Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Trip to Panama

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
En Route to Panama
July 1, 2014

MODERATOR: This is a background briefing with a Senior State Department Official Number One to preview Secretary Kerry’s trip to Panama for the inauguration of the new president. With that, I will turn it over.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I think that one of the most important things about this trip, before we get to the meeting that you’re going to want to talk more about, is Panama is, in so many different ways, exemplary of the narrative in the Western Hemisphere that we’ve been talking about a lot.

So in the Secretary’s presence at this inauguration, it really does highlight a lot of the things we’ve been saying about the Western Hemisphere. Panama just had a come-from-behind victory of an opposition candidate in free and fair elections that were observed by international observers, unlike in some parts of the hemisphere. You had a government where the president put a whole lot of resources into trying to elect his candidate. Opposition candidate won anyway. It’s a great story in terms of Panamanian democracy.

You also have an incredibly open economy, one in which they’re seeking to become members of the Pacific Alliance, which is the most open trading bloc in the hemisphere and integrating, want to become members of TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Obviously, the expansion of the Panama Canal hugely important for us, actually, in 2015, in the competitiveness of U.S. ports. So I think in a lot of different ways, Panama really exemplifies a lot of what is good in the hemisphere and what is going well. So I think that’s one of the most important points in going to Panama for this inauguration.

Obviously, in addition to seeing President-elect Varela and talking with him about just his own vision for his government, there is also the upcoming 2015 Summit of the Americas which will be held in Panama next year, and we’re going to be talking about what is likely to be on the agenda for that. The Panamanians are still defining that agenda.

Similarly, this gives the Secretary a great opportunity to talk to Central American leaders on the subject that we’ve been engaging with Central America a lot in the last couple of weeks – that of unaccompanied children coming to the United States in very large numbers this year. This is a phenomenon that obviously has been in the press a lot, although I would highlight that the numbers of those coming from the three Central – Northern Central American countries – Guatemala, Salvador, and Honduras – are up for adults, adults coming with children, and unaccompanied children. All of those numbers are up. The unaccompanied children number is now over 52,000 for this fiscal year. After last year and the entire fiscal year, it was 24,000.

So this, as the President said today, really is a humanitarian tragedy, one in which smugglers are taking advantage of misery and providing false hope to young people and to families who think incorrectly that they might be able to benefit from DREAM Act or DACA or from comprehensive immigration reform, neither of which is the case. Remember that any comprehensive immigration reform that would pass based on the Senate bill or the Administration’s principles would have a cutoff date of 2011, so none of these folks would be eligible. All of them are getting notices for removal proceedings, and we are obviously – as the President said today, the majority of these folks are going to be returned to their home country. So it really is preying on the most vulnerable in our societies, these unaccompanied children.

When the Vice President was in Guatemala about a week and a half ago, the things that came out of that meeting, I think, are things the Secretary wants to continue to work on, that it’s a problem of shared responsibility we all have to work on, and that it’s something where you have both the short-term crisis that we need to work on and the longer-term issue of root causes, because there is also an aspect of this, very real, which is the underlying lack of economic opportunity and the violence in the countries which is driving people out of those countries and towards the United States.

Similarly, there was a commitment to work with us to put more consular officials down on the border. Today, Jay Johnson was at the border with Tom Shannon, the counselor from the Department who’s been put in charge of this effort. So I think the Secretary will be talking with those leaders about how we can do more to work more efficiently and more quickly to get the message back home to these populations that it is both dangerous to send families or children to the United States and futile, frankly, because people are going to be returned. So I think those are among the major messages.

The Secretary will also see the Costa Rican President, President Solis. I think Costa Rica doesn’t get nearly enough credit – the little country that could, especially in the World Cup over this past weekend. And I think Costa Rica – it’s really a message of reaffirming Costa Rica’s leadership position on democracy and human rights in the hemisphere, and a country that’s made a very bold commitment to being carbon-neutral by 2025 and a real commitment towards working on climate change and environmental issues.

So I think those are the big issues.

MODERATOR: Great. Questions?

QUESTION: Yeah. So what will be Secretary Kerry’s message to the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think the message will be that while we’ve begun to work better together and we’ve been really appreciative of the efforts that those countries have made – especially all of them in launching new public awareness campaigns, media campaigns, getting the facts out so that the smugglers don’t have a monopoly on information, or misinformation in this case – one of the things that we really need to focus on is how we ensure that, for example, the number of families, adults with children, has spiked in the last couple of weeks, people coming with their children to try and get into the United States.

And in the past, those folks have been returned individually on commercial flights. We need to find a more effective, more efficient way for people to be returned now in family units. So it’s that kind of conversation to try and get those procedures worked out.

QUESTION: And when Vice President Biden had his meetings in Guatemala, the president of Honduras was – I could tell there was a real disconnect and did – and kind of a lack – a feeling by Americans that he was not committed to this.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. I don’t really think that’s the case. First of all, the Vice President spoke with the president of Honduras on his way to Guatemala because the president wasn’t there. One of his ministers was. And I don’t think there’s a lack of commitment from the Hondurans. I think we’ve all seen that the numbers of Hondurans are, in fact, significantly higher in some cases than the other two countries. So it’s clear that we need to be working especially cooperatively with Honduras.

Vice President had a good call with President Hernandez of Honduras. Secretary looks forward to talking with Honduran officials at this meeting. And I don’t think there’s really a disconnect here with an individual country; I think these are tough issues that we’re all struggling with.

QUESTION: Why didn’t he make the meeting with this president?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, to the best of my knowledge, he was in Brazil at the time, Honduras having almost never made the World Cup.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: But that was planned long before. Remember that the Vice President’s decision to try and see the leaders was relatively short notice.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, are all the leaders expected to make these big meetings tomorrow?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’d have to check on where we are and the latest on this, but certainly, we’re hoping to speak with them all.


QUESTION: There seems to be a theory that regardless of whether they’re going to get sent back or not, these families have made a decision that it’s safer for their kids – even for the limited amount of time that they’re going to be in U.S. custody, it’s safer for them there than it is at home. There’s no way you can combat that. If they’ve made – if they know full well that those traffickers – if that’s, in fact, the reason why they’re sending their kids there – but if these smugglers – if they know full well that the smugglers are not – are lying and they’re still sending their kids, doesn’t that speak to the chronic issue of violence and the economic --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I guess the question is on what aspect are the smugglers lying. Smugglers are lying in that they can take advantage of DACA or future comprehensive immigration reform. But it is also true that under current U.S. law, it is very difficult to send back children from noncontiguous countries, right? So --

QUESTION: (Inaudible), especially Cuba, but that’s another subject.


QUESTION: Actually, I wanted to ask about --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: That actually has a special law. But in any case --



QUESTION: Why is everyone an Elian Gonzalez? Anyway.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: But in any case, the issue is that I think that what’s important to recognize is right now, as you can see, unaccompanied children have not yet been sent back.

QUESTION: Yeah, they may send (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: But individuals are being sent back. Family units are being sent back. And the President has made clear, as did the Vice President last weekend, that we have plans to try, and everyone’s getting notices to appear. It’s only a question of expediting those processes.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So if we surge judges and we do other procedures to get that done faster, people will be sent back. That’s when the message gets through.

QUESTION: But the parents are making the calculation that the limited time, however many months it is or whenever it’s going to be – it’s safer for their kids to be sitting in Texas --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: What I’m – Matt – what I’m saying to you, Matt, is I’m not sure they’re making a calculation between safety versus other options. I think the calculation is extremely complicated. I think it is probably based in part on the situation and violence. I think it is probably based in part on economic opportunity. I think it is probably based in part on the fact that there may be some family members already in the United States. It is extremely complicated and difficult to disaggregate. One of the things that we’ve learned from DHS interviews with these kids is there are multiple reasons, and sometimes they’re not entirely sure why mom and dad might have sent them.

So I think it is difficult always to know why those children are being sent. But the bottom line is you need to try and effect changes to the children being sent because it is, in fact, a really difficult journey for those kids, a really dangerous journey, and one that, as we begin to ramp up the judicial processes along the border, is not going to be forever for people at the other end. And that’s – remember they’re also spending a significant amount of money with smugglers. So these are organized crime organizations that are taking advantage of people, and you got to try and combat that.

QUESTION: How much of this is the fault of the domestic U.S. gridlock in Congress?


QUESTION: How much do you think is it – is the fault of the refusal or the inability of Congress --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, I think the President’s remarks on that today were absolutely eloquent on that subject and very clear.

QUESTION: So this question came up at the briefing today, and it has been an issue before. Chinese get very upset, they were very upset when Colin Powell – I was with him – this is my third Panamanian inauguration, by the way. Powell shook the Taiwanese president’s hand and the Chinese went ballistic.


QUESTION: I know. So you do it, so you think it’ll probably happen?



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, there’s no plans to have any meeting, formal or informal.


QUESTION: Can you talk about how much aid the United States is sending to Central America now --


QUESTION: -- compared to before? Does that – do you think that that plays a role?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Is it compared to before when? So let me just – let me start. The Central America Regional Security Initiative or CARSI, which is the main Central American foreign assistance program that focuses on security – and I’ll discuss some other things in a second – has gotten, I think, now, since 2008 when it began, is up to about 640 or so million dollars, the majority of that spent in the three Northern Triangle countries. That focuses on everything from prevention of gangs to community policing to judicial reform to alternative dispute resolution to other programs that we have, to equipment and border control and other things.

We also have, obviously, a whole series of economic and development programs. In Guatemala, they tend to focus on things like malnutrition, Feed the Future are big programs. In El Salvador, El Salvador has both an MCC compact – they’re on the verge of getting a second compact – and it’s what’s called a Partnership for Growth country. So there have been a lot of focus there on the economic conditions. Honduras was an MCC country. It’s now a threshold country. It may get another compact in the future depending on its indicators.

So obviously, I mean, the United States has been heavily engaged in Central America for a long time. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done. These are countries where there is enormous amount of poverty and violence to overcome, but one of the things you also see is, as all of us were successful in cutting off the drug trade through the Caribbean in the ’80s, it moved west over Colombia, air bridge into the United States. As the air bridge was cut off, it moved back to land and sea up through Mexico. As we are increasingly successful in Mexico and obviously in Colombia, the isthmus gets squeezed as a chokepoint.

So these are countries where unfortunately, the institutions are not even as strong as they were in Colombia or Mexico when we began the programs. So there’s a lot more that needs to be done, and one of the Secretary’s messages, I think, that’s really important and was most welcome, I think, last week when the Vice President was there is that we get it on the root causes, because if we don’t address the violence, if we don’t address the economic issues, then ultimately, this is temperate. We can solve the short-term crisis but it comes back even if we get CIR. Even if we get comprehensive immigration reform, it comes back.

QUESTION: Because one of the things I hear on the Hill a lot is that Washington isn’t paying enough attention to Latin America and that there’s been much – that aid – the amount of the aid that we give them has been cut back dramatically.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think everybody’s aware, obviously, of the pressures on the budget, and there is truth to the fact that the budget for Latin American assistance has gone down. Although I would point out that the Central America Regional Security Initiative has been maintained at more or less the same level for the last five years. So it has not really been in this area. Obviously, given overall budget pressures, we haven’t necessarily been able to increase assistance.

But I think as the President considers additional funding for the crisis, there will also be funding considered for getting at some of the longer-term causes. But there is one other thing. None of these countries individually are big enough to overcome these problems, on top of which they’re transnational problems. These are countries with three million in population, four million in population, et cetera, right? Each of them wants to do things individually.

One of the points of CAFTA-DR, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, was to really promote regional integration. 43 million people live in Central America. That’s a real market. That starts to get at a market that can overcome some of these years of poverty, can be attractive to investors, can actually overcome some of the problems. Until the Central Americas really get past some of the arguing among themselves and focusing on going it alone – and there is still, quite honestly, too much of that – they’re not going to overcome these problems.

The second thing is they have some of the lowest tax rates in the world, and that’s if everybody paid their taxes. That won’t cut it either.

QUESTION: And that was the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So there’s structural things they need to do too along with getting help.

QUESTION: And that was the question I was going to ask, is what does Secretary Kerry want to hear from them?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I think some of the countries have already demonstrated a willingness to take some of these hard choices, right. The new president in Honduras is one of them – making changes in the budget in his debt situation, going back to the IMF, which is a tough decision for any country. Guatemala is doing the same. El Salvador made some hard choices as they went through the MCC process and the Partnership for Growth. So I think we are seeing some of those changes.

I think what the Secretary wants to hear is certainly cooperation and a willingness to accept returning citizens, repatriated citizens, back in their home country during this short-term crisis. There too, we’ve already increased our immediate assistance of nine-point – we shifted about 10 million – $9.5, $10 million into these countries now, not in the future, to do reception centers, repatriation, so that they would have greater ability to receive people. But remember these are people who have not been displaced for years. They have just been gone for weeks.

So I think what he’s hoping is to continue to hear that spirit of cooperation and a willingness to both do what they need to do at home with an acceptance that we need to do more with them to support what they’re doing, as well as a willingness to go to international financial institutions, the EU, and others who are donors to try and sort of up our game as well on these issues.

QUESTION: Is there anything to this idea that children are going to other countries in the region when they’ve been going to Panama and to Costa Rica and even Nicaragua as well? It’s something I’ve seen in some of the reports.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I have occasionally seen that in the press, but I don’t know – I can’t decide in the articles whether those are endpoints or whether those are way stations. And so far, all I see is sort of anecdotal. I don’t have any data suggesting.

QUESTION: Yeah. UNHCR did that report in March. It came out with the report in March and they said --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, we don’t believe anything UNHCR says.

QUESTION: -- that picking up kids is up 712 percent, but that included – in those countries – but it also included in Mexico.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, and Mexico, of course, will probably be the overwhelming percentage of that because they’re transiting on the whole.

QUESTION: Yeah. So you’re not – we’re just not sure?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I haven’t seen much of that, but --


MODERATOR: All right. I think we probably need to wrap up soon, so --

QUESTION: Are any Cubans going to be there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And I should mention – I’m sorry, let me just finish – I should mention that the Mexicans, in fact, are doing a huge amount on this, and they are obviously feeling this situation as well.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: And they are returning children and they are returning families.

QUESTION: First, do you know anything about this Panamanian woman who was killed by this marine who has just been arrested? Is that something that’s a problem for them that they’ll – you expect them to raise?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, what I can say is obviously, that we regret, obviously, her death very much, and it’s something that we’ve worked with the Panamanians on in cooperation with them.

QUESTION: All right. This guy’s in Fort Bragg. Is he going to get sent back?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right, but he’s undergoing judicial processes, right?

QUESTION: Well, yeah. (Inaudible) the Panamanians will not be able to stand trial there?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t – I have not heard that they asked for that.

QUESTION: You don’t expect this to be an issue that’s raised?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t necessarily, no. I don’t.

QUESTION: Are there a lot of – any Cubans (inaudible) inauguration that you’re aware of?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Assume so, but I don't know (inaudible).

QUESTION: And what about Uruguay and Alan Gross and the (inaudible)?


QUESTION: Well, no, it’s what he said before, and then back in – he was talking about taking in possibly people from Gitmo and then it got changed into, like, the Cuban Five – the three that are left in the Cuban Five. Is anything going on with that considering what happened just last week with Alan Gross?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I mean, obviously, we would have liked to see Alan be able to get home for his mother’s funeral, to get home to see her before she died. We’re really disappointed that he wasn’t able to, and we’re going to keep working to try and get him home as soon as we can.

QUESTION: But you’re still with – I mean, is Uruguay a possible – a possibility here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t think Uruguay ever was a specific interlocutor, although honestly, we’ve – we talked to everybody that we can --


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: -- and so anybody that might have influence with the Cubans, we do talk to about it.

QUESTION: Okay. But you don’t expect the Secretary to seek out Cubans here?


QUESTION: Can I just ask, is the situation with the children – how is all of this affecting the security relationship with Mexico? Because I’ve seen some reporting that drug interdictions are down, and when – what’s going on?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Honestly, I don’t know about the interdiction numbers. Honestly, seizures and interdiction numbers are notoriously flaky. They can either mean you’re not trying as hard or they can mean they’re not actually moving as much stuff right now because there’s a whole lot of scrutiny on the border. So I don't know.

I think – I do think, however, that the issue of unaccompanied children is a complex one vis-a-vis Mexico. On the one hand, the cooperation with Mexico has been unbelievably good, and I think in some ways demonstrates how well we work together. And the Mexicans, quite honestly, have some of the very same problems we do. They really do in terms of being able to return people as quickly as possible to their homes.

On the other hand, obviously, it’s a complication in our bilateral relationship because we’re each struggling with this. And so we would rather be able to end this humanitarian crisis so the kids are not put in this kind of a position and be working on other things if we could.

QUESTION: How do you return 52,000 kids, especially when – I mean, again, getting back to my friends in Congress, they say that 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 – you hear these numbers – are actually – would actually be eligible for refugee status besides the fact – in the law you would need to --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don't know how anybody knows who would be eligible for refugee status, but --

QUESTION: Asylum --


QUESTION: -- I’m speaking to (inaudible), choose different (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Actually the same – the same answer applies. I mean, there’s a process that one goes through, and I don’t know that I could prejudge what percentage of these kids or their parents or an adult that came with them might be eligible for asylum status.

But I will say that I don’t – what I know is that those who are in detention, and especially the families – especially the families where we’re surging judges and we have the legal authority right now will be returned. And this is where we’re moving so --

QUESTION: But should the U.S. be returning these kids to violence, crime, poverty, threats to their lives? I mean --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, I have to say I hope that every child from Central America can grow up someplace where they do not have to confront that kind of violence. And that’s what all of us want.

On the other hand, under international laws, these are not places that are war zones, despite the high level of insecurity. And I think all of us have to keep working harder to make sure that these children and their families can make their lives in their homes in ways that are more secure. But I don’t think it’s a question of should we be returning them. The first lady of Honduras was on the border this weekend talking about how she wants those children to stay in Honduras, and these are the people with the greatest amount of sort of tenacity and spirit, and that Honduras needs them. So I think that’s really where all of us want to get to.

MODERATOR: All right.

QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

MODERATOR: Thank you.