For the Trump administration, there was a little patch of high ground, south of the Rio Grande. In Moscow, Manila and Budapest, the president cozied up to simpatico strongmen, but in Latin America, the bad guys were still blacklisted. Just weeks after President Trump’s inauguration, the White House sanctioned Venezuela’s vice president. In his first summer in office, Trump condemned Cuba’s dictatorship, declaring himself “a voice against repression in our region.” Though the United States is shooing away refugees, it has donated tens of millions of dollars to help Colombia absorb migrants.
Still, U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere was not entirely consistent. In Honduras, for example, the administration accepted last year’s questionable re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández, disregarding damning findings by Organization of Americans States observers. But by and large, U.S. policy in Latin America was a time capsule: defending human rights; championing multilateralism; battling corruption.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
In a Saturday morning tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abandoned the UN’s anti-corruption platoon in Guatemala, a groundbreaking operation that the United States helped establish and had supported since its inception in 2007.
Prior to Pompeo’s statement, it appeared the Trump administration would defend the international investigators from the latest assault by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. Last Friday, after President Morales announced he was shutting down the UN body –the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City praised CICIG as “an effective and important partner in fighting impunity, improving governance and holding the corrupt accountable in Guatemala.”
But there were troubling signs that Washington’s support was eroding. The embassy statement failed to criticize Morales, instead meekly noting that the U.S. was “aware” of Guatemala’s shameful decision. A separate statement also showed fingerprints from the State Department’s seventh floor; it noted that U.S. authorities were “monitoring” Guatemala’s use of donated U.S. vehicles—a surprisingly tepid response to the Guatemalan military’s deployment of U.S. Jeeps to CICIG’s headquarters and the U.S. Embassy.
This is not the first time Guatemalan elites have tried to run UN investigators out of town. Morales’s predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, also sought to end CICIG’s mandate, but he relented after former Vice President Joe Biden threatened to cut U.S. aid. Pérez Molina ended up in jail courtesy of CICIG, and Morales, who is under investigation for campaign finance violations, has shown no interest in replaying Pérez Molina’s downfall.
But until now, the Trump administration had offered CICIG top cover. Last summer, after Morales tried to deport CICIG’s commissioner, the former Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, U.S. officials again stepped in. U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga, a career diplomat, posed for a photograph with Velásquez, holding an “I love CICIG” bumper sticker. Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, visited CICIG headquarters and appeared moderately supportive.
In May, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Trump’s top congressional ally on Latin America issues, froze funding for CICIG over unsubstantiated allegations that the UN body was a Russian puppet. But he later restored U.S. contributions, as CICIG’s allies pointed out its stellar record, including the dismissal of 1,700 corrupt police officers and probes into hundreds of public officials, including lawmakers and judges.
Now, however, the White House has surrendered to Guatemala’s corrupt administration. Haley, who rolled out a brash hashtag, #USstrong, for the U.S. rotating UN Security Council presidency this month, has been silent. Pompeo, who boasts of recapturing the State Department’s “swagger,” responded to Morales’s CICIG assault by praising Guatemala’s counternarcotics cooperation.
Pompeo did not mention CICIG, and Morales clearly got the message. Three days later, he said Velásquez, who was visiting Washington at the time, was banned from returning to Guatemala.
Inevitably, U.S. policy is never governed purely by moral calculations. But in the case of CICIG, it is hard to detect any concerns that remotely outweigh the U.S. interest in establishing the rule of law in Guatemala. There is no U.S. military base, as in Bahrain, conditioning U.S. human rights policy, or a critical supply route, as in Pakistan, raising the stakes of the diplomatic relationship. In fact, it is Guatemala that relies upon U.S. largess.
So why is the tail wagging the dog? It’s hard to say. Perhaps the White House, stung by El Salvador’s unexpected diplomatic rupture with Taiwan, is desperate to keep Guatemala in its orbit. Or maybe Pompeo is rewarding Guatemala for its willingness to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem.
Either way, the decision is deeply regrettable, and should be reversed. The implications extend far beyond the fragile criminal justice system in gang- and corruption-ridden Guatemala. The U.S. abandonment of CICIG signals a faltering commitment to a similar body in Honduras, and undermines the U.S. argument that corruption contributes mightily to the violence and underdevelopment that plague Central America’s Northern Triangle.
Worse still, by dumping CICIG, U.S. Latin America policy shows signs it might be subsumed by the White House’s broader disinterest in good governance abroad. Given the timing, with the United States rightly ramping up its defense of civil liberties in Nicaragua and preparing for Trump’s first visit to the region this fall, the abandonment of CICIG in Guatemala is a particularly disappointing and damaging development.