Protesters in Guatemala have spent the last four months on the streets, calling for the resignation of their now ex-President, Otto Pérez Molina, after his vice president stepped down to face charges in a corruption scandal. On Thursday, Pérez Molina resigned, appeared in court the very same day, and was in jail by the following morning. And this was just days before Sunday's Sept. 6 elections, which will lead to a run-off vote in October.
Pérez Molina's resignation has implications for U.S. foreign policy towards Guatemala and Central America's Northern Triangle. Here are some reasons why:
1. The U.S. State Department Supports Guatemala's Anti-Impunity Commission
The State Department is one of the funders for the UN-led Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent, international body which helped pave the legal precedents for recent corruption takedowns. Since its inception in 2007, CICIG has reduced Guatemala's impunity rate from 90% to 75%. The U.S. supported the body's renewal earlier this year, despite Pérez Molina's ambivalence to do so. Under a new attorney general, CICIG has clearly made massive strides - in the course of one summer, they have been able to implicate their top two heads of state for corruption charges. The U.S. must continue to support this process to help facilitate accountability and opportunities for Guatemalans in their home countries.
2. Congress is still debating Obama's proposed $1 billion aid package to Central America
In the past years, the majority of funding to Central America, allocated through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), has primarily focused on the drug war and fighting gangs through military and police training and equipment.
But this aid has done little to lower gang-related drug violence. The unprecedented number of child migrants from Guatemala and neighboring El Salvador and Honduras last summer is a testament that its people are still fleeing very real threats.
Obama's proposed $1 billion aid package to Central America would add $541 million of humanitarian and development aid to the current package. This additional funding would primarily be used to address root causes of violence and poverty in Guatemala that drive its residents to flee their home countries.
Some analysts have argued that the top heads of state getting implicated for corruption shows that we should limit aid, not expand it, because we obviously can't trust funds in the hands of such a corrupt government. But it's unrealistic that Congress would cut funding altogether after providing almost $300 million a year through the Central America Regional Security Initiative. The House version of the bill just cuts Obama's additional aid request that target more structural reforms that could continue Guatemala's progress towards state accountability.
However, U.S. aid for projects like CICIG have shown much more concrete progress - the takedown of former VP Roxanna Baldetti and Pérez Molina himself a case in point.
3. There is Political Will for Structural Change in Guatemala Beyond the Upcoming Elections
Under CICIG, Guatemala is already making strides against corruption, especially under stronger leadership. But outside of the international commission, the Guatemalan state itself is slowly showing its commitment to anti-impunity. Though CICIG made recommendations against Baldetti and Pérez Molina, it wasn't until Guatemala's Congress stripped the President of his executive immunity that charges could be formally brought against him. In its second vote last Monday, they voted unanimously to strip his immunity so that he could be prosecuted by the law. And just days later, that is just what is happening.
Throughout this wave of protests, the U.S. State Department has remained relatively quiet. After Baldetti's resignation in May, they put out a press release stating their support for Pérez Molina. Since then, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala allegedly discouraged Pérez Molina from repressing protesters, and they have released a statement taking note of the President's resignation, stating:
"We will work with the new President, Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, on his reform agenda, while we continue the struggle against corruption and impunity in Guatemala. We applaud the Guatemalans and their institutions for the peaceful manner in which they have managed this crisis. We emphasize our support for the democratic process in Guatemala, including in the general elections scheduled for September 6."
Such statements vaguely point to U.S. support for elections and anti-corruption, but they do not directly address the connection of how U.S. aid could support - or undermine - such steps. Despite the landmark moment that Pérez Molina's resignation and charges of corruption constitutes, it does not guarantee that future heads of state will be any different than he is. Guatemala's current frontrunners in the elections are a businessman tied to the Guatemalan oligarchy that has been deeply embedded in corruption, and a comedian.
In addition to supporting fair elections, the U.S. must support efforts to strengthen the institutions that will hold the executive branch accountable. As Eric Olson from the Wilson Center writes:
If Guatemala is able to demonstrate its ability to hold its authorities accountable, including possibly the Vice President and President, then there is reason to believe that additional international support for democratic institutions is worthwhile as long as these efforts strengthen the rule of law and guarantee space for public engagement on the streets and through an independent media, and not just at the ballot box.
Under the current and future administrations in Guatemala, the U.S. must support structural reforms that will increase justice and transparency in the country. This does not mean cutting aid to a corrupt nation, but rather allocating it in a more effective way.