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Millennial Letters

Guatemala’s Legitimacy Crisis Dooms Obama’s Aid Package

The Obama administration’s proposed $1 billion aid package to Central America’s Northern Triangle—composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—already faced stiff resistance on Capitol Hill. But Guatemala’s growing “legitimacy crisis” makes the odds the United States will ultimately triple its aid to the region slim to none.

Originally proposed in January, the aid package was intended to stem the tide of unaccompanied minors at the US-Mexico border. Vice President Joe Biden explained in a New York Times op-ed that the aid would address the three countries’ “security, governance and economic challenges” and make the region a safer, more vibrant place for those who would otherwise flee. He even heralded Guatemala’s removal of corrupt government officials as a critical component to the countries’ joint economic reform plan.

Not four months later, Guatemala is mired in a major corruption scandal over the revelation of a brazen criminal ring operating at the highest levels of government. Flush with bribes paid by foreign importers in exchange for low customs duties, the ring’s mastermind was the now-missing secretary to the since-resigned vice president. To date, more than 20 individuals have been implicated in the scheme, including the country’s top tax collector.

The high-level corruption has sparked nationwide protests, now in their fourth week, with tens of thousands of Guatemalans calling for the president’s resignation. In a sign of the times, the #RenunciaYa (“resign now”) hashtag is trending on social media. The country’s major churches and universities have come together to question the government’s legitimacy and call for a new constitution. Even the ruling party’s presidential candidate (elections are in September) dropped out of the race.

The political crisis in Guatemala has brought to the fore what those in the region have known and suffered through for too long: Its institutions are weak and its government corrupt. For US senators who panned the Obama administration’s original $1 billion aid package due to lack of progress in the Northern Triangle, recent events will cast further doubts.

To be fair, El Salvador and Honduras face many of the same political problems as Guatemala, and then some. But they cannot be addressed in isolation. The economic, security, and social ties that bind these three countries force the Northern Triangle to rise or fall as one. Any effort to isolate Guatemala or strip it from the aid package will torpedo the entire effort.

Those who will be hurt most by the failed promise of additional aid are, sadly, those in greatest need: the Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorians trying desperately to make a living amidst pandemic violence. The Washington Post reports that El Salvador is “on pace to become the hemisphere’s most deadly nation”—a dubious distinction long held by neighboring Honduras. In Guatemala, roughly 100 murders per week put the country firmly in third. Despite the crushing need to overcome this violence, the legitimacy crisis in Guatemala makes effective international aid impossible.

For aid to drive lasting change requires committed and honest partner governments. Plan Colombia, which Biden cites in the Times, is indeed the model. And the vice president correctly calls out “political will” as the key ingredient to the success of that $9 billion effort. But with tens of thousands of people in the streets and faith in their government dramatically eroded, no such political will exists in Guatemala. Sending record aid dollars into a swamp of corruption would be a disservice to Americans and Guatemalans alike. Only after new elections and a new government can Guatemala instill the necessary confidence in those with a genuine desire to help.

Michael Inganamort is managing principal at ASG Advisors and a member of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Leadership Network. Follow him on Twitter: @mikeinganamort.

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