Can Guatemala’s Next President Stem the Flow of Migration Out of the Country?

Can Guatemala’s Next President Stem the Flow of Migration Out of the Country?
Alejandro Giammattei, now the president-elect of Guatemala, at a campaign rally on the outskirts of Guatemala City, June 8, 2019 (AP photo by Santiago Billy).
There is a simple metric that many will use to judge the performance of Guatemala’s next president: Can he stop the exodus of people fleeing the country? Alejandro Giammattei, the leader of the right-wing Vamos party who won Sunday’s runoff convincingly over Sandra Torres of the center-left National Unity of Hope party, says he has a plan. But there are many reasons to be skeptical. According to local estimates, nearly 250,000 Guatemalans left their country in the first half of this year, equivalent to 1.5 percent of the population of some 17 million, and most of them headed for the United States. Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows that Guatemalans are the largest nationality among migrants from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle region entering the U.S. In an attempt to stem that flow, the Trump administration recently signed a “safe third country” agreement with Guatemala’s outgoing president, Jimmy Morales, which would require asylum-seekers from other countries transiting Guatemala to seek asylum there first. The agreement, which is deeply unpopular in Guatemala, is a problem waiting for Giammattei when he is formally sworn in for his four-year term on Jan. 14. He has already begun weighing in on the deal, saying “it’s not right for the country” and that he wants to change it, without specifying how. Rampant economic inequality, corruption, crime and gang violence have made many Guatemalans think they have no future in their own country. According to census data, more than 59 percent of the population lives in poverty. Indigenous communities, which make up more than half the population, are among the poorest. The minimum wage is the equivalent of $389 a month, not enough to cover the cost of basic necessities, which are valued at $467. More than half the labor force works in the informal sector of the economy, where average incomes are lower than the minimum wage. The country exports many of its workers, who then send home vital remittances. In the first half of this year, remittances totaled $5 billion, equivalent to 11.8 percent of GDP. Although the murder rate has been reduced in recent years, to around 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, Guatemala is still one of the world’s most dangerous countries by homicides. Corruption is also deeply embedded in its political culture. Guatemala ranks 144th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Even climate change contributes to outmigration, as a long drought has hit subsistence farmers hard. On paper at least, Giammattei has a plan to get Guatemala out of this mess. Echoing U.S. President Donald Trump, Giammattei has talked about “building a wall” to stop migration, except his version is a wall of economic prosperity and jobs designed to persuade Guatemalans to stay. His party has produced an ambitious development plan for Giammattei’s presidency. It aims to double annual economic growth—one of the country’s few bright spots—from 3 to 6 percent, and nearly halve the sky-high proportion of the population living in poverty down to 25 percent. All this can be achieved, the plan claims, through more investment, exports and tourism.

Skepticism over Giammattei’s chances of success have to do with both Guatemala’s political system and the president-elect himself.

Giammattei is essentially offering a market-friendly way forward. But he has left himself ample wiggle-room with his vaguely worded plan: The deadline for reaching both the growth and poverty objectives is 2032. Skepticism over Giammattei’s chances of success have to do with both Guatemala’s political system and the president-elect himself. While formally democratic, Guatemala for decades has been tightly controlled by a minority elite. With a multitude of small parties in Congress—26 in the current chamber—governments have been formed by coalitions held together by pork-barrel style political deals and often outright corruption. Up until a few years ago, it looked as if a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body—the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG—was successfully cleaning up Guatemalan politics all the way to the top, investigating graft in coordination with the public prosecutor’s office. In 2015, their investigations, which sparked a mass protest movement, forced the removal and subsequent imprisonment of both the president and vice president. But despite some initial hopes of a new beginning under Morales, who took office in January 2016, the system closed ranks again. When he and his family came under investigation, Morales promptly turned on CICIG, preventing its head from entering Guatemala and refusing to extend its mandate, which ends next month. Court cases were launched to prevent Thelma Aldana, an effective and popular former prosecutor, from running for the presidency. Faced with an arrest warrant and death threats, Aldana had to leave the country. Sometimes it takes an insider to carry out major reforms, and Giammattei is the ultimate insider. He has been in politics for 20 years and has run for the presidency four times for four different parties. Yet the chances of real changes from within look slim. Most politicians in Guatemala have been accused of misconduct at various points in their careers, including Giammattei’s rival in the race, Torres, who faces accusations of illicit campaign funding. Giammattei himself was accused of involvement in the extrajudicial execution of seven inmates at the Pavon prison in 2006, when he was head of the prison system. He subsequently faced charges and was imprisoned for 10 months but was eventually acquitted due to a lack of evidence. More recently, local investigative website Nomada reported in June that his inner circle includes shadowy figures linked to criminal and other nefarious groups—claims Giammattei has rejected. It’s little surprise, then, that many Guatemalans aren’t holding out hope for his presidency. An opinion poll published days before the second-round vote showed that only five out of 10 voters believed a Giammattei government would be honest, while the proportion dropped to three out of 10 for a Torres government. Many Guatemalans didn’t bother to vote at all; 56 percent of voters stayed home. What Giammattei does with CICIG and the safe third country agreement with the U.S. will signal whether he can actually to tackle all his country’s problems. Morales unilaterally served notice that CICIG’s mandate would not be extended, a decision that both Giammattei and Torres initially supported during the campaign. But with Guatemala’s Constitutional Court set to rule on whether Morales acted properly and within his legal authority, Giammattei has become more cautious, saying he will wait for the court’s decision. Giammattei’s advisers have suggested he may create a national anti-corruption commission, incorporating foreign expertise on a bilateral, rather than multilateral basis through the United Nations. If so, it will be hard to escape the conclusion that he is seeking a pliant commission that doesn’t threaten his or his allies’ interests. The safe third country agreement is a conundrum. Although its full details have yet to be released, the deal would see a spike in refugees from El Salvador and Honduras applying for asylum in Guatemala. Guatemalan migrants themselves are also more restricted from making the trek northward, due to tougher border controls in Mexico implemented under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. There is a danger that forcing so many migrants to remain in Guatemala would drain already scarce resources and ramp up social and political pressures on Giammattei’s incoming government. If Giammattei rejects the safe third country agreement, or if it is ultimately submitted to Congress for ratification and rejected, Guatemala could face Trump’s wrath, in the form of threatened trade reprisals or even a tax on remittances. Guatemala would then be even worse off than it already is. Andrew Thompson is a journalist and political risk analyst who covers Latin America. He was previously a foreign correspondent in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, and head of the BBC’s Latin American Service. He is also an associate fellow at London-based Canning House.

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