Cold-War Echoes in Central America

Soldiers preparing to confront demonstrators in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in January. Opposition groups were protesting the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández. Credit Orlando Sierra/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Soldiers preparing to confront demonstrators in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in January. Opposition groups were protesting the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández. Credit Orlando Sierra/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the last decade, the United States has pursued a foreign policy toward Latin America that married regional security and stability with democracy promotion and economic development. Under the Trump administration, that has begun to change — in an echo of the Cold War, narrowly defined national security concerns increasingly occupy center stage, with fear of invading migrants replacing fear of invading Communists.

The word is out within the corridors of power in Latin America. Authoritarian and corrupt leaders and their allies are exploiting the new environment to discredit their opponents and position themselves as partners of the United States. Allowing them to advance their repressive and criminal agenda unchecked would be disastrous for Latin American citizens and American security.

In many cases, President Trump has explicitly counteracted his predecessors’ policies. A long overdue thaw in American-Cuban relations, put in motion under President Barack Obama, was short-lived. The Trump administration refused to condemn the elections last November in Honduras, widely considered fraudulent, because a pro-American conservative won. The State Department subsequently turned a blind eye to the widespread repression of Hondurans who peacefully protested the results, certifying instead that Honduras was making progress on human rights.

In Guatemala, the country where I have worked for over two decades since the end of a 36-year genocidal civil war, a similar and potentially catastrophic shift is in the making.

For more than a decade, the United States has been an outspoken advocate of justice and the rule of law. It figured among the most avid supporters of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish initials as Cicig, a United Nations body established to root out organized criminal networks and promote judicial and legislative reforms aimed at consolidating democracy. It supported the election of attorneys general committed to working with the commission.

American ambassadors attended human rights trials in a public show of support for victims of crimes against humanity. Ambassadors joined ranks with civilian protesters. I had the opportunity to travel with one former ambassador in to remote rural communities to highlight the economic needs and emphasize the equal citizenship rights of Guatemala’s indigenous people, who make up about 40 percent of the country and are overwhelmingly poor.

Such support has been critical to the progress achieved over the past several years. The commission and the attorney general’s office made steps in dismantling organized criminal networks that lined the pockets of corrupt officials and business executives. Their gains are measured by hundreds of arrests of officials and businessmen. The process has prompted a civil society awakening in which rural and urban, indigenous and non-indigenous, and even forward-looking members of the traditional elite are forging alliances to push for essential political and fiscal reforms. Sensing that the United Nations commission is serious about cracking down on corruption and that the United States no longer has their backs, traditional elites are gradually conceding that change is needed.

Guatemalan political authorities, including the entourage of the president, Jimmy Morales, and his majority in Congress have been waging a losing battle to protect a dying status quo. American and popular opposition blocked their efforts to expel the United Nations commissioner, and they forced Congress to rescind a law that would have protected politicians who accepted illicit campaign funds.

President Morales and his cronies are now counting on the Trump administration to save their skin. They supported Mr. Trump’s candidacy; Guatemalan congressmen even attended Republican fund-raising events and the Republican National Convention.

Since Mr. Trump’s election, they have gone to great lengths to curry favor in Washington. Guatemala was one of three countries to follow the American lead in deciding to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Representatives of the Guatemalan government and its embassy regularly join congressmen at prayer breakfasts. Members of the old guard are even falsely alleging that the Kremlin has infiltrated the commission.

For now, American policy, at least officially, remains supportive of the United Nations commission. Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate continue to speak out in support of the rule of law in Central America. They privately nudge officials in the region to press their attack on corruption. They issue public warnings through communiques, they defend the commissioner and the commission’s work, they condition development assistance on progress made in combating corruption and strengthening democracy, and they cancel the visas of corrupt officials.

American politicians must remain attentive in the weeks to come, as Guatemalan officials seem on the verge of pushing their confrontation with the commission to the next level. On Friday, Álvaro Arzú, the mayor of Guatemala City and a leader in the fight against the commission, died of a heart attack, which his henchmen claims was provoked by the stress of the fight. And President Morales is about to nominate a new attorney general, who will determine the extent to which the country continues its reforms and cooperation with the commission.

If anything, American politicians and their allies should become more strident — say, by calling for the seizure and forfeiting of assets belonging to corrupt Guatemalan officials held in American banks.

A crackdown on the commission or its commissioner would be catastrophic. It would endanger security and democracy in Guatemala. It would empower organized crime, spark protests and provoke government repression. The costs will be felt beyond Guatemalan borders, as organized crime spreads its tentacles and new waves of migrants make their way north, fleeing a country where they have lost all hope of living in freedom and security.

It would be ironic if the Trump administration, in trying to protect America’s borders, instead made it easier to undermine that same goal.

Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College.

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