Guatemala is facing a moment of political reckoning, notes Anita Isaacs, a professor of political science at Haverford College. Last Sunday, the country woke to the news that President Jimmy Morales (left) had expelled Iván Velásquez, the commissioner heading the United Nations panel charged with eradicating the country’s organized-crime networks. Within hours Guatemala’s Constitutional Court provisionally blocked Mr. Morales’s decree. Whether the president follows the court’s ruling will determine the future of Guatemala’s already fragile democracy, she writes for The New York Times:
Mr. Morales’s actions represent more than a personal vendetta against the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its initials in Spanish as Cicig, and its commissioner. There is little daylight between the president and a group of shadowy former military officers, responsible for heinous war crimes and organized crime.
CICIG is significant not just due to its impact at the highest levels in Guatemala, but because so many prior international approaches to combat corrupt regimes have not worked, according to Charles T. Call, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Latin America Initiative:
Decades of traditional development assistance to judicial institutions and to corrupt or abusive police forces have not been able to overcome the entrenched character of corrupt political systems in Latin America. Foreign aid for the “rule of law” has helped reform criminal codes, introduce updated investigative approaches, and confer technologies. However, hundreds of millions of dollars to Latin American justice and police forces have not ended corrupt networks reaching the highest levels of governments. Investigations of the Odebrecht company in Brazil reveal payoffs of some $800 million to officeholders and political candidates in a dozen countries, including $35 million to Peru’s then-president, showing how extensive the problem is.
“If Morales is able to decapitate or weaken CICIG, then corrupt politicians and criminal organizations around the hemisphere will take note,” Call adds. “The momentum gained by this initial experiment in a constructive international mission against injustice may be dealt a blow that reverberates.”
CICIG and Velasquez have been instrumental in strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala, said U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.). They sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley expressing concern about Morales’ attempt to expel Velásquez,
“We believe that combatting impunity and strengthening the rule of law should be at the core of U.S. engagement in Central America,” said the letter, in which the signatories also reiterate their “unwavering support for continued application of the rule of law in Guatemala and recognize the necessity for Commissioner Velasquez (left) and Attorney General Aldana to continue their important work against impunity.”
Civil society needs to play a lieutenant’s role. Two years ago after the Justice Now movement ousted a corrupt president and vice president, it went into hibernation. Reawakened today, it needs to remain ever alert and pugnacious in pursuit of the justice it seeks, despite threats of repression, Isaacs adds in The Times:
The American government has an opportunity to match its supportive rhetoric with concrete action. It can use its leverage to keep the army in the barracks and to lean heavily on recalcitrant elites. Military assistance can be cut. Wealthy Guatemalans and politicians who choose graft over justice can be denied the visas that permit their children to study in the United States, and they themselves to visit their second homes. If the commission’s hands are tied, even temporarily, the United States can intensify its investigations of fishy financial transactions made by the same elites in the American banking system.