Cabinet Troubles for Guatemala’s Morales
Comedian Jimmy Morales was elected and sworn in as Guatemala’s new president on 14 January 2016. Running on an anti-corruption campaign during a turbulent time when high level government officials, including Former president Otto Pérez Molina, were removed from office for illegal activities, Morales promised to have all of his officials certified by the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Ministry (PM).
Within days of presenting and swearing in his new Presidential Cabinet, La Hora covered the criticism Morales received for only having CICIG “review” the list of names for his cabinet, instead of investigating them. However, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez responded, saying Morales requested any information on dozens of names as well as noting the Commission does not carry out vetting investigation requests, nor is it set up to do so.
Simultaneously, it came to light Morales’s new Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing Minister may not be eligible for the position due to her former work as a contractor (Constitution Article 197 indicates cabinet members cannot be contractors as it is a conflict of interest) as well as questions revolving around her company’s tax payments. Under pressure to uphold his commitment to anti-corruption efforts, Morales gave his new minister an ultimatum: deliver a public explanation or step down (Siglo21).
According to Siglo21, Sherry Lucrecia Ordóñez Castro gave a press conference on 19 January 2016, explaining she was only a contractor between 2002 and 2006 as well as 2012 and 2014, earning US$1.9 million. She also clarified the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT) imposed a preliminary sanction her company Ingeniería y Servicios Viales in 2008 for failing to pay the VAT, totalling at least US$9,179 (El Periódico and La Prensa). Presidential Spokesman Heinz Heimann stated Ordóñez Castro has thirty days to resolve the situation with SAT. According to La Hora on 21 January 2016, El Centro de Acción Legal-Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS) filed an official complaint against the Minister for the crimes of failing to meet her responsibilities and abuse of authority in reference to her alleged status as a contractor and tax payment issues with SAT. For the moment, Ordóñez Castro remains in office.
And the Rest of the Cabinet?
While controversy surrounds the selection process and Minister Ordóñez Castro, the other Cabinet members are almost all but forgotten. Since President Morales did not run for a particular political party, he did not have the traditional list of party names picked. However, Prensa Libre notes, the cabinet appears very similar to the Partido Patriota from four years ago. So who are some of President Morales’ new team?
Morales named Juan Pelayo Castañón Stormont as the Energy and Mines Minister. Pelayo Castañón served for ten years as the General Manager of Petróleos de Venezuela - Guatemala. According to El Periódico on 17 January 2016, Pelayo Castañón remained in his position at PDV-Guatemala, despite being sworn in. Government Spokesman Heinz Heimann clarified Pelayo Castañón began to dissociate himself from the PDVSA subsidiary 24 hours prior to being sworn in, however, more time is needed for internal transition procedures. While the obvious conflict of interest is being resolved in the short term, it remains to be seen how his long tenure at PDV Guatemala will impact any future dealings between the Energy and Mining Ministry and PDV Guatemala.
President Morales selected Rubén Estuardo Morales Monroy to serve as his Economic Minister, the same position he held under former President Álvaro Colom. Morales Monroy played a role in several free trade negotiations over the last decade, closing Acuerdo de Asociación (AdA) with the European Union in 2010. After his tenure in the government, he worked at the Asociación Guatemalteca de Exportadores (Agexport) and was also a candidate for Congress under the Creo-Unionista coalition. Considering this, it is likely Morales Monroy will continue to support policies in favor of open markets and trade.
Former President Otto Pérez Molina swore in Carlos Raúl Morales Moscoso as the Foreign Affairs Minister in September 2014, and he remains in this position under Morales. Defense Minister General Williams Mansilla Fernández was appointed in August 2015, also retaining his position under President Morales. Both were appointed late in Pérez Molina’s term, and hopefully will remain untainted by the former president.
Finally, while none of his new cabinet members have a military background, besides Defense Minister Mansilla Fernández, it is worth noting Morales’s relationship with the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN) may present future controversy. According to La Estrella de Panamá, Morales was the FCN Secretary General in 2013, which has received funding from the military since 2008. During his campaign, Morales promised his party was not filled with military officers, like Pérez Molina. However, his relationship with the military funded FCN could tarnish his image as a “fresh face” free from traditional politics and corruption. This is especially true given Morales’s close relationship with César Augusto Cabrera Mejía, a former military officer and Health Ministry advisor under Pérez Molina. Also, allegations of human rights abuses by FCN Congressman-elect Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado during the Guatemalan Civil War could also present problems for the new president.
As reported by El Periodico on 26 January 2016, Communications Minister Sherry Lucrecia Ordóñez Castro submitted her resignation yesterday, 25 January, for personal reasons, while many suspect it was because she owed taxes to the state. The Administrative Vice Minister of Communications She will be temporary replaced by José Luis Benito Ruiz will be the acting Minister, in accordance with the Ley del Organismo Ejecutivo.