Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina will carry out a two-day trip to Washington this month, in which he is expected to discuss with President Barack Obama the migration of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors to the United States, an issue that has been making headlines for weeks.
Immigration may be a political “third rail” that U.S. policymakers want to avoid touching (particularly in election season), but that does not mean that Washington-Guatemala relations cannot improve in other areas during the meeting that will take place July 24th and July 25th.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room
President Perez Molina is not the sole Central American head of state traveling to Washington. Also visiting are El Salvador’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernández. These leaders are also expected to meet with U.S. policymakers to discuss immigration. The three countries are regarded as Central America’s “northern triangle”, serving as points of origin for thousands of undocumented individuals who are attempting to migrate to the U.S.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Central American leaders will be effective in influencing President Obama to carry out acomprehensive overhaulof the U.S. immigration system. With the U.S. mid-term elections coming up in November, Congress will not dare to address such a sensitive and divisive political issue.
Nevertheless, President Pérez Molina is certain to have a couple of busy days in Washington. Aside from meeting with President Obama, the Guatemalan media reports that he will meet withVice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States Jose Miguel Insulza, and the President of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno.
Additionally, Guatemala’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, will also be in town. He and his counterparts from El Salvador and Honduras will discuss immigration issues at an event hosted by the aforementioned Wilson Center.
Areas of cooperation and tension with Guatemala
Guatemala-U.S. relationshave been historically positive–the 1954 overthrow of President Arbenz notwithstanding–and so far this past year, diplomatic visits have strengthened bilateral relations. This past February, the Guatemalan leader visited Washington for a three day “private visit.” In turn, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel flew to Guatemala in April, the first visit by a SecDef to the Central American nation since 2005.
More recently, Vice President Biden traveled to Guatemala in June to discuss with the Guatemalan leadership the “root causes” of the immigration crisis.
In addition to strong diplomatic relations, Guatemala’s internal security policies go hand in hand with Washington’s objectives: strengthening security agencies to crack down on drug trafficking.
Just this past June, Guatemala created a new security unit called the FIAAT (a joint initiative of the Ministries of Governance and Security), to combat drug trafficking and terrorism. The cornerstone of this new agency are six UH-1H helicopters donated by the U.S. in 2013. Guatemala has also increased security relations with Washington’s two major Latin American allies, Colombia and Mexico.
At this point, it is necessary to add that there is one outstanding security-related issue that the Guatemalan leader may discuss with President Obama. In January, United States Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014, which passed particularly severe resolutions for Guatemala. In short, Congress limited U.S. aid to Guatemala dependent on the success of inquiries into human rights violations carried out by that country’s armed forces in the late 1970s/early 1980s—specifically, the massacres over the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam.
President Pérez Molina, a retired army general, has critiqued Washington’s decision.
One final issue to be discussed by Pérez Molina is that of trade. Guatemala is a member of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Central America-Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR), which was hailed as a major achievement when it was passed in 2006. Nevertheless, CAFTA has not been beneficial for the Central American state.
A June 2014 report by the Guatemalan Ministry of Economy highlights how Guatemala suffered a deficit in its trade with the U.S. between 2006 – 2013. The report explains that, in 2013, 29% of Guatemalan exports were clothing accessories, 14% were bananas and 12% were precious metals. (Coffee exports were only 8%, probably due to coffee rust). On the other hand, Guatemala’s major U.S. import is petroleum products. The report concludes that, while the U.S. was Guatemala’s leading commercial partner in 2013, Guatemala ranked as number 41 for exports and 52 for imports in the same year.
Without a doubt, the dangerous voyage made by thousands of Central American adults and minors to the U.S. via Mexico, aboard “La Bestia,” is a problematic situation that must be dealt with appropriately. However, this is not the only issue affecting U.S.-Guatemala relations. Also important are security relations, aid restrictions over human rights abuses, and ongoing trade ties that do not favor Guatemala.
Hopefully,President Pérez Molina’s visitwill conclude with meaningful compromises, as there is a plethora of issues affecting bilateral relations which should not continue to be overlooked.