Eighteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including major senders of immigrants to the United States, such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have joined a regional initiative led by the administration of President Joe Biden to address the historic flows of immigrants to the southern border of the United States, the Assistant Secretary of State said Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, in an exclusive interview.
Nichols, who took part in the Los Angeles Declaration negotiations on immigration that took place among the region’s leaders during this week’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, noted the policies toward Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Let’s start with immigration. How will you all deal with the fact that the countries responsible for large migration flows do not sign this agreement?
Well, we have a huge turnout, with 18 countries from North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean participating.
Are these countries that will sign this agreement?
It is a declaration of principles and a framework for cooperation that will help us address issues such as stabilizing populations in place, coordinating immigration authorities, handing over resources to communities hosting immigrants, and providing legal avenues and opportunities for resettlement of immigrant populations. Things like work visas and farm worker visas. Taken together, these types of steps are a way to promote a comprehensive solution to migration challenges. There are more than 100 million migrants on the move around the world at the moment.
Did Central American countries really stick to this plan?
We have Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia. Everyone commits.
Some of the things the United States wants these countries to do, like enhancing border security, require training, technology, and funding. Where will this money come from?
Well, one part of this is a strong support network of multilateral development banks in our region to help fund countries’ efforts. The United States will provide bilateral assistance to various countries in our region to help them deal with this problem. Many things like sharing information are not particularly expensive. Obviously, some of the support for immigrants in the country can be costly. Since 2019, the United States has provided robust assistance to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Central American countries to help them manage their immigrant populations.
Just two weeks ago I was in the Bahamas and met Haitian immigrants who received bilateral support from the United States and the International Organization for Migration. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, is also providing support to the migrant population of the hemisphere, and we encourage more countries to donate to those multilateral organizations to help support this.
Some heads of state, such as Belize and Argentina, criticized the United States for not inviting Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. And so there seems to be disagreement in the region about what democracy really is. Is there concern about divisions in the region?
We value the opinions of our partners across the hemisphere. If you look at the framework that this and previous summits include, including things like the Inter-American Democratic Charter, this is an area that prioritizes democracy. But one of the five political commitments that emerge from this summit relates to democracy. He talks very specifically and in detail about the importance of free and fair elections, the importance of allowing election monitoring to independent election management authorities, the role of civil society and a free press in countries, and the importance of protecting those who hold outside that role. These are very specific things that are being violated on a continuous and daily basis in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
How do you explain that the United States recognizes Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela and at the same time has not been invited or any of the representatives of his government attended the summit?
We are very focused on promoting a return to the negotiating table between the unified program of the Venezuelan opposition and the Maduro regime. We believe this is the best way to return to democracy in Venezuela. We believe this is the best way forward, and we will support that. We are ready to make changes to our policies in response to making tangible progress in the negotiations.
But why don’t you invite him?
We also have to navigate, you know, all of our partners’ acknowledgments and concerns about the Summit of the Americas. And there are divisions between countries as to who recognizes the interim government, which we believe is the most authentic representation of the democratic will of the Venezuelan people, and who recognizes the Maduro regime. And in the end, you know, we felt that the best way to do that was to not have the Maduro regime or the head of the interim government. But there was a great conversation between Presidents Biden and Interim President Juan Guaido a few days ago, and we believe the strong relationship we have with the interim government will continue.
I heard that there are some efforts within the administration to release some of the 9/11 protesters in Cuba. I wonder if you could share any details about this, if it is an idea that the Cuban government will accept. And if so, what would it take to release some of these prisoners?
Well, while there was this big debate about who would attend the Summit of the Americas, Cuba was suing peaceful protesters, including minors and members of civil society who took part in the July protests. The fact that in response to the concerns that we and others have expressed about human rights and freedom of expression in Cuba, they have not only prosecuted or arrested people, but put them on active trials at a time when countries like the United States are expressing their concerns and saying, well, if you’re interested Really getting involved, if you have any interest in democracy and human rights, show us, they did the opposite. They went ahead with these lawsuits and ignored us. “I will not go to the top, even if they invite me,” said President Miguel Diaz-Canel.
Recently, 148 Haitians were massacred. What would it take for the United States to see this not as a guerrilla war but as a civil war? What would it take for the United States to consider tougher strategies against Haiti?
I met the United Nations Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, with the Prime Minister yesterday [Ariel] Henry. We talked about security issues and the renewal of the UN mission in Haiti. So we’re looking at what the structure of that task is and making sure it’s properly equipped to address security issues. Clearly, everything we do in the international community must support Haiti’s efforts to build security and find a negotiated solution and a way forward to restore full democracy in Haiti.
Currently, the United States, along with many of our international partners, provides strong assistance to the Haitian National Police, particularly in the case of the United States, in training and equipping both gang response forces and special weapons and tactics units within the Haitian National Police, and this is done through the office International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement Department of the State Department. But it’s not just the United States that provides assistance: Canada, Japan and France provide assistance, but increasing the police force takes time. You have to train the officers, you have to make sure they are equipped, and you have to make sure you are resourced. We are in this continuous process. We are aware that the security situation for the average Haitian is extremely worrying, with kidnappings and crime continuing at alarming levels. And the international community must do more to support the Haitian people.
In addition to the meeting we had yesterday with the Prime Minister of Haiti, our collective support was something that the foreign ministers of the United States, Canada and Mexico discussed in their trilateral meeting, which concluded a little over an hour ago. It’s something we’ve brought up with our partners. Another donors’ meeting will soon take place to support Haiti at the ministerial level. As you know, we believe our continued efforts are essential. We will not stop until we give the Haitian people the best future they deserve.
And when do you think the transition will be the elections? Is there an appointment?
The first step is to appoint advisers to Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council. We have encouraged the Haitian Prime Minister and civil society groups, particularly the Montana group, to come together and select councilors as a way to prepare for the elections, so that the international community can provide support with technical assistance and financial resources and ensure preparations. It can take place in a safe environment, so that candidates can campaign without fear, and voters can go to the polls safely.
Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.
This story was originally published June 10, 2022 8:12 PM