Central America / Politics

Obama’s Cuba Negotiator To Lead Biden Central America Policy

Wednesday, April 7, 2021
José Luis Sanz / Washington

As 2014 wound down, Ricardo Zúñiga stepped briefly into the limelight. At 44 years old, he had spent two decades as a career diplomat and two years on the National Security Council as Obama’s chief advisor for Latin America. He wasn’t flying below the public radar, but neither was he stealing headlines — until news broke that the mild-mannered man with a round, bespectacled face had, for a year and a half, been secretly negotiating with Cuba for the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross and for reopening diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

For weeks he was the star of dozens of newspaper and television stories that wove a narrative of clandestine meetings in Canada and The Vatican, secret messages, and tipping points — Gross was in poor health and threatened to kill himself at one point during his wait — before the culmination of the historic deal. Eight months later, in August of 2015, as Secretary of State John Kerry hoisted the flag at the U.S. embassy near the dock, Zúñiga had slipped away. In July, he took a post as consul general in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“I don’t doubt that Ricardo appreciated some of the praise he received after the announcement of the opening of Cuba relations. He worked very hard to achieve it,” said Nick Zimmerman, who worked for him in the White House and now runs international forums for Columbia University. “But I don’t think he enjoyed it too much. He’s spent most of his career away from the cameras.”

Zúñiga has reentered the spotlight. On Monday, March 22, Secretary of State Antony Blinken named him special envoy to the northern triangle of Central America, adding that his focus will at times involve Mexico. He will be an integral part, if not the mastermind, of the design and implementation of Biden’s promised Central America strategy which, on paper, allots $4 billion in foreign aid with a long-term focus. The State Department says it is looking to foster the development of democratic institutions in the isthmus based on the principle of cooperation, and not only as a solution to curb the flows of migration.

Zúñiga will walk a tightrope, not only in responding to the corruption and authoritarianism of Central American governments, but with the Republican blockade in the U.S. Senate. The fact that his workload will, at least initially, include Mexico instead of Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua indicates how tension within the administration about the Central Americans arriving to the US-Mexico border is marking priorities and will frame his work.

President Obama meets with President Raul Castro. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Obama meets with President Raul Castro. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Zúñiga, known for his discretion, courtesy, and efficiency, was born in Tegucigalpa in 1970 to a mother from the United States and a Honduran father. He is fully bilingual, married with two daughters, and one of his grandfathers was Ricardo Zúñiga Augustinus, a veteran politician from the National Party who was close to the military juntas and ran for president of Honduras in the 80s. 

Those who have worked under him note his willingness to listen and ability to situate problems in their broader context. “Ricardo is one of the most talented diplomats in the foreign service,” Zimmerman said. “Not only is he incredibly smart, but it’s also rare to find a leader like him with the high-level strategic thinking and, at the same time, who clearly understands the small steps needed to get a result.”

He claims Zúñiga’s diplomatic acumen to have come from a career spent working at all levels of the federal government. After graduating from the University of Virginia at 24, his first job was as a consular official in Matamoros along the U.S.-Mexico border. He then passed through the embassies in Brasilia and Madrid and the Interests Section in Havana before returning to Washington.

Annie Pforzheimer, a retired diplomat with 30 years of experience including 2 years as political attaché in El Salvador from 2003 to 2005, agrees with Zimmerman. “Ricardo’s appointment is a stroke of good fortune for Central America,” she said. “He cares about the region and knows the U.S. government better than anyone — not only how it works, but also those currently running it. They have complete trust in him.”

The White House trusts Zúñiga for his trajectory and because his other major assignment as senior advisor to the second Obama administration was designing the ‘Strategic Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America,’ the U.S. response to the 2014 unaccompanied minor crisis.

Biden personally led that effort alongside Roberta Jacobson, then undersecretary of state for the western hemisphere and now Biden’s coordinator for the southern border on the National Security Council. Zúñiga traveled with the two throughout the region and met with the presidents of Central America.

A member of that team, Pforzheimer was responsible for elaborating a detailed strategy for the region and supervising its implementation. She claims the crisis of unaccompanied minors only hastened a process that Zúñiga had already begun: “When I joined the team in August of 2014, Ricardo was already in the process of designing a new strategy for Central America,” she said. “The emergency only accelerated moves already on the table.”

Zúñiga and Biden were already in agreement, she says, on the need to compel Central American countries, in exchange for aid, to make commitments to fight corruption, a principle which Biden has emphasized since taking office as president. That project, and the scant results to show for it, particularly after years in which the Trump administration reduced the scope of its policy in the region to absurd ‘safe third-country’ asylum agreements, have led Biden to double down on his strategy and convert Central America into a foreign policy priority.

Architect of a New Strategy

A person who has worked closely alongside Zúñiga claims that, after the Cuba negotiations, Zúñiga accepted the post in Brazil to momentarily escape the clamor of Washington. But Trump’s drastic rolling-back of the policies he had worked on pushed him into a sort of self-exile in which he dedicated himself to research with the Wilson Center, a prestigious think tank.

“Polarization in the United States and Trump’s politicization of the State Department affected not only him, but many career officials,” opined Zimerman, who worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and was a political appointment to the administration. “I never found out whether Ricardo is a Democrat or Republican,” he said. Pforzheimer agrees that Zúñiga has always kept his distance from partisan politics: “That’s the only way to have a three-decade diplomatic career across different administrations,” she said.

Even so, various sources close to Zúñiga say that if Trump had been reelected, he would have closed the door on his diplomatic career in leaving the State Department for good.

The President talks backstage with Ricardo Zuniga, the National Security Council
The President talks backstage with Ricardo Zuniga, the National Security Council's Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Biden’s win, on the other hand, had the opposite effect. Zúñiga has formed a sort of trident with the current NSC director for the western hemisphere and Biden’s chief Latin America advisor, Juan S. González, and Dan Restrepo, who previously held Zúñiga’s current position and has now become an unofficial spokesperson for the White House.

Two weeks ago, Restrepo published an article in Foreign Affairs, “Central Americans Are Fleeing Bad Governments,” in which he again called out the corruption of the governments of northern Central America. From his personal Twitter account, Juan S. González reposted the article, saying: “Listen to the man.” A source close to Zúñiga says Restrepo’s article leaned largely on the voice of the current special envoy, that the text in fact passed through Zúñiga’s desk before publication.

Zúñiga has left his mark on much of the White House messaging in recent months toward Central America. As a researcher at the Wilson Center, he stayed in contact with the Biden team since November and met with officials from USAID, and the State Department, including its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Since December, he knew his appointment with the incoming administration was only months out.

In those meetings, Zúñiga shared his viewpoints on foreign policy, especially the conclusions of a 188-page December report on U.S. aid to northern Central America from 2014 to 2019, the fruit of his 18 months of leave from the State Department. The report, which identifies errors in past and recent U.S. policy toward Central America, has become a rough draft for Biden’s new strategy toward the isthmus.

Eric Olson, consultant and former deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program who led the investigation alongside Zúñiga, ties the report directly to the Biden administration’s dealings with the presidents of Central America: “Seven years ago, you saw Biden talking with Juan Orlando Hernández, Mauricio Funes, or Otto Pérez Molina as if they were partners in the democratic project in the region,” he began. “Now we know they were not. In the report, Ricardo and I conclude that the system has been intentionally blown up from the inside by a political class uncommitted to democracy and economic elites defending their own interests. That wasn’t the view at the time and we’re reaping the consequences. That’s why Juan González and Restrepo are so firm, and haven’t yet greeted Bukele or Juan Orlando.”

Zúñiga and Olson’s study says the United States should prioritize regional governments’ respect for democratic norms over other indicators of success, recommends that aid agencies focus on fewer objectives with clear indicators, and emphasizes that the United States must support local actors from civil society and state actors defending transparency and fighting against corruption.

These are all ideas recently on the lips of senior White House officials.

Another conclusion of the study is that U.S. strategy toward Central America should have a foundation of bipartisan support and long-term commitment. “The United States cannot relate to Central America only in its emergencies, as has been the case since Reagan,” summarized Olson. “We’ve treated the region as a constant stream of temporary crises.”

The new special envoy will take office amid another crisis. Pressure from Republicans and the press for Biden to immediately tend to the relative increase of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks has complicated Biden’s long-term strategy and led the administration, from Sunday, March 21 to the next day, to make the desperate move of placing 17,118 ads on radio stations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Brazil in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages, all focusing on one message: “The border is closed.” 

“Ricardo won’t be able to duck the crisis of the moment, of migration,” Olson admits, “but his ultimate goal in his new role is the creation of a long-term policy toward Central America.”

While Zúñiga will have an open line of communication with Juan S. González, the fact that his appointment came from the State Department rather than Biden signals that the regional strategy will be maintained, in theory, regardless of who occupies the White House. For that very reason, according to two sources, and to avoid experiences like that of former ambassador Ron Johnson, whose personal amity with Bukele became entangled with government policy, Biden plans to send career ambassadors to El Salvador and Honduras.

“Ricardo will factor into that decision,” said someone who has worked with him in recent months. “He already has a few names in mind.”

On the Hunt for Allies

“Strengthening governance requires allies,” Zúñiga said on February 17 during an event organized by the Inter-American Dialogue on Biden policy toward Central America. In addition to coordinating efforts with U.S. embassies in the region, his work will entail finding those allies, despite the the White House’s clear statements in the past two months, in line with Olson, that relations with the governments of northern Central America will come with conditions. Given the discord with the region’s sitting presidents, Zúñiga plans to work with other actors.

He will also take charge in earmarking and supervising the distribution of the $4 billion that Biden has promised to the region. In a March 10 press conference, Roberta Jacobson stated that not a dollar in aid would go to the presidents of Central America, though she didn’t clarify whether that precluded the funding of state agencies, advisement, or training. Civil society will be the “preferred partner” in implementing regional policy, said Zúñiga, a point that Juan S. González has also made. “There are people fighting for democratic institutions and for citizens’ rights,” said Zúñiga. “Our role in the international community is to back them, not replace them.”

President Barack Obama speaks with Ricardo Zúñiga, senior advisor for western hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council, in the Oval Office after the president
President Barack Obama speaks with Ricardo Zúñiga, senior advisor for western hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council, in the Oval Office after the president's Cuba announcement and the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross on December 17, 2014. National security advisor Susan E. Rice looks on from the doorway. Photo: Pete Souza/White House

The new special envoy has nurtured lines of communication with the leading Central American human rights organizations in Washington, as well as some civil society organizations and private sector representatives in each of the countries.

In another forum, weeks later, Zúñiga stated that “one of the lessons learned” is that the United States is “very ill-equipped to achieve large-scale social change.” “You have to work in the context you’re given…and give those looking to create change the chance to be successful,” he said. 

Perhaps for that reason, despite the distrust that the Biden administration has shown in the current government of El Salvador, people close to Zúñiga claim he believes the United States should be initially open to the possibility of good governance under Nayib Bukele while maintaining the weary tone it has adopted since January. “Biden seems like a cool, great person,” said Annie Phorzheimer, “but he can also tap into his tough side. The same goes for Ricardo: everyone I know works well with him, but he has no problem making firm decisions.”

The State Department has thus far declined to specify Zúñiga’s role in the drafting of the long-awaited Engel List, which will impose sanctions on public and private officials in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala convicted or implicated in corruption or the weakening of democratic institutions, with the broad room for interpretation and political football of the latter. What those who have spoken with him do make clear is that he will closely follow El Salvador’s ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, which will need the goodwill of the United States to get off the ground. Washington — that is, Zúñiga — wants the accord with the Bukele administration to include conditions of transparency and respect for the separation of powers.

That González and Zúñiga’s first trips to the region were to Guatemala is a show of pragmatism. Biden currently sees more room to maneuver with the Giammattei administration, and hopes to use it as a model of engagement with neighboring governments. On the negotiating table will be the U.S. demand that Guatemala offer minimal guarantees to respect institutionality, especially regarding the independence of the Constitutional Court and the anti-corruption prosecutor, as well as the elaboration of strategies to curb migration not only from Honduras, but also from northern Guatemala.

While Juan Orlando Hernández remains at the helm of Honduras, it’s unlikely that Zúñiga will look to cement similar relations with that government, especially given the conviction of Geovanny Fuentes on Monday, March 22 for drug trafficking, a case in which Hernández was implicated as a co-conspirator and as having received bribes before and after taking office as president. The public statements of various officials including Dan Restrepo suggest that the United States will wait to establish dialogue with whomever wins the November presidential election and takes office in January 2022.

“Almost without exception, conditions have worsened in the region since 2014, especially in the realm of governance,” admitted Zúñiga at the Inter-American Dialogue event. “In too many cases, we see trends toward authoritarianism and state capture.” The remarks reveal a certain acknowledgment of the failure of decades of United States policy in the region.

Zúñiga says his research with the Wilson Center was a “strange privilege” in that it is unusual for an official to have the chance to critically and carefully examine policy that they were an integral part of creating.

Even more unusual is for the person who designed and implemented the first steps of the U.S. strategy toward Central America to have a second chance some six years later. After weighing his own mistakes, the man who dethawed relations with Cuba is turning his sights to Central America.

*Translated by Roman Gressier

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