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Why some Latin American countries are rushing to open Jerusalem embassies, too

Guatemala became the second country to move its embassy to Jerusalem on May 16, despite the international backlash against the U.S. when it made the same move. (Video: Reuters)

The United States wasn't the only country to open an embassy in Jerusalem this week. Just two days after Washington moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv — and more than 60 people were killed by Israeli forces during violent protests in Gaza — Guatemala did the same.

It's not the only Latin American country to announce plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem: Paraguay said earlier this month that it would do so by the end of May, and Honduras's legislature backed a move in a vote last month.

Paraguay, Honduras and Guatemala all have large evangelical Christian populations and long-standing ties to Israel. But it's likely that their decisions are intended to get the attention of — and help from — the United States.

“The embassy move is really about trying to curry favor with the U.S.,” said Eric Olson, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, referring to all three countries. “It’s an opportunity for them to make their cases on foreign assistance and other issues.”

In Guatemala's case, President Jimmy Morales is under fire from an international body investigating crime and corruption in the country. “Since last year, sectors within and outside of [Guatemala’s] government have been desperately trying to undermine the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala [or CICIG] and bring to a halt the advances achieved in the last several years in the fight against corruption,” said Adriana Beltrán, an expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.

To the dismay of the United States, which backs the commission along with the United Nations, Morales has resisted CICIG's efforts to investigate his campaign finances and some of his own family members. Morales may be attempting to curry favor with the Trump administration and pour oil on troubled waters. Trump's support could help Morales preserve crucial foreign assistance and trade ties to the United States.

Guatemala — a country where more than 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development — has also long been financially dependent on the United States. The United States dedicated $297 million in foreign aid to the country in 2016, far more than the average U.S. contribution to regional economies, and about a third of Guatemalan exports go to the United States. Losing that access or aid could destabilize Guatemala to an extent that would threaten Morales's grip on power.

Honduras and Paraguay both share Guatemala’s dependency on Washington to some extent and fear that Trump could target them with deportations, aid cuts or the weakening of trade ties.

But even if their embassy moves win them favor in Washington, the three countries aren't likely to earn praise from their neighbors. Bolivia's president, a longtime critic of the United States, lashed out at Guatemala for allegedly selling “its dignity to the empire to not lose the crumbs from USAID.”

Apart from economics and diplomacy motives, Guatemala's president is probably hoping for an electoral boost. “As an evangelical Christian, President Morales relies on the support of the country’s influential evangelical community, which has consistently supported Israel’s position regarding Jerusalem,” Beltrán said. Many conservatives in Morales’s government have also long supported Israel because of military support it received from the Jewish state during Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

Analysts also do not expect other Latin American countries to move their embassies anytime soon. “The decision point has passed and none of the other major countries in Latin America are likely candidates,” Olson said. “The only countries that may still be swayed would be smaller, more vulnerable nations that don’t have that many other cards to play.”

And it's still unclear whether embassy moves will even sway the Trump administration. After all, despite praising Honduras for backing the United States' own embassy move during a U.N. vote in December, the administration still decided to end deportation protections for 57,000 Hondurans who lived in the United States for decades. That has set up Honduras, already suffering from months of protests and economic stagnation, for a flood of returnees it can ill afford to absorb.

Read more: 

As criticism for Israel mounts, Guatemala opens its embassy in Jerusalem

Under banner of peace, U.S. opens embassy in Jerusalem. Sixty miles away, dozens of Palestinians are killed.

Trump administration ends protections for 50,000 Hondurans living in U.S. since 1999