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Caught in Trump Migration Bind, Guatemalans Vote to Elect New President

The new president would face a big challenge after the country signed an unpopular deal with Washington to act as a buffer against illegal immigration under pressure from US President Donald Trump.

- | Reuterstech.ibnlive

Updated:August 12, 2019, 11:09 AM IST
Caught in Trump Migration Bind, Guatemalans Vote to Elect New President
A man walks in front of a campaign signs, ahead of the second round run-off vote, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, August 10, 2019. (Reuters/Jose Cabezas)

Guatemala City: Guatemalans on Sunday were voting for a new president who will face a major challenge after the country signed an unpopular deal with Washington to act as a buffer against illegal immigration under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.

Threatened with economic sanctions if it said no, the administration of outgoing President Jimmy Morales reached an accord in late July to make Guatemala a so-called safe third country for migrants, despite the endemic poverty and violence plaguing the Central American nation.

Both candidates to replace Morales, conservative Alejandro Giammattei, the slight favorite, and the center-left former first lady Sandra Torres, have criticised the deal. But it is unclear that either will be able to do much to stop it.

"I think it's the most ridiculous thing this president could have done, because if Guatemala is mired in poverty, how is it going to take in migrants if we don't have anything to eat ourselves?" said Mercedes Escoto, 65, a retired teacher and Giammattei supporter voting in Guatemala City.

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

Both candidates argue lawmakers should be consulted on the deal, which Giammattei has called "bad news", saying Guatemala is not ready to cope with a potential jump in asylum-seekers.

The accord 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.

Torres, too, has attacked the deal, and her campaign says Guatemala should be pushing for better bilateral trading terms with the United States in return for considering it.

A CID-Gallup opinion poll of 1,216 voters conducted between July 29 and Aug. 5 gave Giammattei the advantage going into the run-off vote, with 39.5% support, versus 32.4% for Torres.

Whoever takes office in January will inherit a country with a 60% poverty rate, widespread crime and unemployment, which have led hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to migrate north.

Between them, the two candidates have failed to win the presidency five times. Although Torres came out on top in a first round of voting in June, she is a polarizing figure.

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 TV comedian.

Morales narrowly escaped impeachment, and the CICIG also went after Torres for suspected campaign finance irregularities. As a candidate, she is currently immune from prosecution.

"I'm voting for Alejandro Giammattei because I don't want Sandra Torres to get in, because her participation is a fraud and because she has pending legal issues," said Ammy Montes, a 25-year-old teacher in Guatemala City.

Both candidates have vowed to fight corruption - albeit without "foreign interference," an apparent nod to the CICIG.

Morales, who terminated the commission's mandate effective as of September, is barred by law from standing again. But the migration deal he authorized could create a lasting legacy.

Risa Grais-Targow, Latin America director at consultancy Eurasia Group, said while the accord struck with Trump risks a popular backlash, not honoring it could expose Guatemala to U.S. taxes on remittances or tariffs on its goods.

"The next president faces a lose-lose situation when it comes to managing the deal with the United States," she said. "That is the biggest challenge the incoming president faces."

Giammattei, a surgeon, has proposed the death penalty for some criminals, and promised to erect an "investment wall" on the border between Guatemala and Mexico to curb migration.

Torres wants to put troops on the streets to fight gangs, and use welfare schemes to alleviate poverty.

In Mixco, on the outskirts of the capital, security guard Felix Tanchez said he would back Torres because of her proposals on jobs and security - but without much enthusiasm. "Once they're in, they all do what they want," said Tanchez, 38. "I hope she makes a difference."

Election results are due to begin arriving on Sunday night.

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