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On February 17, 2021, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted the online event “Biden’s Central America Plan – Perspectives from the Region” in partnership with Creative Associates International. The event featured opening remarks from Michael Shifter, followed by a presentation from Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica. Moderator Manuel Orozco then segued into a panel of four experts: Eduardo Stein, former vice president and minister of foreign affairs of Guatemala; Cristiana Chamorro, journalist, former Nicaraguan presidential advisor, and founder of the Violeta Chamorro Foundation; María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila, former minister of foreign affairs of El Salvador; and Isabel de Saint Malo, former vice president and minister of foreign affairs of Panamá. The panel concluded with comments from Ricardo Zúñiga, senior diplomatic fellow at the Wilson Center, and a Q&A session. Taking into account the Biden administration’s plan for Central America, speakers addressed the region’s doubts, needs, and aspirations with respect to US partnerships toward short-term and long-term development in the region.
De Saint Malo and Zúñiga both discussed migration and security—not as isolated issues but as symptoms of economic inequality and failing institutions within the region. De Saint Malo explained that these principal US-policy concerns could only be mitigated by reducing poverty and inequality. She further affirmed that these issues cannot be solved “unless we provide opportunities to our people” and address the exclusion of afro-descendants, indigenous groups, women, and the youth. Zúñiga tied the issue of migration to the Biden plan’s focus on civil society. Touching on organized crime as well, he highlighted the main issue: the need for “governments that function, that defend democratic institutions, that treat their citizens with civility.”
This connection between organized crime, corruption, and the need for functional institutions was echoed in Stein’s remarks. He pointed out that criminal organizations have diversified their activities beyond narcotrafficking to include the trafficking of arms, people, and contraband. He suggested that this expansion had turned the region into a “gigantic service station” for organized crime, infecting public institutions—including judicial, executive, and legislative branches. Like Zúñiga, Stein emphasized the Biden administration’s focus on the rule of law and the need for a strong justice system to overcome problems of crime and corruption within the region. Meanwhile, Chamorro explored the importance of the rule of law in the Nicaraguan context, hoping that support from the Biden administration would result in a new era for the promotion of human rights in Nicaragua.
Panelists stressed the need for economic investment and education within the region. Brizuela stated that Central America needed to return to normalcy, citing the effects of the pandemic on the service and tourism industries, and underscored the need for an effective vaccination program and intra-regional trade. She also affirmed the importance of external investment, with the hope that the US-China trade war would prompt greater investment in the region from US enterprise. Both Brizuela and Chamorro touched on the importance of inclusion for regional development, affirming that better educational and economic opportunities for young people would encourage them to stay in the region and thus reduce emigration. Brizuela extended this call for inclusion to mostly informal, woman-run businesses, whose economic formalization would stimulate development.
Overall panelists affirmed the need to address Central America as a whole through a regional approach. In closing, Chinchilla underscored the success of the Esquipulas Agreement in the 1980s. She suggested that this accord found success precisely because of its collective understanding of the region. She went on to affirm that, “despite the bleak perspective… there are factors giving us hope,” including the Biden administration’s understanding of the region and its “determination to act.”
Press coverage of this event:
(February 18, 2021 – VOA Noticias)
(February 18, 2021 – Estrategia y Negocios)
(February 17, 2021 – BNamericas)