Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday that it serves the security interests of the United States to help foster economic development in Central America, a region vexed by problems that have propelled illegal immigration northward.
“As part of the president’s agenda, we seek to bolster U.S. national security, secure our borders and advance U.S. economic interest,” said Tillerson at the start of a two-day conference in Miami focusing on the region’s pressing economic and security needs at a time when the White House wants to slash the foreign aid budget.
“Promoting prosperity in Central America is a key component of this effort, as our prosperity and security interests are tightly linked through the movement of ideas, people and goods.”
Tillerson came to Miami with two other Cabinet secretaries and Vice President Pence to discuss ways to tackle the poverty, violence and corruption that are helping drive migrants to flee Central America. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also attended.
The two-day Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America, which is being co-hosted by the United States and Mexico, reflects the Trump administration’s shift away from the Obama administration’s focus on fixing social problems to more immediate law enforcement issues, such as illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Like Tillerson, Pence spoke of security and prosperity of both the United States and Central America being intertwined. — “We’re in this together ,” he declared.
“As we all know, Central America has been plagued, as well, by vicious gangs and vast criminal organizations that drive illegal immigration and carry illegal drugs on northward their journey to the United States,” he said. “These criminal syndicates wreak havoc everywhere their tentacles spread.”
But Pence also devoted a large part of his speech at a luncheon with the presidents to the fight against drug trafficking, crime and corruption —and their impact on the United States.
“The American people are reminded of the terrible cost of drug trafficking, violence and illegal immigration every day,” said Pence, acknowledging the trade in illegal narcotics is propelled by high demand in the United States.
He singled out for special praise U.S. help in training police and attorneys general in Central America.
“And we cannot overestimate the importance of strong borders,” he added. “Under President Donald Trump the United States’ borders will be strong. But the borders of the United States will always be open to legal immigrants and the lawful flow of commerce. But we will make sure our borders are closed to those who would do us harm — and it will be impassable to the drugs that are besetting our families and communities.”
The U.S. officials were expected to face skepticism from the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the three beleaguered countries that make up Central America's Northern Triangle.
But Tillerson said the anticipated reductions in foreign aid was hardly mentioned. Instead, he said, the Central American officials sought advice in how to improve their business climate to attract more investment, how to introduce government reforms and overhaul regulations.
“The substance of our discussions throughout the day has been, ‘How do we act? What do we do?’” Tillerson said. “No one came to our meetings with their hand out. No one came with any great concern over where our budget will ultimately land when the U.S. Congress completes its own deliberations.”
The White House has proposed deep cuts in foreign aid next year, particularly for programs involving economic development whose benefits are typically years or even decades in the future. While State Department officials say one primary goal of the conference is to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the Northern Triangle, the Trump administration has requested $460 million for the region, a 39 percent cut from the current year’s funding.
Many of the cuts are to programs that support violence prevention, economic development and job creation, as well as those directed at strengthening law enforcement and the judiciary.
“It sends a contradictory message, said Adriana Beltran, a Central America expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental human rights advocacy organization. “They want to express continued support, and at the same time they want to cut programs that go to the heart of the security and economic challenges.”
Central American countries have been plagued by a number of intractable problems, including drug trafficking and gang violence that has been exacerbated by deportations from the United States. In the past three years alone, more than 50,000 people have been killed in the three Northern Triangle nations. In addition, many of the countries are burdened by widespread corruption in the police, government and courts, as well as a lack of economic development and high unemployment.
“Central Americans are in desperate need of assistance,” said William LeoGrande, a Latin America analyst at American University. “And all the declarations of solidarity don’t make up for the fact that we’re in effect backing out of promises we made to them for a longer-term partnership to bolster security.
“Add to that the domestic rhetoric the president engaged in the campaign, that in effect demonizes a lot of people his administration is now trying to gain cooperation from. It fuels anti-American rhetoric politics in those countries, and makes it harder for politicians to cooperate with the U.S. because it hurts them politically at home.”
In some ways, the message and dynamic are similar to the tone at last month’s meeting of NATO in Brussels, where President Trump privately and publicly urged leaders to spend more money on their own defense. State Department officials say the United States wants other countries impacted by narcotics flowing from Central America and Mexico — possibly Canada and countries in Europe and Asia — to make up at least some of the shortfall in U.S. foreign aid to the region.
Tillerson in particular will be facing a double dose of reaction to the proposed foreign aid cuts. On Tuesday and Wednesday, while testifying at Senate and House committees that control the purse strings for State Department spending, he sat patiently while Republican and Democrats alike criticized the administration for what they called an unwise and possibly dangerous desire to pare back development and humanitarian spending that theoretically can prevent future conflicts and mass migrations.