President plunges Guatemala into constitutional crisis


Credit: Wikipedia

Guatemala’s chief prosecutor Thelma Aldana says she’s giving unconditional support to the head of a U.N. anti-corruption commission who the president has ordered to leave the country, AP reports:

Adana issued a statement late Sunday saying the Constitutional Court’s order suspending the president’s expulsion order for Ivan Velasquez must be obeyed. She’s worked closely with Velasquez. President Jimmy Morales (left) plunged the country into a constitutional crisis Sunday by standing firm on his order to remove Velasquez even after the court suspended the order.

Morales’ response “is based on his own personal interest,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a senior fellow with the Washington Office on Latin America and a professor in the school of public policy and government at George Mason University. “He’s pushing the country into a constitutional crisis,” Burt said.

Morales ordered the expulsion of the head of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption group Sunday morning, attacking an organization whose rigorous investigations have put a former president behind bars and whose attention has now shifted toward alleged campaign finance violations by Morales himself, The Washington Post adds:

Secretary-General António Guterres meeting Iván Velásquez Gómez, CICIG Commissioner (left) . UN Photo

Morales’s decision to attempt to expel Iván Velásquez, a Colombian lawyer who has led the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its initials in Spanish, CICIG) since 2013, was met with swift international condemnation. The United States, along with several other countries that backed the anti-corruption commission, issued a joint statement saying that the group had “played a vital role in the fight against impunity” in Guatemala.

“Seeking the commissioner’s removal would be a blatant betrayal by President Morales of his past commitment to support the anti-corruption agency,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Managing Director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division.

In ordering Mr. Velásquez out, Mr. Morales is also defying the United Nations and the United States, which have repeatedly supported the prosecutor’s decision to focus the panel’s work on tackling corruption, The New York Times adds.

“I think it’s fair to say this is a constitutional crisis of the gravest proportions,” Eric L. Olson, a Guatemala expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, wrote in an email, suggesting that Guatemala’s fragile institutions may be unable to withstand the rupture. “The train is veering off the tracks, and it’s not clear who will stop it.”

Besides Sunday’s court injunction against his expulsion order, Mr. Morales has also faced stiff resistance from within his own government, according to local media reports. The president on Sunday said he had fired Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Morales, who isn’t related to him, and the deputy prime minister, after they refused to implement the order, according to local media reports, The Wall Street Journal adds.

“[Morales] has completely isolated himself,” said the Wilson Center’s Olson. “The international community is completely united and it looks like they are going to take a very hard line on this.”

State of siege risk

“There’s a huge risk that Morales and his close circle of old military guard could order a state of siege to try to stop the justice process,” Anabella Sibrian, director of the NGO International Platform against Impunity, told the Guardian in a telephone interview from outside the CICIG offices in Guatemala City.

“What we’ve seen today is an arbitrary act against internationally backed anti-corruption figureheads, but it is also a strong message to the country’s increasingly robust social movements that they could be next.”

The U.S. State Department said it is “deeply concerned” by the decision.

“Mr. Velásquez has been an effective leader of CICIG in its fight against corruption in Guatemala,” it said in a statement. “CICIG has played and should continue to play an important role in strengthening Guatemalan institutions and tackling the corruption that undermines security and prosperity in Guatemala.”

“Neither corrupt nor a thief”?

“This attempt to shut down justice cannot be countenanced. The United Nations commission has two more years in its mandate and it has measurable success in fighting corruption,” said José Ugaz, Chair of Transparency International. “President Morales cannot attempt to disrupt the course of its investigations. No one should be above the law; the Guatemalan people have recovered hope with the work of the commission; it must not be shut down.”

Mr Morales is a former comic actor who had never held public office before becoming president, notes the BBC.

He surprised traditional politicians and won the election promising to tackle corruption and impunity. “Neither corrupt nor a thief” was his campaign slogan.

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