From El Faro English: Harris’ Rough Landing in Guatemala

Jun 10, 2021
11:39 AM
Originally published at El Faro

Kamala Harris in Ciudad de Guatemala, June 7, 2021. (Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro)

Welcome back to El Faro English.

In her first visit to the region this week, Vice President Kamala Harris’ blunt message to Central American migrants (“Do not come”) triggered a backlash among human rights defenders and Central America experts for contradicting international asylum laws and appearing insensitive to the reality driving migration.

“How can you stay home when you don’t have one?” El Faro’s Carlos Martínez wrote recently in a report about Honduran migrants who lost their homes in the back-to-back November hurricanes. Without a way to survive and a place to stay in Honduras —as well as in other parts of Central America— migration has become a necessity, not a choice.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) fired back against Harris on Twitter: “The U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, called Harris’s message “disappointing.” She tweeted: “She should be making connections between the poverty, corruption, violence, pandemic & hurricanes that she mentions as driving migration & need for humanitarian solutions.”

Harris’ “stay home” comment cast a shadow over other elements of a trip supposed to reaffirm the promise of a long-term commitment made by the Biden administration to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and reinforce the United States capacity to maneuver in the region at a moment when its influence seems weakened.

Harris decidedly did not meet with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who has been flexing his authoritarian tendencies by unilaterally writing and approving new legislation in recent weeks, nor with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been multiply implicated by U.S. prosecutors for drug trafficking and corruption.

Being the only landing place in the region, Harris’s visit to Guatemala was planned to be brandishing a carrot rather than a stick, even though corruption also has deep roots in Guatemala.

On her trip, Harris made multiple announcements: the donation of half a million vaccines; funds for a program to empower and stem violence against primarily Indigenous women; a series of “market-led” development projects including the expansion of a banana plantation, microloans to tech entrepreneurs and small businesses, and affordable housing in high-migration areas; a new task force to crackdown on human trafficking and drug smuggling; as well as the creation of a regional anti-corruption task force.

The necessity for such a task force is revealing. Only five years ago Guatemala was considered a beacon for anti-corruption efforts in the region but has since seen major setbacks in its anti-corruption efforts, an increasingly visible trend even in recent weeks.

In May, a court dropped a graft charge against former president Otto Perez Molina, whose resignation in 2015 was one of the major accomplishments of the international anti-corruption body, CICIG, while it was still operating in Guatemala.

On the same day, two key players involved in crafting a case against him, Juan Francisco Solorzano Foppa and Aníbal Arguello, were arrested. Amnesty International said their arrests fit into a pattern of criminalization of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges involved in fighting corruption in the country.

Also, a complaint recently filed with the Constitutional Court could declare the country’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), unconstitutional. The office has been key in investigating high-level corruption cases and continuing the work started by the CICIG after its mandate was not renewed.

In an interesting note, only hours after Harris left the country, the head of the FECI, Juan Francisco Sandoval, filed a petition for impeachment against 8 of the 13 judges in Guatemala’s Supreme Court, accusing them of manipulating the election of judges.

Guatemalans protest against the Giammattei administration after his joint press conference with Kamala Harris on June 7, 2021. (Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro)

Meanwhile, victims of human rights abuses dating back to the civil war from 1960 to 1996 are still waiting for justice. Just last week, military officers were indicted for torture and forced disappearance of more than 180 people in a case known as the Diario Militar or Military Diary.

In Guatemala, those who speak out against human rights abuses, corruption, or exploitative and extractive industries often face smear campaigns and criminalization. Two daughters —Ni’kte ‘Ixch’umil Saqijix Caal Matzir, age 14, and Chahim Yaretzi Ketzalí Caal Matzir, age 12— of Bernardo Caal Xol, an environmental defender who Amnesty International has called a prisoner of conscience, wrote a column about this for El Faro English.

“It wasn’t easy to understand that in Guatemala those who decide to support the collective struggles of their peoples are persecuted, defamed, stigmatized, threatened, criminalized and killed,” Ni’kte and Chahim write.

It is hard to say how much impact international anti-impunity and anti-corruption efforts will have, especially when, during Harris’ visit, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei was questioned twice in a single press conference about his personal role in the country’s corruption.

In Nicaragua, a crackdown by the Ortega-Murillo government against opposition candidates ahead of the November presidential elections has intensified.

In the last week, four opposition candidates have been arrested or placed on house arrest: Cristiana Chamorro, Arturo Cruz, Felix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastian Chamorro.

The U.S. Treasury Department, in response, slapped a new round of sanctions on four prominent members of the Ortega-Murillo government, including their daughter Camila Antonia Ortega Murillo.

“President Ortega’s actions are harming Nicaraguans and driving the country deeper into tyranny,” Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control Andrea M. Gacki said in the press release.

“As these sanctions demonstrate, there are costs for those who support or carry out the Ortega regime’s repression,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday calling for the release of the candidates. “The United States will continue to use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support Nicaraguans’ calls for greater freedom and accountability as well as free and fair elections.”

The Organization of American States also spoke out against the “continued violation of human rights and civil and political liberties.” and Luis Almagro called for an emergency meeting of the OAS Permanent Council to address the situation.

But it seems the statements and sanctions aren’t having an impact on the Ortega regime, which has maintained power in the country since 2007 by re-writing the constitution, cracking down on political dissent and co-opting state institutions.


In case you were wondering or missed it: Only four days after the Salvadoran president announced Bitcoin would become an official currency, the Legislative Assembly approved the proposal late Tuesday night without debate or an impact study. Stay tuned to our upcoming newsletters for more details of this groundbreaking and controversial measure.

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