Professor Rachel López, in an essay published Feb. 21 in Americas Quarterly, focuses on the election of a former television star who became president riding a wave of support from evangelical Christians and then battles investigators exploring alleged corruption by his family.
“The story may sound familiar,” López said, yet the president in question is Jimmy Morales of Guatemala.
Morales, a television comedian, was elected in 2015 campaigning on an anti-corruption slogan that López equates to “drain the swamp.” In 2017, Morales’ son and brother were charged with money laundering and fraud for seeking reimbursement for events that never occurred. Another investigation was launched to explore undeclared contributions to Morales’ presidential campaign. Soon thereafter, López notes, Congress was asked to end Morales’ immunity from prosecution – a move that prompted the president to name the head of the investigative body a “persona non grata.”
López details an unfolding constitutional crisis as Morales and sympathetic lawmakers battle a Constitutional Court that has rebuked Morales’ efforts to escape accountability.
“Morales had reason for concern,” López explains, noting that three prior Guatemalan presidents investigated by the same anti-corruption commission wound up in prison. “But Morales has a not-so-secret weapon that could help him escape the same fate: A similarly situated counterpart in Washington who may sympathize with his plight.”
Past U.S. administrations have supported the efforts of the Guatemalan anti-corruption commission, López notes, observing that former Vice President Joe Biden persuaded former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina to renew the body’s mandate in 2015 by “tying the decision to $1 billion in U.S. aid.”
“Breaking with past U.S. foreign policy, the Trump administration has turned a blind eye,” López wrote, adding that its position puts it at odds with its objective of curtailing immigration from south of the border. “Experts have concluded it is the pervasive corruption and the violence orchestrated by criminal networks, which (the anti-corruption commission) investigates, that fuel many Guatemalans’ desire to migrate North.”
The best hope for those opposing corruption, López, concludes, is the potential election of former Attorney General Thelma Aldana as president in June.
López, who studies transitional justice in nations that have experienced mass human rights violations, organized a symposium on the topic in 2018 where Aldana gave a keynote address.