Ricardo Zúñiga, American envoy for Central America: “The answer to an imperfect democracy is more democracy, not populism” | International

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Ricardo Zúñiga in an interview on March 22, 2021.COURTESY

Few in the United States are familiar with the so-called northern triangle of Central America РHonduras, Guatemala and El Salvador Рlike the diplomat Ricardo Z̼̱iga, whom President Joe Biden appointed upon his arrival in government as his envoy. special for this room. America today transformed into a powder keg. Z̼̱iga (Tegucigalpa, 51) previously worked as a special advisor to President Barack Obama between 2012 and 2015. Also tanned in Cuba and Mexico, he was also named number two under Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs western.

Question. Latin America is going through simultaneous crises, with serious threats to human rights. Are we having the worst time in decades?

Responnse. We are living in a very threatening time as societies are under the pressure of structural problems, such as inequalities, lack of investment in human capital, exclusion, among others, which coincide with enormous frustration towards the political class. But I think there is a big difference between this crisis of confidence and the previous ones. Now there is little support for an authoritarian model based on a certain ideology, that is not what it is. There is great frustration for governments that have failed to respond to the needs of society. It is a much less ideological crisis, it is a crisis of confidence in governments. And there is another important difference from the 1980s or 2000s, that authoritarian governments in the region have shown their inability to solve problems. So many people think there is no solution. What we see as necessary is that democracies commit to meeting the needs of the people in a very practical way.

P. This frustration has fueled a strong populist wave in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. What can be done at this stage?

R. The answer to a flawed democracy is more democracy, not populism or authoritarianism, since, as we have seen all over the world and especially in America, the concentration of power leads to more corruption, less corruption. efficiency and less transparency. On the other hand, the more democracy there is, the more accountability and better governance. They need tools to invest and this is where the United States and the international community come in, with initiatives like, for example, Rebuilding a better world, which combines public and private investments in growth areas. Investments in a justice system that people can trust are also important.

P. But how can all this be implemented in countries that oppose it, like Nicaragua?

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R. Often times this cannot be done because the government itself is hindering it by trying to control resources and divert them to themselves or their allies. In the case of Nicaragua, which has a diagnosed dictatorship without a democratic mandate, there is no guarantee. And that will ultimately discourage business investment. In many parts of Central America, corruption and a lack of transparency are the main obstacles to investment.

P. Cuba and Venezuela have shown that an economic crisis, however severe, does not end with regimes like these.

R. It is a red flag for all of us. If having a minimal flow of resources is to be maintained, the power of the rest of the region which is democratic must be very concerned because it means that authoritarianism thrives despite the creation of enormous destruction. If we take the example of Venezuela, one of the reasons they have managed to stay in power is that many people, instead of reacting against governments, have been forced to leave the country.

P. We can see how the Biden administration imposed multiple sanctions on all these countries, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua… But that does not seem to work. What else can we do? Is there frustration in your government?

R. We are the first to say that sanctions have a purpose. They are not imposed just to show our dissatisfaction with certain actors, although it is important for us to do so. It is important that sanctions identify individuals involved in undemocratic activities, even if they do not lead to an immediate change in the situation. In many cases, it has taken many years to get there and it will take many years to get back on a positive path.

P. What do you expect from the negotiation process on Venezuela in Mexico, which is now at a standstill?

R. The United States supports these talks, it is the appropriate channel for a dialogue between the various actors. What we believe is that these conversations must aim to restore the rule of law and we expect concrete results, such as the release of political prisoners, better access to international humanitarian aid or respect for freedom. expression, among others. . A free and fair election should be our goal, unfortunately the conditions for this do not currently exist.

P. In the case of Cuba, the Mexican government has been very critical of the US sanctions policy.

R. Many countries may disagree with us on the issue of sanctions or the embargo, but at the same time be very critical of the human rights situation in Cuba. These are not incompatible things. The sanctions are intended to deprive a government of resources that continues to restrict these rights. There are countries which do not have these sanctions but which are in favor of human rights.

P. Would you say that El Salvador is becoming a fast moving Nicaragua?

R. Our relationship with El Salvador is very important and intense, there are millions of Salvadorans in the United States. We are very concerned about the direction the country is taking, especially in recent months, where there has been a power convention within the Executive, acts of intimidation against the media and civil society, dismissal irregularity of members of the Constitutional Court which intends to undermine the independence of this Court… And we expressed our concern at the continued presence of corrupt actors in the leadership of El Salvador. We are particularly concerned about the speed of changes that seek to undermine democratic values. It is very important that we work with the international community on this issue. We have also seen how US diplomats and officials have suffered a series of attacks on social media by accounts associated with the Salvadoran government more typical of adversaries than friendly countries. The door is open, we remain very interested in having a good relationship with the government of El Salvador.

P. Regarding immigration and investments in the most affected areas, what will we see in the coming months from the US administration?

R. I recently traveled to Colombia, Ecuador and Panama to brief some private sector, civil society and government officials in these countries on how we should develop the Rebuild a Better World initiative. We want the support of the G-7 countries for this initiative, let’s see what we can do to accelerate the funding tools. Investments in education, vocational training and all those related to renewable energies and climate change will be significant.

P. The Biden administration has been criticized for its lack of a clear strategy regarding Latin America and its immobility due to pressure from the Republican opposition. [sobre Cuba y Venezuela especialmente].

R. We have maintained an intense relationship with leaders from across the region. I accompanied the secretary [de Estado, Antony Blinken] In meetings in Central America, he has also visited Ecuador and Colombia to tackle the causes of irregular immigration, a problem that affects even more parts of the region than the United States, though. you’re just looking at the number of Venezuelans passing through Peru or Colombia, for example. The fact that this government has placed the fight against corruption at the center of its foreign policy already reflects very well the importance of the region’s interests. We are also in contact with civil society to defend the rights, not only of LGBT people, but also of indigenous communities and others who feel excluded.

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