August 12, 2019 / 8:53 AM / 5 days ago

Next Guatemala leader seeks better U.S. migrant deal, hindered by split Congress

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s incoming president Alejandro Giammattei has vowed to seek better terms for his country from an unpopular migration deal agreed with Washington last month, but any room for maneuver is seen as likely to be hampered by weakness in the national Congress.

The winner of Guatemala's presidential election, Alejandro Giammattei, talks during an interview with Reuters in Guatemala City, Guatemala, August 11, 2019. Picture taken August 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Preliminary results from Sunday’s election gave Giammattei, a conservative, a runoff victory with 58% of the vote, well ahead of his center-left opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres, on 42%.

Still, his Vamos Party won just 8% of the vote in June’s congressional election, giving it around a tenth of the seats in a legislature bristling with nearly 20 parties. The biggest bloc of seats will be controlled by his rival Torres.

Speaking a few hours before he was declared the winner, the 63-year-old Giammattei said he wanted to see what could be done to improve the accord that outgoing President Jimmy Morales made under pressure from his American counterpart Donald Trump that seeks to stem U.S.-bound migration from Central America.

Giammattei will not take office until January, by which time Guatemala may be under severe pressure from the deal, which effectively turns the country into a buffer zone by forcing migrants to apply for asylum there rather than in the United States.

“I hope that during this transition the doors will open to get more information so we can see what, from a diplomatic point of view, we can do to remove from this deal the things that are not right for us, or how we can come to an agreement with the United States,” Giammattei told Reuters in an interview.

Threatened with economic sanctions if he said no, Morales agreed in late July to make Guatemala a so-called safe third country for migrants, despite endemic poverty and violence that have led to a constant flow of people northward.

“It’s not right for the country,” Giammattei said of the deal. “If we don’t have the capacity to look after our own people, imagine what it will be like for foreigners.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo congratulated Giammattei on Monday, saying in a statement the United States looked forward to working with Guatemala on “the underlying conditions driving irregular migration,” without giving more details.

Asked about Giammattei’s comments, U.S. border patrol chief Carla Provost said in an interview with Fox News: “It certainly is a concern. We need both Mexico and Guatemala to continue doing what they’re doing,” referring to Mexico’s campaign to block migrants from crossing its border with the United States.

CONCERNS GROWING

The safe third country agreement is deeply unpopular in Guatemala.

A poll published this month by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre showed more than eight out of 10 rejected the idea of the country accepting foreign migrants seeking asylum.

It is unclear how much Giammattei will be able to do to change the deal, which would require Hondurans and Salvadorans to apply for asylum in Guatemala rather than the United States. It also foresees granting U.S. visas to some Guatemalan workers.

The veteran bureaucrat has promised to erect an “investment wall” on the border with Mexico to curb migration. He has also proposed bringing back the death penalty.

Giammattei, who took Monday off after his landslide victory, inherits a country also struggling with a 60% poverty rate and one of the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere.

Adding to his challenges, Fitch Ratings said the divided political landscape will make it harder for the president to reverse declining tax collection that the agency cited in April when it revised Guatemala’s sovereign outlook to negative.

“The incoming administration will have limited support in an atomized Congress, raising the risks for continued political gridlock,” Fitch Director Carlos Morales said in a statement.

Weak governance and economic development are ongoing risks to the country’s rating, Fitch said.

Many Guatemalans are fed up with the political class after investigations by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N. anti-corruption body, led to the arrest of then-President Otto Perez in 2015, and then threatened to unseat his successor Morales, a former television comedian.

Morales terminated the CICIG’s mandate from next month, and Giammattei’s failure to reverse that decision has stirred concerns about his commitment to fight corruption.

Adriana Beltran, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think tank, said the CICIG might just have a future “if Guatemalans take to the streets and there is enough pressure from within.”

But the Trump administration was unlikely to do much to complement such efforts, Beltran added.

“Their focus is how to pressure Giammattei to agree to the third country agreement,” she said. “Anti-corruption is not a priority for this (U.S.) administration.”

Additional reporting by Makini Brice and Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Daina Beth Solomon and Delphine Schrank in Mexico City; editing by Dave Graham, John Stonestreet, Steve Orlofsky and G Crosse

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