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Biden proposes ‘Economic Prosperity’ plan and new migration declaration at Summit of the Americas

The president introduced what he called “bold ideas” and “ambitious actions” at the inaugural ceremony of the Summit of the Americas. Human rights defenders, however, questioned the proposed initiatives.

(CN) — President Joe Biden announced plans to drive economic growth, address climate change and control migration in the Western Hemisphere during his inaugural speech Wednesday at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.

“At this summit, we have an opportunity for us to come together around some bold ideas, ambitious actions, and to demonstrate to our people the incredible power of democracy to deliver concrete benefits and make life better for everyone,” Biden said at the beginning of his speech.

After mentioning a U.S.-Caribbean partnership to address the climate crisis, which he said Vice President Kamala Harris would lead, as well as efforts to combat insecurity by disrupting transnational criminal organizations and increasing law enfrocement efforts against drugs and illicit firearms, the president introduced the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity.

The plan will grow economies “from the bottom-up and middle-out, not the top-down,” he said. “What’s true in the United States is true in every country: trickle-down economics does not work.”

Biden also emphasized the need to invest in sustainable trade and create more resilient and secure supply chains.

“By working with close friends who share our values, we can make sure that we are not left vulnerable to unexpected shocks, while generating economic opportunity for the people in our region,” he said.

The plan also aims to foster innovation to help governments better serve their people and keep them secure, the president said, adding that development banks will be modernized to direct investment and help governments deliver on their promises.

He proposed reforms and pledged U.S. capital to the private sector lending arm of the Inter-American Development Bank “to help capitalize on the critical flow of private capital in the region.”

Biden also said the partnership intends to “tackle the climate crisis head-on,” stating, “When I hear climate, I think jobs. Good-paying, high-quality jobs will help speed our transition to a green economy of the future and unleash sustainable growth.” 

The president transitioned from jobs into the announcement of his Los Angeles Declaration, an initiative to manage migration in the western hemisphere, which he plans to sign on Friday. 

“That’s what this is all about: responding to basic human desires that we share for dignity, for safety, for security. And when those basics are absent in one place, that’s when people make the desperate decision to seek them elsewhere,” he said.

But Biden walked a fine and somewhat ambivalent line when expressing the vision that will drive the declaration.

“Safe and orderly migration is good for all of our economies, including the United States. It can be a catalyst for sustainable growth,” the president said. “But unlawful migration is not acceptable. We will enforce our borders, including through innovative coordinated actions with our regional partners.”

Yael Schacher, deputy director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, said in a phone interview that “the goal of the Biden administration clearly is to keep people where they are in other countries in the region, to have countries like Ecuador and Colombia create policies that will allow migrants who are there to stay there, not continue to travel northward in caravans or otherwise.”

But assisting countries with large migrant populations “does not diminish the need and responsibility of the United States to support the large number of immigrants in the United States and asylum seekers at its own southern border,” she said. “The United States must do at home what it is asking other countries to do.”

The leader of a caravan of over 14,000 migrants that left Tapachula, Mexico, on Monday called on President Biden and other summit attendees to put their needs first when making plans on controlling migration in the region.

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Vice President Harris spoke prior to Biden at the inauguration, describing the summit as an “opportunity to launch new initiatives, begin new conversations and to build new partnerships.”

She had gone into more detail on these partnerships at the CEO Summit earlier in the day, outlining the Biden administration’s plan to bring the public and private sectors together to improve conditions in countries like Honduras. Harris highlighted the importance of Western Hemisphere countries to the United States’ economy, stating that the region accounts for almost half of U.S. exports.

“To realize a more prosperous future for our hemisphere, public-private partnerships are essential, partnerships that combine the private sector and its experience and expertise with the reach and capacity that only governments can provide,” the vice president said.

“By working together, we can unleash growth and opportunity that far exceeds what either the public or the private sector would achieve on its own.”

To illustrate the idea, Harris told a hypothetical story of a single mother of two living in poverty in a rural western Honduras town. The woman is pulled from poverty by being offered a job cultivating coffee for a beverage company. Then a financial company steps in to provider her a bank account in the form of a digital wallet. 

Now with disposable income, the woman is able to save money, then gain access to information after a theoretical telecommunications company connects her town to the internet. This allows her to “really reach into her imagination about what she can achieve,” and she starts a thriving ecotourism company.

“This story illustrates what I believe is possible,” said Harris after finishing her tale, citing the scenario as the administrations’ “strategy to address the root causes of migration from Central America.”

But the the story bore little resemblance to reality for Karen Spring, a human rights defender and coordinator at the Honduras Solidarity Network. 

“I don’t think that Vice President Harris has ever actually talked to a woman from a rural town in western Honduras,” she said in a phone interview. Spring has lived and worked in Honduras since 2009 and is the host of the Honduras Now podcast. 

While she saw several issues in Harris’ example that displayed a “huge level of disconnect,” Spring noted that the vice president’s story left out one unfortunate and undeniable aspect of life for poor Hondurans.

“If this woman tried to open a business, she would have to deal with all the gangs and insecurity that having a business means,” Spring said, noting that the extreme levels of corruption and impunity still prevalent in Honduras’ institutions would be a significant barrier to the woman’s venture.

Spring added that the idea of the woman finding success with an ecotourism company is also unrealistic. The only real marketable business in a rural Honduran town would be a small convenience store or food stand, and it is almost certain that she would have to pay a “war tax” to the local gang.

“As soon as you open up a store or a food stand, the tax collector — aka the local gang — will come and say, ‘You have to pay us or shut down.’ And a lot of people have to shut their businesses down because they can’t pay that.”

Many Honduran migrants in Mexico who have spoken with Courthouse News cited their inability to pay this “tax” as the reason they left their home country.

“I’m not sure how the Biden administration feels like this is any different from what has been proposed previously,” she said, citing the failed Alliance for Prosperity from 2014, which failed to curb insecurity and forced migration from the region. “They might be using slightly different language, but to me it’s the same thing.”

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