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No More Than Migrants? On Biden's Cynical View Of Central America

Fixated on migration as a big issue of the 2024 presidential elections, the Biden administration is ignoring the state's piecemeal assault on democracy in Guatemala, a country already struggling with endemic violence, in return for curbs on U.S.-bound migration.

Image of Cindy, 44 and Ailyn, 13, mother and daughter from Guatemala, waiting at the Chaparral border to seek asylum to the United States.

April 3, 2023: Cindy, 44 and Ailyn, 13, mother and daughter from Guatemala, waiting at the Chaparral border to seek asylum to the United States.

Carlos A. Moreno/ZUMA
José Luis Moreira


BUENOS AIRES – Toward the end of the last century, Guatemala, a small, Central American republic with a wealth of culture and natural beauty, faced a promising horizon. After decades of internal fighting and human rights abuses, under the wider ideological framework of the Cold War, we entered the new millennium with some basic, institutional pledges starkly absent in preceding decades. In principle, these would favor economic growth, reduce socio-economic divisions and help consolidate democracy.

Today, the country is a victim of the failure to honor those pledges.

Between 2000 and 2022, Guatemala's per capita income grew by 1%, compared with 2% for Costa Rica in the same years. Likewise, low job-creation rates have pushed millions to seek a better life abroad, mostly in the U.S., and embark on an illegal and dangerous path that often leads to death. The remittances sent back by Guatemalan migrants have come to make up 19% of the national economy.

Nor has an end to the civil war helped establish a democratic republic with modern governance and a stronger civil society. Recently, the founder of the national daily El Periódico, José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, was convicted in a faulty legal process that seemed to be a case of political retribution. This was in fact clumsily alluded to by the chief prosecutor in the case, Rafael Curruchiche.

In 2021, he became the target of U.S. sanctions for obstructing anti-corruption investigations, for "disrupting high-profile corruption cases against government officials" and making "spurious" claims against legal investigators.

Image of U.S. President Joe Biden during a visit to the border wall along the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas.

January 8, 2023: U.S. President Joe Biden, center, talks with Custom and Border Patrol officers during a visit to the border wall along the Rio Grande, in El Paso, Texas.

Tia Dufour/Dhs/ZUMA

Under the gaze of the United States

For decades, El Periódico was the source of revelations about some of the most iconic corruption cases in the country's recent history, including acts that led to the resignation of the president and vice-president in 2015. Since 2019, persecution of the press has been part of a wider attack on civil society and judiciary operators engaged in uncovering the suspected corruption of both politicians and prominent businesspeople.

These problems have also impeded the promulgation of administrative reforms and economic modernization measures needed to improve the business environment. Today, Guatemala receives 13 times more remittances from its emigrants than it does direct foreign investment. International observers agree that institutional limitations and a weak civil society have made the country less attractive for investments, and consequently hurt its ability to transform the economy.

And all of this is happening under the gaze of the U.S., the country's chief ally and trading partner. There seems to be a cynical, if unstated, pact going on here. The U.S. has considerably limited its use of punitive, foreign policy instruments like sanctions, in exchange for the Guatemalan government's short-term and practical collaboration with migration.

With U.S. elections around the corner, the present administration wants to limit the predictable electoral use of migratory pressures on its southern border. That is an inevitable, cyclical reality in U.S. politics, and as for Guatemala, it has its own, all-too familiar reality: progression toward institutional bankruptcy, punctuated with the occasional coup!

*Moreira is an economist and columnist of the national newspaper El Periódico.

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