WASHINGTON — When it comes to supplying ventilators and other coronavirus aid to Central America, Trump administration officials say they are not playing favorites.
But countries that have been more cooperative on immigration and other issues seem to have moved to the front of the line.
The presidents of El Salvador and Honduras have promised to try to keep their citizens at home and away from the trails of migration toward the United States.
And on Friday, Trump promised that both countries would receive ventilators.
“Just spoke to President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador,” Trump tweeted. “Will be helping them with Ventilators, which are desperately needed. They have worked well with us on immigration at the Southern Border!”
About an hour later, Trump added:
“Just spoke to President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the Republic of Honduras. We work closely together on the Southern Border. Will be helping him with his request for Ventilators and Testing.”
The United States doesn’t share a border with Honduras or El Salvador, so Trump was presumably referring to agreements in which those countries have pledged to take back migrants and asylum-seekers.
For Guatemala, however, which is facing a similar or worse coronavirus threat, Trump had no offers of support. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in recent weeks has repeatedly blocked — then unblocked, then re-blocked — deportation flights from the United States transporting Guatemalans who had entered the U.S. illegally.
Guatemala said Friday that 89 Guatemalan deportees from the U.S. had arrived home with COVID-19.
Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Friday that deporting migrants to their home countries was actually safer for their health than continuing to detain them in crowded immigration jails.
He defended the dispatch of coronavirus-infected migrants to their home countries — potentially spreading the disease to new ground — by saying that many were asymptomatic at the time of their deportation, so it could not be determined that they were ill.
“The policy is not to remove anyone who is ill,” Kozak said before referring further inquiries to the Homeland Security Department.
Kozak also said he did not believe Trump was singling out countries for punishment but merely responding to requests as he got them.
“There isn’t some hard linkage here between cooperation on removals and ventilators,” he said in a briefing with reporters. “We’re trying to get medicine and medical supplies to anybody who needs them, including countries that we have not particularly good relations with.
“I wouldn’t be speculating about punishments at this point,” Kozak added.
Trump also wrote a charitable tweet to Lenin Moreno, president of Ecuador, although he initially misspelled the name of the hard-hit country, again offering ventilators. Ecuador hasn’t played much of a role in any Trump initiatives, but it has become more supportive of U.S. policies since Moreno replaced a leftist government.
Hernandez of Honduras has routinely lavished praise on Trump and acquiesced to U.S. policies as far-flung as voting with Washington — and against most of the rest of the world — at the United Nations over a resolution seeking to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. U.S. law enforcement has accused Hernandez of involvement in drug trafficking.
El Salvador’s Bukele has enjoyed enthusiastic support from Washington. Bukele has taken an increasingly hard line with expanded use of the military, to fight the coronavirus pandemic and to stifle his political opponents.
Many Salvadorans worry that Bukele’s actions are a throwback to the country’s militarized, undemocratic past. The country endured a 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, in which the United States backed a brutal right-wing government and its army.
More than 2,000 Salvadorans have been rounded up in recent days and placed in holding facilities because they violated social distancing rules, even as detention in overcrowded facilities violates the same rules. The Supreme Court has told the government to stop arbitrarily detaining people, but Bukele has ignored the ruling.
The Trump administration has refused to condemn what many in El Salvador and the rest of Latin America see as Bukele’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.
Kozak said administration officials have given “constructive advice” to the parties in El Salvador but have chosen not to make public pronouncements.
He said the administration sees the disputes in El Salvador as more of a disagreement over how to confront the pandemic than political repression.
U.S. officials said this week they have given $757 million to about 100 countries to assist in their fight against the coronavirus crisis, including about $64 million to 30 nations in the Western Hemisphere.
U.S. administrations over the last decades have contributed huge resources to the global battle against epidemics such as Ebola and HIV-AIDS.
Many leaders of those campaigns, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, are involved in the current administration’s efforts against the coronavirus outbreak. But the Trump administration has cut off its funding to one of the other main champions in the battle, the World Health Organization, accusing it of bias in favor of China.
(Staff writer Cindy Carcamo contributed from Santa Ana, Calif.)
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