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Why Guatemala Chose to Recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital

By: Orlando Avendaño - @OrlvndoA - Dec 28, 2017, 3:19 pm

(Wikimedia)

EspañolGuatemala announced it is going to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem following US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to officially recognize the city as the country’s capital.

Guatemala President Jimmy Morales said he met with Israel Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss relations between the two countries, which ultimately resulted in a decision to return the Guatemalan embassy to Jerusalem.

“We applaud the historic decision of President Jimmy Morales and the government of Guatemala to move its embassy in Israel to the city of Jerusalem,” the United States said in statement.

It’s a controversial move, many experts have said. The United Nations General Assembly recently voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital. Guatemala — along with Honduras, Nauru, Togo, Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia — were the only countries to support the United States in the UN vote, but that decision has unclear motivations.

“Guatemala rejected the United Nations resolution because the United States is much more important in this case,” Nicholas Virzi, a political science scholar, explained. “Guatemala set aside the world’s opinion. It doesn’t matter right now. What is more important? The General Assembly of the United Nations or the United States? The United States is its main trading partner and a country that often intervenes in the region.”

But Guatemala’s most recent vote in the United Nations may also have a different underlying strategy, Virzi said. In 2006, the  country created the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) — an independent body backed by the United Nations that assists institutions investigating corruption. However, many officials inside and out of Guatemala have questioned its effectiveness and political leanings.

The first commissioner for the commission had to leave the country in disgrace. Then Francisco Dall’Anese of Costa Rica took over, made some progress and was replaced by the leftist Iván Velásquez, of Colombia, who had numerous important achievements, such as the removal of former President Otto Pérez Molina. Some fear that Velásquez has lost sight of the responsibilities that CICIG has.

During former President Barack Obama’s administration, the United States Embassy in Guatemala fully supported CICIG, which caused other officials to question its performance. “The agenda of the ambassador and the CICIG was simply an agenda for the left that had nothing to do with the original mandate of the CICIG,” Virzi said.

He said Guatemala began using CICIG “like a tool” against the right. “It was starting to be understood that the fight against corruption only focused on right-wing officials.” With CICIG politicized, the Obama adminsitration could finance causes for the left with its ambassador in Guatemala, Todd Robinson. The embassy even became a meeting spot for leaders of the left.

In January 2016, President Morales took office with strong support from a Christian, largely Evangelical, base. Though he had little political experience, Morales was able to win over the country with a clean, corruption-free record. That is, until September 2016, when CICIG linked his son to a corruption case that eventually polarized the country.

While some officials have called it a full-blown case of money laundering, Virzi said it looks more like a minor misdemeanor. José Manuel Morales allegedly borrowed federal money to pay for “Christmas baskets.” It’s undoubtedly a crime, but nothing out of the ordinary in Guatemala. CICIG, however, wanted to use it to dismantle the Morales adminsitration.

In response, Morales named Iván Velásquez a persona non grata — a  constitutionally legal move by aa President, but which the Guatemalan Justice system later criticized.

“Jimmy Morales’s current administration has been asking: ‘What happened? Why doesn’t Donald Trump change the policy (regarding CICIG’s power)?” Virzi explained. “But that will not change much. They will continue to fight against corruption and that will continue with Donald Trump, only Donald Trump will not continue financing leftist policies as Obama did.”

But now, amid this controversy and low approval ratings, Morales has decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to vote against the majority opinion in the United Nations. It may make Guatemala a priority for the United States, potentially allowing Morales to even request a meeting with Donald Trump.

“You might say that Donald Trump owes Morales a favor now,” Virzi said. “And in a hypothetical meeting, he might ask for a little distance between the United States and the United Nations in Guatemala.”

Guatemala could also ask the United States to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Guatemalans traveling there. El Salvador has TPS, allegedly because it was the only country that supported the United States in Iraq with troops in 2003. Additionally, the military embargo imposed by President Jimmy Carter on Guatemala in 1977 is still in place. It’s possible that Morales, who has significant support from the military, is hoping to get the embargo lifted.

Morales might also ask Trump for preferential treatment for exports between Guatemala and the US. Guatemala is one of the main exporters of the spice cardamom, and exporters are worried about a possible embargo.

“This is a unique opportunity for Guatemala to achieve several goals,” Virzi said, adding that the US maintains significant influence over the courts in Guatemala — another area where he could ask for support.

Virzi said he believes it’s paradoxical for the left to now claim the United States under Trump is influencing Guatemalan foreign policy, because the people who originally wanted sovereignty for Guatemala were those on the right.

“This is the most audacious move in the history of Guatemala’s foreign policy,” Virzi said.

Orlando Avendaño Orlando Avendaño

Orlando Avendaño is a PanAm Post reporter and columnist from Venezuela. He studied journalism at the Andrés Bello Catholic University. Follow @OrlvndoA.