The Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles is entering its liveliest stage with a series of high-profile bilateral meetings, but the absence of key players in the United States’ effort to address migration to the southern border might be a headache for the White House.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras play an oversize role in the issue of migration. Collectively known as the Northern Triangle, they are countries of origin for tens of thousands of migrants, and a key transit point for even more travelers who approach the southern border with the hope of re-locating to the United States.
The Biden administration has focused heavily on these three countries. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala a year ago and then this year she traveled to Honduras to congratulate newly elected President Xiomara Castro.
Despite the overtures, President Castro and her two counterparts, President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, skipped the summit in Los Angeles this week.
Their absence were evident on Tuesday, when Harris unveiled a pledge worth $3.2 billion of private investments to address “the root causes of migration” in the Northern Triangle. In her speech, the Vice President spoke directly to the private sector and civil society in the Northern Triangle, touting the opportunities in job creation and a stronger partnership with US-based companies.
“It is a shame that none of the governments are there to speak with her, especially Honduras, but for the most part the current governments of the Northern Triangle are more obstacles than partners,” said Adam Isaacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), and an expert on migration to the southern border.
Bukele and Giammattei, in particular, have opened the door to anti-democratic behavior in their respective countries in recent years – the former famously led armed soldiers into congress to pass a budget law in 2020 – and relations with the US have declined since Biden took power as the White House has repeatedly criticized this sort of conduct.
“Bukele and Giammattei are actively dismantling democracy and fostering corruption, they are creating the conditions that lead to more migration […] which explains why the Biden administration made the choice to emphasize the private sector,” Isaacson told CNN.
None of these countries were invited to the State Department’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ held last December, and several international organizations have raised concerns about corruption, limits on checks and balances in government and democratic backsliding.
Last week, Amnesty International accused Bukele of having “engulfed El Salvador in a human rights crisis” in his first three years in office. Guatemala’s legislative and executive powers are “impeding accountability and threatening judicial independence,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Castro’s predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was extradited to the US in April on drug trafficking charges. While her administration has been more in step with the White House, it may have nevertheless decided to skip the Los Angeles summit in order to avoid upsetting Honduras’ neighbours, as well as in a show of solidarity with the excluded countries Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
And people from those excluded countries are turning up in record numbers at the US southern border.
Nearly 80,000 Cubans reached the US border from Mexico from October through March, according to US Customs and Border Protection data, with record numbers of Venezuelans and Nicaraguans arriving at the US border in 2021 and early 2022.
Where Washington and the Northern Triangle governments’ perspectives differ the most is on the migration issue.
In the US, stemming migration has bipartisan support: Both Republicans and Democrats are working actively to reduce the number of migrants entering the country despite the fact the US economy needing workers.
But migration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity in the Northern Triangle. The annual movement of tens of thousands of people eases the social pressures facing these governments, and remittances from nationals abroad have become a considerable chunk of these countries’ economies.
According to the World Bank, El Salvador received almost $6 billion in remittances in 2020, Guatemala received more than $11 billion and Honduras about $5.5 billion, which constitutes 24%, 15% and 23% of their GDPs respectively.
That means the flow of remittances from migrants abroad is seven times higher than the investments the White House touted this week.
“These countries have understood the centrality of the migration’s issue in US politics, which give them great leverage, as they don’t see too many threats in distancing themselves from Washington,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central American expert at the International Crisis Group in Guatemala.
A growing number of Salvadorans leaving the country are calling foul on Bukele’s grand vision to ‘Make El Salvador Great Again,’ but it’s a fact that these economies receive much more investments from fellow nationals working in the United States than from any big US corporation opening a factory south of the border or foreign aid from Washington.
China’s growing influence in the region has helped the three countries move away from Washington. Late last year, Bukele announced plans to build a new national stadium in El Salvador paid by the Chinese government. Guatemala meanwhile is mulling switching its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan to Beijing in exchange for China’s Belt and Road investment program.
As leaders hob-nobbed in Los Angeles this week, at least 3,000 migrants – mostly from Venezuela, which has also been excluded from the summit – crossed the Guatemala-Mexico border heading north toward the US.
The US and other countries in attendance are expected to issue a joint declaration on Friday that will outline a cooperative approach to migration, which will include strengthened protection for migrants, support for countries hosting large refugee populations and tackle human smuggling networks.
But with key leaders not in attendance, including Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, it remains to be seen if these commitments will have any potency.