LatinNews Daily - 20 April 2022

PANAMA: Blinken in Panama to shore up regional efforts to tackle migration

On 19 April US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a two-day visit to Panama City where he met Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo and Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes.

Analysis:

Blinken’s visit to Panama, where he signed a bilateral arrangement on migration and is co-leading a ministerial conference on migration attended by representatives from 20 countries, highlights a key priority for the US government led by President Joe Biden – addressing irregular migration. Amid reports of record migrant apprehensions at the US-Mexico border, the issue has made headlines in recent months in Panama which has registered unprecedented numbers of migrants passing through the Darién Gap, a roadless expanse of jungle on Panama’s eastern border with Colombia. Unlike the previous US administration led by Donald Trump (2017-2021), which pursued hardline anti-migration policies, the Biden government has pledged to address the root causes of migration through a US$4bn four-year plan for Central America. Blinken’s visit to Panama and co-hosting of the conference follows other regional summits, indicative of the continued awareness of the need for a concerted response to tackle an issue which has been exacerbated by the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

  • US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported encountering 221,303 undocumented migrants at the US-Mexico border in March 2022 – the highest monthly total since President Biden assumed office in January 2021.
  • According to official figures cited by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the total number of people crossing the Darién Gap surged from 2,928 in the first two months of 2021 to 8,456 in the same period of 2022. The UN agencies report that a record 133,000 people made the journey last year, the large majority of whom were Haitians.
  • Yesterday the US and Panamanian governments signed a bilateral arrangement on migration and protection, to “improve migration management, expand stabilisation efforts and increase access to legal pathways and protection for those in the region.”
  • Blinken's visit and the regional conference follows a similar meeting hosted by Colombia in October 2021, and more recently, a summit hosted by Costa Rica last month attended by Cortizo, his Costa Rican and Dominican peers, Carlos Alvarado and Luis Abinader respectively, as well as top US officials which, among other things, addressed illegal migration and produced a US-Costa Rica bilateral migration arrangement.
  • In August 2021 Panama also hosted an unprecedented virtual summit to address the migration situation.
  • Blinken’s visit to Panama and US attendance at the Costa Rica summit reflects Washington’s efforts to shore up ties with alternative partners in Central America amid concerns over President Nayib Bukele’s authoritarian bent in El Salvador, the worrying state of the judiciary in Guatemala, and as US relations with Nicaragua remain at a low following President Daniel Ortega’s controversial re-election in November 2021.
  • The US government also highlighted the challenge of corruption as a key issue underpinning Blinken’s visit to Panama. The US delegation is due to meet civil-society groups and other sectors to discuss the issue on which Cortizo has failed to make much progress, despite his key pledge upon taking office in July 2019 to strengthen the country’s institutions.

Looking Ahead: Also indicative of the US concern about irregular migration, a round of migration talks will take place tomorrow (21 April) between Cuba and the US in Washington DC. This is the highest-level exchange between the two countries since President Biden took office and comes as bilateral ties remain under strain due to US concerns over human rights in Cuba.

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