Trump’s anti-caravan efforts follow decades of regional frustration

Trump’s anti-caravan efforts follow decades of regional frustration

Conservative foreign policy experts say U.S. policy in Central America is a key factor in pushing people to emigrate from the region, but differ greatly over the prescription for change.

Some veterans of previous Republican administrations argue that President TrumpDonald John TrumpMia Love pulls ahead in Utah race as judge dismisses her lawsuit Trump administration denies exploring extradition of Erdoğan foe for Turkey Trump congratulates Kemp, says Abrams will have 'terrific political future' MORE's threats to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador could just make a bad situation worse. Others say such "shock therapy" is what's needed.

Either way, it suggests a problem that is unlikely to go away for a president increasingly frustrated by caravans of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.

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"We’re going to have to work around some of the president’s knee-jerk reactions to these problems and recognize we need to do even better — maybe even invest more — so these countries can start to stabilize their economies and provide some basic security so people don’t have to run to try to survive," said Roger Noriega, who was assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere under former President George W. Bush.

"We have an inescapable responsibility to help because a lot of damage has been done,” he added.

Other former officials said foreign aid is only one component of a potential policy solution.

"It’s going to take a lot more than throwing money at the problem. We have tried that and it has not worked," said Otto Juan Reich, Noriega’s predecessor at the State Department during the Bush administration.

Given the rampant amount of corruption among top government officials in the region, he said, every option should be on the table.

"I think today what those governments need is shock therapy,” Reich said.

Beyond foreign aid, however, there is almost generalized agreement that U.S. diplomatic disengagement from the region has, for decades, worsened Central America's underlying problems.

Former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWhite House ousts Sessions Trump downplays potential turnover: 'Everybody wants to work in this White House' Trump says Cabinet changes likely after midterms MORE was slow to appoint top diplomats to the region, instead leaving acting assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries and ambassadors in charge.

Those kinds of posts can lead to inertia, according to Noriega.

"You’re basically a caretaker, you’re not expected to take initiative or be bold because you’ll get criticized," he said.

Earlier this month, the Senate confirmed Kimberly Breier as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, and she joined a growing group of Latin America policy experts in the Trump administration.

“With Kim Breier’s confirmation, the Trump Administration’s Latin American policy team is now complete,” a senior administration official told The Hill. “This will help us effectively implement a proactive strategy to deal with the challenges and opportunities we face in Central America. Security, governance and economic growth are key pillars of this strategy.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Cuban-American lawyer who previously worked at the International Monetary Fund, was appointed in September to lead Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, working under national security adviser John Bolton.

He joined fellow Cuban-Americans Carlos Trujillo, ambassador to the Organization of American States, and Eliot Pedrosa, alternate executive director of the InterAmerican Development Bank.

But those appointments came almost two years into Trump’s presidency.

"The way I see it, the Trump policy toward Latin America is about three months old,” Reich said. "We’re sort of were we should’ve been in February of 2017, so this is the beginning of the Trump admin policy toward Latin America."

During that time period, migratory patterns from Central America changed significantly.

Bucking long-term trends, apprehensions of Salvadoran immigrants at the southwest border plummeted 37 percent in fiscal 2018 compared to the previous year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Meanwhile, Guatemalan apprehensions spiked 75 percent, and numbers for Hondurans shot up 61 percent.

Since 2016, the number of Central Americans apprehended at the southwest border has outpaced those of Mexican nationals.

And because the host of issues plaguing the region are decades old, many experts are stumped as to what's driving the new migration patterns.

"I don’t know exactly why the numbers of Salvadorans have dropped off," said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Latin America program. "The other thing to consider is there are just natural ebbs and flows in this. Some years Salvadorans are up and Hondurans are down and some years Hondurans are up and Salvadorans are down.”

Noriega, who led the State Department's Western Hemisphere policy when the U.S. ratified the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005, said the United States basically abandoned its diplomatic duties in the region after the treaty.

“Ten years ago we did CAFTA and talked about these countries as they were, potential economic partners ... and now they’re basket cases again," said Noriega, who’s now coordinator for the American Enterprise Institute's Latin America program.

Reich went further, saying the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — are "becoming failed states."

"We have to deal with these three countries in the Northern Triangle right now as at least failed governments, if not failed states," he said.

In the decade after CAFTA, external pressures, notably from Colombian and Mexican drug cartels, provided a corrupting influence in the region, as the two larger countries turned their militaries against narco trafficking.

Central America was essentially caught in the crossfire, and became valuable real estate as a transit zone for drugs moving north to the United States.

"Central American countries that are in these transit zones didn’t have a chance," said Noriega.

And while the Northern Triangle took the brunt of the region's battle against international organized crime, the three southernmost Central American countries were relatively unscathed.

Panama and Costa Rica are by far the most prosperous and peaceful countries in the region.

Costa Rica has long been internationally neutral, having abolished its army in 1949, and avoided much of the instability that wracked Latin America during the Cold War.

Panama's economy is bolstered by the Panama Canal, and after the 1989 American invasion it has largely remained a democratic country with relatively strong civil institutions.

Nicaragua, on the other hand, enjoyed stability throughout the decade in large part because of its ties to Cuba and Venezuela, which provided billions of dollars in oil-based aid to its regional allies.

After Venezuelan aid dried out, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega turned to repression and aid from China and Russia to remain in power. The country once praised for its stability has seen clashes between government forces and opposition that one foreign intelligence official posted in Managua in 2017 called "a civil war in all but name."

In fiscal 2018, apprehensions of Nicaraguans at the U.S.-Mexico border tripled, but the 3,337 Nicaraguans caught at the U.S. border are a fraction of the 116,800 Guatemalans, 77,126 Hondurans and 31,639 Salvadorans apprehended.

While Trump has painted Central American policy in stark migration terms, administration officials are privately suggesting a more diplomatic approach toward the region.

The Latin America team is focusing on migration, transnational crime and narcotics; an economic program to spur growth in the region; and a renewal of the region's commitment to democracy.

But the strategy of regional engagement contrasts with the wishes of other administration officials who want to prioritize changing U.S. immigration and asylum laws, regardless of conditions on the ground in Central America.

"The administration wants the ability to return whole entire Central American families and also minors after apprehension. If we can do that, there is no border crisis," said a senior administration official.

"We can talk about magnets, and pull factors and push factors and everything else," the official said. "If we could return them, there is no crisis."