. officials see a possible link between Guatemala’s decision to move the embassy and the Trump administration’s change of policy with regards to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-supported panel that has uncovered vast corruption scandals in the country.

The administration, according to experts on U.S. policy in Latin America, is looking the other way while Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales tries to dismantle CICIG by sending military forces to its local office and barring the panel’s head, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales Cabrera at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. May 17, 2018
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

"The American position on this issue has shifted dramatically – not just in comparison to how the Bush and Obama administrations treated it, but also in comparison to how the Trump administration treated it just last summer,” said Benjamin Gedan, an expert on Latin America at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Gedan said he has no direct knowledge of a connection between Guatemala’s policy on Jerusalem and Trump’s policy on the Latin American state. He notes, though, that “this seems like a possible explanation. The change in American policy on CICIG makes no sense.”

The Guatemalan government has accused CICIG of being a "super-national entity that dictates to governments how to exercise their duties" on behalf of the UN. An article in The Economist called this accusation "flimsy".

Mac Margolis, a columnist on Latin America for Bloomberg News, wrote last week that a “quid pro quo” over the embassy issue could potentially explain the administration’s policy shift on CICIG. He mentioned another possible explanation: That, unlike other Latin American countries, Guatemala has not cozied up to China and continues to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

A number of recent news reports in outlets such as The New York Times and The Economist have also raised the possibility that Trump’s flip-flop on CICIG was related to Guatemala’s embassy move – though that connection could not be definitively proved.

‘No good explanation’

CICIG was established in 2007 with the strong backing of the George W. Bush administration. “Fighting corruption in politics is an urgent need in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America,” said Gedan, who worked on Latin America policy in the Obama White House. Over the past decade, he added, the panel has contributed to the downfall of a number of senior politicians in Guatemala, including the country’s previous president, Otto Pérez Molina. He is currently in detention and awaits trial on corruption charges.

Molina was replaced in 2016 by Morales, who was a comedian prior to entering politics. Over the past year, Morales has been showing an increasing level of hostility toward CICIG, probably as a result of an investigation regarding his campaign finances. The panel is looking into allegations that Morales’ party received more than $1 million of illegal campaign donations in the 2015 election, according to a report last week in The Washington Post.

Morales’ attacks on CICIG first surfaced in the summer of 2017 when he tried to expel Velásquez from the country and get him replaced. The Trump administration reacted quickly and forcefully, signaling to Morales that the United States had the anti-corruption body’s back. The U.S. ambassador in Guatemala posed for a photograph with a sign proclaiming “I love CICIG.” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, also expressed support for the panel’s work, and Morales eventually backed down.

Women holding a banner showing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales as a clown, during a protest to demand his resignation, Guatemala City, Guatemala, September 12, 2018.
\ STRINGER/ REUTERS

This was not the first time a U.S. administration thwarted attempts by the Guatemalan government to weaken CICIG. Under the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden at one point threatened to cancel all U.S. aid to Guatemala, in light of attempts by the country’s previous president, Molina, to shut down the panel’s investigations.

“When you compare those past responses to how the Trump administration is reacting to Morales’ current attack on CICIG, there truly is no good explanation for what they are doing,” said Gedan.

Morales announced last week he was shutting down the panel and barring Velásquez from entering Guatemala. He also sent military forces, driving U.S.-manufactured vehicles, to CICIG’s offices. While the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala released a statement expressing support for CICIG’s work, the statement did not include direct criticism of Morales’ actions.

On September 6, at the height of Morales’ attacks on CICIG, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the Guatemalan president over the phone. The State Department readout of the conversation contained no criticism of Morales’ actions. Instead, it opened by stating that Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ support for Guatemalan sovereignty.”

According to the readout, Pompeo “expressed continued support of the United States for a reformed CICIG and committed to continue working with Guatemala on implementing the reforms in the coming year.”

A former senior U.S. official who worked on Latin America policy told Haaretz that this statement was “a huge achievement” for Morales in his fight against CICIG.

The former official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “Pompeo basically told Morales that America had his back, and that CICIG is viewed as a problematic organization that needs to go through reforms. The fact that the readout included no mention of Morales’ aggressive steps against CICIG is a sad capitulation to violence, and it sends a message that has already been received by other leaders in the region,” the official added.

A State Department spokeswoman rejected these accusations. “Our policy has not changed,” she said. “The United States supports CICIG, reformed.”

While the administration has chosen not to criticize Morales, senior members of Congress from both parties have done so. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking Democratic member on the committee, sent a joint letter to Pompeo, warning that Morales’ actions could be a violation of U.S. foreign aid terms to Guatemala. The letter was also signed by reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), both senior members of the House committee.

“Since 2007, across the Bush and Obama administrations, and in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a bipartisan commitment to CICIG has been a fundamental element of our foreign policy,” the legislators wrote in their letter. They also mentioned Morales’ use of U.S.-manufactured military vehicles against CICIG, writing that “such a gesture is unacceptable and does not comply with the purpose for which the United States donated the vehicles.”

It should be noted that all four lawmakers are considered strong supporters of Israel. This could indicate that, on the congressional level at least, Guatemala’s decision on Jerusalem has not affected, so far, their response to Morales’ attacks on his own investigators.

Flight on Adelson’s private jet

Morales may be losing popularity on Capitol Hill, but there are other places where he still enjoys support and appreciation. One such place is Jerusalem.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement congratulating Guatemala on its Independence Day, personally applauding Morales for his leadership.

“From Jerusalem capital of Israel, I send greetings to the people of Guatemala on its 197th independence day. Guatemala is a true friend & ally of Israel. I congratulate my friend President Jimmy Morales on his brave leadership and developing the country and its prosperity,” Netanyahu wrote on the Prime Minister’s Office’s official Twitter account.

Morales is also popular in pro-Israel circles in the United States. Last May, for example, when Morales visited Israel to celebrate the relocation of his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, gambling tycoon and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson let Guatemala’s government use his personal Boeing 767 aircraft for the journey. The plane carried government officials and other guests, according to a statement by Guatemala’s foreign minister.

Morales also spoke in March at the annual conference of the AIPAC pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, where he received a warm welcome from thousands of participants. An AIPAC official told Haaretz that it was not doing anything to help Morales push back against the current criticism he is facing in Congress. “We are not involved,” the official said.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington also said it was not aiding Guatemala on Capitol Hill or with the Trump administration.

But perhaps Morales doesn’t need any help. Hector Silva Avalos, a journalist and former diplomat who has written extensively on corruption in Latin America, wrote in InSight Crime last week that “mixed messages from Washington have left the door open for Morales to strengthen his fight against the institutions investigating him for alleged illicit campaign financing.”

Avalos added that “with several Trump administration officials in his corner, Jimmy Morales has the advantage in his battle against CICIG.”