Central America / Politics

“An Economic Crisis in El Salvador Could Prompt a New Wave of Migration”

Monday, April 12, 2021
José Luis Sanz / Washington

Ricardo Zúñiga has spent the past four days fielding the same question with diplomatic stoicism and a poker smile. The government of El Salvador, he has repeatedly said, should be the one to explain why Nayib Bukele turned down a meeting with him last week during his one-day trip to San Salvador.

It’s a textbook answer meant to avoid spiraling conflict. While the snub was a visible stain on the special envoy’s first trip to the region, the Biden administration has vowed to work with Central American governments to slow migration, a means to an end that is impossible without dialogue with El Salvador. Especially given that the number of migrant children in U.S. shelters spiked above 20 thousand and that, in March alone, the Border Patrol hit the record number of 172,000 monthly encounters with undocumented people attempting to cross the border.

Zúñiga’s work in the region will be a balancing act. Though avoiding direct responses and hedging every phrase, sometimes to the point of dilution, he nonetheless left hints of his priorities and plan of action. He acknowledged that his chief priority is to halt migration, while noting that in the medium term he would claim success if he could “achieve a notable turn in the political dynamics and governance of Central America.”

To that end, he insists on the need for the international community to support local efforts to investigate corruption and fight against impunity, asserting that the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) should be more independent — a friction point with Bukele, who announced last week he would veto legislation from civil society to strengthen its mandate. Zúñiga also claims that the State Department’s forthcoming list of Central American officials implicated in corruption won’t withhold names for political reasons. Permitting corruption in exchange for aspects of the U.S. agenda, he argues, “is not a good formula for success.”

Time will tell whether he will adhere to the confrontational messaging and threats of sanctions emanating from Washington. Despite concerns from the State Department and Congress about the Bukele administration’s course in terms of democracy, Zúñiga implies that the United States will almost certainly support El Salvador’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. “We know that the macroeconomic situation in El Salvador is critical at the moment,” he says. “For the United States it’s important to address this problem because an economic crisis in El Salvador could prompt another wave of migration.” Factoring into that statement is likely also the developing ties between Bukele, along with other countries in the region, and China.

Zúñiga isn’t the only Biden official to weigh his words carefully right now. On April 11, Juan S. González, the National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere, who two months ago said that the United States would not partner with any leader who isn’t ready to go after corruption, reopened the door for working with Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, accused in New York of drug trafficking: “Right now he’s the elected president of Honduras. We’ll work with his government to find common ground.” Zúñiga, too, notes the United States’ “broad relationship with Honduras, despite this sensitive situation.”

During his trip to San Salvador on April 8, 2021, Ricardo Zúñiga, Special Envoy to the Northern Triangle of Central America, met with the Commissioner Ronalth Ocaeta of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICES), Attorney General Rául Melara, and Brendan O
During his trip to San Salvador on April 8, 2021, Ricardo Zúñiga, Special Envoy to the Northern Triangle of Central America, met with the Commissioner Ronalth Ocaeta of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICES), Attorney General Rául Melara, and Brendan O'Brien, the U.S. Embassy's chargé d'affairs. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

Does the fact that you’re the Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle and not for Central America suggest your work will focus on migration and not on strengthening democracy in the region, especially considering that your mandate doesn’t cover Nicaragua, the country suffering the biggest threat to democracy?

No, but I completely understand how you could interpret it in that way. The biggest problems, from the viewpoints of the United States, Congress, and the executive branch, come from the three countries in northern Central America, but it’s impossible to leave out the fourth country, Nicaragua, where we also see a serious problem. The framework we’re using for my mandate is democracy, and as such we have to treat the most serious problems we see in all of the countries.

It’s true that most of the focus has been placed on the three northern countries, specifically because of the impact they’re having on our southern border, and given that what is happening here is going to continue until we can more profoundly address the structural problems in Central America, but it’s impossible to separate these three countries from Mexico or from the rest of the isthmus. We need to talk of the whole ecosystem.  

Does this mean you’ll be working directly with Nicaragua?

I’m going to focus my work on the three countries in northern Central America, but will be working with others to incorporate an integral regional vision. We’re also talking about labor flows within Central America, and it’s impossible to talk about the problems that the United States is confronting without talking about Costa Rica, an important partner and also a destination country. This is a shared problem, and when I say ‘problem,’ I’m referring to the massive irregular flow of people. We can also talk about El Salvador, which this year is not a major source of migrants but it has been in the past, and it could be again. 

You began saying no, but in reality you’re confirming that migration will be at the center of your work — not just in the short term, but as the main focus.

Because it’s the most destabilizing phenomenon in the region. But it’s a symptom. And so, of course, we’ll have to focus on the phenomenon that most affects the United States, but treating the symptom doesn’t mean that we won’t address the roots, and my work will be more focused on that facet. Never in my career have I seen so much attention placed on Central America, and of course it’s because of what’s going on, but there’s another element here: we understand that it’s complex, not a single issue. And treating the causes of this complexity will require an integral approach. 

The degree of work is also different for Mexico. We speak with them a lot, and it is precisely because the topic requires broader attention than we have given it in the past.

What would you consider success? Because structural changes aren’t going to happen in four years, and definitely not in the two years the administration has before the midterm elections.

It’s a job that will take decades. The objectives are not going to be realized immediately. But an important step will be to achieve a notable turn in the political dynamics and governance of Central America. That will be something to hope for.

In 2009 the Obama administration ended up legitimating a coup d’état in Honduras, and U.S. policy towards Nicaragua is not seeming to work. With this history, what actual impact do you expect to achieve with Central American governments?

Well, during that period we also had important victories with MACCIH and CICIG [international commissions focused on fighting corruption in Honduras and Guatemala, respectively]. We saw that when the United States and the international community worked together we were able to find success in the fight against corruption. When that support lagged and there was less attention on the effort, there was backsliding and the bodies dissolved, but we were able to see that the model works: support from the international community to people who work inside the national systems, the justice systems, the investigative systems, the legislative systems. Because there are public officials who want to achieve these results. And the role of the international community is not to substitute these actors, but to support them. I believe that we have a margin we can work within there.

A few days ago the Treasury Department and the State Department delivered to Representative Norma Torres a list of officials in the Northern Triangle supposedly implicated in corruption. And the famous ‘Engel list’ is being elaborated now. Will you be working on these lists?

I am a consumer of these lists, which are elaborated through our embassies and by investigators in other areas of government. But we will see consequences. For me it’s going to be important that we show we are ready to act against people who are involved in corruption, not just because that’s what Congress requires of us, as it is effectively a mandate from Congress, but because it’s an important means of supporting those who are fighting against corruption in Central America.

The dissemination of these lists could further provoke tensions with the presidents in the region, and also complicate the work. Will the State Department downplay the content or delay the publication of the lists so that you and Vice President Harris can do your diplomatic work?

No, and you can be sure of that. What is important for the elaboration of these lists are the criteria that they will establish, and then from there the embassies will suggest names. If you are linked to corruption and are in high office, you will automatically appear on the list. It is not a political question. Of course it is going to be complicated for me if there are high-level officials involved in illicit activities, but we have to fulfil the requirements mandated by Congress: to name these people. Working in the open is so much better than covering up problems. You see it in much of the world: allowing corruption to continue in return for support on a specific issue is not a good formula for success. 

Staying on this topic, right now the relationship with Honduras seems to be complicated by the open investigation against President Juan Orlando Hernández for his ties to drug trafficking. Is that the biggest obstacle to your work in the region?

We have a broad relationship with Honduras, despite this sensitive situation. I have met with Foreign Minister Lisandro Rosales and a number of officials from various agencies in Honduras. And in our embassy we continue to work to respond to important matters — not only about migration, but also in rebuilding after the hurricanes. We have a large agenda in Central America and we’re always going to look to have constructive relationships with the leaders and their administrations. We will have to get around specific problems as they come up, but always with the idea of pushing forward in the big picture.

Does that mean that the Salvadoran government’s evident message to you — not just President Bukele’s decision not to meet with you, but also the public leak of that decision — will not be an impediment to the bilateral relationship? Is it up to you now to put on the friendly face?

It’s not going to be an impediment. The work that we have to do with El Salvador we can accomplish through our embassy and through efforts with other officials in the Salvadoran government. I had great meetings with the foreign minister, with civil society, and with the private sector. The president made it very clear, through his statements, his anger towards various actors in the United States. The most important thing between friends is to speak directly, that there are no deceptions in the relationship, that each side makes clear what they consider important. This is what we’ve done in this administration.

The Biden administration has expressed concerns about the governmental separation of powers, among other issues, in El Salvador. Are you leaving El Salvador more or less worried?

What I see is that there is a broad debate in El Salvador about what is going to be necessary to maintain the independence of institutions and strengthen the culture of democracy, which is an obligation for all of the signatories of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. 

In a press conference two weeks ago, while speaking about the fight against corruption and the necessity of backing local institutions, including prosecutors, you said, “an independent CICIES could play that role.”

That’s right.

Do you think that the CICIES is sufficiently independent?

While in El Salvador I announced the allotment of 2 million dollars to the CICIES in support of its work, which we believe has been and continues to be indispensable for El Salvador. As I said then, we salute and applaud President Bukele’s decision to begin the process with the OAS to establish the body. But that was the first step. I believe that the CICIES was always thought of as an independent body, and what we are supporting is the fulfilment of that conviction.

How that is achieved is up to the officials of El Salvador. We do not intervene in the sovereign decisions of El Salvador. What we do think, and what we show with this financial and political support of the CICIES, is that it was an excellent idea, it continues to be an excellent idea, and we are waiting to see an excellent final result. And that is just how we have applauded the actions and investigations that have so far played out.

In other words, the way you see it, an independent CICIES is an idea that has yet to be realized.

I don’t think that’s only our impression, but also that of the OAS. I’m not referring just to El Salvador. In Central America, and probably in other parts of the world, the support of the international community can be important, a help to the people who are working against corruption in the face of political pressure or threats from nongovernmental actors. And in this case it’s the same. 

Zúñiga, left, alongside Chargé d
Zúñiga, left, alongside Chargé d'Affairs Brendan O'Brien, the U.S. Embassy's highest-ranking interim official before Biden appoints his first ambassador to El Salvador. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

This financial support for the CICIES, playing out within a very delicate financial situation in the country, is only for 2021. This coincides with the term of the current attorney general, Raúl Melara, which ends at the end of the year. Is your future support of the CICIES conditioned on the independence of the next attorney general?

The CICIES or any other body of this type, along with the principal institutions, in this case the attorney general, work together. Because the CICIES doesn’t have the authority to carry out judicial actions, and has to support the efforts of local actors. We are going to continue supporting the CICIES because we believe that what it has accomplished up until now has been useful. It has contributed to the efforts and commitments not only of the OAS but of Salvadoran officials in combatting corruption. 

Will you have a say in the United States’ stance, and role in the International Monetary Fund, in the IMF’s ongoing negotiations with El Salvador?

We know that the macroeconomic situation in El Salvador is critical at the moment. For the United States it’s important to address this problem because an economic crisis in El Salvador could prompt a new wave of migration. But we don’t want instability in El Salvador for any reason whatsoever. The third biggest market for the United States in the Americas, after Mexico and Brazil, is CAFTA. There are many reasons we want this stability.

Now, the United States, as a donor to the Fund, and as an important member of the Fund, always places conditions on the implementation of an agreement. And Congress requires them as well. In this case we’re talking about how the funds are managed and a long-term plan for how this temporary support will be utilized to successfully establish a sustainable pace of economic growth. We hope to collaborate in this growth and in the creation of opportunities in El Salvador. But in El Salvador there needs to be a clear rule of law, and those rules need to be clear to all.

I’m not sure if this is your personal opinion or if you’re telling me this as someone who will help define the position of the United States.

The Treasury Department will play that role. As a representative of the State Department, I will not be part of that decision. But we are interested in how it will be made, and of course I’m talking to the Treasury Department about its impressions of the agreement and the potential good use of these funds. So yes, I will be part of that conversation. 

Moving on to Guatemala, one of the main worries is the independence of the justice system. On March 10, President Giammattei named Leyla Lemus, who was part of his cabinet, as magistrate of the Constitutional Court. She will take the bench this Wednesday, April 14. Did you discuss that issue in your conversation with President Giammattei? Were there any commitments made?

Yes and yes. We had a wide-ranging conversation about all aspects of the relationship. In all of the conversations we had in Guatemala we spoke of the need to support the independence of the branches of government, and especially about the worry in the United States over the perceived efforts to impede the independent work of judges. They assured us of their commitment on behalf of Guatemala to maintain that independence. And we also had meetings, for example, with Magistrate Gloria Porras, who has been facing threats, and with other judges and with the FECI [a special prosecutors’ office investigating corruption], to demonstrate our support for those doing that work.

All of this was part of the framework to create viable conditions for economic growth in all of Central America. President Giammattei has spoken of creating a wall of prosperity, and we share that vision. The one thing we can do is to create opportunities in Central America, and that is going to take establishing clear rules of institutional independence so that investments arrive. 

You mention a wall of prosperity, but Guatemala has been treated well by the United States because it’s functioning as a physical wall against migration. Guatemalan security forces have been stopping caravans by literally beating them back. Is that something that the United States applauds?

All countries have the right to protect their borders while abiding by the law. It’s what the United States does when we say that the border is closed to unauthorized migration. Guatemala has the same right. What worries us is the massive irregular transit, which has many consequences — humanitarian, financial, but more than anything creating the impression that the only way to arrive to the United States is by irregular means. 

Which is why we are dedicating time into creating the conditions so that, for example, people seeking refuge have means of doing so that don’t require them to travel to the U.S. border, and that systems of protection exist in Central America and Mexico. We have had good cooperation in that regard. It was part of our conversation in Guatemala. And yes, we appreciate the support from countries that block this irregular transit. Now, the caravans receive a lot of attention, but the most important flow is that of millions of people arriving drop by drop, every day.

One last question, about Honduras. Former U.S. officials, who don’t represent the White House but seem to be close to the Biden Administration, such as Dan Restrepo, have said that at this point the United States cannot work with any of the presidential pre-candidates. Do you share that opinion?

The president, the vice president, the secretary of state, and Juan González from the National Security Council, have been very clear: the commitment of leaders in the fight against corruption is going to be an important part of our relationship with them. Because we believe that the impression that supporting impunity or the tolerance of corruption leaves is one of the factors that ruins hope in Central America.

We have a lot of reasons. Migration is one of them, but the success of Central America will help the United States and the failure of Central America will hurt the United Stats in many ways, not only in terms of irregular migration. We are going to work with those who want to work with us, and that depends on their commitment in the fight for strong institutions and a culture of democracy.

*Translated by John Washington and Roman Gressier

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