Trump-style Latin American leaders

Donald Trump met with Jimmy Morales, the President of Guatemala in a context of global resurgence of extreme right-wing populism that has a specific impact in Latin America. Español

Brian Saady
21 February 2018

The bust of President-elect Donald Trump is displayed at the wax museum in Madrid.Francisco Seco/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump met with the President of Guatemala on February 8.  Officially, topics discussed included the moving of the Guatemalan embassy to Jerusalem and “restoring democracy” in Venezuela.

One day prior to their meeting, it was reported that Trump told Pentagon officials to plan a military parade. He reportedly came up with the idea after having witnessed the Bastille Day parade in France. However, if the project goes ahead, it will be as if the Trump administration was inadvertently taking a page out of the Morales playbook. There are, in fact, many uncanny instances of the Trump and Morales administrations mimicking each other.

In October 2015, when Morales was elected, several media labeled him the “Latin American Trump”. Jimmy Morales, like Trump, had no political experience. 

In October 2015, when Morales was elected, several media labeled him the “Latin American Trump”. Jimmy Morales, like Trump, had no political experience. He was a popular TV comedian whose most famous sketch was about a dumb cowboy becoming president. Some other sketches on his show led many to believe that he is sexist, homophobic, and racist.

Both Trump and Morales appeal to a conservative base because of their aversion to politically correctness and their aggressive personalities. They are also both fond of expressing support for outlandish political policies. Morales supported Trump’s absurd border wall idea by jokingly offering cheap Guatemalan labour to build it. He also mused that teachers should be tracked with GPS devices to ensure they show up for work.

Unlike Trump, Morales won the popular vote by a landslide. Voters wanted him “to run the country in the same way as he runs his business”. Other than the results, their campaigns were quite similar. Morales ran a fairly apolitical, nondescript campaign on anti-corruption. He did not talk about “draining the swamp”, but he boasted that he was “not corrupt, not a thief.” This message led many voters to view him as the lesser evil.

Morales’s campaign also played upon the unpopularity of his opponent, Sandra Torres. Like Hillary Clinton, Torres she is a former first lady and a paradigmatic example of “the establishment candidate”. She had to go through the formality of getting a divorce to run for President. She also carried a heavy political baggage of past scandals.

Upon taking office, the Morales presidency became flooded with kleptocratic scandals. Like Trump, Morales has used his public position for private gain, and although Morales’s official expenses pale in comparison to the over 6 million dollars of taxpayers’ money Trump has spent on his frequent trips to Mar-a-Lago, they have angered a lot of people.

Presiding over one of the poorest countries in the world, Morales has racked up 40.000 dollars in expenses which include massages, expensive flowers, whisky, and designer sunglasses. When questioned about why he did not pay for the 3.000- dollar sunglasses out of his own pocket, Morales nonchalantly replied: “Because I don’t have to pay for them out of my salary. I was handed that pair of glasses. Do you think I go around asking for this kind of purchases?”

Other scandals involving Morales are much more serious. His son and his brother are on trial for fraud and money laundering. His election campaign cashed in 825.000 dollars from undisclosed sources, of which an estimated 500.000 dollars came allegedly from drug traffickers. He also received 62.500 dollars in monthly “bonuses” from the military. The officer who was responsible for paying them has since been arrested, but Morales is still in office.

Like Trump did when he fired James Comey, Morales tried to have the special prosecutor in charge of the anti-corruption investigations, a Colombian national, expelled from the country.

Like Trump did when he fired James Comey, Morales tried to have the special prosecutor in charge of the anti-corruption investigations, a Colombian national, expelled from the country, even though he had pledged during the election campaign to extend the mandate of the special prosecutor’s independent UN-backed commission until 2022.

The Guatemalan Supreme Court overruled his decision, but Congress has stood by Morales. His political party only holds 11 seats in the 158-member Congress but, concerned about upsetting the President’s popular base, much like the US Congress, Guatemala’s Congress voted to provide Morales with immunity from prosecution. This decision, however, was tainted by self-interest, since over 100 Congressmen are also currently facing charges of corruption.

Morales, like Trump, remained unscathed from these scandals. Both have embraced a strongman public persona. Neither of them has a military background, but both have a tendency of appointing former army generals to top-level positions in government.

In fact, government prosecutors want to prosecute former Coronel Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, a top advisor and co-founder of Morales’s political party (National Convergence Front - FCN), for crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the country’s long and bloody “civil war”. Maldonado, however, enjoys prosecutorial immunity for he is a member of Congress.

Maldonado is one of several former military officers, now FCN members, suspected of having committed war crimes. The cost in human lives of the 36-year long US-supported “civil war” in Guatemala, which finally ended in 1996, was approximately 200.000. About 90% of the victims were killed by paramilitary or government forces, yet few of those responsible have been held accountable, even though the Guatemalan “civil war” is generally considered a genocide (the vast majority of the victims were indigenous civilians).

Jimmy Morales not only refuses to call it a genocide, but praised the “exemplary” job that the military have done and are doing during an Army Day parade last year. This parade, it should be noted, had been banned for ten years following the “civil war” as a tribute to the victims.

This kind of decisions and rhetoric can, at best, be described as tone deaf. At worst, as a dog whistle to his extremist supporters – much like Trump’s “fine people” comments in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy.

Most Guatemalans are fed up with the endemic rampant corruption in the country, which nowadays is largely a result of the war on drugs. The Morales campaign allegedly received funds from drug traffickers.

In another horrific coincidence, a driver plowed through a crowd of protesters in Guatemala City, injuring several people, four months prior to the Charlottesville tragedy. It happened again last month, when another driver killed one person who was among a group of protesters blocking a highway and demanding the resignation of Morales.

Most Guatemalans are fed up with the endemic rampant corruption in the country, which nowadays is largely a result of the war on drugs. As has been mentioned above, the Morales campaign allegedly received funds from drug traffickers. His predecessor, Otto Perez Molina, is on trial for corruption. And Molina’s former Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, and his former Minister of the Interior, Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, are awaiting trial for accepting bribes of 250.000 dollars and 1.5 million dollars respectively from Los Zetas drug gang.

Also former President Álvaro Colom and most his cabinet were arrested last week on corruption charges. And another former President, Alfonso Portillo, has been serving time in a US prison for laundering bribe money through US banks.

To this background should be added the fact that protesters are regularly met with government violence and a number of human rights activists have been murdered. Guatemala’s top human rights prosecutor recently avoided an assassination attempt.  

How has the US government responded to all this? There was a 215% increase in US foreign aid to Guatemala in Morales’s first year in office. This aid, primarily from the Department of Defense, is “counternarcotics” aid.

Obviously, Guatemala has an awful counternarcotics record, but this “aid” is actually military assistance. For example, the US delivered 108 4WD armored vehicles (worth 6.6 million dollars) to the Guatemalan government last month. This military aid, it should be said, comes with no attached expectation of reducing drug trafficking and drug-related violence in the country. “Counternarcotics aid” is code for political support to a military ally.

Unfortunately, Jimmy Morales is not an anomaly in a context of global resurgence of extreme right-wing populism. 

Unfortunately, Jimmy Morales is not an anomaly in a context of global resurgence of extreme right-wing populism. The rhetoric of this brand of populism appeals to some segments of society in hard economic times, particularly in countries plagued with political corruption. Before a mass of voters who are discouraged with politics as usual, the appeal of fresh new “outsiders” is undeniable.

For instance, the once-leading candidate in Costa Rica, Juan Diego Castro, also shares, like Morales, some similarities with Trump. He has been called, in fact, “the Trump of the Tropics”. He openly expresses authoritarian ideals while successfully branding himself as the anti-corruption candidate. The issue of corruption was at the forefront in Costa Rica because the country was shaken by a recent high-profile corruption scandal, the so-called Cementazo, involving government contractors. Castro’s nationalist economic message, “Let’s Rebuild Costa Rica”, helped him also rise in the polls. Fortunately, his progress was stopped at the first round of the election process, which was held earlier this month.  

In Brazil, the candidate who comes second in the polls, Jair Bolsonaro, openly compares himself to Trump.

That same kind of dynamics is clearly operating in Brazil, where the candidate who comes second in the polls, Jair Bolsonaro, openly compares himself to Trump. He is actually far worse. A former military officer and current seven-term Congressman, Bolsonaro unabashedly supports Brazil’s former military dictatorship. In fact, after a Congresswoman described the rapes, tortures, and murders committed under the dictatorship, Bolsonaro responded by saying that she was not even worth the rape – a statement he has never backed off from.

In fact, the list of his highly-offensive ideas is far too long to reproduce here, which is why Glenn Greenwald has labeled Bolsonaro “the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world.”

Even though Brazil has one of the highest rates of anti-LGTBQ violence in the world, the odds are that it may elect a candidate who has said that he would prefer to see his son die rather than accept him being gay. Bolsonaro claims that there is no homophobia in Brazil and that 90% of the victims are killed in “places of drug use and prostitution, or are killed by their partners.”

This kind of flawed, callous and hypocritical view of hate crime is somehow consistent with the anti-crime agenda of the “Bullets, Beef, and Bible” coalition supporting Bolsonaro. A case in point is the “solution” for Brazil’s gang violence that Bolsonaro explained to a group of wealthy investors was this: you give high-crime areas a 6-hour warning before entering it and slaughtering everyone in sight.

As things stand today, Bolsonaro could indeed be the next President of Brazil. Oddly enough, as he is in a far-distant second place in the polls, but the leading candidate, former President Lula da Silva, is currently barred from running: he has been convicted of corruption. Lula is appealing the decision, which was ruled by a judge openly and notoriously opposed to Lula, on the basis of evidence from an informant who got a reduced sentence for his testimony.

On the other hand, one-third of the voters say that they will not go to the polls. These are people who feel clearly discouraged by the Brazilian-based “Operation Car Wash” corruption scandal involving hundreds of businessmen and politicians throughout Latin America. It is with that in mind that some of those who will go to the polls may view Bolsonaro as “the lesser evil”.

Is it time to pay reparations?

The Black Lives Matter movement has renewed demands from activists in the US and around the world seeking compensation for the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But what would a reparative economic agenda practically entail and what models exist around the world?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time (12pm EDT), Thursday 17 June.

Hear from:

  • Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
  • Esther Stanford-Xosei: Jurisconsult, Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe (PARCOE).
  • Ronnie Galvin: Managing Director for Community Investment, Greater Washington Community Foundation and Senior Fellow, The Democracy Collaborative.
  • Chair, Aaron White: North American economics editor, openDemocracy
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