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“Like It or Not, These Are the Presidents We Have to Deal With”

While Californian congresswoman Norma Torres criticizes “the United States’ past interventions” in Central America and her country’s “relationship with many of these present-day dictators,” she has given her vote of confidence to Biden’s new team of envoys to the region, chief among them Vice President Kamala Harris. In a potentially decisive week for bilateral relations framed by the visit of Biden’s special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga to Guatemala and El Salvador, Torres claims that Bukele behaves like “a little kid, not a president,” while simultaneously deeming as “necessary” Biden’s diplomatic overtures to all three presidents of northern Central America.

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José Luis Sanz / Washington

 
 

It’s not uncommon for Representative Norma Torres, a California Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, to witheringly criticize Central American governments for corruption and what she sees as their complicity or responsibility for the migrant caravans traveling north. She has taken an especially tough stance on Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández since 2018, regularly accusing him of running a narcostate. In the past year, she has turned her criticism to Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele.

It’s even more noteworthy, then, that just two days after a blistering Twitter spat with Bukele, Torres applauded that Biden’s special envoy to Central America was considering meeting with the Salvadoran president, or that she resigns herself to the idea that the United States should seek common ground with the likes of Hernández. “Those overtures are necessary,” she said, adding a jab at the end. “Presidential power comes with responsibility,” she said. “I hope President Bukele can calm down and control himself a bit.”

Torres, born in 1965 in Guatemala, joined the House in 2015, and is its only member born in Central America. She not only created and co-chairs the Central America Caucus on Capitol Hill. She is also a member of the influential House Appropriations Committee, tasked with setting the national budget and foreign aid — the latter including the $4 billion that the White House has pledged to the isthmus over the next four years.

In a city where few Republican congressmen or senators pay much mind to Central America, and in a political arena in which centrist Democrat Joe Biden will need to placate the more progressive wing of his own party, Torres’s opinion carries a weight that Bukele had not fully considered when he insulted her last week on Twitter, suggesting she use “part of the check from her financiers to buy glasses” and called on voters in her district to turn away from her in the upcoming midterms.

“The Biden administration will have a hard time convincing me to vote to finance a plan or agreement with President Bukele because I want results, and I’m not seeing advances in the Northern Triangle,” said Torres. It’s yet another setback for Bukele, who has already stumbled diplomatically with Washington, according to a State Department source who reflected on the recent volley of tweets between the Salvadoran president and the California congresswoman. “We’ll defend our congresspeople and the non-intrusion in our elections, though Torres hardly needs help standing up for herself.” 

A few days ago, the Central America Caucus, which you preside over in Congress, resumed business, reflecting the interest that a group of mostly Congressional Democrats are paying to the region. But in general, is there an understanding of Central American current events in the U.S. Congress?

The strength of the caucus, which I founded six years ago, is that it’s bipartisan. It doesn’t endorse bills, but it does promote information to representatives and their aides about the situation in Central America and the actions we or other actors take throughout the region, though the focus in recent years has been the Northern Triangle.

There are members of Congress, especially Latinos, Democrats, and a few Republicans, who are closely following what happens in the Northern Triangle, but it’s not typical. Much of our attention is set on the Middle East, Europe, Africa… but Central America is a priority for me because they’re our neighbors, and they’re the source of most of our problems on the border.

With the arrival of the Biden administration, a common refrain is that there’s been a shift in priorities, but do you think the new U.S. administration is doing all that’s necessary?

Biden is barely two months and a few weeks in, but we see that he’s delegated tending to Central America to a group of people experienced in the region and led by the vice president. That signals that he’s really committed to the region and wants to help solve the problems that are now culturally engrained, because the problems of drug trafficking, violence, or corruption are part of a political culture in need of reform by the very countries themselves.

Biden’s immigration policy is inseparable from his Central America policy. What do you think about the fact that he continues to use Title 42 to reject or expel asylum seekers from the United States? Multiple human rights organizations say that the United States continues to break domestic and international law in using that legal authority to deny the right to apply for asylum to thousands of people.

We’re having that conversation with the administration almost daily, pushing them to do more to permanently revoke the policy that President Trump put into place. But we have to recognize that President Trump tore down the entire infrastructure necessary to receive these people, victims, in a humanitarian way as they flee their countries. There was nowhere for a child to be treated with humanity. Instead, children have seen cages, places resembling dog kennels. You can’t receive children there.

We’re just starting to rebuild the necessary infrastructure and logistics, and that entails hiring new federal employees to process applications. There’s much work to do, but in two and a half months there have been big changes.

And yes, we want to cancel Title 42, but it’s hard to do that without the necessary infrastructure to test for the coronavirus, separate and quarantine those testing positive. That’s all in the works, but we can’t move too quickly.

Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) during a House Rules hearing on the impeachment of Donald Trump on December 17, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP
 
Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) during a House Rules hearing on the impeachment of Donald Trump on December 17, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP

Biden has also been challenged for not including undocumented workers in his policymaking. California, the state you represent, has approved unemployment insurance for undocumented workers, and New York just passed a similar budget. Should Biden support such legislation at the federal level?

It’s very difficult for Congress to make changes like those because we can’t count on the support of Republicans, who don’t recognize the 11 million undocumented people in the country, most of them part of our economy. As a Californian, I’m very proud that my state recognizes the labor of those workers and has started to give them at least some assistance, because this pandemic has been terrible and many of them have lost their lives. Essential workers not only work in the fields, grocery stores, and warehouses, but also cleaning hospitals or as doctors. We have to recognize their labor.

I’ve also asked Congress to commission an in-depth study on the migrants arriving at our border. I think they’re people whose futures have been robbed, and that’s why they come here. But when in the United States they have access to school, work, and buying a home, what kinds of work can they find? We already know many of them are professionals, and I think it’s very important that we recognize their talent. In reality, the greatest resource that those three countries have is those young people traveling to our border, and their abilities and talents go unrecognized.

You speak of the Republican stance. Biden’s immigration package was announced to great fanfare, but what real chance does such an ambitious law have of passing?

We first have to control unauthorized migration. That’s our greatest hurdle right now. Immigration reform should be a bipartisan affair, and for now that’s not the case because many Republicans feel that there is no orderly legal process in place. That’s why it’s important for us to collaborate not only with the Northern Triangle, but with Mexico, the route for those thousands of migrants.

Biden promised to take a fresh look at Central America, but for now relations are based on curbing migration, a short-term objective not different from previous administrations, including that of Donald Trump. In fact, it seems that the current closeness with Guatemala is simply the result of their effort to block migrants and work as another border wall — just as Trump had pushed for. And Mexico is doing the same.

Yes, curbing unauthorized migration is very important, just like protecting the lives of those people when they make an unauthorized trip. In the last two years of the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, we started trying to help those people. We opened talks with Belize, Costa Rica, and other countries in the region to ask for their help in protecting those asking for asylum.

We also started finding places within the Northern Triangle where we could build refuges so that those who wanted to migrate could do so in an orderly fashion, so that they wouldn’t have to expose themselves to the dangers of the voyage and then enter the United States illegally. That would be the ideal scenario, and that’s what we’re striving for with this administration.

What do you think about the creation of the position of special envoy to Central America, and of Ricardo Zúñiga’s appointment?

I think it’s very important. The team assembled for the region is composed of professionals who know the history (Torres laughs), are informed, and can really help us promote what we want to do.

Are you laughing because you’re thinking of past administrations?

It’s very sad to think about the United States’ past interventions and its relationship with many of these present-day dictators. It’s something that’s hardened the region. We now have to do things differently. The United States won’t impose its agenda, but we will work with leaders committed to civil society, democracy, and improving living conditions in their countries.

Some of the statements you’ve made, labeling Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as narcostates…

I’ve never labeled Guatemala or El Salvador a narcostate. I have said, very clearly, that Honduras is a narcostate. In the other two cases… you could say the jury is still out. Unfortunately we’ve seen, though, that they’re heading in that direction.

[On March 24, a tweet from Torres’s official twitter account referenced the “narcostates led by Nayib Bukele, Juan Orlando Hernández, and Alejandro Giammattei.” The video accompanying the tweet referenced the “narcostate,” in a clear reference to Honduras, as well as “the corrupt and failed leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador.”]

The point is that the relationship between the current White House and the governments of the region has yet to be solidified. Does the tone of your affirmations complicate the work of Biden’s team? The clearest example would be your most recent confrontation with President Bukele.

Let me be clear. We can’t turn a blind eye to the realities of the region, nor can we hold talks with governments telling us what we want to hear. We’ll never get anything done if we go down that path. We need to do something different, and that starts with honesty about the actors that we have to deal with.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are to blame. They’ve made an international example of themselves because they haven’t cared about the conditions under which their citizens migrate. When I saw those two girls, one three and the other five years old, dropped off a 14-foot wall in the middle of the night… I’m a mother and grandmother, but for any human being it’s something quite serious. I blame those three countries because they have set an example for others.

President Bukele challenged you because those girls are Ecuadorian, not Central American…

He did as he always does: twists words, change the subject. He needs to acknowledge that the same actions taken by El Salvador are being replicated elsewhere. Our exchange of messages happened on thursday night, and by 9am the next morning, California time, he had already sent 49 tweets or retweets about me — 49! Yesterday I issued a statement and it began again. President Bukele is connected to trolls, who he pays to say what he wants, but it’s not real. They’re fake accounts.

But, to me, that’s not what matters most. What’s important is that the work of public officials isn’t easy, and presidential authority brings responsibility. He was the mayor of San Salvador; he’s no political newcomer.

During a House Homeland Security hearing on October 21, 2015, Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) questioned witnesses during a hearing on global attacks against the United States amid the rise and online recruiting of ISIS. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP
 
During a House Homeland Security hearing on October 21, 2015, Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) questioned witnesses during a hearing on global attacks against the United States amid the rise and online recruiting of ISIS. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP

Do you think these confrontations will affect the dialogue with the government of El Salvador?

This type of behavior shows the instability of a leader in the region and that his actions can’t be taken seriously. I’m not the first member of Congress he’s offended. A colleague called me yesterday to say, “He did the same thing to me!” That’s the behavior of a little kid, not a president.

Special Envoy Ricardo Zúñiga will visit Guatemala and El Salvador this week. I understand that his itinerary will include a meeting with President Giammattei and another with President Bukele. What do you hope for from those meetings?

Those overtures are necessary. I hope President Bukele calms down and controls himself a bit. I hope they can establish a dialogue, because as a congresswoman my important job goes beyond representing my district and guaranteeing information and transparency in the use of tax dollars. As a member of the International Affairs and Appropriations Committees, I also approve and monitor the United States budget. I take that work quite seriously, and the Biden administration will have a hard time convincing me to vote to finance a plan or agreement with President Bukele because I want results, and I’m not seeing advances in the Northern Triangle.

President Bukele has asked for differential treatment for each country in the Northern Triangle. Are you on board with that?

Yes, 100 percent. That was our strategy when Biden was vice president. The three countries created their plans for prosperity and security themselves. That’s how it will be again, and then we’ll see which plan we most agree on. And it’s important to think of the countries separately in allocating funds to the region so that during the process we can redirect aid to the countries advancing most in their agreements with us.

What do you think those agreements should entail?

Conditions of respect for the rule of law and transparency, not only in the use of public funds but throughout the government… Transparency is essential to democracy and to a republic, as well as respecting journalists and different opinions. It’s crucial that we leaders accept that not everyone will think like we do. And leaders should focus on improving education, employment opportunities, training, infrastructure, and access to basic services like electricity and water. They’re things that help a country grow, and not only its economy.

I understand, then, that despite your professed doubts about the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador, you’re in favor of working toward cooperation agreements with both presidents. With Honduras, too?

Yes. It’s more difficult due to the case against the president’s brother. And I don’t have all the information on the case against the president… But as long as he’s in the role we’ll have to reach an understanding with him. Like it or not, these are the presidents we have to deal with.

In this conversation you seem more reserved than usual, like you’re choosing your words more carefully than on other occasions. Is that because you think it’s time to turn down the temperature?

No, it’s because at the end of the year there are elections in Honduras and I have to respect the process. I hope the people elect leaders we can work with, but for now I have to keep my distance. I can’t do as President Bukele (Torres laughs), asking citizens in my district to vote against me!

How did you receive that message?

It’s never good for a leader to try to influence an election in another country. I take that very seriously. Many colleagues wrote to me when they saw it, and they were very bothered by the messaging he continues to promote.

Democrats?

Yes.

Do you think President Bukele gets along better with Republicans?

I don’t think so. I do think many of my Republican colleagues are disinterested in the region and tend to think that each president is the same as the previous because the conditions don’t change. They’re tired of having to treat the symptoms on our border of the unresolved problems of their countries. And most of them don’t represent Latino districts, as is the case with many Democrats who the public is asking to help their compatriots and to pass immigration reform to help those already here.

*Translated by Roman Gressier


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