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Guatemala Opens Its Ears

October 23, 2002

Suddenly norteamericano leaders are disparaging a small Central American nation, and, oddly, the people there are glad.

Rampant corruption and the spread of organized crime threaten to cripple Guatemala, said John Hamilton, former U.S. ambassador to Peru, at a hearing this month on his nomination as ambassador to the Central American nation. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) warned about the troubling deterioration of individual freedoms in Guatemala. On Oct. 10, Otto Reich, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, criticized the administration of Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo for its "lack of political will" to advance the stalled 1996 peace accords between the government and insurgents.

By all accounts, since Portillo took office in December 1999, corruption has increased dramatically. According to Reich's testimony before a House subcommittee, "Narcotics trafficking and alien smuggling are on the rise in Guatemala. Some of the leaders of these activities have very close ties to the highest levels of government and regularly influence decisions, especially with respect to personnel nominations in the military and the ministry of government." These are grave accusations that Portillo cannot afford to ignore.

Those old enough to remember the CIA-sponsored coup against the legitimate government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 may be surprised at the positive reaction there to Washington's criticism of the country. "The United States has joined the cause of those inside Guatemala who are concerned with the current and future state of Guatemalan democracy," read an editorial in Prensa Libre, the country's largest newspaper.

The Bush administration has already told Congress that it wants to pursue a new free-trade agreement with five nations of Central America. Negotiations could begin as early as December. Costa Rica and El Salvador are guiding the deal in the isthmus. The elections of credible presidents in Nicaragua and Honduras signal that both of those countries are moving in the right direction. The biggest problem in the region is Guatemala.

The U.S. wants to work with Guatemala to root out corruption, but nothing can be done if President Portillo does not proceed more aggressively. He must implement the National Anti-Corruption Plan developed by the World Bank. He must convince his own party and the opposition to pass legislation on corruption and transparency. In the wake of Reich's comments, Portillo has announced measures to address corruption. Much more needs to be done.

The criticism against Portillo comes from right, left and center and resonates both in the U.S. and Guatemala. He needs to listen.

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