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People In Central America Sound Alarms About What They Say Are Setbacks For Democracy


In Central America, people are sounding alarms about what they say are setbacks for democracy. They focused on two recent moves in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega expelled a U.N. human rights delegation just days after it published a scathing report on his government. In Guatemala, the president is shutting down a U.N.-backed anti-corruption group that's worked for 12 years and brought some of the country's highest ranking officials to justice. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's been a rough few days for the U.N. in Central America. As members of its human rights delegation were packing their bags in Nicaragua, dozens of military vehicles surrounded the offices of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption mission in Guatemala.

The soldiers didn't enter the headquarters, but the group known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has successfully put two former presidents in jail, got the message. Matias Ponce is CICIG's spokesman.


MATIAS PONCE: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: In a brief video today, Ponce thanked the anti-corruption group's supporters and announced that the mission's director had left the country - briefly, he stressed - for the U.S. U.N. officials have expressed regrets over the decision to end the group's mandate in Guatemala a year from now. However, President Jimmy Morales says he was justified, since the U.N.-backed CICIG violated his country's autonomy and local laws.


JIMMY MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Flanked by police and soldiers, Morales accused the U.N.'s anti-corruption group of fostering what he called judicial terror in Guatemala. Morales is currently under investigation by the U.N. group for illegally funding his presidential campaign. Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega also accused a human rights U.N. group for violating his country's sovereignty and said its expulsion was justified, too. Just days before, the U.N. issued a scathing report on what it called widespread repression of peaceful protesters who've been seeking his ouster for the past four months.

Such a one-two blow to international oversight has sparked outrage abroad and at home. Longtime Guatemala human rights lawyer Alejandro Rodriguez says the question now is who will win out in his country.

ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Will it be the president or the rule of law," he asks. He says if it's the president, then the country's about to see a total regression of its institutions, similar to past decades of widespread corruption and impunity. Nicaraguan Juan Sebastian Chamorro says Democratic retrenchment has already happened in his country, with President Ortega in control of every aspect of the government. Chamorro funds FUNIDES, a non-governmental economic think tank.

JUAN SEBASTIAN CHAMORRO: In my country, the judiciary is at the service of the president, the legislative is at the service of the president. There's no such thing as independent branches of government.

KAHN: Critics have called on the U.S. to speak up. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala did express its support for the anti-corruption group. But in a tweet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo applauded Guatemala for its security cooperation with the U.S. Geoff Thale of the Washington-based Office on Latin America, WOLA, a human rights advocacy group, says the Trump administration's public disdain for international bodies has given these Central American presidents cover to undermine democracy. And he says such a move will cause even more migrants to flee north to the U.S.

GEOFF THALE: And if we're concerned about trying to address the causes that are driving that flow, we need to help strengthen the rule of law and improve the quality of security in people's daily lives.

KAHN: The U.N. Security Council is set to take up the current situation in Nicaragua on Wednesday. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT'S "AS NEEDED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn
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.