MIL-OSI USA: Interview: Administrator Samantha Power with La Hora’s Pedro Pablo Marroquín

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Source: USAID

MR. PEDRO PABLO MARROQUÍNDear Ms. Administrator, thanks for being with us. I know yesterday was one of the longest days, probably in your career but thanks for making time to sit with us. This is an interesting interview because we all need to look to the future and make sure that things happen for the Guatemalan people. But I just want to recap some prior issues before focusing on what’s coming. 

Yesterday, a Republican Senator, Mike Lee, published that Alejandro Giammattei, the son of the former president, was being questioned by CBP officials in Miami. Today, we have learned that he has been deported. I’m not asking the specifics because I know how it works. But I do have one question for you, is this a clear message to those who were involved in corruption that you can run but you can’t hide?

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Well, as you said, we don’t comment on specific cases regarding visas or entry to the United States. But our broader position on accountability, on corruption is very, very clear. This has been a very unusual year where we have seen many, many sanctions designations against individuals here in Guatemala who were involved in corruption.

This is not so common, we have sanctions designations in other countries, but the extent of the corruption here, and really the extent of the theft from the Guatemalan people, is something that has triggered these principles that we have in every country we operate in around the world. So I would say these principles are evident to the citizens of this country, who I hope have felt our support for their desire to see resources and economic benefits go to them, and not to corrupt individuals. But I also hope it’s evident to people who might be tempted to engage in further corruption.

The other thing that I would like to say is that sanctions, principles are enduring. The sanctions themselves are not permanent. So, there is a moment now where Guatemalans are trying to claim for themselves a brighter economic and democratic future. This is also a moment even the people who have been sanctioned can take steps to address the actions that have caused them to run afoul, again, of American law and American principles. 

MR. MARROQUÍN: I was going to talk about it further in the interview, but now that you’ve mentioned it, in those darker days, last year, the U.S. sanctioned over 100 members of Congress. If those reelected do the work correctly, focus on the people, on upholding institutions, on key reforms, do they have a way out on getting their visas back?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, this is a version of the principle that I was just describing. I mean, again, sanctions are behavior based – they are based on actions by individuals, it would be very hard for me to generalize, yes, everybody can get well by doing the following five things without knowing the specifics of the predicate for any particular set of sanctions. But I think the United States has made it clear that conversations of that nature are ones that we are happy to engage in, we engage with everybody. We have had dialogue with a lot of the individuals that try to prevent the inauguration of the president, we have tried to encourage dialogue between the spoilers and those again, who were supported in the recent elections by the people. So, again, our goal is to see Guatemala thrive economically, and to see its democratic institutions strengthened. 

I will say that what we would really like to see is Guatemala’s own legal system be capable of addressing corruption, where it’s not about what some outside country, even a close neighbor like the United States does, but rather when people who have committed corrupt acts are held accountable in the justice system here. And also that the institutional safeguards become much, much stronger, on procurement, on citizens, politicians having to make their assets transparently known to the people of Guatemala, on the budget process being opened up to the people. So, I think you were likely to see, some individuals recognize that the path to their own prosperity no longer runs through corruption. But actually runs through observing the rule of law, and dialogue happens all around the world, with individuals who actually want to get clean. 

MR. MARROQUÍN: Before going with the present and the future, I just have one brief question. You were appointed in 2021, the year after that, the former president Alejandro Giammattei was considering, based on a report from the Heritage Foundation, kicking out USAID. How do you take the news after the help your government gave to ours, especially with the vaccines during the COVID pandemic?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah, I mean, this was something of course, that was of great concern to me, to our wonderful Ambassador, here, at the time.

But, what really was upsetting to me was just the fact that there might be people who benefit from our programs, where if USAID was kicked out, would no longer get the seeds or the fertilizer, or the training, or the textbooks, or, as you mentioned, maybe there’s a future pandemic, maybe the vaccines – in other words, our emphasis here has never been on which government is in, which government is out, which party is up which party is down, our emphasis has been on Guatemalan people. And so certainly, it was important that we were able to sustain our presence here, so as to build on the decades of investment that we had made in the health sector, the agricultural sector, the education sector, in economic growth and SMEs. And I think the results of remaining here the last couple of years are pretty clear, again, for those communities that have been touched by these programs, 

MR. MARROQUÍN: And you just gave a press conference. Can you, in a nutshell, list the programs that you are going to be working on? And how fast can the Guatemalan people expect to see them running? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, there are – the wonderful things about working at USAID, and even working in the U.S. government more broadly, is we are a big country, and we know that Guatemala’s needs cross into a lot of sectors. So it would be impossible for me to give you a rundown of all of the programs because they range from training independent journalists to working with the new anti corruption institutions to draw on best practices in combating corruption that we’ve learned from other countries and to make sure that they’re brought to bear here, support for small- and medium-sized enterprises. I’ve already mentioned agricultural training for farmers. We’re launching a new class of women entrepreneurs training, and that will benefit 400 female entrepreneurs who themselves will hire probably dozens of staff themselves. Citizen security is a big issue, of course, in Latin America, generally, in the United States as well. Enhancing the checkpoint and surveillance of the roads and the highways here in this country to make sure that traffickers are not able to benefit from going unseen. So Guatemalans will start to see visibly some changes to the highway infrastructure. And working with the police in a newly visible way, again, to enhance their training. But that’s on top of all of the other USAID programming that has existed for some time. 

And the last thing I would just mention is we met today with Guatemalans who have benefited from being able to travel to the United States to do seasonal labor, for example in the summer or on the farm, and then come back and invest the money they earned in their kids education, in a new house, in paying back their loans. We want Guatemalans to be aware that these programs exist. We think that we should, together with the new administration, be able to expand this program dramatically. We’ve already quadrupled the number of visas that have been made available to Guatemalans. And what we found in the United States is American companies are really happy with Guatemalan labor. And what’s great is the Guatemalan workers come back, and then they start their own businesses here and in turn great economic opportunity for the neighbors.

MR. MARROQUÍN: And speaking of Guatemalan workers, we need to stop migration, for sure. Given the relationship with the new government and what the U.S. did to uphold democracy, and given the fact that Guatemalan workers in the U.S. are so important to your economy and our economy, is there a chance our nationals can get a temporary protected status, AKA TPS?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think that what we are focused on is two things, the new safe migration offices or secure migration offices, one of which has been opened here in Guatemala, which allow people to apply for refugee status if they have a well founded fear of persecution. We’re also growing efforts to allow people the ability to apply for family reunification with loved ones who are already in the United States. And I already mentioned these labor pathways. 

MR. MARROQUÍN: So is TPS on the table?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think what I will say is, again, that our areas of emphasis are those that we have described. But we really believe fundamentally, that there have to be lawful pathways. At the same time, we believe, of course, that there has to be a secure border, that there has to be rules of the road in terms of coming and going. And so we’re grateful for the Arévalo Administration being willing to sustain cooperation on migration and on border security.

MR. MARROQUÍN: You’ve talked to actors who played a key role upholding democracy. What is your message to all of them knowing that we need to unify, find common ground, reach agreements, and bring the change that the electors have been waiting for?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I was really struck by something President Arévalo said to me and the delegation in our private meeting. And I will share it here, it’s not a state secret, he said that the Guatemala of today is not the same as the Guatemala of August. And I think what I and our delegation take back and we’ll share with President Biden when we get back to Washington, is just how much civil society has grown – the confidence that they have gained, in their own voices. That what it feels like right now is that the attacks against them, the attacks on the democratic will of the people, the objective of those attacks was to intimidate and to inculcate a sense of fear and disempowerment. But magically, what has happened is exactly the opposite, which is meeting with indigenous leaders earlier today, and to hear their sense of a new sense of organization and power, and a new recognition that their voices can be used not only on behalf of indigenous rights and indigenous inclusion, but on behalf of all Guatemalans. 

Journalists who saw that their social media posts and interviews, that maybe once they thought, what good does it do, these corrupt actors are so powerful. People are just going to steal the election, why even bother, but see what the power of those messages was, and citizens saw that their votes mattered. And even yesterday, all of the efforts to deny the will of the people, the fact that the people have prevailed, I think, will embolden the communities that were so activated by this attempt to deny their rights and to deny their voices. And so, that’s actually going to present challenges to the new administration because the people are awake, and they are not afraid. And I think they have felt their power. And I think what’s nice is that the new administration recognizes that that is what is most needed for the health of Guatemala’s democracy in the long term. So, the accountability of all officials and all institutions is something I think the citizens are going to push for in the months and years ahead. And we, at USAID and in the U.S. government, are firm believers that stronger institutions, stronger accountability make for better results in the lives of ordinary people 

MR. MARROQUÍN: Thank you, Ms. Administrator for making the time.