A team of experts in Switzerland have spent months smelling and tasting the coffee harvested from the volcanic soil of Central America, trying to find farmers who can produce beans that will retain their flavor and complexity after being crushed. and packaged in Nespresso pods.
We are a long way from Washington and the raging debate over immigration and political struggles over wired news on the US-Mexico border. But the expanding collaboration between small-scale coffee growers and Nespresso, a Swiss coffee giant, illustrates the hope and limitations of a larger U.S. plan led by Vice President Kamala Harris to tackle alleged root causes of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Presented to the American public as a way to curb migration, the plan relies on the commitment of government and private companies to address crises in the region, including drug cartel violence, natural disasters, human degradation. environment, poverty and corruption. It calls for spending up to $ 4 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars and stimulating at least $ 750 million in private investment seeding a range of economic and social programs designed to instill everything from a more functional digital economy to democratic values.
In the case of Nespresso, the US administration hopes that the company’s practice of paying farmers more for coffee beans and the expertise of its agronomists will lessen the appeal of smugglers offering potential migrants a perilous journey to the end. ‘at the US-Mexico border.
The overall strategy of the Biden administration, however, faces significant obstacles, both in the United States and in Central America.
It could take years to rebuild institutions in a way that persuades people to stay in their home countries. And any effort to improve local conditions could also face serious corruption that has hampered such efforts in the past, according to US officials, activists and former diplomats in the region. The leaders of the three Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle repelled efforts by Harris and other administration officials to protect democratic institutions as they consolidated their power.
“They are taking the right approach,” said Carmen Rosa de Leon, an activist for government reform in Guatemala and one of the many people who met Harris when the vice president visited Guatemala in June. “But sadly, maybe we needed this approach 10 years ago, not now.”
The administration faces domestic political pressure to quickly curb migration, which is reaching historic highs, with Harris being struck by near-constant criticism of conservatively-leaning wired news programs and by Republican politicians of issues at stake. frontier.
Officers arrested people from the three Central American countries more than 600,000 times near the US-Mexico border during the fiscal year that ends Thursday, a substantial part of the nearly 1.5 million meetings in total.
“It’s not a faucet you can turn off,” said Stephen Johnson, who worked on Latin American affairs under President George W. Bush, describing an influx of migrants never seen in two decades. “These are pressures that have been building up for some time.”
Administration officials say they are using other tools to reduce migration in the short term. They spent money on humanitarian aid for the displaced, offered vocational training and placement to around 7,000 migrants who were returned to their countries of origin and secured the cooperation of the Guatemalan and Mexican authorities in the matter. immigration law enforcement.
As for addressing the root causes of the migration crisis, administration officials say Harris and his staff are regularly briefed on U.S. government efforts, and the vice president has participated in calls and meetings with business and government leaders seeking to solve the problem. She recently signed a 20-page strategy document that spells out the goals of the root cause project but does not provide metrics or timelines. In an effort to expand the effort, Harris solicited donations from leaders in Ireland, Finland, Japan and South Korea to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
Earlier this year, the administration also launched a nonprofit group, the Central American Partnership, which coordinated $ 750 million in industry commitments over the next decade. Jonathan Fantini Porter, who heads the nonprofit, said he expects the effort to grow much more.
The commitments come from various companies, including the US-based Chobani yogurt and a pair of Latin American banks. Nespresso, which already worked with 1,000 farmers in Guatemala, has signed 200 more in that country and is expanding to Honduras and El Salvador. Microsoft has started wiring 2 million homes to build Internet networks in schools and indigenous communities in Honduras, with the goal of improving the business and education climate. And Mastercard plans to bring 1 million micro and small businesses into electronic payment systems and bring 5 million consumers from all three countries into the financial system.
The Biden administration wants Congress to approve $ 4 billion over four years, including $ 860 million for the budget year that begins Friday, for a diverse group of projects including employment programs, law enforcement training, support for victims of rape and domestic violence, fish farms and the COVID-19 response. Much of the plan calls for bypassing governments and working with outside groups, although it is often impossible to find enough to handle the money on such a large scale.
As the Biden administration pours money into such programs in Central America and seeks to stimulate private investment there, it faces a growing challenge: corrupt governments in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Such corruption could thwart administration efforts in the region, experts say, by extracting money from the economy, fueling cynicism and discouraging people from setting up businesses.
President Trump largely ignored corruption in exchange for security, then suspended aid in 2019 in a bid to further strengthen immigration law enforcement. Some lawyers and experts say Harris needs to speak more aggressively and the administration has not done enough to punish corrupt actors.
The Biden administration insists it won’t trade democratic values for enforcement, but balancing the two almost always requires compromise, according to foreign policy experts.
When Harris visited Guatemala in June, she urged President Alejandro Giammattei to protect independent prosecutors fighting corruption while pressuring him to enforce immigration compliance. The administration has secured cooperation with the resettlement of the Guatemalans who are being deported and to prevent the large caravans from assembling, according to a senior State Department official.
But six weeks after Harris’ trip, Guatemala’s attorney general sacked senior anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, who has since fled to Washington. The New York Times reported that he gathered evidence allegedly implicating Giammattei in a bribery scheme.
Harris also did not speak with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernánde, who has been involved in drug trafficking, or Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who purged courts and paved the way for the end of presidential terms, stressing the difficulty of finding trustworthy partners to rebuild. institutions in these countries.
Experts in the region say the next few months are crucial if the United States has any hope of reversing the new three-country drift of democratic and accountable governance. But they fear that the inability of the Biden administration to win the reforms, coupled with political pressure inside, could create a recipe for giving up.
“I’m afraid migration will trump all the rest,” said Eric L. Olson, who has co-authored a book criticizing similar efforts under the Obama administration with the Biden administration’s top emissary in the region.
Olson said the Americans’ focus on migration continues a long history of imposing their own agenda on the region, a practice that culminated during the Cold War with support for violent autocrats and coups d’état. bloody.
“We don’t have a long-term goal,” Olson said. “We are constantly solving problems and then we walk away when we think we solved the problems, or we get bored with the area and we walk away. “
Biden administration officials insist they will not abandon the region and turn a blind eye to corruption. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken added seven officials in Guatemala and El Salvador to a list of people banned from entering the United States for “undermining democracy and obstructing investigations into acts of corruption “. Among them was Maria Consuelo Porras Argueta De Porres, Guatemala’s attorney general, who sacked Sandoval, the former anti-corruption prosecutor.
Several administration officials, including Harris’ national security adviser, met directly with Sandoval in the White House. But he hasn’t had a meeting with Harris or Biden, at least publicly.
Manfredo Marroquin, an anti-corruption activist in Guatemala who met Harris during his visit to the country, said he was not optimistic. He sees increasing poverty and declining nutrition all around him, he said, and Guatemalans feel “ripped off” by their government.
People with resources want their children out of the country and those without money are even more desperate to leave, he says.
Although frustrated that conditions have deteriorated since Harris’ visit, he wants more, not less, the American engagement.
He contrasted with the disorderly exit of the Biden administration from Afghanistan, noting that Americans can afford to look away from a country on the other side of the globe. But if they ignore a neighbor, he said, “you’ll have 1 million people at the border.”