Guatemala's President Colom Genuflects in D.C.

by Rick Rockwell

Guatemala’s new president, Alvaro Colom came to Washington, D.C. this week to make the obligatory rounds after his inauguration in January. And he seemed as underwhelmed by his trip as he was soft spoken.

Let’s face it, these days a president from Central America comes to the U.S. less to meet with the lame duck president than to speak to exile communities responsible for sending remittances back home. And often remittances are the top way for Central American countries to earn foreign hard currency. The truth: Central America exports labor by exporting its people. (The United Nations says Guatemalans in the U.S. sent home $3.4 billion in 2006, accounting for about ten percent of Guatemala’s gross domestic product.)

So perhaps more important than Colom’s visit to the White House on Monday was his meeting with hundreds of Guatemalan emigrants over the weekend. Those people want Colom to press President George W. Bush and Congress on immigration reform, so he dutifully trudged around town shaking hands and doing just that.

Politicians everywhere seem to understand their bread is buttered with political donations, even if those donors are in Washington, or Miami, or Dallas, and that politician resides in Guatemala City.

At a session with members of the media, academics, and policy analysts before his meeting with Bush, Colom spoke with little enthusiasm about his mission. “Because of the electoral cycle, it’s not the best climate,” Colom noted, “but we should deal with immigration.”

Colom also promised to push forward on what is called the Merida Initiative, yet another attempt by Guatemala to recharge its troops in the War on Drugs to battle the various drug cartels that use the country as a trans-shipment point to the U.S. This is at least the fourth such Guatemalan initiative during the past three Guatemalan presidencies, and what is evident by the need for the Merida Initiative is the others all failed. (Please see: "Guatemala Surrenders in the War on Drugs," for more.)

Discussing the drug war and immigration reform were the two key areas Colom underlined in his pre-Oval Office session and indeed he and Bush stressed both. Bush promised support for the Merida Initiative and he promised to look into ways to extend special status to Guatemalan immigrants so they can attain temporary work permits quicker and easier. Of course, all the smiles and handshaking was a success for Colom, although it likely won’t gain him much from the lame duck president. The headlines are enough to tell Colom’s constituents here and back home what they want to hear.

He has dutifully genuflected and done his job.

The only item to get a rise out of Guatemala’s new president was a question about how he would reinforce human rights and bring generals and former presidents to justice for their misdeeds during the country’s bloody civil war. Spanish courts are moving forward in attempts to prosecute these former Guatemalan strongmen much as Spain moved to make Chile’s Augusto Pinochet answerable for his crimes against humanity.

Knocked off his moderate message at his pre-Oval Office session with the media, Colom related how friends and family had been forced into exile during Guatemala’s war that stretched from the 1960s into the 1990s. He also spoke passionately about people close to him who were killed during the conflict. “Our responsibility is to seek justice,” Colom said. “We must construct a system to seek justice.”

But although those were fiery words, and the only ones seemingly from the left during Colom’s stay, they neither promised to back the Spanish human rights process, nor to press for anything other than judicial reform inside Guatemala. And those were Colom’s final comments as his session was immediately cut short at the mention of human rights violations.

Colom may be a president from the left, the first in too long for Guatemala (the first in more than half a century, actually), but he is taking his speaking cues from the right-wingers who preceded him. And his agenda with the U.S. remains the same as his predecessors too: immigration and drugs.

However, until Guatemala fixes its long-simmering human rights issues, it’s other pressing problems, inextricably linked as they are to human rights, won’t be going away anytime soon.

(The photo shows Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom meeting with President George Bush in the Oval Office. This is an official White House photo by Chris Greenberg and it is in the public domain.)

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