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Blinken heads to Central America as relations with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala fray

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Amman, Jordan on May 16.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks in Amman, Jordan on May 16. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to travel next week to Central America, where administration hopes of stemming the flow of undocumented migrants to the United States through economic assistance and democracy promotion have run into early roadblocks.

Blinken will attend a meeting in Costa Rica of the Central American Integration System, or SICA, a regional organization including seven Central American countries plus the Dominican Republic.

But while a senior State Department official said Thursday that Blinken would meet with top Costa Rican officials, she declined to specify whether any other bilateral meetings had been confirmed.

The administration has been at odds with the governments of the three Northern Triangle states — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — that are the source of a substantial proportion of the migrants trying to enter the United States. Those countries are the targeted recipients of President Biden’s four-year, $4 billion commitment to help address the “root causes” of migration.

The program’s budget and programming are “still being worked out,” Julie J. Chung, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, told reporters in a briefing on Blinken’s two-day trip.

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Sending money to Central America, however, has become increasingly complicated. Early last week, Congress released a State Department-compiled list of 16 current and former senior politicians from the three Northern Triangle states that it has found to be corrupt or involved in narcotics trafficking. The list included the chief of cabinet to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and current and former Honduran and Guatemalan lawmakers.

Last Friday, Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that U.S. assistance to El Salvador was being directed away from the government and toward local civil society and human rights organizations after the Bukele-dominated legislature voted to remove the attorney general and all members of the Supreme Court.

Similar judicial ousters have taken place in Guatemala, where the legislature refused to swear in the reelected, graft-fighting president of the Constitutional Court.

In March, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced to life in prison on cocaine trafficking charges by a federal court in New York. Court documents in the case indicated that drug proceeds had financed Hernandez’s presidential campaign.

Anti-corruption, democracy and human rights are “at the core of our foreign policy,” Chung said. “We have pledged to work with these governments to address these kinds of issues. We think this is what people in the region also look for the government to do . . . We’re looking to really discuss and hear from the governments on what the challenges are and how we can address the challenges together.”

The Central American leaders have pushed back on U.S. criticism. Following the USAID announcement, which specifically said aid would be “redirected” from the National Civilian Police, Bukele tweeted that 99.9 percent of Salvadorans reaching the U.S. border have fled because of lack of jobs and insecurity.

“It’s very revealing,” he wrote, “that @USAID chose to stop funding … SECURITY! Is the real plan to create more immigration?”

Increasingly, China is trying to step into the breach of soured U.S. relations, extending loans and sending coronavirus vaccines, particularly to El Salvador, which switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China in 2018. In Honduras, Hernandez recently threatened to do the same, leading the administration to criticize what it called Beijing’s “cynical use” of vaccines for political purposes.

But the moves led the administration last week to indicate it plans to make Latin America a priority when it distributes 80 million vaccine doses Biden has pledged to distribute to other nations by the end of June.

Part of Biden’s Northern Triangle plan includes persuading U.S. companies to invest in Central America. Vice President Harris, tasked by the president to lead the effort to shore up the economies and governance in the three countries, on Thursday held a “Call to Action” meeting at the White House with senior executives from a dozen companies.

“Hope is on the way,” Harris said in opening the meeting, saying that private businesses had “a very significant role to play in creating jobs and promoting economic opportunity and creating long-term development.”

Some of the companies have already committed. Mastercard, represented by Chairman Ajay Banga, intended to bring 5 million people in the region into the digital economy and to support a million small businesses, Harris said. Microsoft and Nespresso, she said, also have made significant commitments.

Harris stressed that the plan is to engage both civil society and private business.

She plans to make her first foreign trip as vice president next month to Guatemala and Mexico.