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Is Corruption in America Better than in Guatemala?


· Leadership


Corruption is a bane across the world. But the U.S. can’t legitimately criticize it in others, however heinous the corruption of others may be, when it hasn’t even recognized its own, however “light” it may seem in comparison to that of others. 

Corruption may be of different degrees, but it’s still corruption whichever way you look at it. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ stern admonishment of President Alejandro Giammattei for corruption, however odiously true and criminal it may be, smacks of paternal-maternalistic, prosecuting boss-lady arrogance. Her tough words for intending migrants – “Do not come…You will be turned back” – were just plain insensitive and undiplomatic. 

Corruption anywhere limits individual freedom, opportunity and choice  

Corruption is not limited to “others”. It is as prevalent in the U.S. as it is in Guatemala. The difference lies in the character and degree of that corruption. In Guatemala it’s raw and a part of its national character; in the U.S. it’s sugar-coated and characterizes certain elements of society.  

According to the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International, corruption in the U.S. is at the worst levels in over a decade, and it is threatening the country’s recovery from the Covid pandemic, just as it is in Guatemala. The U.S. has continued its downward trend, losing 6 ranking points in 8 years; today it ranks 25/180, the worst score since 2012 and behind the United Arab Emirates and Bhutan. Guatemala, needless to say, ranks much lower, 149/180, a slide down the scale by 8 ranks. In both the U.S. and in Guatemala, corruption not only undermines the healthcare system and contributes to democratic backsliding. It also poses a critical threat to the lives and livelihoods of citizens.  

Aid for graft?

In Guatemala, after decades of American development and humanitarian aid, corruption has gotten worse, and the daily economic struggles of the poorest have persisted. It then stands to reason that the Biden administration’s pledge of $48 million to support entrepreneurship, $310 million for regional humanitarian aid and $4 billion to boost development will be a welcome investment for those involved in graft and other unsavory unintended uses of American largesse.  

If the goal of foreign aid is to truly ensure that citizens benefit from it in a way that also benefits U.S.national security goals, then the model for foreign aid (money, technical assistance, and commodities provided to other countries in support of a common interest of the U.S. and that country) needs to be revised to address the real, not assumed, root causes of migration.  This, of course, involves an entirely different discussion. Suffice it to say that the history of foreign aid is inextricably linked with corruption. In fact, according to some measures of corruption, the more corrupt a government is, the more aid it receives whether directly, throughmultilateral organizations, through non-profit-organizations, or through international finance institutions. Indeed, in many respects, foreign aid makes corrupt governments more corrupt.  

The problem is not foreign aid itself, it’s how it is distorted as a geopolitical and geo-economic mechanism in pursuit of a nebulous “national interest”. So pledging additional billions for Guatemala using the same-‘ol, same-‘ol foreign aid strategies, implementation packages and monitoring and evaluation approaches and techniques and expecting different results is rather insane.  

Stern words and decisive action are needed to counter corruption in the U.S. too 

Corruption doesn’t stop outside our back yard fence. It exists in our back yard too. U.S. policy regarding illegal immigration and abuse of illegal immigrants is characterized by conflicts of interest and abuse of office at different levels. In addition to indicating a marked retreat from democratic norms promoting accountable government, it limits the individual freedom, opportunities and choices of Americans. 

Guatemala needs to build what Michael A. Clemens, in a June 7, 2021 Foreign Affairs article  refers to as “transparent, ethical recruiting systems free of the fraud and abuse that plague unregulated recruitment…often violating workers’ basic rights”. But what the U.S. concomitantly needs to do is resolve the corruption on its side of the Mexican border, among U.S. border officials, and in the employment sector.  

One of the most blatant examples of corruption in the U.S. linked to illegal immigration from the Northern Triangle is criminal misconduct byUS border officers. According to the Fiscal Year 2018 U.S Customs and Border Patrol Discipline Analysis Report, misconduct had reached a five-year high, withoffenses ranging from fraud to capital murder. Throughout 2020 and the first 6 months of 2021, according to the Cato Institute,  hardly a week has gone by “without a criminal conviction or charges being filed against Border Patrol agents or disciplinary actions taken against employees of Customs and Border Protection (CBP)”. Although it’s difficult to measure illegal activity, especially that committed by law enforcement officers (LEOs) in a law enforcement agency (LEA), termination rates for disciplinary, performance or criminal reasons indicate that a severe corruption problem exists that is not being adequately addressed.  

At the same time, according to the Pew Research Center the size of the unauthorized immigrant workforce in the U.S. has remained stable since the Great Recession (December 2007- June 2009). The Center for American Progress, estimates that across theUnited States, 5 million undocumented migrants “are working alongside their neighbors to keep the country safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.” Thousands of restaurants, house cleaning, home care, landscaping and other services businesses across America hire illegal immigrants. Many even have an unstated policy: We don’t hire American here (because illegal immigrants are cheaper – no insurance, vacations or sick pay - and are willing to do the tough work Americans won’t, and they show up towork). Once in a while there are high-visibility cases reported in the press about ICE raids on meat processing plants. But this is more show than anything else.  

Quit the double-speak 

The millions of “illegal aliens” in the U.S. are making sure that produce gets from the fields to our grocery stores; they are treating patients throughout the health care system; they are caring for our children and our grandparents; they are ensuring the nation's infrastructure remains safe. They have kept the country moving amid the pandemic, and each year they contribute $47.6 billion in federal taxes, $25.5 billion in state and local taxes and pay an additional $14.3 billion in Medicare and Social Security taxes.  

So for Vice-President Harris to sternly warn those considering migrating illegally to the U.S. by saying that they will be turned back is a rather tone-deaf way to tackle the root causes of that migration, let alone the root causes of the corrupt who are welcoming that immigration into the U.S.  

Turning your back on those fleeing chaos is not exactly the best way to build back America’s battered image, especially when the U.S. actually supports corrupt governments in the name of national and economic security interests. This double speak must give way to real, contextually-aware, politically-savvy talk that leads to constructive action.  


Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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