All smiles (at least in public) as Central American conference begins in Miami

Pence: 'We must condemn the Venezuelan government'

Vice President Mike Pence spoke out against the Venezuelan government at the Conference for Central America at FIU on June 15, 2017.
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Vice President Mike Pence spoke out against the Venezuelan government at the Conference for Central America at FIU on June 15, 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence praised Central American leaders for their efforts to attack crime, corruption and narcotrafficking and assured them that “your success is our success” as a two-day summit on the region’s security and prosperity opened Thursday at Florida International University.

“In a word, we’re in this together,” Pence said. “You have the great respect of the president of the United States and the American people...This president knows your security and your prosperity are directly connected to ours.”

Pence’s speech was the highlight of a charm offensive between the United States, Mexico and the leaders of Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — that dominated the Conference on Prosperity and Security.

Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were both full of accolades for the Central American leaders, who repaid the favor by politely avoiding — at least in the conference’s public sessions — any reference to their most contentious issue with the United States, the possible U.S. deportation next year of 300,000 Central American immigrants.

The issue of the immigrants and their Temporary Protected Status did come up in private talks between Pence and the Central Americans, but even then, some of the presidents suggested in a press conference at the end of the day, the discussions were mild and largely unresolved.

“We recognize it’s a sovereign decision of the United States,” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said, “but we see also how troubled our compatriots are; these are people who are the best immigrants you can have in this country... We hope that when the time comes, we will have the opportunity to have a renewal of the Temporary Protected Status or some way of having our countrymen continue to live in this country.”

Tillerson declined to comment about the protected status, saying the State Department had no authority on the matter, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security.

President of Guatemala Jimmy Morales, left, and El Salvador Vice President Oscar Ortiz, right, talk at the opening session of the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America at Florida International University on Thursday, June 15, 2017. AL DIAZ

About the only real diversions from the upbeat mood were Pence’s brief but somber remarks about the shooting attack on Republican congressmen in Virginia Wednesday (“I served with many of these congressmen, they’re my friends,” he said, his voice grave) and his hard swipe at Venezuela’s socialist government.

“We need only look to the nation of Venezuela to see what happens when democracy collapses,” Pence said, urging the Central Americans to join Washington and “raise our voices to condemn the Venezuelan government.”

The line got a lot of applause from the room. But at least one nation may not be in agreement: Haiti, whose president, Jovenel Moise, was en route to the conference to meet with Pence. Haiti has been a staunch supporter of Venezuela, and Pence’s press secretary Marc Lotter confirmed that the vice president planned to raise the issue in a private meeting later in the afternoon.

Mostly, though, Pence praised the Northern Triangle governments for cracking down on crime and corruption, so much so that his 20-minute speech got a standing ovation at the end. He also injected a few cautionary notes, reminding the Central American officials that much work remains to be done.

“Eighty percent of documented drug trafficking flows through Central America,” Pence said. “There is an estimated 85,000 active gang members in the Northern Triangle....One out of every five citizens in this region is a victim of crime every year — from theft, to extortion, to kidnapping, to human trafficking, or worse.” The brutal crime rates turn the Northern Triangle into “a stop on the highway as people confront the merchants of death in the region,” he added.

Some political scientists and other observers at the conference said those remarks were a clear reminder that Central America’s problems won’t disappear quickly.

“He was putting Central America on notice that ‘You really have to do structural work on your institutions, you can’t just deal with the symptoms of the problems,’” said Frank Mora, director of FIU’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center. “They can’t just put a few bad guys in jail and say they’re finished.”

Pence’s speech echoed that of Tillerson’s earlier in the day. The secretary of state mostly veered away from hot-button issues like narcotrafficking and border security, and instead touched on the nuts and bolts of economic reform: minimizing red tape, reforming tax codes and streamlining imports and exports. Even the importance of good Wi-Fi service came up.

Central America will add 25 million people to its urban population in the next few years, he said, and they’ve got to be able to go online: “Internet access has a become a prerequisite for modern economic development,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at the opening session of the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America at Florida International University on June 15, 2017. AL DIAZ

Tillerson also offered a measure of reassurance to the Central American leaders. 

“The United States recognizes the region as an important area in our foreign policy agenda,” he said. “We welcome this opportunity today to work together to create the prosperity we all want and start solving the problems that are obstacles.”

The Latin American leaders replied in kind. The presidents of Honduras and Guatemala, and the vice president of El Salvador who represented President Salvador Sánchez used their opening remarks to discuss reforms each of their governments had instituted to grow the economy and lure investments, and boast about what they had done to root out the violence that had made some of their countries among the most dangerous in the hemisphere.

“We have controlled the prison system,” El Salvador Vice President Oscar Ortiz said.

Added Honduran president Hernandez: “We have broken down the drug cartels in the country. We have found many of their leaders. We previously thought that was impossible.”

And Guatemala’s Jimmy Morales said: “Murders have gone down almost to the Latin American average.”

He also added that his government had recently destroyed 117 million poppy plants.

“This is a great deal of the raw material for heroin production that is not going to end up in the United States or end up in France,” Morales said.

The fact that leaders sought to put a positive spin on what observers say is still too high a crime rate shows how out of control homicide rates and violence have gotten in the Northern Triangle.

“A more prosperous, safer Central America will do much to halt illegal and dangerous migration, defeat transnational drugs cartel and gangs and end corruption,” Tillerson said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, at center, gathers with Central American leaders during Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America at Florida International University on Thursday, June 15, 2017. At left of VP Pence is U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at right of Pence. AL DIAZ

Still, while Honduras and Guatemala have been improving their financial situations with important steps in recent years, El Salvador has been stuck in a political gridlock that has led to the government defaulting on its debt to the country’s pension fund.

Similar to the debt-ceiling debate in the U.S. Congress, El Salvador’s problems underscore the difficulty in carrying out many of the economic and financial reforms Tillerson and Pence called for on Thursday.

“You have a country that has the resources to pay, that has the financial capacity to service its debt but due to different sets of opinions regarding a broader set of policies, financial issues are being used as hostage,” said Alejandro Werner, the head of the International Monetary Fund for Latin America, which has been trying to help the three countries improve their fiscal policies.

Still, Werner said, “the conference is a very important step toward setting up a framework for cooperation between the main Central American economies and the main economies and trade partners of the region.”

The conference took place on FIU’s Tamiami campus where security was heavy but the atmosphere languid. About 50 relatively tranquil demonstrators gathered for an hour or so outside the conference, mostly protesting U.S. immigration policies. Many of them were FIU students who could be deported next year if the Trump administration sticks to its plans to curtail Temporary Protected Status, the immigration benefit that allows migrants to temporarily live and work in the United States.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced Haitians with the status would be given an additional six months in the U.S. — far less than the 18 months some members of Congress and activists had urged.

The conference is building on the Alliance for Prosperity, an Obama administration-backed plan by the three governments of the region to boost economic prosperity, and work more collaboratively to attack the root causes of illegal migration and drug trafficking.

The U.S. Congress initially approved $750 million for the program, but only $460 million has been requested in the budget for 2018, which is far less than the $650 million that was allocated in the recent budget.

Still Pence sought to cast the $460 million as positive, telling the room of attendees, “Even in this time of fiscal challenges, President Trump has made clear our commitment to this region by requesting an additional $460 million for security and prosperity in Central America.”

Hernandez, the Honduran president, said his government is committed to spending $4 to every $1 the U.S. spends. But the fact that the money has been slow to be distributed is an indication that despite the positive picture painted by Central American leaders, issues remain with corruption, justice and other reforms set as conditions on the money by the United States.

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Anita Kumar contributed to this report.