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Guatemalan democracy is weakening

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

There has been a lot of talk about democracy at this week's Summit of Americas in LA. Some countries have been noticeably absent, not invited because they weren't upholding democratic principles. Guatemala was not on that list. But many in the region are alarmed at an increasing deterioration of the rule of law there, as our correspondent Maria Martin reports.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: It started off so well. This was the work of Vice President Kamala Harris received when she visited Guatemala last year, her first official foreign trip.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish) Kamala Harris.

MARTIN: The vice president hailed a new era in U.S.-Guatemala relations. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei reciprocated her warm sentiments.

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PRESIDENT ALEJANDRO GIAMMATTEI: For us, it's very important to have you here because it means that Guatemala and the United States can work as a partners.

MARTIN: But a year on, and relations are anything but warm. The State Department placed Giammattei's attorney general, Consuelo Porras, on a list of corrupt and undemocratic actors.

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GIAMMATTEI: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: And when the president swore her in for a second term, his actions were met with horror by many abroad and protests at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MARTIN: Attorney General Porras stands accused of using the justice department to punish her enemies and turn a blind eye to corruption in high places. The president's press office didn't respond to a request for an interview, but the president and Porras have on many occasions denied the charges.

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CONSUELO PORRAS: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: But that hasn't stopped over 20 independent judges, anti-corruption prosecutors and journalists from fleeing the country this year alone.

MANFREDO MARROQUIN: (Through interpreter) What Guatemala is living now is the pendulum effect, the reaction, the backlash.

MARTIN: Democracy rights activist Manfredo Marroquin (ph) says political power in Guatemala is swinging back to the past, to an era in which a few elite groups controlled most aspects of life. For a number of years, he says, some progress was made in fighting corruption, especially with the help of the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity, known as CICIG. But now, he says, the pendulum has swung back.

MARROQUIN: (Through interpreter) All these interests that had once relied on corruption to thrive combined all the economic, political and military power, getting aligned with organized crime. They threw out the CICIG and began to take over all aspects of the government.

JUAN LUIS FONT: Things started to change precisely when Mr. Trump, who was president of the United States...

MARTIN: Juan Luis Font is one of the most respected journalists in Guatemala. He's been tracking the decline of democratic progress since the U.S. administration under Trump stopped investing in Guatemala's anti-corruption efforts.

FONT: Guatemala, as well as El Salvador, as well as Nicaragua, is very rapidly running into becoming a dictatorship and not a democracy.

MARTIN: He, too, is now in exile after the Justice Department of Consuelo Porras brought bribery charges against him, which he strongly denies.

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MARTIN: Nearly a year on from Kamala Harris's visit, the U.S.-Guatemalan relationship is fragile. Ultimately, the row over the reappointment of the attorney general meant President Giammattei refused to come to the Summit of the Americas. And many saw this as a missed opportunity.

MARROQUIN: (Through interpreter) In Guatemala, we expected a change with the Democratic administration. We hoped it could be more demanding of a government controlled by mafias and elites.

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MARTIN: And for the Guatemalan people caught in the middle, the frustration and the protest about corruption continues. For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Martin