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The American Conundrum in Central America: Idealism or Realism

In sum, Zamora´s informed belief that the USG is apparently rethinking its approach to Central America should be taken as a welcome sign.

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Nicholas Virzi |
06 de abril, 2023

On March 28th, José Rubén Zamora, the Guatemalan owner of a media outlet El Periódico, publicly admonished the US government (USG) for what he sees as its failures to install “genuine democracies” in Guatemala and Central America. 

Inside Guatemala, El Periódico best known for its salacious weekly political gossip column, El Peladero. Zamora is under arrest, having been charged with money laundering, influence peddling and extortion (Infobae). He is in preventive prison, and has yet to be convicted of a crime, so he must be presumed innocent. 

An international effort is underway to frame his arrest as atransgression against press freedom (LA TimesDeutsche WelleSwissInfo). El Periódico is, however, still operating. Zamora publishes from prison in El Periódico, which continues to constantly publish articles and commentaries criticizing itsgovernment and defending Zamora.

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The State Department (DOS) spokesperson issued a statement expressing deep concern over a court order to investigate journalists for the obstruction of justice, including Zamora. The US embassy in Guatemala published a statement criticizing the supposed persecution of journalists in Guatemala. Brian Nichols, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, called for the respect for due process under Guatemalan law and the personal safety of Zamora. 

This is all par for the course. No credible evidence has been presented that Zamora´s personal safety is in danger or that he has been denied due process of law. The DOS statements notwithstanding, together they pale in comparison to past US-led media onslaughts against the Guatemalan government during the heyday of the UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG (see below).

Zamora apparently expected more backing from the USG. However, placing Zamora beyond the reach of Guatemalan lawwould have entailed a repeat of the practices of selective justice that occurred during the heyday of CICIG. His newspaper was one of CICIG´s chief sounding boards.

According to Guatemala´s former Foreign Minister, Sandra Jovel, CICIG “violated the presumption of innocence, preventive detention, [and] due process". Other criticisms were that CICIG practiced trials by media and violated Guatemalan sovereignty. CICIG´s apparent zenith of self-referential legal supremacy coincided with the tenure of ex-commissioner Iván Velásquez, who was in power from 2013 to 2019. The general perception in Guatemala at that time was that DOS officialswere the ones calling the shots in the judicial system. A famous Guatemalan congressman even warned his fellow representatives that they should heed instructions that come in English.

CICIG was cloaked in the supposed aura of the United Nations, but the USG was its true source of power. When the Trump Administration withdrew US support, president Jimmy Moraleskicked CICIG out of the country in 2019.

Not willing to risk being successfully defied again by a small country in a nearby region it is rapidly alienating, the USG has since sought to advance in areas of mutual interest, such as narcotrafficking, security and migration, in cooperation with the government of Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei.

International events have also once again proven that Guatemala has been the USG´s strongest regional ally on the world stage, as evinced by Guatemala´s longstanding support for TaiwanIsraeland, recently, Ukraine. These three countries represent the crux of foreign policy on the world stage for both the US and Guatemala. 

For whatever reasons, Zamora is apparently frustrated that the USG has not proffered the support he expected. He remains in jail awaiting trial. Zamora´s personal interests aside, his communiqué is revealing. 

Zamora bemoans the absence of a grand US strategy ofinstalling democracies in the region. He believes this goal has been subordinated to the USG´s interest in securing local governments´ cooperation on drug and security issues. He openly criticizes the “perverse pragmatism” of the USG, led by its “3-letter agencies”. Zamora is presumably referring to agencies like HSI and DEA, two agencies that lead the USG on issues of national security in the region.

Where would Zamora get the idea that it is the job of the USG to install “genuine democracies” (a very loaded term) in the region?

His naivete aside, Zamora unwittingly makes a valid point. The 3 letter agencies have produced advancements working with their Guatemalan counterparts, as Ambassador Nikki Haley attested to in 2018. Guatemalan intelligence agencies like DICIGI are known to work closely with the USG. Zamora believes that the USG´s focus on incremental achievements on security issues unreasonably displaced the “democratic” agendaof DOS officials´ of creating more progressive political regimesin the region.

Zamora is right, realism has trumped idealism in US foreign policy, however he fails to take into account the utter failure of US-led democratic nation-building efforts around the world. From Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, the results obtained from the enormous American costs have been meager. No well-functioning market-democracies have been successfully installed by US interventions since the Cold War. 

Guatemala scores well above all examples of countries that have experienced US intervention in the last decades, specifically on matters related to security, democracy and human rights (see the Fragile States Index). Guatemala does not need US intervention. The US needs Guatemalan cooperation for its increasingly isolated, yet high priority, foreign policy priorities. 

In sum, Zamora´s informed belief that the USG is apparently rethinking its approach to Central America should be taken as a welcome sign. After all, America is fast losing Central America to China, which will soon dominate trade and investment in our own backyard.