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Joe Biden and former Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales in Guatemala City in 2016 Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Carlos Raul Morales, Guatemala’s foreign minister at the time, in Guatemala City, Jan. 14, 2016 (AP photo by Moises Castillo).

Biden’s New Approach to Central America Is Welcome, but It Won’t Be Easy

Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020

President Donald Trump has mostly ignored Central America save for his attempts to bully the region’s leaders into helping him slash the number of immigrants entering the United States, but President-elect Joe Biden is promising a radically different approach. With extensive foreign policy experience and a genuine interest in Central America stemming from his time as vice president, when he served as former President Barack Obama’s chief regional emissary, Biden has vowed to directly address the brutal conditions that are at the heart of the migration crisis in Central America.

Biden has also pledged to “immediately do away with” President Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, which have overwhelmingly targeted Central Americans fleeing violence, persecution and a lack of economic opportunity, particularly in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. His approach is likely to face an early test, as two back-to-back hurricanes devastated the region last month, displacing more than half a million people. Some of them are already fleeing north to seek a better life in the United States, and many more are expected to follow.

But while Biden’s change in tack toward Central America is being welcomed across the region, there are several reasons to be skeptical that he can actually realize his proposed vision.

First, Congress may not get behind Biden’s ambitious, $4 billion regional strategy to address the root causes of migration in the Northern Triangle countries—particularly if Republicans keep their majority in the Senate after two runoff elections in Georgia next month that will determine control of the chamber. Biden’s plan is essentially an expanded reboot of the Obama administration’s hallmark Central American initiative, the 2015 Alliance for Prosperity, which Biden oversaw. Republican lawmakers, who then controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives, whittled its $1 billion proposed budget, including an unprecedented $540 million for development aid, down to a total of $750 million, only $275 million of which went to development aid for the Northern Triangle. Most of the remaining funds went to military and police assistance.

Elected officials in Washington, particularly on the Republican side, have traditionally favored a security-focused view of Central America’s crisis, despite scant evidence that it deters migration in the long run. This shortsighted approach has also resulted in many documented human rights abuses committed by U.S.-funded security forces.

Biden’s strategy for Central America will ultimately depend on the region’s governments committing to significant domestic reforms.

Due to the recent hurricanes that hit Central America, the Biden administration will also need to respond to an urgent humanitarian crisis even as it develops a multiyear regional strategy. Immigration experts predict that the combined impacts of the storms and the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic—not to mention Biden’s promise to be more welcoming of asylum-seekers—will spur another wave of mass migration soon after next month’s inauguration. But an early surge of refugees at the border may pose an unwanted political problem for Biden, who is known to be politically cautious, and will be a crucial early test of his new approach toward the region.

In the longer term, Biden’s strategy for Central America will ultimately depend on the region’s governments committing to significant domestic reforms. During the Obama administration, anti-corruption campaigns gained steam in the Northern Triangle countries, but many of those efforts have now stalled. For example, the wildly popular U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, brought down a president and dozens of other powerful figures, but the Guatemalan government shut it down in 2019. A similar anti-corruption body in Honduras closed its doors in January 2020, after the government refused to renew its mandate.

These setbacks are emblematic of a broader trend toward democratic backsliding in Central America under Trump, as his administration has looked the other way on human rights abuses and governance issues, in exchange for the region’s cooperation on Trump’s hard-line immigration agenda. The most egregious example is Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a dependable ally of the Trump administration who has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. federal drug trafficking case against his brother, Tony Hernandez.

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has undermined the country’s fragile democracy by repeatedly defying the legislature and the Supreme Court, demonizing his opponents and threatening the independent press. But Bukele has worked hard to ingratiate himself with Trump, and he has received little pushback from Washington over his increasingly autocratic-leaning behavior.

U.S. law requires Central American countries to make progress on governance and other issues before receiving some foreign aid, based on annual assessments by the State Department. But despite clear and troubling evidence of backsliding, the Trump administration has repeatedly certified these countries’ eligibility for millions of dollars in foreign aid. Biden’s proposed $4 billion plan would require countries to contribute their own resources, and it would condition assistance on governments undertaking “significant, concrete, and verifiable reforms” on issues of good governance. But persuading regional leaders to support policies that threaten their grip on power will be a major challenge.

Fortunately, Biden has succeeded at this before. As vice president, he played an instrumental role in supporting Central America’s anti-corruption movement, convincing former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in 2015 to extend CICIG’s mandate. Later that year, Molina himself was pushed out of office for corruption and subsequently jailed. As president, Biden is expected to make fighting graft a centerpiece of his foreign policy, and the Northern Triangle could be ground zero for those efforts.

Overall, it is clear that the Biden administration’s ambitious Central America strategy will face major hurdles, both in Washington and in the region. But Biden himself seems to understand that fighting endemic corruption and impunity go hand in hand with efforts to improve the security and economic conditions that drive migration. By making it a focal point of his policies, he may be able to push the region in a more positive direction.

Benjamin Wilhelm is WPR’s assistant editor.