Harris pledge to fight corruption in the Northern Triangle is a bottom-up battle
May 13, 2021 at 8:13 pm
Last week, US Vice President Kamala Harris laid out in a few words the main challenge facing the Biden administration in Central America. “We will not make significant progress,” she said mentionned, “If corruption in the region persists.” Harris, who is in charge of running the Biden administration diplomatic relations with Central America, was speaking at the 51st Annual Washington Conference on the Americas. Having recently passed the 100 days in office milestone, US President Joe Biden has already faced several developments that illustrate how daunting the eradication of corruption will be.
The recent decline in judicial independence in El Salvador and Guatemala has already challenged the Biden administration to prove its willingness to make tough decisions and engage political capital to support anti-corruption measures. In El Salvador, newly elected lawmakers decided on May 1 – their first day in office – to replace five members of the country’s Constitutional Court and its Attorney General, neutralizing two important checks on power by replacing these officials with allies. In Guatemala in mid-April, legislators refuse to take an oath before the judge of the Constitutional Court Gloria Porras. Porras, who has a history of fighting corruption, is seen in Washington as a key ally against corruption.
It’s no surprise that democracy is on the run in the region. Corrupt officials and others there may have been emboldened by what they saw as a weakening of international control under the Trump administration, said Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security in the Washington office for Latin America. Now faced with reduced political will from Central American politicians and elites to fight corruption, the Biden administration cannot simply pick up where the Obama administration left off. Instead, he faces an uphill battle when it comes to rebuilding support in the region. Nonetheless, several Central American experts consulted for this article said the United States should still act now.
“Despite the messages from the Biden administration, [corrupt elites] are still – to varying degrees – being pushed to see how far they can go, ”Beltrán said. “That is why, while we welcome messages, it is important that they are accompanied by quick and clear actions.”
Referring to the dismissal of judges and the attorney general by Salvadoran lawmakers in particular, Carlos Hernández, executive director of the Honduran nonprofit Association for a Fairer Society, which received funding from the United States Agency for international development, said inaction could simply embolden these leaders, leading to “a ripple effect for our countries in this region.” He cited the lack of action by the United States and the international community when the Honduran Congress removed Constitutional Court judges from their posts in 2012 as an example. Democratic institutions continued to deteriorate in Honduras thereafter, leading to a Supreme Court decision in 2015 to remove a single term limit and allow re-election President Juan Orlando Hernández in the 2017 presidential elections, bogged down with fraud allegations.
Likewise, when former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales refused to renew the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2018 (he himself faced an investigation with the support of CICIG) , the Trump administration has refrained from significantly pushing back. The anti-corruption body was forced to go out of business in 2019. Since then, corrupt elites have attacked progress CICIG made over the past decade. Prosecutions against judges and prosecutors investigating corruption have escalated, corrupt actors have sought to co-opt the process for selecting key judges, and lawmakers have taken steps to pass laws that would reduce corruption penalties and would revoke anti-corruption laws.
Given the situation in Central America, it might be tempting to consider reverting to the policies of the Obama era. And, indeed, the final years of the Obama administration marked a new era of American engagement in Central America after a period when the United States focused its foreign policy efforts on other priorities. In response to the 2014 migrant crisis, for example, the Obama administration pledged a Billion dollar aid package in the region known as the Alliance for Prosperity. Meanwhile, anti-corruption and rule of law efforts have become key priorities, and the late years of former US President Barack Obama saw progress in Central America. El Salvador has launched an ambitious corruption investigations as former presidents. Honduras approved the creation of a international corruption body—The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras – supported by the Obama administration. Most notably, the former president of Guatemala Otto Perez Molina resigned to face prosecution in 2015 after a CICIG investigation uncovered a corruption scandal, sending tens of thousands of people to the streets to protest. Most signs in the region indicated continued progress in the fight against corruption if this support continued.
“When we made this progress, there were many factors. There was the presence in the streets, the CICIG, an international community beyond the United States alone in favor of the idea of strengthening the judicial system, and honorable officials and courageous judges, ”said Claudia Paz y Paz, former Attorney General of Guatemala and current director of the Center for Justice and International Law, a human rights organization across Latin America. But four years of the Trump administration reversed that momentum. “This wave of setbacks that we are experiencing in the region started when they stopped supporting these efforts,” she said.
For Biden, this recent backlash presents a dilemma. The decisions taken by his administration now will set the tone for his engagement in the region for the next four to eight years, but it is not possible to quickly build political will in the region to support a new crackdown on corruption.
The administration has taken a few first steps. A long awaited list of corrupt officials in Central America, which could be subject to US sanctions, is expected to be released in June, Biden’s special envoy for the Nordic triangle Ricardo Zúñiga said last week. During a trip to San Salvador this week, Zúñiga met Bukele and expressed his opposition to the impeachment of judges and the attorney general. “For us, it would be better to return to the situation that existed until April 30,” he said in a TV interview in El Salvador. Any further action will be discussed by the Biden administration and in Congress, Zúñiga said.
Visa sanctions are a way to target corruption without harming the average citizen through broader sanctions, experts say. Independent drug trafficking investigations in the United States, such as the one that led to the conviction of the Honduran president’s brother, are another. In Honduras, allegations of links to drug cartels Against the president and his entourage have escalated since Biden took office, revealing the depths of entrenched corruption.
When diplomatic and judicial channels fail, the United States may turn to other forms of influence as well – for example, when dealing with recent steps taken by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele to replace judges. “El Salvador’s biggest trading partner is the United States, and the economy is very dependent on the United States, more than anything because of the millions of Salvadorans who are in the United States,” Saúl Baños said, executive director of the company based in San Salvador. Nonprofit Foundation for Law Enforcement Studies. Conditions applicable to multilateral loans, such as $ 1 billion A loan from the International Monetary Fund being negotiated with the Salvadoran government could put pressure on Bukele to respect the rule of law. “The United States has weight in the multilateral banks, and it could put conditions depending on the risk in the country and the judicial insecurity that has been created in recent days in the decision to grant the loan or not.” , Baños said. Stopping the flow of remittances to El Salvador, which accounts for around 20% of the country’s GDP, is another more drastic action the Biden administration could take, although Baños has warned it of its disproportionate impact on Salvadoran citizens already in difficulty.
Conditioning aid to the region is another way for the United States to show its disapproval of recent actions there. “The United States needs to set indicators on the institutional progress of these countries – for example, impunity and human rights,” Hernández said. But the kinds of structural changes sought by Biden and Harris require sustained support, he said. “What is needed is long-term transformation. We can’t have one-year projects, ”he said. Going forward, creating a regional anti-corruption body modeled on CICIG’s successes could help the United States achieve its long-term goals, said Aldo Bonilla, professor of international relations at the ‘Guatemalan University of San Carlos. 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, Beltrán said.
The United States has long been criticized for its intervention in Central America. But many experts say they see a role for US involvement in the fight against corruption – especially when the US respects the expertise of civil society and citizens on the ground and plays a supporting role. . When internal checks and balances are weakened, international mechanisms can help set more democratic standards, they said.
The fight against corruption in Central America is a priority that citizens have shown to be important to them through protests and ballots for candidates running on anti-corruption platforms. Supporting the demands of these citizens and the work of local institutions are keys to the success of the Biden administration’s fight against corruption in Central America, experts agreed. When the Biden administration finds ways to work with Central American citizens and civil society to support their calls for democracy and end corruption, that’s when it will have the most impact in the region.