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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Conference Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Vice President's Trip to Guatemala

Via Teleconference

11:08 A.M. EST

MR. SPECTOR:  Hey, everybody.  Thank you for joining today’s call.  It will be on background from senior administration officials.  There will be an opportunity after our first senior administration official speaks to ask a few questions at the end.

And so with that, I’m going to turn it over to him now.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  Well, thank you.  And thanks, everyone, for joining the call.  As my colleague just mentioned, this call is going to be on background by senior administration officials.  But as a courtesy, I’d just like to introduce who we have on the call.

Great, so again, this will be on background with senior administration officials.  I just wanted to let you know who you're talking with. 

Let me just open up with a few remarks to kind of set the stage for this trip and give you a few of the details on the events and activities that we expect during the trip.  And then we’ll open it up, as my colleague said, to your questions.

Let me start, though, at the top with just one update to the schedule.  As you may know, the Vice President has been battling a tough cold for the past couple of days, and that's led us to make some adjustments to his schedule.  And so we’ve decided to take down the first leg of this trip to Uruguay, and we’ll go straight to Guatemala for the meetings on Monday and Tuesday.  So that's a schedule update on this trip.

And in a moment here I will outline a number of details on the activities and events we expect in the next few days.

So before jumping into those details, though, I think it’s worth just taking a moment to underscore the unprecedented nature and level of engagement that this administration, in particular, the President and the Vice President, have been making to advance our relationships with our allies and friends across the Western Hemisphere, but in particular in Central America.

In January of this year, the Vice President made his 10th trip to the region, the third to Brazil, to attend the January 1st inauguration of President Rousseff and to meet with leaders from across the region.  On January 6th, he hosted the second meeting of the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue, which is where we're working across our agencies with the Mexican government and their counterparts on a whole range of trade and economic issues.  And on January 26th, here in Washington, we hosted the first-ever White House Caribbean Energy Security Summit, and the Vice President helped pull that together, as well.

When you add to that all the engagement the President has been making, including his visit to Mexico last February for the North American Leaders Summit, and a series of meetings in the Oval Office with the Presidents of Uruguay, Chile, and Mexico; and meetings in Washington with the Presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, you have a huge amount of energy and time that we’ve been putting into what we see as a critical set of relationships. 

And the reason is very clear; the President and the Vice President see enormous opportunities in the region.  There’s a lot at stake for us here in the United States in what happens in the region.  And as the Vice President has put it, we're within reach of a hemisphere that's secure, middle-class, and democratic.  And our policy efforts are really focused on enhancing and supporting this trend, and most recently in the President’s National Security Strategy, you’ll see this emphasis on the Western Hemisphere mentioned and highlighted as the focus.

So with our adjusted schedule, we’ll begin this trip on Monday in Guatemala with meetings with the Presidents of the Northern Triangle countries -- that's El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras; and with the president of the Inter American Development Bank and other officials to continue our joint efforts to tackle some of the challenges in the region, including the endemic violence, poverty that have held the region back, while the rest of the hemisphere has been prospering.

You’ll all recall that last November, these leaders from the Northern Triangle rolled out their own plan to address some of these challenges called the Alliance for Prosperity at a conference that we and the Inter American Development Bank hosted here in Washington.  And at that conference, the Vice President helped outline how the United States and the international community and the private sector could work together to support these leaders as they work to implement their plan and address some of these challenges.  So that’s the backdrop to what we're going to be doing early next week in Guatemala, which is really the follow-up on how this plan, how this Alliance for Prosperity is going to be implemented.

Indeed, all of these leaders have taken some very courageous steps to target criminal smuggling groups, to root out corruption, or at least begin some efforts in that direction, and to promote the transparency of governance and institutions in their countries.

There are a number of examples of where they’ve taken some steps and made some commitments over the last few months.  There’s clearly a lot more work to do, but we’ve seen a very promising start.  And so this trip is really about the next steps. 

And the Vice President will be meeting with these leaders.  They’ll be rolling up their sleeves and working to discuss and agree on a range of specific steps going forward to stimulate the region’s economic growth, to reduce inequality, and promote educational opportunities, to target criminal networks responsible for human trafficking, and to help create governance and institutions that are transparent and accountable.  So that's going to be the substantive focus of the trip. 

Now in terms of the specific events, I think we’ll expect to see -- we're still putting the finishing touches on all the parts in his schedule, but I think you’ll see the Vice President meeting with the three leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, meeting with the President of Guatemala, as well, as host of this set of events.  We’ll be bringing with us a delegation from the U.S. government departments and agencies that are already working directly with their counterparts in these countries on these programs and on these issues.  And we’ll actually be sitting down with our delegation and the delegations from the three countries and development bank to run through each of the elements of their strategy.  And we expect coming out of this discussion with the experts on all four sides, we’ll see very specific plans and commitments both in the near term, but also in the longer term, what these guys are really working on.

Finally, the Vice President I expect will be meeting with a number of leaders and experts from outside of government, including the private sector and civil society, and with some of our international institutions and partners that are working in the region.  And we’ll have an opportunity to look firsthand at some of the programs and other efforts that are involved in this endeavor. 

I should also mention that Dr. Biden is planning to accompany the Vice President on this trip.  And we’ll have more information about her program in the coming days.

Let me just conclude by saying that tackling these challenges, at least from our perspective, really requires nothing less than systemic change.  And the United States, we feel like we have a direct interest in helping our Central American neighbors succeed in this effort.  And that’s why the President, as part of his budget, has requested $1 billion from Congress to help support these programs going forward.  And that’s why the President and the Vice President have remained so actively and personally involved on this set of issues.

So from our perspective, where this fits in is that we see no reason why Central America cannot follow in the footsteps of countries like Columbia and other parts of the region to become the next success story in the Western Hemisphere.  And it's really in our own interest that these leaders succeed in their task, and we also recognize they can’t do it alone.  And that’s why we’re working to sort of support them as they commit to some very tough steps to move forward in these critical areas and while we’re also helping galvanize the support of the international community.  And if we do all that, we think we can succeed.

So that’s the backdrop.  Why don’t I stop there and we’ll take a few questions about the trip and some of the issues we expect to discuss and resolve over the course of the next few days.

Q    Hi.  Good morning.  Many thanks for doing this.  Thanks a lot for doing this.  Quickly, I would like to -- clarification more than anything.  Yesterday the three leaders from the Northern Triangle met to plan for the meeting with Vice President Biden, and they said that they were deciding what to do with $5 billion that they’re expecting to receive from the U.S. -- starting from next year, $1 billion a year. 

So my question is this $5 billion their referring to, is that included in the budget of 2016?  Or is this money already appropriated?

And also on a related topic but different topic.  I would like to ask you guys if you could please provide an update on the program that was announced on November during the rollout of the Alliance at a program for the families in Central America who request refugee status for their children in Central America.  If you guys could please provide some update, that would be very helpful.  Thanks a lot.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So our colleague is going to give an update on the program that you’re referring to.  But let me start with the first one just very quickly. 

So we have a budget cycle that is, as you know, divided by annual fiscal year requests.  For the fiscal year of 2016, the administration announced its request for $1 billion to assist Central America, partly for implementation of the Alliance for Prosperity.

But what I think the Minister was referring to in that press article was what we hope to be the eventual investment over time on the part of the United States, but indicating also -- and it’s important to note, in those same comments, this was the Foreign Minister of Honduras, and he noted that the countries themselves would be providing a much larger proportion of their investments for the Alliance for Prosperity, which tracks very much with our vision for this, which is that we are supporting a plan that is led and primarily resourced by the countries of Central America, and particularly the Northern Triangle.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, and just to provide more context for the reporters who are on the line, who might not be familiar -- that the State Department announced and the Vice President also announced in the December, when there was the Inter American Development Bank Conference, this is a way that we can provide a legal way for those migrant minors from Central America who legitimately have humanitarian concerns and are fleeing the country, and do have (inaudible) legal parents who live in the United States, so they can be able to be reunited with their parents here, but obviously they have to meet strict requirements and refugee status.

But the goal of the program is that they are able to petition and file their refugee petition from their own countries so they don’t have to do the perilous journey north and come with a smuggler or any other way.  So that’s a way to provide a legal way for refugee migrant children.

Now, just as an update, I’m just going to refer you to the State Department.  The Population, Refugee, and Migration Bureau is the one who is handling this program.  It started last December, but I don’t have any specific update on the status of the (inaudible).

Q    I want to follow up on the first question.  Some Senate Democrats are balking at the $1 billion plan for Central America, because they think -- I believe it was Senator Durbin who said that the U.S. has been giving out money for a long time with little to show for it, especially on the accountability issue.  So, concretely, I want to know what the Vice President is going to be traveling down with.  Obviously, it seems like he’s going down there empty-handed for now, because the bill -- the money has not been approved.  So I was wondering what exactly is the U.S. bringing to the table in terms of implementing this Alliance plan?  And what is the timeline for that implementation, on the one hand? 

And the other hand -- the other question is, the pilot program for the Central American kids doesn’t seem to be going too well.  We had a story yesterday, according to State Department officials, saying that only 135 kids have signed up.  So I’m wondering, what is the total, considering that 4,000 visas are available, why is it that this program has not had a success rate?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Great.  So thanks for that question.  Let me start with the first one.  First of all, I think it’s important to note that there is a consensus among many in Congress and in the administration that it’s very clear that it’s more effective to spend U.S. resources and trying to improve conditions in Central America so that there’s much less pressure on the part of individuals to migrate for reasons of security or economy than it is to try to deal with the effects of that in the United States.  We saw that last year very clearly demonstrated in the need to provide humanitarian response to the flow of unaccompanied minors.

But apart from that, we’ve seen those reports.  The message that we have delivered and that the Vice President will be delivering in Central America when he meets with the leaders in Guatemala is that there needs to be concrete and well-planned, and well thought-out commitments by each of us to show that we are going to be spending resources effectively.  And certainly, we have mapped out the notion that we should spend a lot of initial programming ensuring that there is transparency, that there are measures in place to prevent corruption, and most importantly, that the kind of assistance that we are trying to put together is going to result in improved conditions for the people we’re trying to benefit.

We think that critiques certainly in the -- as an absolutely constructive piece of guidance.  And I should say the other senators, such as Senator McCain, Senator Cardin, were very supportive of the administration’s announcement.  We look forward to working with everyone in Congress to make clear that the funding that we are requesting is going to be put towards a productive and effective use.  And the message the Vice President will be delivering in Central America is that we must be able to demonstrate that in order for us to gain the appropriate congressional support for the allocation of these resources. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Then the second part, I really want to emphasize that the In-Country Refugee Program is just part of one of the -- is not the only solution to the problem, right.  We need to have an administration-wide response.  And we have -- just one part of our toolbox, so that we can provide a legal way for refugee children. 

But there’s also other administration responses where there is investing in countries like as my colleague just mentioned in terms of making sure that there is an opportunity for investing in economic prosperity as well as security reasons, as well as DHS response, as well as anti-smuggling efforts.  So this is part of many different tools that we have in our toolbox, but in no way is a view as the only response to the surge of migrants that we had last year.

Q    Hi.  Thank you very much for taking the call.  I wanted to follow-up on the corruption issue.  When you’re down there in those countries and talking to the people who are working with the children, and with the mothers who are coming, what they say over and over again is, all this help, all this money coming from the United States does not get to us.  And in fact, that there is great suspicion that much of it lands up in the hands of the politicians.  Is the Vice President going to deliver a stern message about that in any way?  Publicly, and in private?

And B, has the administration thought of or is it working to funnel some of this money that it wants to send there through other organizations, NGOs or something like that instead of through the government where it seems to land up and stay? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay.  Thanks very much for that question.  I think it's important to note that in most cases, U.S. assistance doesn’t go through governments.  Or if it does, it's in a program where there’s very significant oversight on the part of USAID or the other implementing agency.

So absolutely understand why there would be skepticism.  It is a reason why U.S. programs are subject to very intense oversight from Congress.  And sometimes it means that it can be hard to implement those programs because, in fact, the oversight requirements are so (inaudible) here what we’re trying to do is make sure that we are implementing -- we’re basically using these resources in an environment where they’re going to be more effective than they have been in the past.

There’s a lot of reasons why it’s hard for assistance to be effective.  But I also have to say that -- just take one example -- in terms of security programs that have been -- or violence prevention programs -- that have been implemented by USAID for example, they’ve been locally successful.  The problem has not been so much that we’re not reaching success through individual programs, it's that we’re not reaching a broad enough group. 

We’re basically seeing localized success but not broad-based success.  So what we’re trying to do is work with the governments to have programs that they themselves are going to be able to lead, take over, and run, and manage, and resource through their own resources, but that are going to be systemic and are going to be more than local.   

And so that does require a larger investment, but it also requires a great deal of more commitment on the part of all the governments involved.  The United States government, as well as the governments involved at every level, local, municipal, and national governments, to strict oversight and transparency.

I think it's important here to underline, for example, the case of Honduras, they’ve invited Transparency International to take a much greater role in the implementation in programs in Honduras.  That’s a good sign.  That’s exactly the kind of response I think is necessary to provide greater confidence to populations.  Populations that have really undergone terrible conditions over the last several years, so I think that it's fair to demand accountability.  We certainly are going to be stressing that point that we are under significant oversight, as well, as should be the case.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think that's absolutely right.  Let just add one other comment which is to say in terms of the Vice President’s message, I think this will be a very clear focus of the meetings and the comments that the Vice President will make; and the reason, as it has been, in fact, in his engagements with these leaders and other leaders in the region over the course of the last eight months to a year as we’ve worked through a number of these issues.

And, in fact, this is something the Vice President has been focused on, as the administration has, not just in the Western Hemisphere, but around the world, because obviously the challenges of corruption are not just a governance challenge there, in many cases a national security challenge, as well.  So I expect the Vice President will be laser-focused on this set of issues in exactly the way my colleague just mentioned during the course of this trip.

Q    Hi, yes, my question is during the issue of the child migrants last summer one of the big questions was not only would Central American countries sort of crack down on the migration if they could -- depending on how much ability their government had to do so -- but also how much Mexico would do.  And I wondered if you have a sense since then how much of this sort of slowdown of the migrants has been attributable to the three governments that the Vice President will meet with?  And how much has been an effort of the Mexican government who has maybe made a more remarkable sort of shift in their own policy.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay, thanks for that.  I think that it really is important here, and thanks for putting that question forward because it is important to emphasize that Mexico played a tremendous role in helping to deal with the situation that we faced last summer.

I think it’s also important to kind of put in context how they approached this.  They did not approach this simply as a matter of enforcement, although there was that and making sure that people weren’t using the -- the train that infamously was such a dangerous mode of transportation for the people coming north, but that they saw this as a need to kind of establish a greater control and management of their southern border.  So they launched the southern border strategy that included both enforcement, but also ways for people who were legitimately traveling through the region to be able to move more effectively back and forth in an organized fashion. 

So a large focus on the part of the Mexican government over the last year has been in heading up this -- implementing the southern border strategy, including by being able to provide legal access through identifications for the citizens of Central America, particularly Guatemalans, to be able to move around in southern Mexico, but also to have order so that they understood who was traveling there legally and who was there in some kind of unauthorized status. 

So I would say it is important to note that Mexico has continued to be active, and the southern border was not just a temporary response.  This has been an issue where we’ve been in good communication between our governments, and we're going to continue to focus on this.

And then lastly on this point, I think Mexico has emphasized, as we have, the importance of dealing with the conditions inside of Central America.  Mexico has made major commitments, particularly in the case of Guatemala and on the energy front to try to improve the conditions and increase the competitiveness of the countries in Central America so that people will have a chance to be secure and prosperous, or at least have some stability at home so they don't feel the need to leave their home countries.

MR. SPECTOR:  Great.  And I think that's where we're going to wrap it up.  Once again, we appreciate you guys jumping on the call with us today.  And if you have any follow-up questions, you can reach us at  Thanks again.

11:34 P.M. EST