After declaring the head of a UN commission persona non grata in his country amid investigations into narco donations to his campaign, Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales may well have moved himself into moral bankruptcy. Does the Trump administration have the moral authority, or intention, to oppose a desperate move to thwart justice?
Morales announced his decision to remove Commissioner Iván Velásquez of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) the morning of August 27, via a short video (see below). The reason given was "to defend the rule of law." He added that the commissioner, who is a Colombian national, needed to leave the country immediately.
(Courtesy of Guatevisión)
Dozens of Guatemalans have reportedly congregated in front of the presidential palace to protest the decision, and the president has ordered all police to suspend leave and return to work.
The extraordinary move by the embattled Guatemalan president came just two days after Velásquez and Guatemala's Attorney General Thelma Aldana presented a broad outline of an investigation into illicit contributions to Morales' presidential campaign and requested that congress remove the president's immunity so they could proceed in their efforts to prosecute Morales and other politicians. The day prior, the two announced they were also investigating politicians from the other leading parties from that same election.
As it happened, on August 25, Morales met in New York with United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who after that meeting reiterated his strong support of Velásquez. The UN is the official sponsor of Velásquez and the CICIG, which, among other things, prosecutes corruption and organized crime cases alongside Guatemala's Attorney General's Office.
CICIG is held up as a model in how to fight organized crime and corruption, especially the type that grows from within a state like Guatemala's. It was the driver, for example, behind the investigation that led to the 2015 resignations of then President Otto Pérez Molina and then Vice President Roxana Baldetti, both of whom are in jail as their case makes its way through the judicial system.
The US government has been the main political and financial backer of the CICIG, paying for about half its $12 million annual budget since it began in 2007. And despite worries that the Trump administration would placate the country's darker forces, Trump officials have clearly signaled their support for the commission.
Morales' move changes the equation, forcing the US to take a stronger position or stand-down in the face of a clear effort to obstruct justice. The Guatemalan president appears to be cornered and is playing his last card to save his administration.
This is because the case against Morales, which appears intimately connected to organized crime, looks damning. It allegedly involves an ex army special forces operator turned drug trafficker, who may have financed the Morales campaign in the belief that it would afford him some level of protection. When it did not -- and he was captured and extradited -- he turned on the president and his political party, which, incidentally, was created by former military officials.
Morales' ire against the CICIG began before it started probing campaign contributions into him and others. The commission and the Attorney General's Office are also prosecuting the president's brother and his son for malfeasance and corruption. The two were arrested in January.
Throughout, the US has publicly and poignantly backed the CICIG and Attorney General Aldana, but it has never faced a challenge like this. (Aldana said she would resign if Morales forced out Velásquez, and if she leaves, Morales may get a two-for-one deal.)
The UN has already voiced its position, saying the secretary general is "shocked"; in a joint statement, US and several European embassies that support the CICIG condemned the move; and US Congessional Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also criticized the decision, saying the US "must examine the future of our foreign assistance" with Guatemala, according to ABC News.
But the voice that really matters is that of Trump, who is, of course, facing down investigators of his own campaign by similarly dedicated public servants and prosecutors, one of whom he fired in a manner not too different from what Morales is doing now. There is little question that Trump administration officials will continue to denounce Morales' act as undermining democracy and the rule of law, as they should, but their protests carry little weight while their boss carries out a campaign against his own would-be prosecutors in their investigation of Russia's meddling in the US elections.
Morales has a lot in common with his US presidential counterpart that go beyond his seemingly tainted electoral victory and his efforts to thwart investigators. He is a former comedian and television star who parlayed this exposure into an incredible sprint to the presidency.
Buoyed by an image as an "outsider," and with a polished and practiced relationship with the TV cameras, Morales easily bested a former first lady, who many saw as a continuation of the corrupt practices of governments past. While Morales did not directly court extremist elements of the electorate like Trump did, he had his own version of "black face" that he used as part of his comedic routine. Guatemala does not have white supremacist movements but does have a long history of institutional racism, especially against indigenous communities.
SEE ALSO: The War for Guatemala's Courts
However similar they are, Trump is likely to thump his neighbor, if he thought it would advance his personal agenda (see US - Mexico relations). But Trump's "America First" foreign policy give us little indication of what direction he will take.
What we have seen so far is that "America First" means a lot of things. It can mean sanctioning governments, as the US has done with Venezuela, attempting to squeeze that country's government into reversing its decision to undo what was left of democracy.
But "America First" has also meant staying quiet, or even providing support, while others commit atrocities (see Syria), abuse human rights and commit extrajudicial executions (see the Philippines), or systematically undermine democracy in their own or other countries (see Russia).
Like Venezuela, Trump may leave this issue to his subordinates and congress, which would probably mean a strong rebuke and possibly economic sanctions. In a joint statement on August 23, before Morales' announcement that he was revoking Velásquez's diplomatic status, Representative Engel; Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the Chairman Emeritus of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; and Representative Albio Sires (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said congress would rethink its multi-million dollar aid package to the region, part of which is slated to go to Guatemala.
"The removal of Commissioner Velásquez would force members of Congress to make tough decisions regarding the amount and nature of future foreign assistance to Guatemala," they wrote.
But tough diplomacy seems less likely, especially since the State Department is a shell of its former self; the very active, pro-CICIG US Ambassador Todd Robinson is finishing up his term; and, most importantly, the Trump administration has no coherent foreign policy.
What's more, formulating a clear, moral stance against corruption and in favor of the rule of law is going to seem ridiculous, especially since Trump is working to undermine investigations into his own conduct in exactly the same way as Morales is. In fact, Morales seems to be calling the Trump administration's bluff, and Trump may be out of cards.