07.22.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Situation In Guatemala

Mr. President, with the Congress focused on the U.S. – Iran nuclear agreement it is not surprising that recent developments in Guatemala have not received the attention they deserve, either here or in the international press.  I want to speak briefly about this as it should interest all Senators, particularly at a time when the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are seeking significant U.S. funding to support the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America”. 

The Cold War history of U.S. involvement in Guatemala is not one we can be overly proud of.  The role of the United Fruit Company, the CIA, Guatemala’s landholding elite, and others in orchestrating the removal of democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954, the training and equipping of the Guatemalan military that carried out a scorched Earth campaign against a rebel insurgency and the rural indigenous population in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, and policies favoring the financial and political elite who perpetuated the racism, social and economic inequities, corruption, violence, and impunity that persist to this day, are all part of that collective experience. 

One of the vestiges of that period is the continuing harassment, vilification, death threats, and even malicious prosecutions of human rights defenders and other social activists.  It is regrettable that Guatemala’s authorities have failed to condemn or take effective steps to stop this pattern and practice of threats and abuse of the justice system. 

Yet while the 1996 Peace Accords that finally ended 36 years of armed conflict were, for the most part, not implemented, since then the U.S. has sought to help address the causes of poverty, inequality, and injustice in Guatemala. 

We have funded child nutrition and public health programs, bilingual education for indigenous children, efforts to reform and professionalize the police, prevent violence against women, strengthen the institutional capacity of the Public Ministry, locate and identify the remains of thousands of people who disappeared during the war and ended up in mass graves, support reparations for victims of the Chixoy massacres, protect biodiversity and preserve pre-Columbian archeological sites in Peten.  The results of these efforts have been mixed, but they do signify a positive trend in our relations with Guatemala in recent years for which the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others deserve credit.

President Perez Molina also deserves credit for supporting the agreement to finance the Chixoy reparations plan, which some in his own government opposed.  It is now essential that the agreement is implemented so the communities who suffered losses are compensated.

The U.S. has also been a strong supporter of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, otherwise known as CICIG, which, in collaboration with the Office of the Attorney General has played an indispensable role in investigations and prosecutions of cases of corruption, organized crime, and clandestine groups, as well as crimes against humanity and other human rights atrocities dating to the civil war.  I commend the way CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana are working together to address these issues. 

Each year since CICIG’s inception in 2007, as either chairman or ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign aid programs, and as a former prosecutor and chairman or ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, I have included a U.S. contribution to CICIG. 

I have also twice supported the extension of CICIG when it was nearing the end of its mandate.  Most recently, when President Otto Perez Molina indicated that he did not intend to renew CICIG’s mandate I argued that the weakness of Guatemala’s justice system and the continuing high levels of corruption and impunity were compelling reasons to extend CICIG.  I was gratified that earlier this year its mandate was extended until 2017.

While Guatemala’s justice system remains fragile, the partnership between CICIG and the Public Ministry has played a critical role in advancing the cause of justice in Guatemala.  But Guatemala’s problems are not unique.  Honduras and El Salvador suffer from many of the same conditions – weak justice systems that lack credibility, rampant corruption, threats and assassinations of human rights defenders, journalists, and even prosecutors, and a history of impunity.  I hope those governments look to CICIG as a model for how they could benefit from the technical expertise and independence of the international community to help address these deeply rooted problems. 

Simultaneous with President Perez Molina’s decision to extend CICIG’s mandate, the need for CICIG became even more apparent.  As a result of its investigations, high ranking officials in the Perez Molina Government, including Vice President Roxana Baldetti and one of her top aides, as well as the President’s chief of staff and other senior officials, have either resigned or been arrested due to allegations of bribery and other corruption related to customs and social security.  In addition, a leading vice presidential candidate of the Lider Party has been implicated.  This may only be the tip of the iceberg, as it is common knowledge that corruption is widespread in Guatemala.

Such scandals involving powerful public figures are by no means unprecedented, as other Guatemalan officials – including a former President and Minister of Interior – have been implicated in such crimes and became fugitives from justice.  But unlike in the past, these latest scandals have galvanized a diverse spectrum of civil society to join in peaceful public demonstrations over a period of several months calling for an end to corruption and impunity, and for the resignation of the President who would be replaced by a transition government in accordance with Guatemala’s Constitution.  

The timing of these protests is significant, as presidential elections are scheduled for September 6th and speculation is rife as to whether or not President Perez Molina will serve out his term.

The United States has a strong interest in democracy and justice in Guatemala, as well as a better life for the millions of Guatemala’s citizens, particularly indigenous and other historically marginalized groups, who live in poverty.  Many, with only a few years of formal education and no reliable source of income, including victims of ethnic discrimination, gangs and violent crime, have risked life and limb in search of opportunities in the United States.  It is our hope that the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity, with complimentary and balanced investments in governance, prosperity, and security, will begin to provide the economic opportunities and address these difficult social and law enforcement challenges in a sustainable way.  I look forward to discussing these issues with our friends in the House of Representatives later this year.

More immediately, it is important that the United States carefully calibrates its response to the popular demands for reform.  What is happening in Guatemala today is both unique and encouraging in the way it has inspired and united, for the first time in Guatemala’s history, indigenous and non-indigenous, both rural and urban groups, poor and middle class that previously did not share a common agenda.  This has enhanced the prospects for real change in a country that has been plagued for two decades by the divisive, tragic legacies of the war and by powerful forces in government and the private sector resistant to change for generations.  

In this context, civil society requires support and protection, taking into account Guatemala’s past history of repression and violence.  I urge U.S. officials to make clear that the United States unequivocally supports the aspirations of Guatemalan civil society that is now struggling for the right of all the Guatemalan people to have transparent and accountable government, including honest and professional police and an independent judiciary.  

Guatemala is a country with an extraordinarily rich culture, natural resources, and human potential.  But without respect for human rights and the rule of law, and real change that provides for equitable economic opportunities and political representation, that potential will remain unfulfilled.  It is long past time for an end to impunity, including for public officials who misuse their office to enrich themselves, their families, and their friends, and for a new era of effective governance, prosperity, and freedom from fear for all Guatemalans.

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