Biden's primary precedence in Central America is preventing corruption. This can be a mountain battle.
May 13, 2021, 8:13 p.m.
Last week, US Vice President Kamala Harris set out in a few words the central challenge facing the Biden administration in Central America. "We will not make any significant progress," she said, "if corruption continues in the region." Harris, who is responsible for managing the Biden government's diplomatic relations with Central America, spoke at the 51st annual Washington Conference on America. After recently breaking the 100-day benchmark in office, US President Joe Biden has already faced several developments that illustrate how daunting it will be to root out corruption.
The recent relapse in judicial independence in El Salvador and Guatemala has already prompted the Biden government to demonstrate its willingness to make difficult decisions and to allocate political capital to support anti-corruption measures. In El Salvador, on May 1 – their first day in office – newly elected lawmakers replaced five members of the country's Constitutional Court and its attorney general and neutralized two key power controls when they replaced those officials with allies. In Guatemala, lawmakers refused to swear before the Constitutional Court judge Gloria Porras in mid-April. Porras, who has fought transplants in the past, is seen in Washington as a key ally against corruption.
It is no surprise that democracy is on the run in the region. Corrupt officials and others there may have been emboldened by what they viewed as the weakening of international control under the Trump administration, said Adriana Beltrán, director of civil security for the Latin America office in Washington. Given the diminished political will of Central American politicians and elites to fight corruption, the Biden administration cannot simply pick up where the Obama administration left off. Instead, it faces an uphill battle when it comes to rebuilding support in the region. Nonetheless, various Central American experts consulted on this article said the United States should act now.
"Despite the messages from the Biden government, (corrupt elites) are still pushing – to varying degrees – how far they can go," Beltrán said. "That is why – although we welcome the messages – it is important that they are accompanied by quick and clear measures."
Carlos Hernández, executive director of the non-profit association for a fairer society in Honduras, which has received funding from the US Agency for International Development, said inaction could simply encourage such leaders, resulting in “a cascading effect for our countries in this region. “He cited the example of a lack of action by the United States and the international community when the Honduran Congress removed the constitutional judges from their positions in 2012. Democratic institutions in Honduras continued to deteriorate afterwards, leading to a 2015 Supreme Court decision to lift a term limit and allow the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández in the 2017 presidential election, which was fraught with allegations of fraud.
When former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales refused to extend the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2018 (he had himself investigated with the assistance of the CICIG), the Trump administration foregone a significant backlash. The anti-corruption authority had to close its shops in 2019. Since then, corrupt elites have attacked the CICIG's advances over the past decade. Lawsuits against judges and prosecutors investigating corruption have increased, corrupt actors have tried to co-opt the key judge selection process, and lawmakers have passed laws that would reduce corruption penalties and repeal anti-corruption laws.
Given the situation in Central America, it might be tempting to consider a return to Obama-era politics. Indeed, the later years of the Obama administration marked a new era of US engagement in Central America after a time when the United States focused its foreign policy efforts on other priorities. For example, in response to the 2014 migrant crisis, the Obama administration pledged a $ 1 billion aid package to the region known as the Alliance for Prosperity. Meanwhile, anti-corruption efforts and respect for the rule of law became key priorities, and some progress was made in Central America by the end of former US President Barack Obama's years. El Salvador launched some ambitious corruption investigations against former presidents. Honduras approved the creation of an international body on corruption – the Mission in Support of the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras – supported by the Obama administration. In particular, the former President of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned in 2015 to be prosecuted after an investigation by the CICIG uncovered a corruption scandal in which tens of thousands of people were taken to the streets in protest. Most of the signs in the region pointed to further progress in the fight against corruption if this support continues.
“When we made this progress, there were many factors. There was presence on the streets, the CICIG, an international community outside the US in support of the idea of strengthening the judicial system, as well as honorable officials and courageous judges, ”said Claudia Paz y Paz, former attorney general of Guatemala and current director of the Center for Justice International Law, an organization defending human rights across Latin America. But four years of Trump administration reversed that dynamic. "This wave of setbacks that we are experiencing in the region began the moment they stopped supporting these efforts," she said.
For Biden, this recent backlash is a dilemma. The decisions his government is making now will set the tone for its engagement in the region for the next four to eight years, but building political will in the region to support a renewed fight against corruption cannot be quick.
The administration has taken a few first steps. A long-awaited list of corrupt officials in Central America who may be subject to US sanctions is due to be released in June, Biden's special envoy for the Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga, announced last week. On a trip to San Salvador this week, Zúñiga met with Bukele and spoke out against the removal of the judges and the prosecutor general. "It would be best for us to go back to the situation we were in until April 30," he said in a television interview in El Salvador. All further measures will be discussed by the Biden administration and in Congress, said Zúñiga.
According to experts, visa sanctions are a way of fighting corruption without harming the average citizen with more comprehensive sanctions. Independent investigations into the US into drug trafficking, such as the case that led to the conviction of the Honduran president's brother, are additional. In Honduras, allegations of links to drug cartels against the president and his close circle have increased since Biden took office, exposing the depths of entrenched corruption.
When diplomatic and legal channels fail, the United States can turn to other forms of leverage – for example, when dealing with the recent efforts of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele to replace judges. "El Salvador's largest trading partner is the US, and the economy relies heavily on the US because of the millions of Salvadorans living in the US," said Saúl Baños, executive director of the San Salvador-based nonprofit Foundation for Studies on Application of the law. The terms of multilateral credit, such as a $ 1 billion International Monetary Fund loan currently being negotiated with the Salvadoran government, could put Bukele under pressure to respect the rule of law. "The US has weight in the multilateral banks and it could set conditions based on the risk in the country and the uncertainty of the judiciary that has or has not arisen in recent days in deciding whether to grant the loan," Baños said . Curbing remittances to El Salvador, which accounts for around 20 percent of the country's GDP, is another more drastic measure the Biden government could take, though Baños cautioned against it because of its disproportionate impact on already troubled Salvadoran citizens.
Conditioning aid to the region is another way the United States could show its opposition to recent action there. "The US has to define indicators for the institutional progress of these countries – for example impunity and human rights," said Hernández. But the kinds of structural changes Biden and Harris are looking for require sustained support, he said. "What is needed is long-term transformation. We can't just have one-year projects," he said. Looking ahead, creating a regional anti-corruption body based on the successes of the CICIG could help the United States improve its long-term Achieving goals, said Aldo Bonilla, professor of international relations at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. The political will for this type of regional CICIG may not yet exist in the region, but that doesn't mean it can't be built, said Beltrán.
The United States has long been criticized for its intervention in Central America. However, many experts see a role for the United States to be involved in the fight against corruption – especially if the United States respects the expertise of civil society and local citizens and takes on a supportive role. If internal checks and balances are weakened, international mechanisms can help establish more democratic norms, they said.
Fighting corruption in Central America is a priority that citizens have proven important through protests and ballots for candidates running on anti-corruption platforms. Supporting the demands of these citizens and the work of local institutions are key to the success of the Biden government in the fight against corruption in Central America, experts agreed. If the Biden government finds ways to work with Central American citizens and civil society to support their demands for democracy and an end to corruption, it will have the greatest impact in the region.