Main menu

Remarks: Ranking Member Eliot L. Engel at Council of Americas on Upcoming Elections in Central America

November 12, 2013

REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY

Location: Washington D. C.

“But by words and deeds, the burden is on us to actually persuade our Central American friends that we do not have a finger on the electoral scale, and that we will work with whoever is elected.”


Thank you for inviting me today to share a few thoughts on US policy toward our friends in Central America, especially as Honduras and El Salvador prepare for elections.  Before becoming the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I spent a good amount of time and energy understanding the countries of the Americas as Chair and then Ranking Member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.  I believe our relations with the countries in our own neighborhood are vital and welcome any opportunity to contribute to a debate on how we can improve them.  Again, thank you to Council of the Americas for the invitation today.

The US has a long and – to use a charitable term – complicated track record in Central America.  The region remains among the poorest in the Americas and has recently been beset by its geographic utility to illegal drug traffickers moving their product to the United States.  While many of this region’s problems are transnational, when I talk to any audience about the Americas, I make it a point to state that I believe each country is different, and conflating them usually gets us into trouble.

The upcoming elections in Honduras and, a few months later, in El Salvador, provide us with an opportunity to shine a light on those countries, and on the current state of US policy toward them.  I should tell you now that some of my comments will be critical, but I offer them in the spirit of friendship, and of bettering these relationships.

Let me start with El Salvador.

I take the long view.  I am bullish on El Salvador.  It is a poor country, saddled with a vast problem of income inequality and a difficult economic road ahead. Overlaid on these troubles is the very real and corrosive effect of illegal drug trafficking.  Understandably, Salvadorans themselves tend to be pessimistic when talking about their own country.  But another way to tell the story of today’s El Salvador is to point to its incredible achievements since the monstrous civil war that was still raging barely 20 years ago.  The country is very close to embarking on a second MCC compact, although current problems with corruption are worrisome and need to be addressed now.  With its gang truce, which has held for 19 months and counting, Salvador is attempting a new way to face a long-running internal security problem. In the most recent elections, Salvadorans gave the FMLN a historic victory over the Arena party and set them on the difficult task of governing.  The sky did not fall, as some had predicted, and US relations with El Salvador remain strong. The upcoming elections are once again between the FMLN and ARENA, which means the party structure has held firm.  There is every reason to believe that Pres. Funes will hand over the Presidential sash to the winner, making manifest the foundations of a basic national consensus.  Over this same period, the US has gained an influx of Salvadoran immigrants who today comprise a vibrant and growing part of our population.  Again, taking the long view, this is a success story, and our job as a friend of that country is to work with the Salvadoran government – whoever it may be --- to build on that success.

Honduras is quite frankly a more difficult case, and US policy in that context is more nettlesome.  In 2009, Honduras’s president was removed by the Honduran military and flown to Costa Rica, while the de facto Honduran government that took over was recognized by no one.  Security problems are legion; organized crime is in the ascendant; security forces are feared and resist attempts at reform; and, institutions are weak or worse.  The judiciary is utilized as a weapon to settle political scores, and journalists and human rights defenders are under siege.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has literally written tomes on these abuses since 2009, which have been echoed by virtually all the major human rights organizations.

I’d like to pause for a moment to express deep concern for Bertha Oliva, the head of COFADEH, the most important human rights organization in Honduras.  Berta has been a tireless advocate for victims of human rights, and her organization has created an alarming catalogue of murders, rapes, disappearances and other human rights violations.  A very thick skin is required to be a human rights defender in a place like Honduras, and Berta is unusually fearless.  But in the past week, the volume and nature of attacks impugning her have grown to a level that causes us to be concerned for her safety.  And what triggered this was her trip last week to Washington to visit members of Congress and their staffs.  This is, to say the least, alarming.

This campaign of threats and intimidation to Bertha must cease.  I ask the Honduran government to ensure her safety and that of her staff, as well as the safety of all human rights defenders in Honduras.

I have laid out a rather stark but realistic appraisal of Honduras to make two central points: The first point is that the upcoming elections will not wave a magic wand and make Honduran problems go away.  It could certainly make things more complicated if there is no declared clear winner in a free and fair election. The OAS electoral observation has maintained a presence in Honduras since May, and the OAS, NDI, the EU and the Carter Center will together deploy a monitoring team on election day.  Given the closeness of polls, it is distinctly possible that a clear winner may not be announced on election day, but will have to wait for a recount to begin days later.  We are thankful for the election monitors and will look to them, especially the OAS, to manage the inevitable tensions that will arise as results are verified.

But even in the best case, the election will not fix Honduras’s problems any more than the last elections did.  Honduras’s problems are structural.  They go to the deepest aspects of how any society organizes itself. They are about a small but powerful economic clique that has resisted creating an effective rule of law that applies to all. They are about a huge economically disenfranchised population that, in the latest Latinobarometro poll, is dead last in the hemisphere in believing that democracy will solve its problems.

There are also crucial issues regarding Honduras’s election system itself.  Several of my colleagues even said in a letter to Sec. Kerry a few weeks ago that there are significant doubts about whether a level electoral playing field exists now.  To make matters worse, Honduran law provides for no second round, thereby setting up a possible win with 30% of the vote – exactly what Honduras does not need in its quest for national consensus.

“The second point is that Honduras’s deeper problems are not susceptible to a military or security fix.  This has tangible implications for US policy, and many of these have been flagged by my colleagues in Congress.   By my count, since 2009 more than 10 Congressional letters have been sent to the Secretary of State regarding unfolding events in Honduras.  For my part – something I very much applaud – I too have been contacted by constituents in my own district, worried about many of the same issues.

The overriding concern expressed by these Congressional letters as well as my constituents revolve around an overly militarized US relationship with Honduran security forces and the human rights perils that this creates with security forces that have become politicized.  In frustration, many of my Congressional colleagues have called for a complete cessation of security assistance.  I am not in that camp.  I believe the security nightmare Honduras is living requires a robust security response, and I think the US has a positive role to play.

But at the same time, the dangers are clear and they must be addressed.  Security and stability is critical, but not as an end in itself.  A secure environment sets the groundwork to meet governance challenges, for the fight against impunity; and for the need to strengthen all manner of governing institutions.  To win the security battle without nurturing these other things will very yield little.  Furthermore, if we do not have reliable partners on the ground, we must be prepared to correct course.  And it must be US policy that law enforcement matters must be dealt with by law enforcement authorities.

This brings me to a sort of inside baseball matter, but one which I think needs to be addressed.  The face of U.S. policy toward Honduras at this moment is effectively the State Department’s INL bureau – sometimes called the “drugs and thugs” bureau.  I have no beef with that Bureau, its personnel, or its mission.  But given the context, this is not enough.  Even worse is the danger of slipping into a policy auto-pilot driven by the fact of a preponderance of big ticket security programs.  I believe State’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, which has the bigger policy equities as its charge, should clearly and openly have its hand on this policy helm.

Better still, I am heartened by the renewed focus on the Americas coming out of the White House, and led by Vice President Biden. It comes at an important time for the region as a whole, and for Central America.   Vice President Biden’s involvement brings the kind of big-picture re-assessment that I think we need right now.  Since I’ve picked on almost everyone except the US Congress, let me do that now.

“During the last Salvadoran elections, some of my colleagues across the aisle in the US Congress stated publicly that a vote for candidate Funes would bring all manner consequences, including jeopardize remittances and even TSP for Salvadorans.  The statements received widespread coverage in Salvadoran newspapers opposed to Funes.  Obviously, the statements were politically motivated.  I’m picturing Pres.  Funes holding up a newspaper with a “Dewey-Beats Truman” – like headline.

As a point of comparison, I suspect these same members know that taking sides in, say, Mexican elections, would unleash all manner of hellfire and fury from the Mexican government, press and people – and our State Department officials would be left to clean up the mess.  It is disturbing to me that Central America receives a very different treatment. That said, I don’t think these statements will stop.

This brings me to offer two thoughts – one to the State Department, and another to Salvadoran and Honduran voters.

To the State Department: it is imperative that you show, by words and deeds, that the US is relentlessly neutral in these elections.  It is not enough for us to say we are not involved.  We must overcome: the unfortunate baggage left by some past US administrations that have historically been nakedly partisan in Central American politics; persistent entreaties for support from segments of Central American society and yes, sometimes significant pressure from Congress to take sides.  It is likely easier to say this than to do it.  But by words and deeds, the burden is on us to actually persuade our Central American friends that we do not have a finger on the electoral scale, and that we will work with whoever is elected.  The historical context calls for nothing less.

To voters in Honduras and El Salvador, I say this:  As you have in the past, you may well hear lots of voices telling you about dire consequences for US policy if you cast your votes one way or another. Don’t believe it.  Your vote is your own, and it falls to you to choose your leaders.  We will work with your choice.   Count on me to do everything I can from here to make that a reality.

Thank you again to the Council of the Americas for hosting this event.