Trump critics decry 'choke-hold diplomacy' in Central America

Trump critics decry 'choke-hold diplomacy' in Central America

The Trump administration's foreign policy for Central America's Northern Triangle is under fire, as opponents accuse the White House of pushing a strategy that will decay an already precarious human rights situation in the region.

At the center of the controversy is an agreement signed last month that puts the onus of dealing with migrants from El Salvador and Honduras on the region’s northernmost member: Guatemala.

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The deal, known as a “safe third country agreement,” forces Salvadoran and Honduran migrants to request asylum in Guatemala before doing so in the United States. That requirement, critics argue, will put an undue burden on Guatemala at an inopportune time.

"Guatemala is going through a transition right now, and I think the only thing Guatemalan officials have in mind right now is staying out of jail themselves. It's probably not realistic to expect meaningful long-term cooperation out of the leadership in that country," Rep. Norma TorresNorma Judith TorresRestore controls over dangerous gun exports Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated The 11 House Dems from Trump districts who support assault weapons ban MORE (D-Calif.), the only Guatemala-born member of Congress, told The Hill.

Guatemala held its first round of presidential elections in June, with a second round scheduled for later this month since no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote.

Both of the second-round contenders -- leftist former first lady Sandra Torres and conservative Alejandro Giammattei -- have been critical of President Jimmy Morales for signing the deal with the U.S.

A House delegation, led by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden blasts Trump, demands he release transcript of call with foreign leader Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week MORE (D-Calif.), flew to the Northern Triangle on Thursday to gauge conditions on the ground, starting with Guatemala.

All three Northern Triangle countries rank among the top 10 globally for murder rates and have been beset by narco trafficking organizations branching out from Mexico and Colombia.

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Torres, who’s part of the delegation, said before the trip that Guatemala won’t be able to follow through on its deal with Trump.

"It's not going to succeed because they were bullied into signing an agreement that has yet to be made public in the U.S.," said Torres. "There's no funding that has been identified for how we're going to assist with that humanitarian crisis that we're going to double in size with the people we send back."

The agreement was reached as Trump threatened an array of sanctions, including tariffs and restrictions on remittances, against Guatemala.

The administration’s arm-twisting mirrored roughly the same tactics as the deal struck with Mexico, when Trump threatened tariffs on all Mexican goods unless that country signed a safe third country agreement.

Mexico resisted the pressure to sign that agreement, but deployed its newly created National Guard -- originally meant to combat crime -- as a border force to deter Central American migrants from transiting through the country into the United States.

Under a safe third country agreement, migrants must apply for asylum in the first safe foreign country they set foot in. Potential refugees are required to apply for benefits in the country where they first land, not the country where they ultimately want to settle.

In Guatemala's case, that means that third country nationals -- a majority of them Salvadoran and Honduran -- who pass through Guatemala to reach Mexico and the United States by land will be forced to apply for asylum there or be returned to Guatemala by U.S. authorities.

The push to outsource migrant controls exhibited divisions within the Trump administration, as Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoClarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump Senate Judiciary Committee requests consultation with admin on refugee admissions State Department's top arms control official leaving MORE reportedly opposed the agreement with Guatemala.

Roger Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under former President George W. Bush, said the Northern Triangle countries aren't capable of honoring long-term commitments like the recent third safe country agreement.

"We can do business with these folks. But we also have to be realistic because the president has developed a taste for this kind of choke-hold diplomacy -- doesn't mean it's always going to work," said Noriega. "Most often it won't. If you want to bully little countries, yes, give it a shot. But you're not going to produce meaningful agreements with countries who do not have the capacity [to honor them].”

Trump cut aid to the region in June, slashing a program put in place by the Obama administration designed to curtail emigration.

"The programs that the U.S. had put in place after the 2014 crisis [were] kicking in just as the money was cut off," said Noriega.

Last month, a group of 24 Democratic senators led by Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (N.J.) sent a letter to Pompeo asking for a plan to replace the aid cut by the administration.

"We remain deeply troubled by the President's actions, which will likely exacerbate conditions in Central America and increase irregular migration from these countries to the United States," wrote the senators.

Under the terms of the third safe country agreement, Guatemala is eligible to receive U.S. assistance, but it's not yet clear how much it would be or what form it would take.

Critics of Honduras and Guatemala say direct U.S. government assistance runs the risk of being lost to corruption or worse.

"Every day seems to be breaking news when it comes to dealing with the government down there," said Torres.

The California Democrat said she was "outraged" when Guatemalan authorities used U.S.-donated police vehicles to circle "around our embassy as a way to intimidate our U.S. officials" and later did the same at the headquarters of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, an international body that investigates armed groups in the country.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan told reporters Thursday that Homeland Security agents are already providing technical assistance to Guatemalan authorities, pending ratification of the agreement in the legislature.

But Morgan said he "shares these same concerns" regarding Guatemala's ability to honor the agreement in the long term, while adding that the administration will enforce the deal only to the extent that Guatemala is able to execute its side of the bargain.

Morgan added that third-country nationals who have come through Guatemala will "not all of a sudden" be sent back there.

"We'll send numbers accordingly with their capacity," said Morgan.

Other observers worry that the administration's laser focus on immigration is making U.S. authorities look past human rights abuses in Guatemala and Honduras.

"It's shocking how much the administration embraces authoritarianism as a foreign policy tool," said Joel Rubin, a former deputy assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration.

"We should always be erring on the side of promoting human rights and democracy as a core value of American national interest,” he said. “If we encourage countries to repress their people, it will backfire.”