FROM EL FARO ENGLISH: Summit in LA showcases Biden’s Central America problem


Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in June 2021 to discuss migration, foreign investment and other bilateral priorities. (Victor Peña/El Faro)

Central America, in a nutshell: Four days before the start of the Summit of the Americas on June 6 in Los Angeles, the United States is running out of friends in the Northern Triangle. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, once a last resort ally of President Joe Biden, has said he will not participate amid an open row over the re-election of the corrupt attorney general. Honduran Xiomara Castro said she would not be present without Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Only the provocative president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, remains silent.

USAID is going home?

On inauguration day, the Biden administration scrutinized troubled Central American leaders and saw in President Giammattei its best, if not only, chance to preserve influence in the northern isthmus to combat the political corruption. A year later, Guatemala was the first Central American country to announce that it would decline the American invitation to the Summit of the Americas to be held June 6-8.

Tensions had been simmering for months. Last week the Heritage Foundation and Washington Examiner reported that Giammattei privately accused U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala William Popp in April of meeting with indigenous leaders to “overthrow” his government. Giammattei also told the authors that he had “decided to ask” the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to leave the country for promoting “indigenousism”, which for Giammattei, the authors interpret, is a Guatemalan version of “critical race theory”. ”

It is true that the United States has insisted, as Vice President Kamala Harris did during her June 2021 trip, in expressing its concerns about the marginalization of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, approximately 45% of the population. . But at the heart of the tensions is US criticism of Giammattei’s decision to reappoint a key ally, Attorney General Consuelo Porras, on May 16 for a second term until 2026, despite sanctions against her for protecting the president from criminal investigations into multi-million dollar corruption schemes.

Giammattei called Porras’ re-election an expression of “national sovereignty”. His candidacy has received key support from CACIF, Guatemala’s powerful business association, and the Counterterrorism Foundation, an advocacy group with close ties to the military and main architect of legal attacks on independent prosecutors and judges. .

The Biden administration, which calls corruption a critical national security issue, saw the selection of the new attorney general as a small window of opportunity in a receding democracy. A source close to the White House told El Faro English that they had set a diplomatic goal of appointing anyone but Porras. Thirteen embassies offered technical assistance to Congress in the nomination process, prompting accusations by Giammattei of “foreign interference”.

The events have caused rumblings in Washington. On April 29, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah requested a report from the State Department on the “inappropriate influence” of the United States Embassy and USAID in the process. selection, an example of Giammattei’s successful lobbying to portray the American anti-American. corruption activism as partisan interference. The Heritage Foundation titled its analysis: “The Biden Administration Appeases American Enemies While Beating Up American Friends.”

On the night of Porras’ re-election, the State Department revoked the visa of her husband, the relative of a public official implicated in “significant corruption.” Giammattei responded the following day by announcing that he would not be attending the summit. “This country may be small, but as long as I am president, this country and its sovereignty will be respected,” he added. he said at an event at the Mexican Embassy.

Chain of absences

It would be the second time Guatemala has failed to attend a Biden diplomatic rally. Ahead of the Democracy Summit in December, the United States signaled concerns about democratic institutions by uninvited Giammattei, along with Nayib Bukele and former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose last seat is currently in an American prison. Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega has never made the list and will not be attending the Los Angeles summit either.

But the case that would most highlight a diplomatic failure in the isthmus would be if Xiomara Castro stayed at home. Since becoming president of Honduras in January, she has shown interest in a closer relationship with the United States, which has said it will support her new government in any way possible. Vice President Harris attended his inauguration, and the two exchanged diplomatic phone calls These last months.

Mutual dating has yet to convince Castro to fly to Los Angeles. She joined Mexico and Bolivia in calling for Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to be on the guest list. In a press call on Wednesday, Biden’s national security adviser Juan González tried to downplay the issue, saying they “didn’t focus so much on who is and isn’t invited.” but rather on the results of the meeting. He then acknowledged that the White House was still weighing – four days before the summit – the participation of the three countries.

It remains unclear whether Nayib Bukele will be part of the summit – perhaps setting the stage for another showdown – or look the other way altogether. He only said, after meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in early May, that “it is important to discuss hemispheric issues holistically.”

The State Department’s pledge to expand ‘Engel List’ sanctions this month hangs over the rally and is expected to reach Bukele’s inner circle, as well as Guatemalan officials involved in Consuelo Porras’ re-election .

By all indicators, Costa Rica will be there, but the US Democratic administration has yet to forge its relationship with the new conservative outsider presidentRodrigo Chaves, who declared a national emergency in mid-May, a week after taking office, to fend off Russian hackers holding government servers for ransom.

That leaves Panama as one of the United States’ few partners in the long – and expected to be largely empty – summit table. The main bilateral issues in the country are Chinese influence, drug trafficking, and global, not Central American, migration through the Darien Gap.

It’s ironic that Biden’s closest ally in Central America happens to be furthest from the US border. Locals even joke that the country, which two centuries ago was part of Gran Colombia, is not really Central America.

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