4.  Las crisis en América Central
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Great Expectations: U.S. relations with Northern Central America: under the Biden Administration and why initial hopes are fading

Eric L. Olson and Nina Gordon

Wilson Center

 

 

 

Introduction
 

After four tumultuous years of Trump Administration policy in Central America, the arrival of Joe Biden to the U.S. presidency was greeted with great expectations and hope among migrants and immigrant advocates, human rights groups, and civil society organizations throughout the region. As Vice-President in the Obama Administration, Biden took the lead in defining and implementing U.S. policy after the 2014-2015 migrant surge, known as the unaccompanied minors crisis (UAC), when thousands of underaged migrants flooded U.S. border crossings in search of protection. During Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 he promised his government would pursue a more humane U.S. policy at the Mexican border and in Central America focused on addressing the causes of migration and promising as much as $4 billion in new United States assistance for the Northern Triangle.

A little over a year after Biden took office, we have an opportunity to take stock of what has transpired, identifying successes and challenges the Administration still faces in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While still early, there is growing concern that the high expectations held out for the Biden Administration have begun to fade, and there is growing concern that the region has pivoted further down a pathway of authoritarianism.

I. A brief overview of U.S. policy in Central America

Over the past several decades United States policy in Central America has waxed and waned based on perceived national security threats emanating from the region. Rather than a focus on supporting an equitable, sustainable, and democratic Central America, the U.S. focused on a series of “problems” they believed threatened the United States.

Most familiar among these were the Cold War fears that played themselves out most visibly with U.S. support for anti-communist political leaders in the Northern Triangle and counterrevolutionaries in Nicaragua during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. But the anti-communist Cold War policy reached back to the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954.

Anti-communism eventually gave way to a counternarcotics approach that then lead to an anti-terrorism focus in the 2000s and later an anti-narcoterrorism approach. The unspoken assumption throughout was that pursuing these specific U.S. interests were also in the best interests of each country. Concerns about corruption, human rights violations, the rule of law, and skewed economic growth became secondary or peripheral to the primary U.S. focus, and in some cases human rights, upholding the rule of law, or democratic governance even became a hindrance or obstacles to reaching primary U.S. objectives. In this context, the Central American political, military, and economic elite benefited immensely, while ordinary citizens suffered the consequences.

II. The Trump years – dissuading and preventing migration became the top national security concern

While always a concern among U.S. policy makers, immigration and irregular migration, in particular, has more recently become the primary prism through which the United States views Central America. In some cases, concerns about irregular migration is combined with the anti-narcotics approach or anti-terrorism fears as migrants are viewed as potential terrorists and/or likely conduits for trafficking illicit drugs into the United States.

Viewing Central America through the lens of irregular migration was the hallmark of Trump Administration policy. He spoke often of the risks to the U.S. posed by irregular migration, especially because it could include MS-13 gang members, a group designated as a terrorist organization. Trump railed against what he believed were out-of-control borders in Central America and Mexico, and he threatened commercial ties with the region if they did not “do more” to help the U.S. control migration. He went so far as to temporarily freeze all U.S. assistance to the northern triangle countries, effectively forcing each country to adopt specific policies the U.S. believed would slow or stop irregular migration. U.S. assistance was used as leverage to ensure Central American compliance with U.S. objectives to stop irregular migration.

Policy changes adopted during the Trump Administration had a significant impact on how the U.S. treated undocumented arrivals, and how those numbers were kept. In March 2020, President Trump enacted the controversial public health order, Title 42, which permitted CBP officers to immediately expel to Mexico anyone attempting to enter the United States without authorization. Pandemic control was the rationale used to justify this order, but it meant a significant break from previous procedures and legal obligations disallowing requests for asylum or appeals for protection without any due process guarantees.

At the same time, CBP adopted a new “migrant encounters” methodology to track migrants entering the U.S. The new methodology does not distinguish between individual migrant crossings and repeat crossings, and includes both apprehensions and deportations under Title 8 and expulsions under Title 42. This shift resulted in a vastly inflated number of reported “migrant encounters” in the second half of fiscal year 2020, with the number reaching a record high in 2021 (1,734,646) and the trend continuing on in 2022. (1)

A closer look however, demonstrates that while there was a spike in migration, it is not accurate to cite only the number of migrant encounters without looking at the full picture. Under Title 42, expelled migrants were not formally processed for removal, so there were no penalties for subsequent crossing attempts. In 2021, about two-thirds of all “migrant encounters” resulted in immediate expulsions to Mexico, rather than a formal process of removal under U.S. immigration law. This may have incentivized repeat border crossings and contributed to much higher rates of recidivism (27% in FY21 according to CBP). (2)

III. The Biden Administration and great expectations

The defeat of Donald Trump and the arrival of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States was met with great expectations among immigrant communities, immigration activists, human rights leaders and civil society movements in the United States and in Central America. Candidate Biden announced he would pursue a more humane immigration policy promising to rescind many of the controversial provisions adopted during the Trump Administration. Among these was the hope that the Biden Administration would quickly rescind Title 42, which halted all border crossing for public health reasons during the Covid pandemic; undo the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP – sometimes known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy); and undo the so-called “safe third country” agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Ironically, expectations of eminent policy reversals under Biden sparked a renewed flow of migrants that peaked in July 2021.3 The record number of new arrivals created both a humanitarian crisis and political challenge for the Biden Administration as political opponents took advantage of the new surge to blame Biden for “opening the border.”

Yet, despite his campaign promises there were no immediate reversals of these policies and the Trump Administration immgration framework for Central America has remained largely in place until recently when the Biden Administration announced it would lift the Article 42 prohibitions.

A) The Biden Administration announces a new approach to Central America

Soon after taking office, on February 2, 2021, the Biden Administration announced plans to reform policy with a 3-part strategy via Executive Order (EO 14010). The new strategy sought to: 1) address the causes of migration; 2) create an integrated migration management system throughout Mexico and Central America; and, 3) provide safe and orderly processing of asylum seekers at the U.S. border. In his Executive Order, President Biden said:

 

“We cannot solve the humanitarian crisis at our border without addressing the violence, instability, and lack of opportunity that compel so many people to flee their homes.”(4)

The strategy started with the need to address the key drivers of migration such as corruption; economic insecurity; violence, drug trafficking and organized criminal activities; sexual, gender-based and and domestic violence; and, the need to protect human rights, labor rights and free press; as the root causes of migration.

They outlined a far-reaching plan to engage civil society, the private sector, international organizations and governments in the region to:

“Coordinate place-based efforts in the Northern Triangle to address the root causes of migration; collaborate with the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the Secretary of Commerce, and the Secretary of Labor to evaluate compliance with the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement to ensure that unfair labor practices do not disadvantage competition; and encourage the deployment of Northern Triangle domestic resources and the development of Northern Triangle domestic capacity to replicate and scale efforts to foster sustainable societies across the region.”(5)

Part 2 of the strategy addressed the Administration’s plan to begin consultations with civil society, the private sector, international organizations, and governments in the region, to develop a collaborative plan to increase opportunities for migrants to request asylum closer to their homes, expand refugee resettlement programs and shelter networks, and gather funds for humanitarian assistance to address these needs.

Part 3 included a commitment to improve processing systems for asylum seekers and refugees in the U.S., including considerations for the termination of the Central American Minors (CAM) Parole Program—a policy begun during the Obama Administration but largely abandoned by Trump; approving certain family-sponsored visa petitions to promote family unity; and working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to develop safe and orderly processing claims.

B) Strategy to Address the Root Causes of Migration in Central America

On July 29, 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration released a more comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of migration in Central America. The announced strategy was a major break with the Trump Administration as it identified what it believed were the principle factors driving migration, and sought to address these directly rather than simply dissuading migration through other punitive measures the Trump Administration had pursued. The strategy was also notable because it highlighted the importance of building strong democratic governance and fighting corruption as important elements in building a more stable and prosperous Central America.

This strategy was organized around 5 primary goals: 1) to advance economic opportunities in the region; 2) combat corruption and strengthen democratic governance; 3) promote respect for human rights, labor rights and a free press; 4) counter and prevent violence, criminal gangs and trafficking networks; and 5) combat sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence.

Vice President Harris, who was appointed by President Biden as the Administration’s lead on the initiative, also outlined plans for the U.S. government to achieve these goals by building partnerships with Central American civil society and independent media, as well as with the international community to fully address the long term challenges faced by Central America. The Vice President also underscored the need to foster a business-friendly environment in Central America, one that encourages private sector investment and boosts economic opportunity on the ground. On May 27, 2021, Harris announced the Biden Administration’s “Call to Action” for the private sector to deepen investment and long-term development of the region through the Partnership for Central America (PCA). By the release of the root causes strategy on July 29, 12 companies and organizations had already committed to the program, and to date PCA has mobilized 75 organizations, for a direct investment of more than $1.2 billion impacting 20 million people.(6)

C) U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption

On June 3, 2021, President Biden established the fight against corruption as a core component of U.S. national security, identifying it as a major obstacle to progress in strengthening democratic governance and holding governments accountable. Months later on December 6, 2021, the administration released a comprehensive strategy on countering corruption. While much of the strategy is aspirational, the announcement elevated combating corruption as a key priority for the Biden Administration.

The U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption is broken down into 5 pillars which aim to combat corruption around the world by holding governments accountable and protecting those who expose corrupt actors. Priorities include: 1) To modernize U.S. systems for intelligence collection and sharing across U.S. agencies and law enforcement; 2) Curb illicit finance by countering the transnational elements of corruption (such as corrupt actors utilizing international financial systems to launder or hide assets); 3) Hold corrupt actors accountable and protect those who expose corruption, such as civil society and the media; 4) Develop and strengthen multilateral anti-corruption initiatives; and, 5) Elevate anti-corruption to a diplomatic priority and re-evaluate transparency and accountability processes for both government-to-government and independent institutions.(7)

On April 19, 2022, the Biden Administration released a new report on the root causes strategy, which delivers its progress updates in a number of areas discussed in the initial strategy, including success in mobilizing private sector investment to create economic opportunities in the region and securing humanitarian assistance and investment in programs that empower women and girls. A brief counter-corruption section addresses internal agencies’ approach to implementing the President’s national security directive, including through USAID assistance in supporting free and fair elections and training independent auditors. Read the new report here. (8)

III. U.S. relations with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. From bad to worse. Hopeful signs in Honduras

The Biden Administration’s root causes strategy and strong emphasis on supporting anti-corruption efforts, and strengthening the rule of law is unique in U.S. policy because it prioritized improved democratic governance as a precondition for reaching other policy goals. By defining corruption as a national security concern, and linking corruption to problems of justice, impunity, poverty and inequality, the Administration made clear that corruption is not an isolated challenge, or one of many, but a core systemic challenge contributing to a host of other problems in society. One cannot divorce corruption from weak economies, skewed and inefficient markets since corruption is the vehicle for ensuring the privilege of a few over the well-being of many.

From the outset, the Biden Administration hoped this framework would resonate widely within Central America society and would enjoy widespread popular support. Sadly, the reality has proven to be much more complex and challenging than the Administration expected. Governments dominated by political and economic elites have proven impervious to U.S. admonitions and incentives to prioritize independent democratic institutions and, instead, have pursued policies that directly undermine democracy, freedom of speech and associations, and weakened the rule of law.

A) Guatemala

The Biden Administration initially hoped Guatemala might prove to be the country most receptive to its new policy approach to the region. Despite concerns about the closure of CICIG —the UN anti-corruption mechanism— and the role of a powerful oligarchic class, U.S. Ambassador William Popp pursued a policy based on collaboration and dialogue with President Giammattei and his government. To this end, Vice President Harris conducted a number of calls with President Giammattei and made her initial foray into the region to Guatemala holding two days of meetings with the President, his cabinet, and civil society organizations.

Even with promises to work together to tackle corruption in place, President Giammattei persisted in policies that did not take into account the impunity and privilege enjoyed by the networks of corruption (“pacto de corruptos”) that formed the basis of his political strength in Congress. He ignored specific warnings from the U.S. about challenges and threats to independent justice operators, civil society, and the independent media. He stood by passively as the Fiscal General fired and then threatened to arrest the former head of the FECI —Fiscalia Especial Contra la Impunidad. And he continued to back the FG Consuelo Porras even after the United States publicly sanctioned her for her anti-democratic actions, for undermining the rule of law, and weakening the independence of the justice system.

Despite an initial mildly optimistic view of possible collaboration between the United States and the Government of Guatemala, many of those avenues have been closed and the bilateral relationship remains in a very delicate and stagnant state with growing concerns in the U.S. about the lack of commitment to fighting corruption or impunity in the country.

B) El Salvador

With El Salvador´s brash new president, Nayib Bukele, enjoying unprecedented public support and a rhetorical commitment to fighting corruption, one could expect that the bilateral relationship would thrive and prosper. Unfortunately, President Bukele seems to have been emboldened by his own political success, taking steps in February and again in May 2021 that directly undermined other branches of government, concentrated power in himself, and ultimately led to a very difficult bilateral relationship with the U.S.

His February decision to storm the Legislative Assembly with the backing of the armed forces was shocking to a country that has spent decades trying to limit the power of the military, especially in public affairs. It was seen as a direct threat to the independence of the legislature, and pointed to Bukele´s increasing willingness to challenge all independent powers outside his control or that of his political party, Nuevas Ideas.

The May 1st incident occurred on the same day his Nuevas Ideas party took control of the Assembly after they won an overwhelming majority during congressional elections on February 28, 2021. Once installed, the Nuevas Ideas deputies moved quickly to remove the country's Fiscal General and Members of the Suprema Corte de Justicia and replaced them with political loyalists.

Not unlike Guatemala, the U.S. had pressed the government of El Salvador to preserve the independence of the justice system to better fight corruption and impunity. President Bukele´s public criticism of civil society organizations, independent media, and human rights groups as defenders of past corruption was additionally worrisome to the United States, and contrary to the democratic commitments the government had made in international fora.

The United States attempted to find a pathway forward with Bukele by sending a former Ambassador, Jean Manes, who had developed a personal relationship with Bukele at the start of his government. Ambassador Manes appeared to reach an agreement with the President of El Salvador on several steps to begin to restore the independence of the justice system, but Bukele quickly backtracked, and Ambassador Manes left El Salvador expressing strong public regrets that President Bukele was not committed to an independent judiciary or to restoring institutionality in El Salvador.

Other decisions by Bukele, including denying that he had negotiated a truce with privileges with violent gang members, and his declaration of an Estado de Excepción suspending basic human rights in April 2022, further distanced and complicated the relationship with the United States. At present, U.S.-Salvadoran relations are mostly stagnant and even acerbic as Bukele continues to resort to twitter based diatribes against the United States and civil society rather than finding common ground to further democracy and justice in the country.

C) Honduras

Ironically, the country presumed to be the most problematic in the region was Honduras. President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) had once enjoyed a privileged position as a strong U.S. ally in Central America, but strong evidence of his connections to drug trafficking soured the bilateral relationship over several years. The Biden Administration decided to break with the troubled past surrounding Hernández and did not send any senior-level delegations to meet with him in Tegucigalpa. He was no longer seen as a U.S. strategic ally, and concerns were growing that a U.S. Federal Prosecutor in New York would seek his indictment, and the U.S would request his extradition at any time.

So while they held the JOH regime at arms length, there was also growing concern about the November 2021 election and the prospects for another victory by JOH’s National Party, or conversely, an opposition victory led by Xiomara Castro but dominated by her husband and former president Mel Zelaya. Ultimately, the Biden Administration decided it could tolerate a government in which Zelaya had a major voice, preferring to work with reformers within the new government of President Castro.

While concerns persist about the Castro government, there are some glimmers of hope as well. The government has committed itself to developing a new international anti-corruption mechanism in coordination with the United Nations. The make up and mandate of this CICIG-like mechanism is under development but the U.S. appears prepared to support a mechanism that is truly independent and has the authority to engage in investigations and prosecutions in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office. The U.S. Justice Department is also working on several sensitive corruption cases in an attempt to increase accountability for past corruption. And finally, Castro’s decision to continue recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, and not seeking normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China, was welcome news to the Biden Administration.

So, at present, Honduras enjoys the most open and positive relationships with the U.S. of any country in the region.

 

IV. Conclusions: Great expectations, limited results

After decades of U.S. intervention in the region, the outcomes are regrettably quite limited. Irregular migration, poverty and inequality, extreme violence, and weak democratic governance continue to afflict countries from Guatemala to Nicaragua. A narrow self-interested U.S. approach to the region has not resulted in a sustained long-term strategy to build democratic institutions that can contribute effectively to greater equity and justice for all.

The Biden Administration has made some important policy commitments and innovations that have given greater hope to Central Americans, but so far the results have been quite limited, and Central American elites have clung vigorously to their privilege by undermining the rule of law and ensuring impunity for their corruption.

The Biden Administration can be congratulated for defining corruption as a national security priority, and praised for pursuing a Root Causes policy designed to address systemic inequalities rather than simply trying to stop migration. Nevertheless, this well intentioned policy has not delivered the kinds of results hoped for by the human rights community, and the U.S. has been reluctant to pursue even tougher approaches to the governments.

The U.S. did not invite any of the Northern Triangle governments to the President’s global summit on democracy in December 2021 since, in the estimation of the Biden Administration, they did not qualify as governments sufficiently committed to democracy. The next test for the Administration's commitment to the democratic governance agenda will come in June, 2022 when President Biden hosts the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. At present, there is a vigorous debate within the Administration about whether Guatemala and El Salvador will be invited to the Summit or not.

Ultimately, only a long-term approach to the region, one based on building democratic governance, supporting the fight against impunity and corruption, and strengthening the rule of law, is likely to have any lasting impact in the region. This agenda is essential to restoring hope in Central America and restoring a sense of hope in the future for those who are migrating today out of despair and desperation.

Notes: 

(1) CBP Enforcement Statistics

(2) CBP Recidivism Rates

(3) CBP Enforcement Statistics (by month)

(4) EO 14010

5) EO 14010

(6) Partnership for Central America Call to Action

(7) Fact Sheet on Strategy on Countering Corruption

(8) Report on Root Causes Strategy (April 2022)