TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — In what has the trappings of a thank-you tour, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Tuesday expressed gratitude to one of the Central American countries President Trump said should do more to stop drug traffickers.
Standing beside Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Haley thanked Honduras for its support on a U.N. resolution condemning the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“That was one that was not an easy decision for any country to have to vote on,” she said. “But the people of Honduras stood with us in being able to make that decision for ourselves and decide where we want our embassy, and to know that that’s our right.”
Haley also plans to visit Guatemala, another of the seven countries that sided with the United States and Israel in the December vote.
Her sentiments contrasted with Trump’s recent criticism of countries that are transit points for drugs produced elsewhere. Calling out El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, he said: “I want to stop the aid, if they can’t stop drugs from coming in — because they could stop them a lot easier than us.”
Haley’s visit also reflected another presidential mandate: reducing drug flows into the country. She described her main mission as gathering facts about the region’s issues with narcotics trafficking, corruption and human rights — and seeing whether anything can be done at the United Nations.
Calling it the Year of the Americas, Haley predicted, “You will see multiple members of the Cabinet making visits to Latin America to really talk about more in-depth discussions on what else we can be doing and how else we can be partnering.”
But the Jerusalem vote was always in the background. Honduras and Guatemala have large evangelical populations and strong relations with Israel.
After the December vote, Haley vowed to “take names” of the 128 countries that voted to condemn the U.S. action, including allies. And Trump has asked Congress to enact a law requiring that U.S. aid be channeled largely to countries that support its positions at the United Nations.
So far, the threat has been more rhetorical than reality. U.N. votes are not the only factor in divvying up at least $28 billion in foreign aid, and they aren’t even the most important consideration.
Jordan, for example, voted to condemn the U.S. decision on Jerusalem. But it is key to the administration’s attempts to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Jordan this month, he signed an agreement to give it almost $1.3 billion in aid annually for the next five years.
Honduras, in contrast, will get about $115 million in U.S. aid this year, and assistance to the country would drop dramatically under the 2019 White House budget proposal. Haley did not announce any new money.
“That will never be a stand-alone issue,” she told reporters traveling with her. “But it will always be an element that we can go back to and say, ‘You know what? They stood by us when it came to that Jerusalem vote.’ ”
Hernández said his government has not yet decided whether to move its embassy to Jerusalem, as Guatemala plans to do. He said he expected nothing in return for the vote other than to receive “the same treatment as a sovereign nation.”
Haley also watched a demonstration by a U.S.-trained national police unit that goes after drug traffickers and gangs. Other units, some staffed by retirees from the New York and Chicago police departments, train Honduran forces in forensics and other police matters.
Haley’s focus on narcotics trafficking, unusual for a U.N. ambassador, illustrates her willingness to push the limits of diplomacy. The United Nations declared drug trafficking a global threat to security and peace, but it has done little to target the problem. However, Haley believes the United Nations has a role to play.
“We can’t just focus on the countries that are producing it. We have to focus on the countries that are moving it, and are we doing enough in the international community to stop it,” she said.
A more vexing issue in Honduras is corruption. Graft is endemic in Honduras, from fixing traffic tickets to the theft of government money by high-level officials.
Last month, the attorney general’s corruption unit charged five lawmakers with taking money designated for development projects. But the Honduran National Congress responded by freezing all investigations into what had happened, and the case was dismissed.
“There’s a sense you can do something and get away with it,” said a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank.
Haley declared U.S. support for an anti-corruption panel that was thrown into disarray last month when the panel’s head and two top officials resigned, citing hostility from the Honduran government.