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


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

Few people in the United States know the so-called northern triangle of Central America -Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador- like the diplomat Ricardo Zúñiga, whom President Joe Biden appointed as soon as he arrived at the Government as a special envoy for that piece of America converted today into a tinderbox. Zúñiga (Tegucigalpa, 51 years old) already worked as a special advisor to President Barack Obama between 2012 and 2015. Also tanned in Cuba and Mexico, he has also been appointed number two in the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Ask. Latin America is going through simultaneous crises, with serious threats to human rights. Are we living the worst moment in decades?

Answer. We are living in a very threatening time because societies are under pressure from structural problems, such as inequality, lack of investment in human capital, exclusion, among others, which coincide with enormous frustration with 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 is at stake. What there is is great frustration for governments that have not met 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 compared to the 1980s or 2000s, that authoritarian governments in the region have shown their failure to solve problems. So many people feel that there is no solution. What we see as necessary is for democracies to commit to responding to the needs of the people in a very practical way.

P. That frustration has fueled a sharp populist wave in places like Nicaragua or El Salvador. What can be done at this point?

R. The answer to an imperfect democracy is more democracy, not populism or authoritarianism, since, as we have seen around the world and, very especially, in America, the concentration of power leads to more corruption, less efficiency and less transparency. The more democracy, on the other hand, the more accountability and better governance. They need tools to invest and that is where the United States and the international community come in, together, with initiatives such as, for example, Build Back Better World, which combines public and private investment in growth areas. Investments in a judicial system in which people can trust are also important.

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

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R. Many times this cannot be done because the government itself hinders 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 are no guarantees. And that will end up discouraging investment by companies. In many parts of Central America, corruption and lack of transparency are the major impediments to investment.

P. Cuba and Venezuela have shown that an economic crisis, no matter how harsh, does not end with regimes like these.

R. That is a red flag for all of us. If having a minimal flow of resources is to maintain itself, the power of the rest of the region that is democratic must be very concerned because it means that authoritarianism thrives despite creating enormous destruction. If we look at the example of Venezuela, part of the reason why they have managed to stay in power is because many people, instead of reacting against the governments, have been forced to leave the country.

P. We see how the Biden Administration has imposed multiple sanctions on all these countries, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua… But they don’t seem to be working. What else can be done? 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 the individuals involved in undemocratic activities, even if they will not lead to an immediate change in the situation. In many cases it took many years to get to this point and it will take many years to get back on a positive path.

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P. What do you expect from the negotiation process on Venezuela in Mexico that is now stalled?

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

P. In the case of Cuba, the Mexican government has been very critical of the United States’ 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. They are not incompatible things. The sanctions are intended to deny resources to a government that continues to restrict those rights. There are countries that do not have these sanctions but they are in favor of human rights.

P. Would you say that El Salvador is turning into a Nicaragua in fast motion?

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, when we have seen a convention of power in the Executive, intimidating acts against the media and civil society, the irregular dismissal of members of the Constitutional Court that intends to undermine the independence of this Court… And we have expressed our concern with 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 matter. We have also seen how US diplomats and officials have suffered a series of attacks on social networks 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.

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P. Regarding immigration and investments in the most affected areas, what are we going to see in the coming months from the United States Administration?

R. I recently traveled to Colombia, Ecuador and Panama to inform some agents of the private sector, civil society and the Government of these countries about how we should develop the Build Back Better World. We want the support of the G-7 countries for this initiative, see what we can do to speed up the financing tools. Investments in education, vocational training and all those related to renewable energy and climate change will be important.

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

R. We have maintained an intense relationship with leaders throughout the region. I have accompanied the secretary [de Estado, Antony Blinken] To meetings in Central America, he has also traveled to Ecuador and Colombia to address the causes of irregular immigration, which is an issue that affects other parts of the region even more than the United States, if you simply look at the number of Venezuelans who transit through Peru or Colombia, for example. The fact that this government has put the fight against corruption at the center of foreign policy already reflects very well the importance of the interests of the region. We are also in contact with civil society in defense of rights, not only LGBT, but also indigenous communities and others who feel excluded.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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