In Times of War and in Times of 'Peace': The Role of the U.S. Embassy in the Current Political Turmoil of Guatemala

06/01/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

The United States government is no stranger to meddling in the politics of Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA almost single-handedly overthrew the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz. During the 1970s and 80s the U.S. channeled military aid to the Guatemalan government through Israel and trained a good number of army officials that carried out massacres and politics of genocide against the Mayan population.

Bill Clinton, in a 1999 visit to Guatemala, even apologized to Guatemalan citizens for the U.S. role in supporting military violence in the country. "For the United States," Mr. Clinton said, "it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake."

Clinton ended his speech in 1999 saying, "We are determined to remember the past," said Clinton, "but never repeat it." Memory is short, however, because today similar occurrences are underway.

During the past month, Guatemala has lived a political earthquake. Cases of enormous corruption in different government ministries have been revealed almost on a daily basis. For the first time in many years, different sectors of the population have united in massive protests around the country demanding the renunciation of government officials, including president Otto Pérez Molina.

In the midst of this situation, the power and influence of the U.S. embassy has been patently clear. The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN commission created to promote accountability and strengthen the rule of law while operating under Guatemalan criminal procedures, revealed the first case of government corruption in the Guatemalan tax ministry in April that lit the fuse to the beginning of the protests. For over two weeks, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanded the renunciation of Roxanna Baldetti, the vice president whose personal secretary was the head of the corruption scandal. Baldetti and President Otto Pérez, however, refused to respect the popular outcry for Baldetti's renunciation, until the U.S. Embassy intervened.

On May 7th, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala together with officials from the CICIG met with Otto Pérez Molina to discuss the situation of political turmoil in Guatemala. On May 8th, Baldetti finally resigned. The question remains: Why did the U.S. Embassy exercise its power to demand Baldetti's resignation and what strategic interests is the U.S. government after in this current political turmoil?

The government of Otto Pérez and Roxanna Baldetti was never very popular with the United States. Early on in his term, President Otto Pérez drew Washington's ire by presenting a regional proposal to legalize drugs as a strategy to battle drug-trafficking through Central America. In 2014, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala urged President Pérez to not nominate Blanca Stalling as judge of the Supreme Court due to her susceptibility to trafficking of influences. Pérez ignored the U.S. Embassy´s admonitions, nominated Stalling, and further debilitated Guatemala's already very unstable judicial system. Recently, Judge Stalling's son was implicated in the current corruption scandals.

Furthermore, the corruption in the customs and ports of Guatemala worried Washington. Osama Aranki is Jordanian citizen who was discovered to be involved in the structures of corruption affecting the ports and customs of Guatemala. His links to possible terrorist organizations in the Middle East led Washington to fear that corruption in Guatemala could eventually lead to the illegal importation of weapons from the Middle East to Central America.

These and many other incidents eventually led the U.S. government into pressuring the government of Guatemala into accepting reforms it deemed necessary. The resignation of Vice President Baldetti was only the beginning. Interior Ministro Mauricio Bonilla also recently resigned (most surely due to pressure from the U.S. embassy) and has been replaced by Eunice Mendizabal, a strong ally of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), another influential player of the U.S. Government in Guatemala.

The protest movement against the government of Otto Pérez Molina has clearly divided into two different sectors. On one side of the coin, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations of Guatemala (CACIF) which represents the economic, business elite has partnered with the position of the US Embassy. They joined the popular calls for Baldetti's resignation but have since focused on pressuring Pérez into calling for the renunciation of certain government ministers and replacing those ministers with those that fit their interests.

The popular movements of university students, peasants, labor unions, indigenous Mayans, and others, however, are calling for a National Constitutional Assembly to re-create a political system that they believe cannot be simply reformed. These sectors obviously represent the majority of the protestors, but receive very little press coverage. Their intent to reconstruct the Guatemalan State is feared both by the U.S. government and by the CACIF, both of whom are seeking to escape from the current political crisis with more power and influence over the institutions of the Guatemalan government.

In January of 2015, Vice President Joe Biden visited Central America to promote the "Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle." This U.S.-designed plan intends to spend over a billion dollars in the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that make up one of the most violent regions in the world. Biden was also a huge proponent for Plan Colombia, a similar plan that the U.S. implemented in Colombia during the last decade.

The Plan for Prosperity, if passed, is to focus its investment in three main areas: promoting security, good governance, and economies open to foreign investment and international trade.

Promoting security means, among other things, more sales of U.S. manufactured weapons to the Guatemalan police and military forces. It would also, presumably, include a wider influence of the U.S. armed forces within Central America. The promotion of good governance would follow from the current actions being taken by the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala where the United States government would have a hand in determining who is to be nominated to positions of judicial power in Central America.

Lastly, the opening of Central American economies is the backbone of the deal. In a January op-ed in The New York Times, Biden states his belief that "Central American economies can grow only by attracting international investment. That requires... protections for investors; courts that can be trusted to adjudicate disputes fairly; protections for intellectual property."

Since the negotiation of the Central American free trade agreements a decade ago, the United States' main political interest has been the continued opening and de-regulation of Central American economies. These policies have caused untold disaster for Central American communities, both rural and urban. Even the issue of national sovereignty has come under fire, as international tribunals have ruled against Central American governments fighting against U.S. mining companies claiming a "right" to operate in the country despite popular and governmental refusal.

The current meddling of the U.S. government in the political turmoil of Guatemala of the moment is not coincidental. It is the result of a dogged determination to control the geopolitical sphere of Central America, a determination that dates back hundreds of years. The United States government is not so interested in combating the corruption affecting the Guatemalan government as in assuring control and its continued hegemony over a region that it has historically considered its own.