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Trump administration expresses little concern after Guatemalan president closes anti-corruption commission

Trump administration expresses little concern after Guatemalan president closes anti-corruption commission
Indigenous Guatemalan women shout slogans against the government of President Jimmy Morales in Guatemala City earlier this week to protest his decision to close a U.N.-backed, anti-corruption commission. (Associated Press)

A robust anti-corruption agency, seen as a model for Latin America, was created 12 years ago in Guatemala with strong U.S. support, and notched up an enviable record.

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has prosecuted and jailed a former president, vice president and hundreds of corrupt police officials, politicians and businessmen.

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But Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced on Aug. 31 that he was shutting the acclaimed commission, citing vague national security concerns. The panel was investigating Morales for possible campaign fraud.

International outrage was swift — but not from the White House.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo initially reacted with a tweet praising Guatemala’s relationship with Washington and thanking it for its “efforts in counter-narcotics and security.”

The State Department later said that Pompeo had called Morales to reiterate U.S. support for “Guatemalan sovereignty” and for a “reformed” anti-corruption commission, comments that critics saw as tacit approval of the Morales move.

U.S. officials privately justified Pompeo’s comment by saying that the commission’s crusading zeal could threaten Guatemala’s stability by undermining the government. Those concerns outweighed the fight against corruption, a senior State Department official said.

“There was thinking that the [commission] was going too far,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Trump administration has looked with favor on Morales since his government backed President Trump’s decision in December to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Only a few countries have followed the U.S. lead.

Guatemala is one of only 17 countries with formal diplomatic recognition of Taiwan over China. When El Salvador broke ties with Taiwan last month, the Trump administration said it would “result in a reevaluation of our relationship with El Salvador.”

Critics say the U.S. failure to support the commission is shortsighted, and squanders an opportunity to take a stand for human rights and the rule of law in Latin America.

Washington counts on Guatemala’s help to slow the influx of migrants illegally crossing the U.S. border, and corruption has worsened the problem because it fuels poverty, violence and lack of accountability.

“This represents a backward movement” for much-needed reforms, said Mark Schneider, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Morales backed his order to close the commission by sending military vehicles, which Guatemala got from the United States, to surround its headquarters and the U.S. Embassy. It was an ominous image in a country that has suffered military coups in addition to a vicious civil war that ended in 1996.

Several days later, Morales barred the commission’s director, prominent Colombian jurist Ivan Velasquez, from entering Guatemala.

The commission has been overseen by the United Nations, with roughly half of its budget coming from Washington.

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“This is a completely needless sacrifice of a U.S. policy goal,” said Benjamin Gedan, who worked on South American affairs at the National Security Council under President Obama. He said similar anti-corruption inquiries have opened in Brazil, Argentina and Peru, and are leading to reforms.

“This is an anti-corruption moment in Latin America,” said Gedan, a fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank. “We should be capitalizing on the momentum. This goes in the absolute opposite direction.”

Support for the commission has also been strong among U.S. lawmakers.

In a letter to Pompeo, the Republican chairs of the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, along with the Democratic ranking members, said Morales’ decision to close the commission should imperil Guatemala’s receipt of U.S. foreign aid.

They also slammed as “unacceptable” Morales’ use of U.S.-supplied military vehicles to menace the commission and the U.S. Embassy. Support for the commission “has been a fundamental element of our foreign policy efforts to strengthen the rule of law and counter the influence of organized crime and drug trafficking in Guatemala,” the lawmakers wrote.

Claudia Samayoa, a Guatemalan human rights activist, said she had been able to visit Washington and meet with U.S. officials, including from the Trump administration, until now. No one from the State Department or the White House agreed to meet with her this week, she said, and she now fears to return to Guatemala.

The Trump administration’s failure to condemn the commission’s closing “has represented a green light” for abuses, Samayoa said.

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