Foreign Service Undermines US Businesses While Tillerson Promotes Prosperity

J. Michael Waller J. Michael Waller is Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy.
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International community organizers are targeting American companies worldwide for shutdown. Those companies can no longer presume the State Department will help. In some cases, American diplomats are actively allied with local anti-business movements.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s reforms can’t come quickly enough.

Radicalized professional foreign service officers have risen to the top of the American diplomatic corps. The business-minded Tillerson is addressing that, adding “prosperity” to the State Department’s mission.

Washington’s top diplomat in Guatemala, Ambassador Todd Robinson, personifies the problem Tillerson faces. Over the past three years, Robinson has effectively presided over the shutdown of Escobal, one of the largest and most modern silver mines on earth. The mine’s Canada-registered owner, Tahoe Resources, is headquartered in Reno, Nevada and traded as TAHO on the New York Stock Exchange.

During Robinson’s ambassadorship, Tahoe’s market cap has tanked billions. While Escobal faced a local lawsuit, Robinson deployed the U.S. Embassy to help a movement of Marxist political groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and activist lawyers gain in the courts what they could never do in free elections. He pressured Guatemala’s elected Congress to confirm a radical lawyer to head the country’s highest court.

A prize awaits the victor: More than a quarter billion troy ounces of silver, plus gold, that Escobal will bring to the surface.

Latin American extremists once depended on Cuba’s Fidel Castro for ideological support and weapons, and cash from Venezuelan oil. Now, local radicals and their global organizers see Escobal as their rightful treasure. The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party, known as URNG, is waging political and legal warfare to nationalize the silver mine to finance a political movement to take over the country.

The URNG has never enjoyed popular support. For decades a violent extremist group, the URNG lost Cuban backing and became a legal, fringe political party. It operates a network of front organizations to radicalize members of indigenous tribes. Allied with human rights lawyers, foreign NGOs, and armed militias, the URNG wages a “struggle,” as it says on its Facebook page, against “corruption and impunity.”

By the time Escobal’s commercial operations began in 2014, the URNG coalition hadn’t gotten far. Then Robinson arrived. Soon, the American Embassy began to echo URNG rhetoric. On its Spanish-language @usembassyguate Twitter page, the embassy declared its support for the “struggle” against “corruption and impunity.”

Guatemalan lawmakers complain that Robinson made it clear that Washington wanted an activist lawyer, Gloria Porras, to head the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest judicial body, even though Porras was in a corruption scandal of her own.

The local press reported that Porras had doled out large amounts of cash to fellow magistrates and legal staff. Most judges handed back the money after being exposed, but hundreds of thousands of dollars remain missing.

“This was a plain and simple act of corruption,” lawmaker Fernando Linares said in a letter to then-secretary of state John Kerry. Referring to Porras, Linares added, “Ambassador Robinson’s quest to eradicate corruption in Guatemala contradicts his lobbying in favor of this corrupt justice.”

Robinson twisted local legislators hard for Porras. “The president of Congress told all representatives that her appointment was an American government wish,” Linares said, “so he steamrolled passage, not even allowing debate.” Linares accused the U.S. political attaché of “supervising the vote” in the legislative chamber. Some lawmakers said they feared the embassy would void their U.S. visas if they displeased the American ambassador.

Robinson did not respond to repeated questions for this article.

Guatemala is a swamp of corruption, and Tahoe made mistakes in developing the mine. Tahoe developed a working relationship with the local town that provides much of the workforce. Its “social responsibility” code to support local populations and protect the environment didn’t appease critics. Then a local indigenous tribe, with help from the URNG network, made a case in court to claim that Tahoe impinged on its rights.

In July, the Guatemalan Supreme Court forced Escobal to a temporary halt. When Tahoe appeals, the case will go to the Constitutional Court, with Porras presiding for the next five years.

Last month, Porras attended a farewell reception for Robinson. Local businessmen say they got the unmistakable message that, under American Embassy protection, she is the new legal power in the country.

An American foreign service that manipulates foreign governments against American business abroad is no service at all. Tillerson has a big job ahead.

Michael Waller, PhD, is a vice president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC. Follow him @jmichaelwaller.