When little-known politician Bernardo Arévalo was announced the winner of Guatemala's presidential run-off vote on Aug. 20, it ended more than a decade of conservative leadership. But in the wake of Mr. Arévalo's surprising win, analysts are expressing concern about the progressive president-elect's goal to strengthen ties with China.
This could be especially troublesome for the United States—Guatemala's top trade partner—and the politically embattled Taiwan. Guatemala is one of just 13 nations that diplomatically recognizes Taipei over Beijing. It's also one of Taiwan's two remaining allies in Central America.
On Aug. 21, just one day after Guatemalan officials announced the election results, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, expressed the desire for Guatemala's new head of state to "make the right decision" and establish formal diplomatic ties with China.
“Lately, people from various sectors in Guatemala have expressed in interviews their hope that their country will soon establish diplomatic ties with China, which fully indicates that developing relations with China ... is what serves the fundamental interests of Guatemala,” Mr. Wang said in a statement initially reported by the Chinese state channel CCTV.
Cartel-Style Influence"We need to work on our trade relations and expand them in the case of China," Mr. Arévalo said during a June interview on the radio show Con Criterio.
He portrayed an optimistic stance in the interview, saying he hopes to balance relations between Beijing and Taipei and "maintain good political relations with the Republic of China and Taiwan within the framework of mutual respect."
Mr. Arévalo said that Guatemala needs to be the "owner" of its foreign policy and to not be influenced by other nations.
At face value, it's a good plan. But historically, when Latin American countries expand relations with China, it's never limited to just trade. Moreover, Beijing has successfully widened the reach of its political agenda in the West through extensive trade and investment deals.
This is evident in Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Cuba, and Venezuela, where anti-U.S. policies and sentiment have risen in lockstep with China's increasing economic engagement.
Some analysts say that once China gets its foot in the door with a government, the political agenda always follows. They assert Beijing's top priorities are displacing U.S. hegemony and further isolating Taiwan from its allies.
"When they do business, they hold all the cards, they pull all the strings, they control the economy," Eduardo Hoffmann told The Epoch Times.
A Latin America economics analyst who has worked with major global organizations such as the World Bank, Mr. Hoffmann said that Mr. Arévalo's idea of "being friends" with China and Taiwan simultaneously isn't realistic in the current political climate.
"You can’t do that. It’s an either-or scenario," he said.
This is reflected in the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) decision on Aug. 21 to expel Taiwan as a permanent observer from the regional governing body in favor of China, after a more-than-two-decade relationship.
Taiwan's foreign ministry condemned the decision by the regional governing body—headquartered in Guatemala City—and called out Beijing's continued efforts to suppress and isolate the island nation.
However, from Mr. Arévalo's perspective, having a deeper engagement with China makes sense and is a "necessary evil," Mr. Hoffmann said, because in a region where civilian-led coups overturn administrations fairly often, being president isn't always a stable job.
He said Guatemala's new head of state couldn't afford to make enemies with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) because of its widespread influence in Latin America.
"The CCP is like a drug cartel. You don’t want to get on their bad side,” Mr. Hoffmann said.
Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, agrees. China is an expert at expanding its political influence through what he calls "people-to-people" diplomacy and engages at every level in a country, he said. This includes academia, politics, medicine, media, and security.
"China casts their net very, very broad," Mr. Ellis told The Epoch Times.
Mr. Hoffmann called the Asian giant a "black hole for commodities" and said that China has a "predatory" relationship with nonrenewable resources and the governments that hold them.
Business as Usual"In a typical fashion, Arévalo is looking for a quick and easy way out of a miserable economic situation. Rather than focusing on slow, steady progress and bold reforms, he instead seeks the protection of a major international actor with plenty of ready cash," security analyst Irina Tsukerman, president of Scarab Rising, told The Epoch Times.
Mr. Arévalo knows that China's courtship "comes with a price," she said, noting that corrupt CCP practices could be advantageous for any leader willing to forego their moral compass.
"The social credit system and the back door deals will help [Mr. Arévalo] stay in power, and financial backing from the U.S. rival will help him avoid accountability for any embezzlement and mismanagement," Ms. Tsukerman said.
She believes that it's unlikely that Mr. Arévalo can pull off a balancing act between China and other nations, nor keep the CCP political agenda from tainting investment and trade deals.
"Arévalo will inevitably violate his own promises. Guatemala simply is in no position to play shuttle diplomacy between [the] U.S. and China without being ultimately impacted and drawn in by one of the stronger powers," Ms. Tsukerman said.
Both Mr. Hoffmann and Ms. Tsukerman maintain that despite all of Mr. Arévalo's tough talk on government corruption, it will just be business as usual if the money is coming from Beijing.
Guatemala needs to "bring its political institutions into the 21st century,” International Republican Institute program director Bernardo Rico said during an Aug. 30 Hudson Institute event. He said the "steady erosion of Guatemala's political institutions" didn't happen overnight but over decades.
Ultimately, Guatemala's deeply rooted corruption will be an uphill battle for the new administration, but Ms. Tsukerman and Mr. Hoffmann said that greater economic investment from China will also complicate this problem.
Rough Road AheadSince the Aug. 20 announcement of Mr. Arévalo's election win, the road to his January 2024 inauguration has been fraught with obstacles.
In the whirlwind week following his election win, the president-elect's Seed Movement party was temporarily suspended on Aug. 27 over an investigation into alleged false signatures on the group's registration documents. Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Justice Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, launched the investigation and ignited the suspension. However, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal overturned this decision on Sept. 3.
Mr. Arévalo decried the suspension as an attempted coup by opposition members. Meanwhile, his election opponent Sandra Torres filed a complaint that same week claiming there was election fraud.
Although beyond left-right power struggles, Mr. Rico said Guatemalans have just lost faith in democracy.
Mr. Rico said that 31 percent of residents are now indifferent to an authoritarian government.
This growing apathy toward totalitarian regimes doesn't bode well for Guatemalans as their new head of state aspires to strengthen relations with Beijing.
"China's economic entrenchment will be much more difficult to counter or disrupt," Ms. Tsukerman said.
She said the United States is at a disadvantage in offsetting this critical economic influence shift because it doesn't engage directly in infrastructure building or support local initiatives in Guatemala at a meaningful level.
"China is bound to capitalize on that and come in looking like a kindly uncle ... with plenty of cash for immediate needs," she said.
"Inevitably, expansion of trade with China will put a strain on Guatemala's relations with the U.S. and especially Taiwan."