Americas, Media wars, New in Lobbying

Guatemalan ex-diplomat close to GOP launches PR effort

A former Guatemalan diplomat close to Republican evangelicals has hired Washington public affairs firm Rokk Solutions to help get his point of view across in US media.

Manuel Espina, the Central American nation’s ambassador to Washington from 2017 until earlier this year, retained the firm’s services via Washington-based Guatemalan citizen Ramiro Maldonado. The firm is to be paid $1,500 per month to pitch Espina’s op-eds to national media or $2,500 per month to draft them itself.

The contract is valid for one year, starting Aug. 3. Rokk partners Ron Bonjean and Rodell Mollineau are registered on the account.

Earlier this summer, Espina signed an op-ed in The Hill making the case for building a “logistics hub using existing railways to connect key ports on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras” as a counter-weight to Chinese investments in the region. The op-ed was co-authored by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastrucure Committee’s railroads panel.

Espina is the son of former vice-president Gustavo Espina, who fled the country in 1993 after being accused of participating in a coup. The younger Espina had no diplomatic experience prior to his nomination as ambassador but was seen as close to powerful Republicans through his evangelical Guatemala Prospera organization. Espina could not be reached for comment.

During his time in Washington, Espina helped position then-Guatemalan President — and fellow Evangelical Christian — Jimmy Morales as a close friend of the Donald Trump administration thanks in part to the Guatemalan government’s support for moving the US Embassy in Israel. In June 2018, Espina hosted Trump son-in-law and Middle East peace negotiator Jared Kushner at a $5,000 dinner with 10 Latin American ambassadors, Washington Post reported last year. “The dinner conversation centered on persuading the countries to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem,” according to the Post.

At the same time, the Guatemalan government used its clout with the Trump administration to press then-US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and other officials to turn against a UN-led anti-corruption investigation that threatened the Morales administration, according to multiple reports in Foreign Policy, the Post and elsewhere. Critics of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, argued that it was running amok.

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Espina himself was instrumental in undermining the commission in Washington, according to Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico. The Morales administration allowed the commission’s mandate to expire last September. A new president, Alejandro Giammattei, took office in January.

The contract with Rokk leaves open the possibility that the firm may provide additional services for Espina, if asked.

“Any grassroots/grasstops and/or paid digital services would entail costs in addition to the monthly retainer and will be included in Company invoices to the Client,” the contract states. “Message testing/polling; digital services; grassroots/grasstops communications would require budget considerations.”