President Trump's threat on Tuesday to cut foreign aid to Honduras over supposed "caravans" of migrants making their way through southern Mexico is a slap in the face to a regional ally but is unlikely to have much impact on U.S. policy, according to Latin America experts.
"It's the latest in a long line of empty threats," said Adam Isacson, with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), noting that Congress recently approved $115 million in foreign aid for Honduras, over objections of the White House.
Trump used his Twitter account Tuesday for the third day in a row to denounce a “caravan” of 1,500 Central American migrants that he considers a threat to "weak" U.S. border security, adding that he might cut foreign aid to Honduras as a result.
Trump said the caravan showed the need for tougher immigration policies and also repeated a warning that he might withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which is currently being renegotiated with Mexico and Canada. But the Twitter tirade appears to run counter to longstanding U.S. policy of supporting regional allies battling drug trafficking and violent gangs.
“The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our 'Weak Laws' Border, had better be stopped before it gets there,” Trump tweeted shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday. “Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen. Congress MUST ACT NOW!”
The caravan is a largely symbolic annual event that is meant to draw attention to the refugee crisis in Central America. Many of those marching do not plan to go all the way to the U.S. border. Trump has expressed frustration with Congress for failing to pass funding for his border wall, which was a major plank of his election campaign. He has also blamed Mexico and the Central American countries for not doing enough to stop the flow of migrants and drugs entering the United States.
The caravan also comes at a time of reduced border apprehensions, though the number of Central Americans has been creeping up, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). (UPDATE: The DHS reported Thursday that the number of illegal border crossings in March was up 37% over the previous month and 203% more than March 2017.)
And Mexico has recently increased it's detentions of migrants, contrary to what Trump claims.
Honduras is due to receive about $115 million in aid from the United States in the current fiscal year, according to the 'Omnibus' spending bill signed by Trump last month. The Trump administration had sought to drastically cut spending for Central America by about 30% - from $615 to $450 million - but met resistance in Congress.
"He'll never be able to do that (cut spending for Central America). There's no appetite for that in Congress," said Isacson, who closely monitors foreign aid spending.
The criticism caught the Honduran government off guard, though a senior official pledged to continue working to reduce drug trafficking and migration.
"Today we are surprised by those messages in President Trump's tweet that are not in line with what we have been working on," Ebal Díaz, Honduras' Minister for the Presidency, told reporters. "We regret that our efforts are not recognized in the fight against organized crime, gangs, and drug trafficking," he added. "We will continue working with the support or not of President Trump. "
Ironically Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández considers himself a close ally of the United States and his government has closely cooperated with Washington on law enforcement and migration policy.
Hernández has received high praise from U.S. officials for his efforts to tackle drugs and crime in his country, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Critics of Hernández point to his failure to tackle endemic political corruption that has drained the government's financial capacity to tackle deep-rooted social problems.
In an interview with Univision News in January, Hernández appealed to the Trump administration to extend special Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 50,000 Honduran would-be immigrants in the United States.
"We have made a diplomatic crusade to make the Trump administration see that the return of these people would be totally against the policies that we have structured with the United States with respect to the alliance for the prosperity of the northern triangle of Central America," he said.
In late February, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, traveled to Honduras to express her gratitude for the country's support on a U.N. resolution condemning the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“That was one that was not an easy decision for any country to have to vote on,” she said. “But the people of Honduras stood with us in being able to make that decision for ourselves and decide where we want our embassy, and to know that that’s our right.”
Haley also told reporters in Honduras that she was on a fact-finding mission to learn more about drug trafficking, corruption and human rights. She watched a demonstration by a U.S.-trained national police anti-narcotics unit. The U.S. provides finding for police training in Honduras.
About one third of the training includes human rights, crime scene management, community policing, and police combat training, funded through the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). The training is carried out by Colombia's crack police anti-narcotics commandos, known as the 'Junglas'.