First test for a new president: How to make Guatemala ‘safe’ for asylum

Santiago Billy/AP
Alejandro Giammattei, presidential candidate of the Vamos party, stands before supporters after partial election results were announced in Guatemala City, Aug. 11, 2019. Mr. Giammattei, a social conservative, went on to win the presidential runoff election.
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Guatemala’s new president-elect, Alejandro Giammattei, won’t actually enter office for several months. But one day after the election, he’s already inherited a hornet’s nest from his predecessor: an unpopular migration deal with the United States.

Threatened by President Donald Trump with possible tariffs, taxes on remittances, and a travel ban, current President Jimmy Morales agreed to require asylum-seekers traveling through Guatemala to apply for asylum there, effectively cutting off requests from Salvadorans and Hondurans at the U.S. border. The U.S. administration has pressured Mexico to sign a similar agreement.

Why We Wrote This

Stop migrants, or pay a price. That’s more or less the choice the U.S. administration has given Guatemala. But will it reduce migration – or just change whose problem it is?

Critics argue that Guatemala, which is the No. 1 country of origin for people apprehended on the U.S. border this year, is in no position to give safety, or much opportunity. Last year, the country’s asylum system processed only 262 applications. 

In the border region of Huehuetenango, a highland state that has one of Guatemala’s highest migration levels, Helen Mauricio Palacios sat on a motorbike outside the polls with her 5-year-old and her groceries, deciding whether it was worthwhile to cast her vote – whether either candidate would bring change.

“If we were a safe country, there would not be so many people migrating from here,” she says. “If people could find the success here that they’re searching for elsewhere, they wouldn’t leave.”

On Sunday, former surgeon and prisons director Alejandro Giammattei won something he’d sought three times before: the Guatemalan presidency.

Mr. Giammattei will not take office until January. But the conservative leader already finds himself caught in one of Guatemala’s most difficult diplomatic situations in years. On one side is the Trump administration, demanding the country take in Central American asylum-seekers and cut off their journeys to the United States. On the other are critics at home and abroad, insisting Guatemala doesn’t have the means to offer protection when hundreds of thousands of its own people have left their country in recent years.

In an election that reportedly saw the lowest voter turnout since 1996, Mr. Giammattei’s win was seen as a sign of lost faith in politics. Official results indicate 57% of voters did not cast a ballot, but of those who did, 58% voted for him. He will now be responsible for negotiating the implementation of the “safe third country” agreement the current administration signed in July, which would require people from El Salvador and Honduras to first seek asylum in Guatemala – the first country they enter en route to the U.S.

Why We Wrote This

Stop migrants, or pay a price. That’s more or less the choice the U.S. administration has given Guatemala. But will it reduce migration – or just change whose problem it is?

The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to push Latin American leaders into stopping migrants from ever reaching its border. The agreement with Guatemala would effectively block Hondurans and Salvadorans from requesting asylum in the U.S., and it could be expanded to include other nationalities. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have pressured Mexico to sign a similar agreement – unsuccessfully, so far, although the government has increased enforcement at the border with Guatemala. Economic threats from the U.S. make it difficult to avoid such agreements. But they do nothing, critics say, to change the realities that migrants and asylum-seekers say they are fleeing. 

“This is not going to stop migration. It’s just going to make it more invisible, and make the people who most need protection more invisible, too,” says Danilo Rivera, advocacy coordinator of the Central American Institute of Social Studies and Development.

A hard sell

In Huehuetenango, a highland state near the Mexico border that has one of Guatemala’s highest migration levels, voters arrived on motorbikes and jumped out of their cars in the last hour of the election to cast their votes in local school buildings. They ducked under the crafts projects hanging from the ceiling to mark paper ballots. Many were concerned about the U.S. agreement, fearing that migrants would land in the streets and lead to higher rates of crime.

Karen Norris/Staff

The agricultural regions that make up the bulk of the state have been affected by drought, falling coffee prices, and land disputes over megaprojects. Voters pointed out that Guatemalans are leaving because of underemployment, violence, and corruption. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, roughly 250,000 Guatemalans have been apprehended on the U.S. border this fiscal year – more than any other nationality.

“We’ve had presidents who have failed us,” says Ingrid Torres, a stay-at-home mother, standing alone outside the center with the ink fresh on her finger after voting. “Giammattei has promised us a great deal, but we do not know what he’ll actually do; so many times, people have not followed through on their promises.” 

Oliver de Ros/AP
Electoral workers wait for people to cast their votes in Chinautla, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, on Aug. 11, 2019. Conservative candidate Alejandro Giammattei defeated ex-first lady Sandra Torres in the second-round presidential runoff.

Voters in struggling agricultural areas generally did not support Mr. Giammattei, though he courted them in his campaign. The backbone of his strategy was economic: developing the border with a “wall of investment,” courting foreign investors, and generating millions of jobs. 

“We’re looking for a way for there to be less violence, so that people can stay here,” says Virginia Samoyoa de Rodas, a retired merchant in a wide-brimmed sun hat who supported Mr. Giammattei. “We have put our hopes in the person we voted for, because we want change.”  

In his victory speech, Mr. Giammattei spoke of the country’s challenges and promised to bring about reform. “Together we can overcome malnutrition, to overcome violence and insecurity,” he said. “We can achieve a Guatemala where we can live in peace.” 

Some critics, however, have expressed concern that more foreign workers could actually prompt more Guatemalans to leave.

“Migrants are exploited here, because they work for lower salaries. Many Guatemalans could find themselves without work if there are more foreigners here,” says Gabriel Zelada Ortiz, the director of CEADEL, a local development nonprofit in Chimaltenango. “They don’t give them bonuses, or vacations, and they threaten to kick them out of the country if they file a complaint.”

Tougher terms ahead?

The president-elect has been critical of the outgoing administration for signing the safe-country agreement, and promised to seek better terms, but analysts believe he is unlikely to slam the brakes on the already in-motion plan. Before current president Jimmy Morales’ government signed the deal, U.S. President Donald Trump had threatened Guatemala with tariffs, taxes on remittances, and a travel ban.

“Nobody in Guatemala, given the current situation, can go back on the agreement that was signed” for fear of “significant repercussions,” says Marielos Chang, a political analyst and professor at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City. “There’s little desire to change it.”

The Guatemalan high court ruled, before the agreement was signed, that Mr. Morales had to seek Congress’s approval before negotiating with the U.S., but his interior minister inked the deal July 26. Three groups have since sought an injunction. It is unclear when or whether the country’s Congress could eventually approve the plan.

When Mr. Giammattei met with the acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan earlier this summer, he said it was a “cordial” meeting in which “the secretary told us that when they have more information about how it’s going to be implemented, we’ll be informed.”

Some Guatemalans hope that at least Mr. Giammattei could, if not get rid of the deal, at least bargain for better terms than Mr. Morales. 

Mr. Giammattei “could try to renegotiate, but without making a show of it, and without hurting his identity as a conservative,” says Edgar Gutiérrez, one of several former foreign-relations ministers who tried to block the deal in court before it was signed. 

The president-elect was backed by many former members of the military and high-powered business leaders relieved that the agreement rolled back Mr. Trump’s economic threats.

“Trump has already [suggested] to the most powerful groups in this country, especially the businessmen, that this was not even up for discussion,” says Héctor Waldemar Barrera, a former human rights official and current lawyer who defends Guatemalan migrant workers. “They’re all calm now, but because they’re not grasping the scale of the problem.”

“What is ahead of us? In two, three years, in Latin America, we could have one of the biggest refugee movements. People will look for sea routes, or for any alternative,” he says.

U.S. officials have said the agreement’s rollout will be small at first. To begin the process, Guatemala’s government must expand its existing bureaucracy for asylum applications: The office processed only 262 asylum applications last year, and granted almost none.

For many voters who turned out on election day, it was clear the country had a long way to go before it could provide refuge.

“If we were a safe country, there would not be so many people migrating from here,” says Helen Mauricio Palacios, sitting on a motorbike outside the voting station in Huehuetenango with her 5-year-old and her groceries, deciding whether it was worthwhile to cast her vote – or whether neither candidate would bring change. “If people could find the success here that they’re searching for elsewhere, they wouldn’t leave.”

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