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Obama Administration Relations with Central America: A Conversation with Seven U.S. Ambassadors

The ambassadors discuss U.S. policy priorities in Central America, including issues of organized crime, democratic governance, and trade.

Date & Time

Feb. 1, 2011
8:30am – 10:00am ET


"Central America is in the news a lot these days, often for the wrong reasons," Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, noted in her introduction to "Obama Administration Relations with Central America: A Conversation with Seven U.S. Ambassadors." Organized crime has flourished while the robust economic recovery enjoyed by South America has bypassed Central America and Mexico; meanwhile, the region's proximity to the United States has spotlighted immigration and trade issues. On February 1, 2011, the Latin American Program hosted a discussion with seven U.S. ambassadors to Central American countries during their visit to Washington to attend the State Department's annual Western Hemisphere Chief of Missions meeting.

According to Ambassador Robert Callahan, Nicaragua, unlike its northern neighbors, is not plagued by serious issues with organized crime. Its economy has grown by 4 percent, prudent macro-economic policies having fueled record exports of coffee, sugar, and gold. The country received roughly $500 million USD in unconditional aid from Venezuela and slightly more in remittances last year—a boon for a $6 billion economy—and effective social and economic programs have decreased extreme poverty. However, serious concerns remain regarding Sandinista leader President Ortega's bid for re-election later this year. A Supreme Court decision recently declared its own previously mandated term limits unconstitutional; that, coupled with a fragmented opposition and a "checkered history of elections," makes an Ortega victory seem likely. In order to avoid a repeat of the 2008 municipal elections "replete with fraud of every imaginable type," opposition leaders, international and business communities, and the local Catholic Church have called for credible election observations beginning in February or March of 2011.

According to Ambassador Phyllis Powers, the relationship between the United States and Panama is "extremely good, almost excellent." Recent agreements with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Treasury aim to prevent money laundering through the sharing of information, and Panama is targeting transnational crime, drug and gun trafficking, and youth gangs both through regional law enforcement coordination and youth outreach. One "sticking point" between Panama and the United States, however, is a proposed free trade agreement. Panama is extremely anxious to enact it, but must first adjust labor laws before Congress will consider such an arrangement. Panama hopes to become the "Singapore of this Hemisphere," Powers said, an ambition that may be realized if it improves national educational levels and access to the national economy (over 30 percent of the population now lives in extreme poverty) and increases transparency in business. The United States supports Panama in these endeavors, while encouraging it to strengthen its commitment to human rights, including freedom of the press.

On the 19th anniversary of its Peace Accords, El Salvador, Ambassador Carmen Aponte said, enjoys a "very strong" relationship with the United States, underscored by President Obama's March visit to the country. The United States has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement to finance a national wiretap center, intended to combat high rates of murder and extortion. Through the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the United States continues to be El Salvador's leading trade partner, pushing for greater competitiveness, transparency, and tax collection, and promoting broad-based economic initiatives that reduce investment constraints on El Salvador's economy. New initiatives hope to fund projects requiring long-term financing, such as public transportation and infrastructure, using remittances as guarantees, while coordination with the U.S.-supported Millennium Challenge Corporation is increasing access to healthcare and opportunities for women entrepreneurs.

As a post-USAID recipient, Costa Rica is known as the most stable democracy in Central America; through the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, the United States has supported environmental conservation activities to the order of $50 million USD, with the same amount to be provided over the next 15 years. The investment has paid off, says Ambassador Anne Slaughter Andrew. Costa Rica, a country the size of West Virginia, has greater biodiversity than the entire United States, with an eco-tourism trade to match. But all the news is not positive, according to Andrew. The unemployment rate for women is double that of men and women's salaries are 14 percent less than men's. A high fiscal deficit coupled with low return on investment for the national public utility company El Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE) precludes any advancement toward the goal of producing 75 percent of energy as clean energy. Without the inclusion of private companies, Costa Rica will continue to burn petroleum in order to supplement hydroelectricity. Finally, Costa Rica is facing a security crisis. Cocaine moves across its borders, Mexican drug cartel members live and operate in the country, and instances of crack cocaine addiction and street crime are ballooning. Nonetheless, Andrew observed that Costa Rica has capably leveraged investments in the past; she encouraged further conversation regarding future investments, particularly in the judiciary system and in innovative energy projects.

In light of the political and fiscal crisis that Honduran President Porfirio Lobo inherited in the wake of a 2009 coup, Ambassador Hugo Llorens praised the new president's efforts toward national reconciliation. Whereas former President José Manuel Zelaya left diplomatic relations with the international community shattered, Lobo has worked to restore those ties while promoting national unity. He has included all five established political parties in his cabinet, successfully implementing the Tegucigalpa-San José Accord and creating the Truth Commission in efforts to prevent another coup. Zelaya and interim President Roberto Micheletti left a "fiscal disaster" brought on by poor fiscal policy and lack of accounting of domestic debt, and further amplified by a lurching global economy. Lobo has implemented a macroeconomic stabilization program that will generate more GDP and government revenue and gain credibility with multilateral development banks. Remarkably, a negotiation with the International Monetary Fund was approved in October of 2010. In efforts to strengthen democratic institutions, Lobo has created a credible Human Rights Ministry. Even so, security remains a huge problem in Honduras, whose recent history created a "witch's brew of both political polarization and the crime problem . . . you have human rights violations linked to impunity." Drug cartels and gangs contribute to one of the highest murder rates in the world. Ambassador Llorens concluded by stressing Honduras' diplomatic success in restoring ties with the United States and countries of Central America, South America, and the European Union. "Honduras deserves to be in the OAS [Organization of American States]," he urged, adding that the only way to help Hondurans—two-thirds live below the poverty line—is to engage their nation. Applauding Honduras' early restored economic assistance, as well as strong USAID health, education, and agriculture programs, and further noting the work to be done to keep the country on a "strong democratic track," Llorens promised that the United States would stay engaged: "President Lobo is a friend of the United States."

Ambassador Vinai Thummalapally praised Belize as the jewel of Central America and the Caribbean, home to the second largest live coral reef in the world. Some 800,000 tourists visit the country each year, and locals from the political elite to tour guides are personally invested in maintaining pristine natural environs. The tourism-based economy did suffer a dip in line with the global downturn in the two years previous to 2010, at which point the growth rate rebounded to 3.5 percent. The vibrant democracy's free press, Thummalapally said, "puts MSNBC versus Fox to shame in terms of directness and candor." Even so, Belize, as yet another transit country for narcotics, has experienced skyrocketing gang violence and homicide in recent years, centered in Belize City. Contributing to urban gang activity are 20 percent youth and 14 percent overall unemployment rates. However, the recent creation of a Ministry of Police and Public Safety will address the training of police officers and reorganization within the police department, and is a cause for optimism. Education remains a challenge: while 97 percent of students graduate primary school, only 60 percent complete high school. The Ministry of Education is stretched but working to address high school attendance and access and implement vocational education.

To illustrate the strong ties between Guatemala and the United States, Ambassador Stephen G. McFarland told the story of a Guatemalan migrant worker killed in New York City; his casket, returned to his home town, was draped with the American flag. McFarland described a reciprocal relationship between the two countries, in which the United States invests dollars while Guatemala provides personnel and promises of institutional change. 2011 is an election year for Guatemala. The United States will neither support nor oppose any particular candidate, but the political environment will be, according to Guatemalans, one of the most polarized in 25 years. As for socioeconomic indicators, "no news here," McFarland said: poverty is still extreme, and an atmosphere of social exclusion results in worrisomely disparate rates of childhood malnutrition between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. "There is a lot of bad news on the security front," he continued. "I go to many more wakes, funerals, and murder trials than I really had anticipated." Not only is gang violence epidemic, but so is violence against women, rape, and domestic abuse. Nonetheless, the Ambassador highlighted positive developments on the security and justice front, including the implementation of an agreement with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and a wiretapping law targeting traffickers, opportunity for plea bargains, a witness protection program, the polygraphing of top police officials, and the appointment of human rights campaigner Helen Mack as Police Reform Commissioner. Guatemala, Ambassador McFarland concluded, requires a coordinated effort at the local, regional, and international levels in order to reduce violent crime in its many forms.

During the discussion, Arnson remarked that while many ambassadors had emphasized the positive, the great number of questions on crime and security reflected widespread concerns about and perceptions of the region. Specifically, audience members wanted to know if the United States was encouraging regional cooperation and what role countries' militaries took in combating crime. One journalist wondered why no major arrests of Guatemalan drug kingpins had taken place in over 16 years, and wanted to know exactly how much cocaine moves through the country.

Noting the importance of regional cooperation—all ambassadors strongly endorsed it—Llorens also mentioned the successes of an asset-forfeiture law that had seized $12 million USD in drug money and put it into social services and education. Outreach and prevention efforts, such as centers for high-risk youth, have received a warm welcome. Not to be ignored is a "human element," he said: the biggest victims are the poorest people who cannot buy security. Since people want criminals out of their neighborhoods, public and private organizations, including churches, must band together to make it happen.

The military, said Aponte, is as popular in El Salvador as the Catholic Church, according to recent polls, but has a limited role in police work, which will end in June. Costa Rica, Slaughter added, is concentrating on its borders and in building judicial capacity. The country is working with Florida International University to create a case management system, providing police with a nationally accessible criminal database. She and the Nicaraguan ambassador touched on the recent issue of the territorial dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Both countries are hoping for a peaceful resolution and have declared they would ultimately accept the final ruling of the International Court of Justice.

McFarland underlined the importance of extraditions as well as the joint efforts of local law enforcement and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—"it's important to remember it isn't just a bunch of foreigners who parachuted in." As for why no more drug lords had been arrested, he said, locals tend to know who the perpetrators are but don't want to risk turning them in. Two hundred fifty to 350 metric tons of cocaine move the Guatemala per year; seizures have been "scarce to non-existent" in the past few months.

Finally, some audience members asked if anything is being done to contain the flow of weapons from the United States to Central America—and along the same lines, what about the issue of drug consumption in this country? No speakers were able to answer these questions before the session ended.


Hosted By

Latin American Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin American Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more

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