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Harris moves forward with new Central America strategy

Harris moves forward with new Central America strategy

by RAFAEL BERNAL | The Hill  |  Published on April 23, 2021

The Biden administration’s policy toward Central America is starting to take shape, as Vice President Harris takes the lead on a potentially treacherous portfolio that straddles diplomacy and migration.

Harris and other administration officials on Thursday laid out a new approach to the region that will try to tackle both the challenges created by Central American governments and why so many of their citizens are deciding to make the trek to the U.S.

“The bottom line is that this initiative, from my perspective, must be effective and relevant to the underlying issue, which is addressing the acute and the root causes of migration away from that region,” Harris told a group of philanthropists working in the region.

President Biden last month appointed Harris as the administration’s point person on regional migration. Since then, she has been in close contact with top Mexican and Guatemalan officials, and on Wednesday announced plans to visit Guatemala and meet with President Alejandro Giammattei.

Migration from the so-called Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — is driven by a wide range of reasons, ranging from systemic corruption and political oppression to near-famine and the aftermath of tropical hurricanes.

The administration’s strategy is an attempt to prioritize which to address in the short and long term by separating them into acute issues like natural disasters and chronic problems like corruption.

Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department special envoy for the Northern Triangle, told reporters Thursday that the administration’s ultimate goal is to “create enabling conditions that allow for these societies to thrive.”

“When something goes wrong in Central America, we feel it in the United States,” said Zúñiga. “We are very connected as societies. The truth is, we are very closely linked.”

Advocates and experts in the region say that while many in Central America consider migration to the United States as an option, there are often specific events that prompt an individual or a family to relocate.

Those are the acute causes the Biden administration is zeroing in on as opportunities for short-term success in stemming the level of migration that’s created a crisis on the U.S. southern border.

The aftermath of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit Honduras and neighboring Nicaragua within weeks of each other last year, is currently among the top drivers of migration.

Noah Bullock, executive director at Cristosal, a human rights advocacy organization in El Salvador, said targeted assistance for crises like natural disasters can often be enough to persuade a family to remain in their home.

“On those very acute causes, we need to be able to find individual actions to reduce vulnerabilities,” said Bullock.

Alongside food and storm reconstruction assistance, often channeled through international aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations, experts note that the United States has the capacity to offer COVID-19 vaccine support that could lessen the health care repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.

But it’s the chronic governance and corruption conditions facing the region that will likely prove a heavier lift for the administration.

“These countries are unsustainable almost by design,” said Dan Restrepo, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who advised former President Obama on Western Hemisphere issues.

Restrepo said a common trait in all three Northern Triangle is that a small group of elites profit at the expense of the majority of the population.

Those elites are “increasingly colluded with criminal groups,” said Adriana Beltran, director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America.

And their control over the power structures in each country “has translated into an inability to provide basic services, invest in education, health care, and respond to emergencies when disaster strikes,” she added.

At the same time, the U.S. has leverage since the elite groups that support much of the region’s political structure are especially vulnerable to pressure from Washington.

“These elites, the thing they perhaps fear the most is being limited to living, working and doing business only in their own countries,” said Restrepo. “Access to the United States is very important to these folks.”

Although the three countries suffer similar structural issues, they each present unique challenges.

An indicator of the U.S. government’s relative trust in each of the three governments is Harris’s decision to meet with Giammattei, instead of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández or Salvadoran President Nayib Bukkele.

Hernández, whose brother is serving a life sentence in the United States for drug trafficking, has in the past played the role of a Washington ally in the region, although U.S. officials have kept him at arm’s length, given multiple credible allegations of his involvement in organized crime.

“As a bare minimum, the United States should publicly declare [Hernández] can no longer enter the U.S.,” said Restrepo.

Meanwhile, Bukkele and the Biden administration got off on the wrong foot. The flamboyant Salvadoran president was denied a meeting with Biden, after showing up in Washington uninvited. He then refused to meet with Zúñiga when the State Department envoy was in El Salvador.

Although democratically elected, Bukkele has shown authoritarian tendencies, and Salvadoran police forces and semi-official online trolls have grown increasingly aggressive toward journalists and civil society leaders in the country.

Guatemala’s Giammattei leads a country with similar structural deficiencies, but has reason to avoid corruption scandals as his predecessor, Jimmy Morales, is in serious legal jeopardy for toppling a UN-led anti-corruption mission in 2017.

The Biden administration’s strategy toward Central America has been relatively well received by regional experts, but the biggest critics are on the other side of the aisle on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers have centered many of their political attacks on Harris, increasingly trying to make her the face of the border crisis.

The administration also came under fire this month from fellow Democrats and immigration advocates after it announced a continuation of former President Trump’s cap on refugees. The White House later reversed course and said it would set a new, higher cap in May.

But when it comes to the current migrant surge at the border, some congressional Democrats still point the finger at the previous administration.

“President Trump ended the aid to the Northern Triangle causing the very destabilization that he then attacked as a border crisis a few months later as people tried to get into the country,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.).

“That is one of the root problems they created, and now no one on the Republican side wants to take ownership of that,” he added.

Some conservatives, however, say the problem with the Biden administration’s plan is that it doesn’t go far enough in helping Central Americans help themselves.

Eddy Acevedo, former national security adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Trump administration, said for any program to succeed, a strong security component must be added to aid and development.

“Everybody’s focused on root causes and development, but we do need to do more on the security side,” said Acevedo, who pointed to U.S. aid to Colombia and Mexico as examples.

“The successes we had in Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative proved that doing strong security programs alongside development programs is a system that works.”

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