An Interview with Arnold A. Chacon, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala

Guatemala Arnold A. ChaconArnold A. Chacon has led the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala since August 2011. His previous postings abroad include Chile, Ecuador, Italy, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Spain. Additionally, Chacon has assumed numerous State Department roles in the U.S., such as State Department Deputy Executive Director in Washington, D.C. and a posting at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. He served as a Fellow at the American Political Science Association and has received the State Department’s President Rank Award. Born in Denver, Colorado, Chacon received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has been married for 25 years and has three children.

The Politic: Why did you choose to join the Foreign Service?

I did volunteer work when I was in high school and during my college summers for an organization called Amigos de las Americas, based out of Houston, Texas. They do public health projects in many Latin American countries. That’s where I first became acquainted with foreign policy. Then, I met Foreign Service Officers, including USAID officials. I had the opportunity in my volunteer work to talk to them about their business. The place I was growing up wasn’t that internationally-focused, so this opportunity to travel really whetted my appetite for doing something in terms of an international career. I gained valuable experience negotiating agreements with local governments health officials so we could send our volunteers to particular areas. The bug bit me, and here I am, thirty years later.

The Politic: Is there one experience, event, or person in Guatemala that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

That is a tough question, because there is more than one experience and more than one person. Let me start by saying that Guatemala has long-term issues that I think need to be attacked and approached intelligently. The U.S. government feels very strongly that it’s all about strengthening institutions. In this case, the Guatemalan judicial institution is my overriding priority.

The person who has had a great impact on me, who I have been able to work with and observe up-close, is the Attorney General here, Claudia Paz y Paz. She is someone from civil society; she’s had incredible, positive impact on judicial reform in Guatemala since she took office in 2010. She worked really hard to bring justice to organized crime bosses, human rights abusers, and perpetrators of widespread gender-based violence. In a country that is confronting serious challenges to the rule of law, she has succeeded in increasing the number of prosecutions and convictions.

You’re probably aware that Guatemala struggles with high rates of corruption and impunity. Again, our Mission is committed to partnering with Guatemala, because I think if you’re going to break the cycle of violence, you really need to strengthen institutions, and you really need to convince the people that there are institutions worth placing their faith in. Through USAID we have a lot of programs that establish and implement legal policy frameworks to improve civilian management and the security and governance sectors. I have to applaud the Pérez Molina administration for taking seriously the reform of the judicial sector, and in particular, I have to commend Attorney General Paz y Paz because she really exemplary in this regard and is leading the way.

I want to touch on other aspects of my work here in Guatemala, such as promotion of human rights and social inclusion. At least half of the population is indigenous, and it is a population that is disenfranchised and has been living on the margins for the longest time. We work a lot behind-the-scenes to promote dialogue with these indigenous groups. There are some 22 different Mayan groups. There is the social connectivity that motivates it, and the idea that they have more in common than they do not. We have to address the needs of this population if this country is ever going to develop. There are two Guatemalas — there is the dynamic city or urban areas that are moving ahead, and then you have a rural population that’s disenfranchised and not really partaking in the development of the country.

One of the programs that we support and that supports the indigenous is Feed the Future, the presidential initiative. Half of the children under the age of five in Guatemala are chronically malnourished, and that is the highest rate in the Western hemisphere. We work with this presidential initiative to improve food security and decrease this chronic malnutrition by coordinating nutrition interventions and agricultural income-generating projects in the areas where the greatest levels of malnutrition occur.

The Politic: The largest part of the Guatemalan diaspora resides in the U.S. In 2006, the Pew Hispanic Research Center estimated that around 320,000 of these individuals are undocumented. Additionally, the International Organization for Migration has estimated that the U.S. deports about 2,500 irregular Guatemalan migrants each year. Firstly, does the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala engage in any outreach to the Guatemalan migrants who are deported back to their home country? Also, how does the U.S. encourage safe and orderly migration from Guatemala to the U.S. in general?

We do regularly disseminate information to the Guatemalan public to better acquaint them with the visa application process and certainly to alert them to visa scams and the various fraudulent schemes that prey on people seeking to immigrate to the United States. We use a variety of outreach tools — social media, webchat, in-person meetings — to communicate these important messages. We also work with the Guatemalan government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in getting these messages out. We interact a lot with the diaspora advocacy groups, both here and in the United States, as well as with the private sector, to warn Guatemalans of the inherent dangers in the migration process.

Regardless of their motivation for irregular migration, the human toll is just unacceptable — deaths, injuries, trauma, abuse, human trafficking — and is akin to modern-day slavery. There are some indications that, because of the ongoing Congressional debate in the United States on comprehensive immigration reform, some immigrants are more than ever determined to cross the border without documentation. They have this vague impression that if they arrive in the U.S. prior to the passage of this reform, somehow they’re going to be allowed to stay or be covered by whatever legislation may emerge. And traffickers use this misinformation to recruit intending undocumented migrants. They charge them upwards of $10,000. In our work, we look very closely at the comprehensive immigration reform debate. Guatemalans are also looking very closely and actively monitor the legislative process in Washington. We see a lot of local coverage on the issue. We understand the importance of this to Guatemala, and the fact that they have family and friends living in the United States [means] there is an expectation that they will be allowed a passage to citizenship.

The Politic: Do you think the U.S. policy of supporting the Guatemalan government during the country’s internal conflict from the 1960s to the 1990s still influences Guatemalans’ perception of the U.S. or Americans in general? On what observations or experiences do you base your answer?

First and foremost, the United States and Guatemala are two countries that are bound very closely by personal, economic, and historical ties. I am happy to say that Guatemalans — and I have traveled quite a bit of the country — have a general approving opinion of the United States, and I think the polls confirm that. USAID and Peace Corps, for instance, have been here for over 50 years; there has been a steady presence and a perception that there’s a long-term commitment. Guatemala’s perception of us is influenced by the way in which current U.S. policies affect their pocketbooks, families, and neighborhoods.

There is an appreciation that our engagement in Guatemala is based on shared goals of combating corruption and impunity, improving citizen security, and addressing the plethora of economic and social development challenges like malnutrition and education. Guatemala is increasingly as much a domestic issue as it is an international issue, because there are over a million Guatemalans living in the United States, and certainly the distance is not very far. Increasingly, we are sharing a lot more with them than we have in the past.

The Politic: In a Spring 2013 article you wrote for The Ambassadors REVIEW, you wrote that Guatemala’s homicide rate has dropped, but impunity for crimes in general remains high. This past May, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court decided to overturn the charges of genocide against Efrain Ríos Montt, who served as president during Guatemala’s dictatorial past. Does the decision to overturn the verdict stem from the general trend of impunity, or do you think there are there other factors at play?

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina

To be sure, the Ríos Montt trial was emblematic, historic, not only for Guatemala but for the world, because it was the first prosecution of a former head of state at the national level for genocide. The trial presented a complex and complicated case, with lots of political implications. The trial, importantly, was a wholly Guatemalan process. It was conducted by Guatemalan judicial authorities and was accountable to the Guatemalan people.

Yes, the Constitutional Court did overturn the verdict of the trial; it annulled the conviction of Efrain Ríos Montt on the basis of a procedural issue, but not on the substance of the case. Our understanding is that a new three-judge tribunal has been named, and we expect the trial will resume next year. From the very beginning, we have always called for — and continue to hope for — a transparent judicial proceeding, something that is credible and independent, so that Guatemalans can believe in their institution. We continue to urge Guatemalans to respect the legitimacy and integrity of this process.

As I said before, we are committed to partnering with Guatemala, its government and its people, to overcome the struggle — the continuous high rates of corruption and impunity — and to provide equal access to justice. That was an important aspect of the Ríos Montt trial — the fact that there was access to justice, that regardless of what happened in the end, you had indigenous women giving this really compelling testimony about being rape victims (violence against women in a continuing problem here). They are on the record, and there is no way anyone can erase that. It was an important milestone in the healing process, an important cathartic moment.

Most importantly, because so many people weren’t around thirty years ago (the population is largely young), it was an important lesson to ensure this never happens again. While it was polarizing, and it was really not pleasant for the country to pull back this scab again and look at what happened in the past, there were really valuable lessons here. It was an educational process to ensure that such atrocities could never happen and there are safeguards in place to prevent that.

The Politic: This past spring, the U.S. agreed on an 18-point Enforcement Plan to resolve a dispute that had arisen from Guatemala’s failure to uphold the labor standards required by the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA-DR. Even though the plan has just been approved, have you seen it making an impact yet? What are your expectations for its impact in the coming months — are you optimistic that it will achieve all 18 of its points, or not? And how long do you think it will take to achieve all 18 of those points, if the Plan will be successful?

This agreement certainly is a priority for us. We are hopeful and working very hard to make progress with Guatemala to address the labor rights concerns, either through effective implementation of the Enforcement Plan that we both agreed to, or the arbitral panel process, if that resumes. (That is part of the free trade agreement that we have with Guatemala.) The key issue here is creating opportunities for investment. In order to bring investment to this country, to have to have a level playing field, you have to have juridical security, and you have to have the assurance that important labor laws on the books are going to be respected and implemented. Guatemala took a significant step forward by finding this Enforcement Plan. There is some pending action. For instance, Congress needs to pass some legislation in this regard to ensure they’re a sanctioning authority and, in fact, labor rights can be safeguarded. But the private sector well appreciates that this is the best way to send a positive signal not only to stakeholders but also to potential investors that Guatemala is a good, safe place to do business. Americans want to buy products when labor rights are respected.

The Politic: Throughout this interview, you have touched on how many broad-ranging challenges Guatemala faces. There is the labor issue, but is also has the lowest literacy rate in Central America, high malnutrition among youths, a high impunity rate — and that is just to name a few. With all of these obstacles, how does your Embassy decide what issue to prioritize in its programs?

We do so in consultation with Guatemala. We’re not here to impose our agenda. We have a strong partnership. It is a wonderful society. The access we have is incredible. They don’t stand on protocol; they’re eager to engage. They have defined, this administration in particular, those key areas where they would like international assistance and coordination. It comes down to improving citizen security, strengthening the rule of law, protecting human rights, and trying to reduce the causes of crime and insecurity.

Since 2008, we have committed nearly a half a billion dollars to the Central America Regional Security Initiative (known as CARSI) to improve criminal investigations and prosecutions, to work on rooting out corruption and to disrupt criminal networks. We are focusing in particular on prevention programs for at-risk youth and communities that are susceptible to crime. Always, [we focus on] enhancing respect for human rights and the rule of law in Central America. Again, addressing the root causes of insecurity is one of our top priorities. We allocate nearly $85 million in bilateral assistance to Guatemala to support those core development programs there. Again, those are focused on health, education, civil society, and economic growth.

We also look at this in a comprehensive way as well. Guatemala is not an island, and it shares many of these problems with its Central American neighbors, in particular Honduras and El Salvador. We want to coordinate our assistance and use international financial institutions, the private sector, the Central American Integration System  (SICA), and others to ensure we are all on the same page and enforcing what the other is doing and investing our resources smartly. Clearly, this problem didn’t happen overnight, and it’s going to take a while to address all of these security challenges. We are building sustainable and integrated solutions that are really addressing the threats to citizen security and focusing on the root causes of crime and violence. We will continue to do so, because we are committed and engaged here, and it’s in our interest to succeed.

The Politic: In October of 2010, President Obama apologized to the Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom for the medical experiments performed by U.S. doctors on 5,000 Guatemalans (including 1,300 who were intentionally infected with sexually transmitted diseases) in the 1940s. This was a high-profile case a couple of years ago. How does the U.S. Embassy communicate with Guatemalans about an issue that happened decades ago, as opposed to the issues that are going on today? How have you seen Guatemalans react to the way in which the U.S. handled this situation?

It is an important aspect of the relationship. We do not love the past. We try to understand it and be very clear about our responsibility, if any. These events occurred 65 years ago, and it’s outrageous that such research could have occurred under the guise of public health. We say, and I have said, and others have said over again, how much we deeply regret that it happened. We try to assure [the Guatemalan people] that we appreciate the importance of the protection of human subjects in research; it requires that all federally funded research on human subjects adhere to the most stringent, ethical guidelines. The good news story is that today there are numerous safeguards in place in the United States to prohibit these kinds of unethical practices. There is an ongoing effort to ensure that we have the best possible human subject protection in the United States and around the world.

An outdoor market in Chichicastenango, 2009
An outdoor market in Chichicastenango, 2009

One of the most important things we are doing here is working through the Centers for Disease Control. It has a regional Office here in Guatemala, and they work very closely with the Ministry of Health to support a new Guatemalan public health institute. We’re committed to ensuring that something like this does not ever happen. Importantly, Guatemala has assumed its responsibility as well. [This event] didn’t take place in a vacuum; there was collaboration by public health officials and the like. This is not an excuse, but a way of dealing with the past and ensuring it will never, ever happen again.

The Politic: In general, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

Engagement is key, and I am really happy to see a renewed high level of U.S. government attention not only to Guatemala but to all of Latin America. This is clearly one of the many trips that not only President Obama but also Vice President Biden, certainly former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and most recently Secretary Kerry, has made to the region. Again, what we want to communicate is that we’re not focused only on one issue like regional security, but clearly on social development and long-term solutions to increase trade and commercial outreach and to deal with the social problems of the past.

Most importantly, this engagement signals that Guatemala is not a ‘failed state.’ Four years ago, you heard that as part of the discourse from many academics. We are saying that it is not a failed state; it is worth the investment, the effort, and the attention.

Again, it increasingly signals that it is also a domestic political issue. The Latino influence in the United States and the contributions they make are undeniable, and that includes Guatemalans who are in the States whether legally or illegally. They are making a lasting contribution, and it is something that is going to change the fabric of our society forever and ever. Partnership, continual engagement, and a focus on Guatemala being not only an international issue but a domestic issue and showing our many same values, go a long way towards bringing the Americas closer together. We have much more in common than we have differences.

Embassy of the United States to Guatemala:

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