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US migration pact weighs heavily on Guatemala election

Conservative Alejandro Giammattei is favored to win the election over former first lady Sandra Torres © AFP / ORLANDO ESTRADA

GUATEMALA, Aug 9 – More than eight million Guatemalans will head to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president with the country mired in a political scandal over a controversial migration deal with the United States.

Former first lady Sandra Torres topped the first round of voting in June but conservative Alejandro Giammattei is the favorite to win the run-off and replace Jimmy Morales, according to a poll by the Freedom and Development Foundation and CID Gallup.

One of Morales’ last acts as president was to authorize an agreement with Washington that designated Guatemala as a “safe third country,” meaning the US can turn away asylum seekers who have passed through the Central American country without seeking refuge there.

The pact — part of US President Donald Trump’s campaign to stem migration at his country’s southern border — has proved highly unpopular in Guatemala, with demonstrators blocking roads and occupying the University of San Carlos.

In a poll by Prodatos for the Prensa Libre newspaper, 82 percent of respondents opposed it.

For whoever wins on Sunday, the agreement will be an albatross around their neck.

Risa Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group described it as a “lose-lose” situation for the poll winner, saying the pact would be “a major strain on the economy” if it overcomes legal challenges and takes effect.

The deal allows the US to send Honduran and El Salvadoran asylum seekers who passed through Guatemala back to the poor, crime-stricken Central American country — an influx that it is ill-prepared to receive.

Rejecting the migration pact would run the “risk of retaliation from Trump,” Grais-Targow said, after the US leader threatened a travel ban, tariffs and remittance fees if the country didn’t bend to his will.

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Remittances from Guatemalans in the US are a crucial part of the economy, reaching a record $9.3 billion last year. That’s comparable to Guatemala’s export revenue of $10.5 billion.

According to the World Bank, remittances account for 12 percent of the country’s GDP.

– ‘Cruel and illegal’ –

Social democrat Torres and Giammattei have avoided committing to strong positions over the migration pact.

The former first lady said it needs to be ratified by Congress while Giammattei claimed not to know enough about it and that he would study it in more detail if elected.

The pact was signed last month despite Guatemala’s constitutional court granting an injunction blocking Morales from signing the deal two weeks earlier.

Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas questioned its legality while Amnesty International described it as “cruel and illegal.”

– Corruption –

Former first lady Sandra Torres has little credibility in the realm of corruption, for which she has faced several accusations over her many years in public life © AFP/File / Johan ORDONEZ

Both candidates have concentrated their campaigns on attacking entrenched corruption and promising to improve education and health care, while investing in poorer areas to reduce poverty and discourage Guatemalans from seeking the “American dream.”

Almost 60 percent of Guatemala’s 17.7 million citizens live in poverty.

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Combatting gang violence is another major issue, with 2018 statistics putting the murder rate at 22.4 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world.

Around half the killings are blamed on drug trafficking and extortion operations carried out by powerful gangs.

Re-election is not allowed in Guatemala and Morales leaves after four years in office with his popularity at rock bottom and the attorney general’s office looking to investigate him for corruption.

Morales’s predecessor Otto Perez was forced to step down in 2015 after being charged with racketeering, illicit enrichment and fraud, for which he is being held in pre-trial detention.

Morales was elected on the promise of a clean government and initially supported the UN’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which began its mission in 2006.

But Morales tried to shut it down in January over its decision to investigate him for illegal campaign financing.

Its mission is due to end in September and both presidential candidates have ruled out extending it, although they claim they will create special prosecution agencies to fight corruption.

Torres — whose disapproval rating is close to 50 percent, compared to just 13.3 percent for Giammattei, according to CID-Gallup — has little credibility in the realm of corruption, for which she has faced several accusations over her many years in public life.

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