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Guatemala's President-Elect Will Inherit Strained Relationship With U.S.


Guatemala's president elect is a 63-year-old conservative who once ran the country's prison system. And he ran three unsuccessful bids for the presidency before winning this time around.

Now, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, he inherits a strained relationship with the United States over migration, plus deep corruption and violence at home.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Alejandro Giammattei beat his rival, former first lady Sandra Torres, by nearly 16 points. But no one is calling his victory a mandate. That's because nearly 60% of eligible voters didn't even bother to go to the polls.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: At this downtown Guatemala City polling place, Hilda Flores, an IT university professor, like many voters, had a hard time picking a candidate.


HILDA FLORES: Like, the less worse - is that correct to say in English? - the less evil.

KAHN: She says she's sick of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Sunday's presidential contest had the lowest voter turnout in nearly two decades. Even Giammattei's victory party was underwhelming. Looking exhausted, the former surgeon's acceptance speech was quick.



KAHN: "You will not find a president distant from the people. You will find a president close to the people," Giammattei declared before departing. He took yesterday off to rest. While Giammattei has run four presidential campaigns, he's never held office. And he's going to have to catch on fast.

Guatemala is facing huge challenges. Nearly 60% of the population lives in poverty, and because of that and increasing violence and unchecked corruption, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans have headed north and been detained at the U.S. border in the past 10 months.

Edmond Mulet, an unsuccessful presidential candidate this year, says the Guatemalan state is failing. And he says he knows what that looks like. In the mid-2000s, he headed the U.N. mission to Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere.

EDMOND MULET: The efforts in order to fight corruption have been very much reduced and - which is of concern.

KAHN: Just four years ago, Guatemala was actually an inspiration for the rest of the region, as it jailed a class of corrupt politicians, including the then-president, vice president and other high-profile targets. That crusading crackdown was led by a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish. However, last year, current President Jimmy Morales, who had come under investigation by the commission, canceled it and expelled its head.

Claudia Escobar, a former Guatemalan judge, says Morales has once again opened Guatemala to criminals and corrupt officials.

CLAUDIA ESCOBAR: I feel that Guatemala right now is a patient that is in intensive care, and CICIG was the help for this patient to be alive. And with CICIG gone, I think we really have a high risk of being a failed state.

KAHN: President-elect Giammattei, backed by business and military interests, says he won't bring CICIG back. He says he will instead attack the root causes of corruption but provides few details. He also pledges to start his own national anti-corruption commission.

It's unlikely he'll get pressure from the U.S. to make good on those promises. President Trump has abandoned years of bipartisan support for CICIG. He didn't protest the commission's expulsion. Trump's now more focused on an agreement he got Guatemala to sign, obligating the country to accept possibly tens of thousands of Central American asylum-seekers.

In his congratulatory tweet to the new president-elect, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he's looking forward to combating irregular migration together. He didn't mention fighting corruption.

Guatemalan constitutional lawyer Alexander Aizenstatd says U.S. policy is shortsighted.

ALEXANDER AIZENSTATD: Which is regretful because in the long term, the fights against corruption and impunity is something that will certainly reduce illegal migration.

KAHN: Lorena Monzon, an insurance saleswoman, says Sunday's election results leave her pessimistic about Guatemala's future.

LORENA MONZON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We're going to go back to the way we were before when the politicians just did whatever they wanted and lined their pockets with all our money."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Guatemala City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE SONG, "BLACK CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

World All Things Considered
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.