An unpopular president is backed by hard-line military, right-wing parties and conservative elites. He disdains democratic norms and institutions, especially when they investigate his family and top government officials. He recently went on national television to propose drastic measures to solve a crisis many accuse him of provoking. His claims were later exposed by the media as false.
This president is Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, a former television comedian. On Jan. 7, he held a news conference where he announced his decision to withdraw from a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission, giving its prosecutors a day to leave the country.
Subverting a justice system so that it can no longer protect society and institutions from the predations of powerful criminals is one way to kill a democracy, as happened in Guatemala. But Mr. Morales’s lawless actions against the anti-corruption commission, known as Cicig, and his intentional sabotaging of the rule of law could never succeed without the seemingly unconditional support of the Trump administration and Republicans in the United States Congress. It is up to Democrats in Congress to recognize what is at stake for Guatemala, for the region and even for the United States, and act.
Cicig was conceived by Guatemalans and foreigners concerned that after decades of military dictatorship and internal war, the country’s fledgling democracy was becoming a corrupted narco state. Since 2007, Cicig has been collaborating with Guatemala’s Public Ministry in investigating and prosecuting cases of official corruption and organized crime.
The agreement governing Cicig’s mandate can be renewed periodically or annulled by the Guatemalan government. The anti-corruption body became especially effective after Iván Velázquez, a renowned Colombian prosecutor, was appointed by the United Nations in 2013 to lead the commission.
Guatemala has a long history of presidential corruption. Otto Pérez Molina, a former Guatemalan Army general and intelligence chief, went from the presidency to prison, convicted of heading a corruption scheme involving dozens more officials. His immediate predecessor, the center-left president Alvaro Colóm, and members of his cabinet, were also jailed for corruption.
During his televised address, Mr. Morales accused Cicig of being silent in the face of what he said were human rights abuses and of representing a threat to Guatemalan sovereignty and national security. He appeared with several people accused in panel investigations or their relatives.
Mr. Morales aimed most of his accusations at Mr. Velázquez, who he banned from the country after a trip to the United States in September. Days before his speech, Mr. Morales had announced that the commission’s mandate would not be renewed when it expires this September, a decision that, though legal, was widely condemned.
After his Jan. 7 speech, Morales gave Cicig 24 hours to leave country. On the 9th, shortly after Cicig’s international and Guatemalan prosecutors and investigators left the country, the Constitutional Court ruled against Mr. Morales. He refused to comply with that order. Mr. Velázquez continues to lead Cicig from abroad.
With the commission’s work scheduled to end in September, why the sudden urgency to expel its staff?
Cicig has charged Mr. Morales’s own brother and son with fraud and has been investigating Mr. Morales and his associates for possible campaign finance violations. On Jan. 9, two days after the president ordered the expulsion of the prosecutors from Guatemala, they didn’t show up in the courtroom where the president’s son and brother were being tried; it’s the first trial indefinitely suspended because the president revoked the commission’s mandate.
Guatemala will hold national elections in June. When his term ends, so will Morales’s immunity from prosecution. Mr. Morales and his political, economic and military allies are maneuvering to block pro-Cicig candidates — especially former Attorney General Thelma Aldana — from running. What Guatemalans refer to as a “slow-motion coup,” prompted by his earlier moves against Cicig, is speeding up.
Meanwhile, the pro-Morales coalition in the country’s congress, known by its critics as “el pacto de corruptos,” is moving to gut the Constitutional Court. Guatemalans are bracing for what’s being deemed as “the restoration”: a return to impunity for corrupt economic and political elites, the release from prison of those charged with crimes by Cicig and the repression of journalists, human rights and judicial activists.
Cicig’s European donor countries and other governments strongly denounced the commission’s expulsion. The United States is Cicig’s largest donor, but the bipartisan consensus that supported it for 11 years has collapsed. Many agree that the role of the United States is likely to be determinative.
Democratic lawmakers in the United States have voiced support for the commission. Representative Norma Torres warned that with its abrupt departure, the “complex cases involving organized crime, drug trafficking and human smuggling would fall apart. Powerful criminals and the corrupt politicians would get away with serious crimes.”
The United States Embassy in Ciudad de Guatemala officially expressed concern “about the future of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala” but made no mention of Cicig, doing little to dispel concerns that the Trump administration tacitly supports Mr. Morales. Leading Republicans, including Senators Mike Lee of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Representative Steve King of Iowa, have praised Mr. Morales for defending Guatemalan sovereignty.
“Sovereignty” was arguably pertinent to the decision to end Cicig’s mandate, but Mr. Morales’s other actions undermine Guatemalan rule of law and democratic institutions. Representative Rick Crawford, an Arkansas Republican, said on Twitter, “I stand by the people of Guatemala and the decision of their president regarding Cicig” — a ludicrous statement, considering that polls have consistently demonstrated overwhelming Guatemalan support for Cicig, the most recent measuring 71 percent approval.
Republicans’ incredible stance denies a reality in plain view: Mr. Morales is living the Trumpian dream of freeing himself from investigations by illegally shutting them down.
In 1954, a United States-backed coup ended Guatemala’s decade of democratic rule. Congressional Democrats must now try to save one of the world’s most lawless regions from another tragic descent into chaos and repression.
Representative Torres has taken an important step, warning Guatemala that it risks cuts in economic aid unless it reverses its expulsion of Cicig. The United States can apply the Global Magnitsky act, which gives the president the authority to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on human rights violators in any country, to punish Guatemalan officials who violate human rights. Congress can hold hearings on the repercussions of the Morales government’s actions on regional security and stability, and on the Trump administration’s abetting of those.
Democrats in Congress should raise their voices in support of the Guatemalan people bravely resisting the Morales “restoration.”
Francisco Goldman, a novelist and journalist, is the author, most recently, of The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.