Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID, a former Peace Corps director and former deputy assistant Secretary of State for human rights.
Guatemala’s presidential, congressional and mayoral elections this Sunday will be the sixth election since the 1996 peace accord that ended a civil war in which 200,000 people were killed. Widespread corruption — reflected in the investigation, conviction or criminal charges against three presidents, including current President Jimmy Morales and his immediate predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, a vice president and other high-level officials — has led to popular distrust in the government and the electoral process.
But the stakes are high for both Guatemala and the United States. Washington’s concerns are linked to the instability and insecurity generated in part by that corruption and the murderous cartels that managed last year to traffic 1,400 metric tons of cocaine through Guatemala, according to the State Department. Those concerns also are tied to Guatemala’s human trafficking network and to the country’s becoming the largest source of forced migration into this country, with well over 300,000 Guatemalans apprehended at the U.S. border since last Oct. 1. Guatemalan family units detained on the southwest border doubled in 2018 to 50,000 and already have tripled to 149,000 this year, far higher than those from El Salvador, Honduras or Mexico.
Depending on who wins the election, those issues could affect relations with the United States dramatically.
Four of the 22 registered candidates appear from the latest polls to have a chance to make the second round. But further complicating an already fraught electoral process was the exclusion of two candidates. The former attorney general, Thelma Aldana, opposed by Morales and the forces critical of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, was barred from running because of what most civil society groups consider trumped up accusations of corruption. Zury Ríos, daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, was barred from running by the courts, which based their decision on an article of the constitution that prohibits relatives of coup leaders from top office.
The most popular institution in the country, according to national public opinion polls, remains the CICIG. The U.N.-sponsored and partially U.S.-funded body has managed since 2006 to help the country’s fragile justice system lower its homicide rate by approximately 5 percent per year while helping to raise the conviction rate for cartel members, criminal gangs and corrupt officials. Despite largely attacks on its current commissioner, former Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, whom Morales has barred from the country, the CICIG continues to assist the attorney general to prosecute corruption, which has cost Guatemala tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars.
In what may be the CICIG’s final year since Morales announced his intent not to renew the current mandate ending in September, the issues of citizen security and corruption are high on the list of voter concerns. Those issues are paralleled by deep unhappiness with the low level of job creation. Some 200,000 young Guatemalans come into the workforce each year while the economy barely adds 20,000 new jobs. Also a combination of drought, coffee rust and low farm prices have shredded the agricultural economy, which provides 13 percent of GDP and employs 31 percent of the labor force — including most of the country’s indigenous population, 79 percent of whom live in poverty and 40 percent in extreme poverty.
The downturn in Guatemalan political stability has been linked to the lowering of its bond rating, and raised questions about its economic growth prospects. The country’s economic elite is seen as responsible for keeping the state starved for resources, pressuring political leaders against meeting the peace accord’s commitment to raise taxes. The result, as identified most recently in a CEPAL/Mexico plan for Northern Triangle development and by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is that Guatemala has perhaps the lowest level of social investment in education and health in the hemisphere.
Guatemala has astonishing natural beauty and a rich cultural history with enormous tourist and economic potential, if it managed to reverse dysfunctional governance and commit to the rule of law.
The United States needs to forcefully convey a message to whoever reaches the expected second round after Sunday’s vote: Relations will depend on reversing its recent cycle of corruption, violence, collusion with drug traffickers and exclusion of the largely Mayan indigenous population, all helping to drive families to migrate. If a new government makes those changes, the response also needs to be that the United States is prepared to provide significant and sustained development cooperation.