By Nicholas Virzi
The Biden Administration is celebrating the Summit for Democracy on December 9–10. Its ostensible purpose is to strengthen democracy, defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote human rights. A declared plan is the mobilization of resources for journalists and civil-society organizations supported by the United States and other international actors.
In an intentional slap in the face to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the United States did not invite these Central American nations to attend the virtual democracy summit.
The justification for not inviting them was that these countries face “some challenges,” according to Juan Gonzalez, the top Latin American advisor to President Joe Biden. Gonzalez acknowledged that some of the countries that would not participate “may be democracies, but have very disturbing activities.” This prompted the United States to exclude them.
In the case of Guatemala, the challenges mentioned include the State Department’s political designation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras as an undemocratic and corrupt actor, alleged threats against civil society, and corruption. With this exclusion, the United States unfairly groups Guatemala with dictatorships such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
The insincerity and shortsightedness of the Biden administration revealed in its mistreatment of Guatemala, a key US ally in Central America, is striking. First, the United States is hardly the beacon of democracy in the world. For several years in a row, the Economist Intelligence Unit has classified the United States as an incomplete democracy. The democratic weaknesses of the United States highlighted by the EIU are:
- low level of trust in parties and institutions;
- dysfunctional government;
- growing threats to freedom of expression;
- high levels of polarization in society.
One could add the collapse of public trust in the media, as documented by Gallup. Public trust in government is also near historic lows in the United States, Pew Research reports. At or near historic lows in the key indicators of democratic quality, the United States is not in a position to posture herself as the leader of the free world and to lecture developing countries with republican political regimes on how to best conduct their internal affairs.
The contradictions in the US position are glaring. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken welcomed the United Nations to investigate “the scourge of racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia” in the United States. This is hardly the best talking point for US soft power on behalf of democracy in the world.
The United States is also one of the few developed democracies to still have the death penalty. Biden had campaigned on eliminating the death penalty at the federal level. This year, the Democrats’ legislative plan was to eliminate the death penalty, yet the Biden administration’s stance remains unclear. Guatemala, in contrast, no longer applies the death penalty.
The United States also has the largest prison population in the world, well above such nondemocracies as Russia and China. Racial minorities, of course, are over represented in the US prison population, as progressives in the president’s own party are wont to criticize vocally.
The United States’ commitment to democracy and human rights appears to vary significantly according to the international forum and her political interests. The Biden administration had no problem returning to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to collaborate with regimes classified as authoritarian by reputed organizations such as Freedom House. It is entirely contradictory for the United States to champion human rights alongside authoritarian regimes like Cameroon, Eritrea, Qatar, and Somalia in a wholly discredited forum like the UNHRC, but then refuse to include long-standing ally Guatemala in the Summit for Democracy.
The US accusation of corruption in Guatemala is with basis, as Guatemala has a poor rating in control of corruption, according to the World Bank. However, this is hardly a justification for excluding Guatemala from the summit, since countries with much worse evaluations of corruption have been invited. Guatemala’s grading on corruption is more than twice better than Iraq’s and almost six times better than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet both countries have been invited to the summit. For that matter, Guatemala also has greater freedom of the press than these two countries, according to the World Press Freedom Index.
The truth is that Guatemala has better ratings on democracy, corruption, and press freedom than several countries that have been invited to participate in the summit.
On the basis of the US government’s own discourse on the merits of democracy, rather than republicanism, the United States has little moral authority to lecture Guatemala on the classical-liberal qualities of her political regime. The presidents of Guatemala are elected by majority in a popular vote. Since 1996, Guatemala has had free, fair, regular, and undisputed elections.
In contrast, the last two elections in the United States have been severely questioned regarding their legitimacy. The same went for the 2000 election, the outcome of which had to be decided by the Supreme Court. The same has happened in important elections at the state level. The last gubernatorial election in Georgia is a case in point. Stacey Abrams has yet to concede that she lost fair and square, yet she garners prominent support as a future leader of the Democrats.
I would be remiss to fail to mention that, since her democratic transition, Guatemala has not suffered any “insurrection” as the Biden administration claims occurred in the United States in 2021—even though the administration has failed to charge a single person with that specific crime.
The Guatemalan government, unlike the US one, does not suffer from credible accusations that its intelligence, justice, and foreign-relations institutions have participated in political espionage and subversive campaigns against the political opposition. Congressman Jody Hice has made these allegations, and Investor’s Business Daily has reported on the substance of the charges.
Guatemala arguably has a more independent press than the United States. The Guatemalan media do not wholesale censor themselves to block the publication of legitimate news stories harmful to one political party. The US mainstream media, by contrast, have buried legitimate stories about scandals and credible allegations of corruption involving the Biden family, in order to affect the outcome of the 2020 election. The US mainstream media were also a willing participant in a political smear operation run by Obama administration officials to slander the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. The US media might be free, but they are not fair, nor can it be credibly said that they are independent of one political party.
Guatemalan presidents do not conduct scripted, highly structured press conferences with a subservient and sycophantic media. Guatemalan presidents regularly participate in highly interactive media conferences, before an independent and adversarial press. The contrast with the pantomime press conferences in the Biden era is striking.
The truth is that the United States targets the Guatemalan government for applying justice impartially and not selectively, as the US government does against its political opponents. The Biden administration, for example, recently restored pension benefits for disgraced FBI official Andrew McCabe, who was fired for repeatedly lying during a criminal leak investigation, according to the inspector general of the Department of Justice.
McCabe, of course, was a principal operator of the illegal conspiracy by Obama officials to undermine the Trump campaign and administration. To date, all the main operators of this illegal campaign have escaped legal consequences, and they will get away with it. The point is, any Guatemalan official who had done the same against political officials favored by the US government would immediately be placed on the list of corrupt and antidemocratic actors.
Simply put, the United States harasses Guatemala out of bitterness that she lost her highly politicized “anti-corruption” campaign against the previous administration in Guatemala. Then President Jimmy Morales expelled the CICIG, the US- and UN-backed anti-corruption commission, for interfering in domestic political affairs. Morales committed the sin of successfully lobbying the Trump administration, with Israel’s help.
Everything changed after Jimmy Morales defeated the US State Department. The so-called anti-corruption Guatemalan prosecutors championed by the United States at that time are now officially fugitives from justice. They are not persons in exile as US functionaries and the mainstream media incorrectly claim.
A few facts are in order. Current Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras has applied the law on the books in Guatemala, and there appears to be sufficient evidence to sustain the charges. A fair trial with due process would determine guilt. Under the current administration in Guatemala, the accused would most likely fight their case in court as free persons on bail, something denied to the accused when the Obama administration and the CICIG ran the show.
The plain fact is that the United States is currently harboring Guatemalan fugitives from justice even as she lectures the government of Guatemala on the correct application of justice. It bears reminding that the slogan of the fugitive ex-attorney general favored by the US State Department, Thelma Aldana, was “whoever owes nothing, fears nothing,” referencing persons accused during her tenure who were regularly imprisoned while awaiting trial.
Guatemalans are strongly pro-American and follow current affairs in the United States closely. Guatemalans are not strangers to the fact that the US government does not pursue political violence committed by Marxist groups such as BLM and Antifa, nor abuses of power committed by public officials to benefit those in control of federal power. As a developing country, Guatemala cannot afford to import the “mostly peaceful” left-wing riots that have destroyed private property and people’s lives in US cities run by progressives.
Guatemala needs first and foremost the rule of law. On this matter, the US is clearly not the model for Guatemala to follow. The United States suffered a 25 percent increase in her homicide rate this last year, due in great part to a slew of soft-on-crime district attorneys financed by George Soros. The 20 most dangerous cities in the United States have higher homicide rates than Guatemala. Parenthetically, Soros also finances many civil-society organizations in Guatemala, Judicial Watch reports.
It is an embarrassment for a developed country such as the United States to have dangerously high murder rates in so many cities run by progressives. It should come as no surprise that Guatemalans then reject US progressives’ lectures on how to establish a democratic law-and-order regime.
Still, despite her repeated betrayals, the United States has always been able to count on Guatemala’s international support for democracies harassed by authoritarian regimes. Guatemala’s elite military forces, the Kaibiles, have participated in combat in support of UN peacekeeping missions. Consistent strong foreign policy in support of Israel and Taiwan constitute two other convincing cases pointing to Guatemala’s defense of the democratic peace agenda on the world stage. Guatemala just recently voted with Israel (and the United States) in the UN General Assembly against its latest resolutions targeting Israel.
In further demonstration of its reliability in the cause for global democracy, Guatemala is one of the few countries in Latin America to still recognize Taiwan as an independent country, something even the United States does not do. Rather than lecturing Guatemala, the United States would do well to follow this example of courageous leadership on the international stage in defense of the global cause of democracy against authoritarianism.
The United States purportedly wants to defend democracy against authoritarianism and blunt China’s advance into Latin America, particularly Central America. The United States cannot succeed in this effort without key allies like Guatemala. US belly-aching and non-stop nagging of her allies has come at a high price. In Central America, El Salvador is fast moving further into China’s orbit, and the new Honduran President-Elect Xiomara Castro has declared her intention to establish formal relations with China.
The US strategy of upbraiding her allies has concretely expanded China’s reach into Central America, long considered to be the United States’ exclusive sphere of influence.
Guatemala is one of the few countries in Central America that the United States can rely on, at least for now, to support its policy of curbing the growing Chinese influence in the region. Meanwhile, the left-wing strategic partners of civil society the United States works with in Guatemala have long favored establishing ever closer ties with China in order to blunt US influence in the region, which they have traditionally openly resented. These strategic partners also do not recognize the right of the United States to mitigate illegal immigration flows.
In short, US officials deliberately champion local actors in Guatemala who oppose the two main pillars of US foreign policy. Should the United States lose Guatemala, it would be a game-changer not only for the democratic cause worldwide, but also, and more importantly, for US national security.
The United States should immediately reconsider and invite Guatemala, its long-standing ally in the global cause for democracy, to the summit. The United States should also reconsider whom she chooses to promote as key strategic partners in Guatemala, and work more closely with the pro-US private sector to promote democratic development, mitigate illegal immigration, and maintain US influence in the region.
Failure to change the course of US foreign policy runs the risk that the Summit for Democracy will herald the coming of yet another colossal failure of US diplomacy: the loss of Central America. Excluded from the family of democratic nations, it should surprise no one if Guatemala turns closer to China. Israel and Taiwan, also, would do well to activate every lever of influence in their diplomatic services to remind the United States of these salient facts. Along with the United States, they have the most to lose if the United States continues to drive fledgling democracies more firmly into the sphere of influence of authoritarian regimes.
Nicholas Virzi is a professor of international relations at Francisco Marroquín University and a frequent lecturer on geopolitics in the conference circuit in Guatemala.