Amid all the recent attention paid to power rivalries in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, little consideration has been given to the US position in Central America and its relationships with specific countries such as Guatemala.
The US-Guatemala relationship is pivotal for both nations. On the commercial front, the United States is Guatemala’s main trading partner, representing over $114 billion in trade over the last 10 years. Further, the United States is the main trading partner of Guatemala’s other top trading partners, all in the same region. Trade, however, is not the only important factor in this bilateral relationship.
During the Cold War, the most decisive victory of the US-led counterstrategy against Soviet-inspired violent revolutionary movements that engulfed Latin America was in Guatemala. Nowhere was winning the Cold War more important than near US shores. After all, the United States was always posited as the last domino. Ironically, Guatemala was instrumental to the US victory over Soviet communism in Latin America after the Jimmy Carter administration cut off US military aid to Guatemala on the grounds of human-rights abuses.
Over the years, Guatemala remained Central America’s most steadfast US ally. Even today, Guatemala can be counted upon to be among the few countries in the world that back US foreign policy in international forums regarding embattled free countries such as Israel and Taiwan. Today, Guatemala is the Central American country that most actively works to mitigate the flow of illegal immigration and drugs into the United States.
Guatemala should be considered a key US ally, regardless of the ideological bent of the particular government in either country. That being said, any two governments sharing the same basic ideology are likely to share more political priorities in common as well as their intensity of preferences over policy outcomes.
A left-wing government is scheduled to take power in Guatemala on January 14, under President-Elect Bernardo Arévalo of the Semilla Movement, a left-of-center party. At the moment, such a Guatemalan government will find ample priorities in common with the current US government.
However, the US presidency may change after the next presidential election. If the election were held today, the favorite to win would be Donald Trump. The last time Trump was president, US-Guatemala relations changed significantly, as did the UN-Guatemala relationship. How future US-Guatemala relations would be impacted by a Trump victory in 2024 remains an open question.
The future of the US-Guatemala relationship should not remain under conditions of risk and uncertainty depending on the particular governments in power in each country. The region, after all, is key to US national security on many fronts, including migration, drug trafficking, terrorist infiltration, and the penetration of the US underbelly by powerful rivals.
US foreign policy should take these factors into account. Meanwhile, one would expect a foreign policy to punish adversaries and reward allies, coaxing them to gradually become better republics with market economies.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. In 1979 Georgetown University Professor Jeane Kirkpatrick published her famous essay Dictatorships and Double Standards. Under President Jimmy Carter, the United States aggressively pushed a human-rights agenda that was harsh on US allies such as Iran and Nicaragua. Kirkpatrick criticized this focus, because the United States ended up debilitating moderate autocrats allied with the United States, only to have them replaced with more extreme autocrats and/or revolutionary totalitarian regimes hostile to the United States. Due in large part to perceived foreign-policy failures, Carter ended up losing the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan whose firm, anticommunist policies of peace through strength ended up winning the Cold War.
Flash-forward to now, and US pressure for national and subnational changes has produced predictable blowback in Guatemala. The last years (2017–2019) of the US-backed UN Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) turned out to be a polarizing experiment that divided Guatemalans along political lines. Though it remains the favored experiment among the international community, the CICIG strayed from its original mandate. The CICIG launched into an anticorruption effort that was criticized for, among other things, obviating due process rights. On account of powerful opposition from internationally reputable actors, which the CICIG had imprudently provoked, the US-backed CICIG was forced to leave Guatemala.
The CICIG did not limit its intromissions in Guatemalan domestic affairs to legal issues concerning corruption. The CICIG delved into controversial issues such as constitutional reform, and the United Nations pressured for a constitutional reform in Guatemala that would include collective indigenous rights. CICIG chief Iván Velásquez openly supported this, as did the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. This issue had little to do with the original CICIG mandate nor first-order US foreign-policy goals in the region and strained US-Guatemala bilateral relations.
The issue ultimately failed but not before staining the CICIG’s reputation and needlessly stressing US-Guatemala bilateral relations. Even today, perceptions of US pressure on Guatemala are leading many important actors to question the unconditional support that Guatemala has displayed for US foreign-policy goals.
Traditionally in Guatemala, as in the rest of the region, the pro-China and Russia, anti-US camp has been composed of left-wing intellectuals, politicians, and commentators. If left to their preferences, they would abandon Israel and Taiwan as foreign-policy prerogatives for Guatemala as a first order of business. This would be a great blow to US foreign policy in the region and the world.
A more pragmatic, gradual approach needs to be adopted regarding the most loyal US ally in the region. If the United States loses Guatemala, she loses Central America.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Impunity Observer.
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