Central America’s business leaders pledge to do more but humanitarians worry about impact

Inter-American Development Bank, IDB, President Luis Alberto Moreno speaks during the Brazil Investment Forum 2017, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, May 30, 2017.
Inter-American Development Bank, IDB, President Luis Alberto Moreno speaks during the Brazil Investment Forum 2017, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. AP

The head of the Inter-American Development Bank previewed a summit on Central America’s Northern Triangle by calling on the region’s business leaders to do their part in creating an investment “shock” to help provide new economic opportunities there.

“In the almost 20 years that I have been working in this country, I do not remember seeing a level of interest and attention like this,” Luis Alberto Moreno on Wednesday told a roomful of business leaders from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The countries, he added, “are at the threshold of a historical moment.”

The pre-summit gathering at the Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables was arranged at the request of the Trump administration, which is co-hosting the Conference on Prosperity and Security with Mexico. The high-level gathering on Thursday and Friday in Miami will feature Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly as well as regional presidents. It is aimed at stemming the illegal migration and drug trafficking flow from the Northern Triangle to the United States, and improving the economic climate in the Central American nations.

“It is not common to see the secretary of the treasury, of homeland security, the vice president of the United States and the secretary of state, all at the same time focused a whole day, looking at an issue like this one,” Moreno said. “Illegal immigration is a front-burner issue... but now it’s about how do you create the opportunities such as that people are not willing to leave their countries.”

Moreno said many business leaders have pledged to do more to help provide “an investment shock” in their respective countries.

Still, some groups that work with undocumented migrants in the United States fear that the summit could be a missed opportunity for finding new answers to the problems of the region. Even as Moreno met with the Central American business leaders, humanitarian groups and others working with migrants gathered at Florida International University’s College of Law at its Tamiami campus to express frustration over their lack of access to the two-day summit, and fears that business interests will overwhelm human rights.

“We are concerned that the focus is getting these large companies to the region without really any consideration for human rights on the ground,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, senior associate at the non-profit Latin America Working Group.

Burgi-Palomino said the U.S. private sector has brought infrastructure projects, mega-development projects and mining projects to countries in Central America on the premise that they will help create jobs. But the reality, she said, is that the projects these companies bring to the region often displace the people living there.

“Civil society organizations and companies could work with the people [in these countries] to create situations and give them access to jobs where their labor rights are respected and their other rights are respected as well,” Burgi-Palomino said. “Let’s just not create a situation where it’s like Central America is open for business and any company can go there and start their own project.”

Immigration attorney Randolph McGrorty said there needs to be an alternative narrative about migrants and the U.S. focus on deterrence, detention and deportation.

“Without the inclusion and dialogue from people on the ground, I think they are going to produce a very skewed outlook,” he said.

The State Department, which planned Thursday’s meeting with its focus on prosperity, said it remains in communication with civil society groups and the goal of the summit is to get the governments of the three nations to agree to do their parts in helping to improve the climate to help stem the illegal migration flow.

The presidents of Honduras and Guatemala are both expected to be in attendance but El Salvador’s government announced that its president will not be attending. He will be represented by the country’s vice president and foreign minister.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Glenn Garvin contributed to this report.