MANAGUA, Nicaragua—For the past five months, Central American leaders have been trying to figure out what to make of Donald Trump and his administration.
On Thursday, they get a chance for a close-up look. The U.S. government in partnership with Mexico is hosting a two-day Conference in Miami on Prosperity and Security in Central America. The summit will bring together the presidents of the "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, plus foreign ministers and business leaders from the southern half of Central America.
The United States will be represented by Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence.
The Central Americans are not so much interested in Trump's strange celebrity appeal, rather in trying to make nice with his erratic, America-first government that seems to have misplaced the United States' old list of friends and foes.
Central America depends on the United States for its economic survival. The United States is Central America's main trade partner and a vital source of remittances. That makes it a personal relationship for many Central Americans who have family and neighbors living in the United States. Many are scared: Central Americans outnumber Mexicans 3:1 in U.S. deportation proceedings.
So when Trump talks tough on border security, drug-trafficking, and MS-13 gang crime, many Central Americans are listening. When he proposes budget cuts for foreign aid programs and talks about mass deportation and renegotiating free-trade deals, many tremble.
But so far, it's all words. Despite Trump's talk, the relationship between the United States and Central America remains pretty status quo so far. That makes it hard to know where the rubber meets the road—or, more accurately, when a tweet may become policy.
"His administration is incapable of being coherent," said one former Central American diplomat with close ties to Washington who requested not to be named. "Trump probably doesn't even know where Central America is."
In reality, Trump hasn't really said anything about Central America so far. That leaves the region trying to extrapolate meaning from his statements about Mexico, security, and immigration.
"In some ways, Mexico is the test case, since it has been so central to Trump’s agenda on trade and immigration," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "Central Americans are closely following developments between the U.S. and Mexico, but they also tend to see themselves as unconnected to Mexico."
As a result, Shifter adds, "Central America, like the rest of the world, is trying to read the tea leaves about what the Trump administration’s foreign policy is, and where it may be headed."
A first encounter
The Trump tea leaves might start to settle into a more meaningful pattern this week.
In typical Trump bravado, the Central America summit appears to be heavy on promises and light on details.
Homeland Security is making it seem like Central America's myriad problems are a simple two-day fix. "Participants will dedicate the first day of the conference to advancing prosperity and economic growth in the region and the second day to achieving a stable and secure Central America," reads the agency's website.
But confusion and frustration over the planning of the event is already dampening some people's expectations.
"There's still no agenda for this meeting," a Nicaraguan private sector delegate told Univision News prior to leaving for the Miami summit. "This is going to be a blind date."
At least the private sector was invited on the blind date. Civil society organizations that do the daily work of addressing the humanitarian crisis in Central America have been excluded entirely from the meeting.
"Unfortunately, civil society groups like ours, which have been on the frontlines of helping the region’s most vulnerable people, are not invited to [this] week’s conference," says Jossie Flor Sapunar, of Catholic Relief Services. "And programs that help stem migration by generating opportunity and stability are at risk of being cut under the proposed reduction in foreign aid."
A return to the failed policies of the past?
Some fear the exclusion of civil society groups signals that the Trump administration is preparing to double-down on the heavy-handed repressive policies that have failed in the past and made the Northern Triangle one the most violent places on earth.
The Trump administration's consistent lack of interest in championing human rights and liberal democracy overseas could also reverberate with powerful silence in certain corners of a region with a long history of brutal authoritarian rulers.
“The Prosperity and Security Conference on Central America should be a moment for the Trump Administration to show that it is serious about addressing the root causes to the refugee crisis in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America," said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Senior Associate at the Latin America Working Group. "Human rights protection, including the right to seek asylum, should be the cornerstone of any U.S. policy to the region—sidelining these issues and excluding civil society organizations from the conference is a mistake."
Critics think the organizational role of Homeland Security chief Kelly, a retired general who used to lead U.S. Southern Command, is another bad omen.
“I anticipate that U.S.-Central America assistance will become even more security-oriented and that security programs will become even more militarized," says Alexander Main, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and coauthor of two investigative reports on the DEA-related killings in Ahuas, Honduras.
"This conference unfortunately signals a recommitment to some of the worst policies the U.S. has implemented in Central America in the past several decades," Main adds. "From the failed drug war, to apprehending and sending back women and children fleeing horrific violence, there is little here that suggests the root causes of these problems will be addressed.”
The Two Central Americas
There's also little evidence that the Trump administration will shift from the Obama government's policy of focusing on the Northern Triangle at the expense of the three southern countries that are actually generating some of the prosperity and security that the U.S. wants in the region.
Nicaragua and Panama are two of the three fastest growing economies in the hemisphere, while Costa Rica has long been a regional leader in democracy. But instead of asking those countries to take a leadership role or looking for ways to duplicate some of that success in the Northern Triangle, the U.S. is relegating the southern half of Central America to back-of-the-room seating during this week's meeting in Miami.
The “two Central Americas approach” is clearly a U.S. attempt to prioritize its efforts and resources in the region. But it may turn out to be short-term thinking from a country that's been getting Central America wrong for 200 years.
"There is no doubt the security issues in the Northern Triangle are more intense and will remain so for the foreseeable future," says Eric Farnsworth, of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. "But real economic growth and sustainable development will require a more fully integrated region up and down the isthmus so someone is going to have to find a way to cut this particular Gordian knot."