MR ICE: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to our briefing this afternoon. It is our pleasure to have you with us. It is also our pleasure to have as your briefer today Acting Assistant Secretary Julie Chung from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. She will talk with you about Secretary Blinken’s upcoming travel to Costa Rica, which we announced officially just this morning. Acting Assistant Secretary Chung will start off with some brief remarks and then she’ll be happy to take your questions.
Just a quick reminder, this call is on the record, but the contents are embargoed until the end of the call, okay? And with that, I’ll go ahead and turn it over to Assistant Secretary Julie Chung.
MS CHUNG: Thanks very much. Good afternoon, everybody.
Next week, Secretary of State Blinken will embark on his first in-person trip to the Western Hemisphere when he travels to San Jose, Costa Rica. While there, he will meet with Costa Rican President Alvarado, senior Costa Rican officials, and Americans and Costa Ricans building better futures for our countries. On June 1st, the Secretary will attend a regional meeting of the Central American foreign ministers, held under the aegis of the Central American Integration System, or SICA.
The leaders will use this multilateral forum to confront a broad array of issues, deepening our collaborative approach to migration challenges; combating corruption and impunity and reinforcing democratic institutions and rule of law; improving security and inclusive economic growth for the people of the region; combating the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing social and economic recovery; and improving environmental stewardship. All these challenges transcend borders and demand coordinated responses that enlist regional and global partners, including Mexico. We also know that the nations of Central America will benefit from deeper economic integration.
While the details regarding attendance are still taking form, I understand that all SICA countries and Mexico are invited to send their foreign ministers to the meeting, and this includes all seven Central American countries, as well as the Dominican Republic. Secretary Blinken will also raise issues specific to our bilateral relationship with some of his counterparts as the opportunity arises.
We are particularly appreciative of Costa Rica’s role as host of this meeting. And Secretary Blinken will also meet with Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada and Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Solano Quiros to discuss our very robust and multifaceted relationship and celebrate their status as the newest member of the OECD.
With that, I would be happy to take your questions.
MR ICE: Okay. Thank you, Assistant Secretary Chung. Everyone, just as a reminder, if you’d like to get into the question queue, go ahead and dial 1, 0.
Okay. I think we’ll start off with Karen DeYoung.
QUESTION: Thank you, hi. I wondered if you could – two things, actually. One, what you expect in terms of bilateral meetings. I know you said details are still being formulated. Obviously, there are a couple of governments there with which the United States does not have the best of relationships, and I wonder if all of the seven members have been invited for bilateral meetings with the Secretary.
And secondarily, in a more general sense, I wonder if you could talk about the $4 billion program that President Biden has said he was going to use for the Northern Triangle states and give us some sense of where that stands right now. Have any programs been announced? Has any of the money been distributed? Is there any legislation for it? Where is it right now?
MS CHUNG: Yeah, thank you. In terms of the meeting, we really think this is a great opportunity to see regional solutions and have this regional discussion with the SICA grouping of government leadership. So we’ll be doing that. Of course, the bilateral meeting we have confirmed is with the president and foreign minister of Costa Rica, as they are the hosts. So we’ll be looking forward to a really robust discussion with Costa Rica.
I can’t speak to the other bilateral meetings which have not been confirmed yet, but again, this is a great opportunity for us to engage all these ministers and representatives on a range of issues that affect the region.
On the President’s $4 billion and commitment to the region, those are still being worked out. There are many phases of budget planning and programming that are being discussed in the interagency. But the commitment is very clear that the President has been making from the beginning, and the Vice President and the Secretary, about the U.S. commitment to the region, addressing the root causes, and making sure we work in partnership with not only the governments in the region but the private sector, civil society, and other stakeholders as well.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Matt Spetalnick at Reuters.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much, appreciate it. You mentioned – can you hear me okay?
MS CHUNG: Yes.
MR ICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay, great, great. So you mentioned corruption, that that will be taken up – that issue will be taken up with the leaders. Can you speak specifically to what the Secretary will have to say to the Northern Triangle countries where this has been flagged as one of the root causes of increased migration, the failure to address corruption and governance issues?
MS CHUNG: Well, the administration has been clear from the beginning about the importance of addressing corruption and making sure anticorruption, democracy, human rights – those are at the core of our foreign policy. So whether it’s discussions with the SICA counterparts or within Central America, El Salvador, Honduras, El Salvador – any of the countries in the region – we have pledged to work with the governments that also work in concert with us to address these kinds of issues on corruption. I think this is what the people in the region also look for their governments to do, so that when you address the migration – irregular migration – the corruption and governance and rule of law, those are all interconnected. So we are looking to really discuss and hear from the governments on what the challenges are and how we can address these challenges together.
MR ICE: Now let’s go to the line of Carla Angola at EVTV, Miami.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for this opportunity. Secretary, we understand that on this trip, as you said, to Costa Rica, you are going to meet with senior officials from Mexico. Due to the massive arrival of Venezuelans at the border, we imagine that this will be an important issue to discover how, for example, human traffickers that take advantage of this circumstance. But I also want to know if you will talk about the negotiations between Juan Guaido and the Maduro regime, since it has been commented that the place of the first meeting in the spring work of those talks will be precisely Mexico. Could you confirm that information? Thank you so much.
MS CHUNG: Well, SICA and these regional discussions will focus on regional challenges and regional migration management. Of course, the horrific humanitarian disaster caused by the Maduro regime and the exodus of millions of Venezuelans to the region has had a deep impact, and United States has been the largest donor in terms of providing for those migrants and assistance to the countries. We understand there are 30,000 Venezuelans in Costa Rica and we have provided funding to support those migrants, including $6 million for Venezuelans in Costa Rica.
So this is a shared commitment. We want to look at the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis, its impact on the region, of course, the migration flows, and then, as you referred to, the abuse of traffickers and coyotes and the ability for us to use all tools, including law enforcement and other ways, to stop this flow of the dangerous movement that’s been happening throughout the region. So this will be an important topic, part of the migration discussion that all the countries in the region are addressing.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line, please, of Beatriz Pascual.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Can you hear me?
MS CHUNG: Yes.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you so much. My question is about Nicaragua. Is the Secretary planning on meeting with the foreign minister of Nicaragua, Moncada? And what is the U.S. doing in regards to the targeting that Ortega is doing to the opposition figures as elections are approaching? Thank you.
MS CHUNG: We understand Nicaragua is a member of SICA, so Costa Rica as the host is inviting Nicaragua to attend the meeting. We don’t know – we haven’t confirmed who will attend for that government, but the United States has been very concerned about the situation in Nicaragua, the oppression of people, of freedom of press, of civil society and human rights defenders. That’s something we’ve spoken out frequently about, and we are working very closely in a multilateral fashion through the OAS. And I must say, Costa Rica has been a strong partner within that framework of the OAS to call for democracy and human rights in Nicaragua. So we will continue to work in that multilateral format, but I think there are very big concerns about elections being planned for later this year and whether the right conditions are there for those free and fair elections.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line, please, of Pearl Matibe.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your availability. I wonder, as part of the discussions and with the growing transit of illegal drugs and – either through or from African countries, will any of that be part of the discussions, if you’re noticing any increase in trends in that that also cross over into counterterrorism areas in Africa? And as part of the regional migration issue in and around South America, will any part of the increase, perhaps, in Africans transiting through that area, that region into the United States be part of that discussion? Thank you.
MS CHUNG: Thank you. Well, Costa Rica is one of the major transit countries we know for drugs in Latin America, so it’s an area that we work very closely with Costa Rica on, on this rising challenge. We have worked to support Costa Rican security services so that they’ve seized over I think 71 metric tons of drugs in the past year, and no matter where the origin of that is. I think that transit – and then what brings along with the transit of drugs comes trafficking of persons and money laundering and all those things that transnational organizations – organized crime – all are involved with. So I think we will be addressing, again, the – some of the key pillars of SICA is to address democratic security, but also economic integration and regional coordinated solutions to these kind of challenges. So I look forward to those discussions when we arrive in Costa Rica.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Cindy Regidor.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Yes, I wanted to ask again about the – how will you plan to include the Nicaraguan ongoing crisis in the agenda? Are you planning something special with the SICA members to have a big impact on the upcoming elections in November?
MS CHUNG: Well, this is an opportunity to discuss a range of issues of regional importance with SICA members. Again, the SICA was created in 1991, I believe, to really address migration management, climate change, social integration, economic integration. So we are an observer member of SICA, and we are welcomed by Costa Rica as the host to this meeting. So it’s a good opportunity for us to hear from regional leaders about their concerns and how to address these challenges together. Again, Costa Rica and the United States and many other countries have expressed our concerns, our joint concerns about Nicaragua and the state of democracy there through the OAS bilaterally, and also through our own individual public statements. And we will continue with that, and including our advocacy by our U.S. embassy in Nicaragua and our embassy in Costa Rica, who has often met with Nicaraguans in the country as well.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Roman Gressier.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for taking my question. One of the points of the agenda is going to be democratic governance, and it’s where, of course, we’re looking for regional leadership from Costa Rica to do that. In El Salvador, there were – there was, of course, the removals of the supreme court magistrates and the attorney general. And the government refused to reverse those moves after Special Envoy Zuniga’s visit.
So – excuse me – my question would be: Given that the department just named Jean Manes to return to El Salvador to – which is kind of a – it’s an exception, it’s a bit of a rarity that you would send a diplomat back to an embassy where they were formerly posted – I was wondering what – how should we read that in this current context?
MS CHUNG: Well, first of all, Ambassador Jean Manes is a well-respected career diplomat and ambassador, and we appreciate all her experience and insights and – through her experience as formerly, as you indicated, ambassador to El Salvador. So we are happy to center with the full confidence of the Secretary of State to engage with the government as we relay these concerns very publicly about the need for rule of law and our concern for the separation of powers.
I think this is an issue not just for El Salvador, but the entire region. These are some of the issues that are the drivers of why people leave their homes in the first place. They don’t have confidence in their governments and rule of law and governance and corruption issues that they themselves must address. So we want to talk about how these conditions can be changed and how we can help and partner with not only the governments, but working with civil society and others. So this will be a very frank and honest exchange of views, and again, we look forward to having those exchange of views in the SICA meeting.
MR ICE: Okay. And I think we have time for maybe one more question. Let’s go the line Matthew Russell Lee.
QUESTION: Sure. Thanks a lot and thanks for taking the question. I had wanted to ask specifically about Honduras. There have been a series of cases in the Southern District of New York where the brother of the president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, his brother Tony was convicted of drug trafficking. And in the most recent trial, his name came up repeatedly as “CC-4,” seemingly involved in the trafficking.
So I’m wondering – I know there’s a general concern with corruption and countries being sort of involuntarily subject to drug trafficking, but what’s the State Department’s thought of how to ensure that that aid to Honduras isn’t used by the current government? Or what’s your thinking on this? Thanks a lot.
MS CHUNG: Yes, well, we take any allegations of criminal activity very seriously. I won’t speak to the specifics of the DOJ case, but combating corruption and impunity, those are really at the center of the President’s priorities in the region and how to address the root causes of irregular migration. So we have said very clearly that any leader unwilling to tackle corruption will not be considered a close U.S. partner, and we take that very seriously. And so we want to have these conversations ongoing with, again, not just the governments but all stakeholders in the region. And we also want to use this opportunity in this multilateral format to see how countries can look for these regional challenges and come up with regional solutions together as well.
MR ICE: Okay, everyone. Once again, let me thank you for your participation today in our briefing. I’d also like to thank Acting Assistant Secretary Julie Chung for her participation. With that, our briefing is ended and the embargo is lifted. Have a nice day and a nice weekend.
MS CHUNG: Thank you.