After 40 years in Tel Aviv, Guatemalan president hails embassy move back to Jerusalem

In interview with Israel Hayom editor-in-chief Boaz Bismuth, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales says his people believe that bringing their embassy back to Jerusalem “is the right step and the right thing to do.”

Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales at the 2018 AIPAC Conference. Credit: AIPAC.
Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales at the 2018 AIPAC Conference. Credit: AIPAC.

Following the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem this coming Monday, Guatemala is planning to make a similar move on Wednesday and open its own new embassy in Jerusalem’s Malha Technological Park.

“Historically, we believe this is the right step and the right thing to do,” Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales told Israel Hayom in an exclusive interview.

The embassy move comes on a particularly hectic week: In a downpour of diplomatic and security events, Israel will hold Jerusalem Day celebrations on Sunday, the Palestinians will commemorate “Nakba Day” on Monday (Nakba meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the calamity that befell the Palestinians with the establishment of Israel), and Muslims will mark the start of Ramadan on Wednesday.

Guatemala, a small and relatively little-known Central American country, indicated it would follow America’s lead just two days after U.S. President Donald Trump’s historic announcement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December.

Ahead of a historic state visit to Israel, Morales revealed what prompted his decision: “When I heard that President Trump decided to sign and approve the transfer of the embassy, I said to myself that that’s a brave step.”

“Of course, then the usual problems began … There was opposition in the United Nations and many people did not like it, but we said that we believe this is how it should be. So we also declared our intention to bring our embassy back to Jerusalem. It is important to note this word choice, ‘bring back,’ as our first embassy, which opened after the founding of the State of Israel, was in Jerusalem.”

Q: Correct. About 40 years ago, Guatemala’s former President Eugenio Garcia transferred the Guatemalan Embassy to Tel Aviv. In hindsight, do you believe that this move was a mistake?

A: These are presidential decisions, and many people would judge each and every one. This was the presidential decision then, and now we are coming to another presidential decision.

Q: When I interviewed President Donald Trump in the White House after his first year in office, I asked him what he felt was the highlight of his presidency, and he answered without hesitating: “Having Jerusalem be your great capital.” What would you describe as the highlight of your term?

A: One of the biggest highlights, without a doubt, is bringing back our embassy to Jerusalem. Besides that, we have historical matters, such as the territorial conflict we have with Belize, which is a problem we have had for over 200 years. Recently we conducted a referendum to decide whether to submit this matter to an international court. I believe that these are the biggest decisions I made as president.

Q: Following up on this historic decision, did you speak about this subject with other Latin American countries?

A: Yes, there are many conversations being held on the subject and much curiosity on the part of other leaders. I understood that a lot of leaders are considering similar moves, and I assume that some of them will declare similar moves soon, but I must keep the conversations confidential.

Q: You returned recently from Costa Rica. Is Costa Rica next to relocate its embassy? We’ll keep it between us …

A: I don’t know. This is relatively new, I don’t know how he [Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado] will move forward on this matter. I do know that our people are pleased with our decision to go from talk to action. That is what history judges.

Q: Everything has a price. Israelis are pleased, but the Palestinians less so, as are some other countries. Since arriving at this decision, have there been repercussions?

A: Decisions always come with a price. We support our allies and we support the countries that we view as our friends—as our brothers in many ways. It is customary to say, “Always love your friends,” so when Israel needs us more than ever, like now, we show up.

The Republic of Guatemala—five times the size of Israel with a population that numbers some 16 million people—is considered a small country on a global scale. But it had a big hand in the historical U.N. vote to establish the State of Israel 70 years ago. Guatemala’s ambassador to the U.N. at the time worked to enlist the support of Latin American states for the partition plan. Out of 17 states within the bloc, 11 voted in favor and none opposed.

Q: Israel and Guatemala are very far from one another geographically, but are close in their political positions. How do you explain this?

A: Our countries are very close at heart, and we have between us a connection of thought, like with other countries. The U.S., Israel and Guatemala, we all love freedom. I believe that Guatemala has strong roots in accepting the Jewish people. It has a lot to do with faith. Here, more than 93 percent of the citizens are Christian—49 percent are Catholic and 45 percent are evangelical. Our passion for religion comes with great appreciation and admiration for peoples like the people of Israel.

If we talk about historical matters or right decisions we must remember that in 1947, Guatemala voted in favor of the State of Israel in its struggle over its founding and since then we have maintained very warm relations—political, diplomatic, cultural and economic. Today, even though many political commentators criticize our decision on the embassy as wrong, the vast majority of our people are pleased that this is happening. This will provide the two countries with motivation to strengthen the ties between them.

Q: After your current move, can Israel expect Guatemala to vote in international organizations, such as the U.N., alongside the U.S. and Israel?

A: We gave support unequivocally in this matter, and we will continue doing so on every vote on the matter. Clearly we will consider every vote in and of itself, because we are responsible. As president of Guatemala, my biggest responsibility is to Guatemala and the principle that guides me is to do what is right for us. The decision to bring our embassy back to Jerusalem is the right step, and it also will strengthen our international standing and our relationship and ties with Israeli.

Q: Ahead of your visit to the region there is a threat of bombs and rockets. The situation with Syria and Iran is not at all quiet, to put it mildly.

A: I know that the situation is not simple at the moment, but I hope that everything will be all right soon.

James Ernesto Morales Cabrera, 49 years old, legally changed his name to Jimmy Morales in 2011, at the peak of his career as a successful comedian in a popular Guatemalan television series. That year, he also crossed the lines and entered politics with a run for municipal elections and, only four years later, in October 2015, was elected in a landslide victory of 73 percent to become the 37th president of Guatemala.

Q: When you won the 2015 election, you were not the leading candidate and this was a surprise to many people. You come from the outside, from the world of television and comedy. Meanwhile, leaders like Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and 31-year-old Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz have been elected. In your opinion, what is going on in the world now that people have gotten fed up by politicians and now want a new kind of leader? How would you explain this phenomenon?

A: Apparently, the modern world needs new figures who can do things differently than the politicians who came before them. The proof is that presidential decisions are different than what previous presidents have decided. I think that the wishes of the different peoples were translated into different decisions and actions than what we are used to, and they will be judged by history.

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