Mexico and Honduras are unusual destinations for official foreign visits for a vice president in an election year. Neither country produces significant political assets for the American Democratic Party. In addition, there is popular sentiment in both countries to blame the United States for the violence caused in large part by America’s unceasing drug demand and export of firearms. Vice President Biden’s visit to both nations does not augur demonstrations of goodwill to the United States. Indeed in Honduras, he risks some hostile reactions from crowds if they are allowed to gather to greet him.
What are the political considerations of this visit for U.S. presidential elections then? Of the 11.46 million Mexicans with legal documents living in the United States, including the 10.7 million old enough to vote, Biden’s visit shows the Obama administration’s commitment to the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
There are 467,943 Hondurans that either have U.S. citizenship or a green card. This number increases by a little over 4,000 new citizens each year. While this number is not large enough to make a political impact, Hondurans do integrate well into American society and usually support the Democratic Party were it not for the president’s inability to pass LEAD, let alone comprehensive immigration reform. The vice president’s visit to Honduras can only strengthen the country’s appreciation for the United States since it follows soon after the tragic death of over 350 prisoners at the Comayagua penitentiary. Young Latinos in the United States who maintain daily contact with their country of birth through cell phones and internet will appreciate the vice president’s willingness to visit two countries tarred with high drug-related homicide. He was not afraid. Biden’s visit demonstrates an understanding of the future influence that young Hondurans and Mexicans are likely to play.
Both Honduras and Mexico are torn by criminal violence. Severed heads, kidnappings of local businessmen and their families, as well as widespread extortion have taken their toll on citizens in both countries. In Mexico, with the police’s inability to keep citizens safe, only 23 percent of those surveyed by Latinobarometro in 2011 believe that democracy is the best form of government in Mexico. Instead of blaming weak national security institutions, it is easier to blame the United States. While cocaine consumption in the United States has declined since 2009, marijuana consumption is up. U.S. firearms continue to flow south, dramatized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (ATF) debacle that allowed guns to move into Mexico in a misguided undercover operation. The operation went awry when ATF lost track of the firearms until one of those weapons killed a U.S. law enforcement official working out of the U.S. consulate in Mexico.
Strengthening Mexico’s police force, investigative units and intelligence collection requires U.S. support in the form of training and equipment. Transnational criminal organizations operate throughout Central America, Mexico and the United States, making close working relationships essential. However, the close collaboration between the Mexican and U.S. authorities since 2006 was damaged by the WikiLeaks revelation of former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual’s cables to Washington, as well as the ATF fiasco. Recently, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has blamed the violence on the United States. This rhetoric reflects both a fear for the prolonged nature of Calderon’s “war on drugs” as well as deliberate anger at U.S. failure to deliver nothing more than apologies. Calderon remains president until December 1 and Biden’s visit can help to patch up the bilateral relationship with him.
Biden’s visit to Honduras demonstrates the U.S. commitment to work with the Honduran government in combating the scourge of criminal violence that is beyond the government’s ability to control. Following the removal of President Zelaya in June 2009, the United States stepped back from its traditional close relationship with the country and suspended much of its foreign aid. Subsequent months saw a significant increase in the transshipment of drugs through Honduran territory. Today, Honduras has the highest intentional homicide rate in the world, a weak judicial system and politicians scared to take decisive action. President Obama visited El Salvador two years ago to show U.S. support for a new president struggling to control drug traffickers, gangs and pervasive insecurity. That visit made a positive impact. Now Vice President Biden seeks to shore up President Lobo and his government’s efforts to control rampant insecurity and corruption.
To do this, the vice president must pledge U.S. support in police training and equipment improvement, and commitment to job training for Honduran youth. Fortunately, funds for activities of the like have already been approved within the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Behind the scenes, tough words will be exchanged over corruption and ineffective governance. However, the Honduran government needs U.S. technical assistance, as well as the training of judges in the reformed accusatorial and public system of justice. Without U.S. commitment at the highest level, Hondurans will be tempted to revert back to authoritarian ways to end the violence. With U.S. government support, President Lobo can seek to preserve democratic processes and combine effective law enforcement with social programs to address the underlying causes of the violence. The question arises whether appropriated funds under CARSI are sufficient enough to meet the enormous task of containing the violence in Central America.