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The Biden administration is significantly expanding its offensive against corruption and other “root causes” of illegal immigration from Central America, but its new tactics are far from guaranteed to work any better than past failed efforts.
Officials cast the fight against corruption and “bad governance” as the most essential component in improving conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — and probably the most difficult to win after decades of struggling democracies, control by rapacious elites and sclerotic legal institutions.
The administration's latest tools include a remarkable list of more than 50 Central American officials branded too corrupt to deal with and a full-court press in the region from Samantha Power, the new high-octane administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The administration “seeks to send a message from a high level that there is deep concern to see progress,” Power said, advocating for the kind of rules-based atmosphere that would encourage both U.S. government and private investment in the region. She spoke to The Times in an interview from Guatemala City as she wrapped up a recent tour through parts of Central America.
“It’s a pretty straightforward message,” she added, likening the dynamic to a three-legged stool. The policy can stand on economic engagement and physical security — but not without trustworthy government bodies.
The appearance in Central America of someone like Power, with her deep roots in high-level Democratic politics as a close ally of President Obama and a former permanent representative to the United Nations, is another signal of the importance the Biden administration is attaching to its most politically fraught policy: immigration.
More than unrest in Cuba, humanitarian disaster in Venezuela or autocratic repression in Nicaragua, it is immigration that turns the Biden administration's attention to its southern neighbors. Along with Mexico, the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador account for the largest numbers of people who attempt to cross the U.S. border.
U.S. officials are also now trying to stave off a new exodus of people fleeing Cuba and Haiti, after protests in Havana and the Haitian president's assassination in Port-au-Prince, which would have the potential of distracting from the Northern Triangle project. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas — a Cuban immigrant — warned Cubans and Haitians this week that they would be turned back if they attempted to arrive in the U.S. by boat, a common mode of flight.
President Biden has assigned Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee the efforts in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Veteran diplomat Ricardo Zúñiga was appointed special envoy for the Northern Triangle countries. And Power has set up a USAID task force dedicated to the region.
Experts remain skeptical.
"It's too early to tell, but it's like they are having to start over," said Gerardo Berthin, head of the Latin America programs at Freedom House, an advocacy organization. "There hasn't been a coherent policy in the last four years, and the root causes have only aggravated, multiplied and become much more unmanageable."
A potentially significant blow to corruption in Central America is the list of officials too disreputable to deal with. The list, drafted by the State Department, includes former presidents, current lawmakers and other officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. As a result, the U.S. canceled some of their visas, barred them from traveling to the U.S. and prohibited some business dealings.
All three governments suffer from entrenched corruption that has fueled lawlessness, poverty and unemployment. Though officials have been sanctioned before, the new list, mandated last year by then-Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), is the most comprehensive effort to date.
And it hits home: It includes, among others, the chief of staff to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, whose recent forays into authoritarianism by sending troops into Congress and firing judges have made him a particularly difficult foil to the Biden administration. The predecessors of the presidents of both Guatemala and Honduras are included, as well as lawmakers from all three countries who the State Department says have undermined their national judiciaries and anti-corruption agencies.
"This list is quite strategic and … sends a signal to current presidents and their Cabinets," said Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group. "In essence, it focuses in each country on corrupt actors who use their power to undermine democracy and the justice system.
"We will see if the message works," she said, "but it is a serious effort."
Authors of the list stopped short of naming the three sitting presidents: Bukele, with his authoritarian tendencies; Guatemala's Alejandro Giammattei, who officials say has interfered with courts and corruption investigations; and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, implicated by U.S. federal prosecutors in a major drug-trafficking case. Honduras will hold presidential elections this year.
Zúñiga promised further sanctions. "It's not a final list," he said.
Bukele derided the list. A far-right politician in Guatemala, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, said it was a "great honor" to be blacklisted by the Biden administration.
Biden has also pledged $4 billion over four years for the three countries. In the past, and especially during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, the U.S poured millions of dollars into the region, mostly to central governments, law enforcement and police training, with less emphasis on fighting corruption and building institutions.
This time, officials say they intend to channel more of the money to nongovernmental partners, such as youth groups, women's organizations, academics and small entrepreneurs, instead of the coffers of corrupt leaders.
USAID last month announced a slew of new disbursements: $5 million for "women's empowerment" throughout the Northern Triangle; $24 million for youth employment, agricultural training and "governance" programs to promote election transparency in Honduras; $12 million for small businesses in El Salvador.
"They appear to have learned some lessons" from the past, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy think tank in Washington. "Today’s team [is] more clear-eyed about the problem of political will on the part of the region’s governments."
The strategy also carries a risk: Bukele and other leaders have at times attacked organizations that receive U.S. funding as an unpatriotic threat to national sovereignty. Harris thus far has shunned Bukele, meeting only with Guatemala's Giammattei, while Power and the undersecretary of State for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, paid visits to Bukele. Both said afterward they warned him against trampling on democracy.
Shifter said the administration’s efforts were "promising and could yield inroads that make conditions marginally better in a profoundly troubled region," but it was far from clear the actions would significantly reduce immigration flows.
Separately, there are related initiatives in Congress, including proposals to eliminate all military funding to the three countries — former battlegrounds of U.S.-backed proxy wars during the Cold War — and a $60-million injection into anti-corruption programs.
One idea is to create a regional anti-graft agency, possibly under the auspices of the United Nations or the Organization of American States. The Trump administration allowed two similar, highly regarded bodies to be shut down by authorities in Guatemala and Honduras when investigators were getting too close to the misdeeds of senior officials — officials who also happened to be allies of former President Trump.
Zúñiga said the enhanced focus on corruption and democracy was deliberate.
"Corruption and attacks on democracy are viewed as some of the most important root causes of irregular migration from Central America," he said. "They hobble governance, they distort markets, they undercut development efforts, and ultimately, they demoralize a population that decides to embark on a very dangerous irregular migration to Mexico and the United States because they don’t believe they can build their futures at home."
Berthin, of Freedom House, who has worked extensively on USAID and U.N. development projects in Latin America, said he was cautiously optimistic about the administration's strategy:
"I'm hopeful, but it's going to be an uphill battle."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.