Brian A. Nichols, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere: ‘We have to explain to the population that migration can be beneficial’

‘Unlike China and Russia, we consider that civil society and a free media are indispensable, especially now, as in the last decade support for democracy has declined,’ says the diplomat in conversation with EL PAÍS

Brian A. Nichols
Brian A. Nichols, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, in Madrid on April 2.JUAN BARBOSA
Pablo León

Brian A. Nichols, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, has just concluded an official visit to Madrid to “discuss U.S. policy toward Latin America and our partnership with Spain; to promote our shared priorities in the region,” he said during a talk at the Casa de América Tuesday. Migration and the defense of democracy are some of those priorities. “Unlike China and Russia, we consider that civil society and a free media are indispensable, especially now, as in the last decade support for democracy has declined. The U.S. wants the West to lead in defending democracy,” says the diplomat, who served as ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2018 to 2021 and, previously (2014-2017) in Peru.

Nichols, in his current post since September 2021, coordinates diplomatic operations in all countries in the Americas; part of Europe — the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, an area of France, Ireland and Iceland —; West Africa, Morocco and parts of Algeria, and a group of Polynesian islands. He also directly advises U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Question. In 2023, some 184 million people — 2.3% of the world’s population — were living outside their home country, according to World Bank data. Precisely, the southern border of the United States is one of the most strained migratory points.

Answer. The entire world is facing an unprecedented level of immigration. In our hemisphere, we have never seen the number of migrants we have now. [In the U.S.] We are doing what we can to guide migrants to legal and safe pathways. So people who try to enter the U.S. irregularly or without proper permission are not going to succeed.

Q. What policies are you implementing?

A. We work through different axes of cooperation in Mexico, in Central America, in the Caribbean, in the Andean countries... We create sources of work in the region to create opportunities for legal migration to the United States, Canada, and Spain. At the same time, in those countries, we are planning to train migration officials and use police intelligence services to break down human smuggling networks.

Q. In many places, such as in Europe, migration is fueling the vote for extreme right-wing parties, which are a threat to democracy. How do you break this vicious cycle?

A. Democracy heals the problem of irregular migration. In our region, the countries that generate the highest numbers of migrants are Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti. All of them present enormous democratic challenges. If their problems are addressed, if they become more democratic, if they are given economic opportunities and a more robust legal system... it will help to curb irregular migration. Also, [in the West] we have to explain to the population that migration can be beneficial; in many countries in Europe, as in the United States, there is a lack of labor in different sectors. When the migration process is regulated, there are opportunities for economic growth.

Q. You have spoken of Spain’s harmony with the United States in migratory matters, have you reached any agreements on this trip?

A. During our visit, the third edition of the Spain-U.S. working group on Central America was held. My government is committed to working with Spain and other executives, civil society, or international organizations to provide protection to those fleeing persecution and torture, and to manage migration humanely. Our delegations have discussed global challenges and joint programs and have talked about sustainable and inclusive development, trying to address the root causes of migration.

Q. China has gained influence in Latin America; it is now your second-largest trading partner. How is the U.S. trying to counteract this?

A. On the one hand, I think we have to make a better offer to the people of the region. And of course they can make deals with China. We ask them to open their eyes when it comes to doing business or diplomacy: the opportunities you think you are going to get with them [China] are not happening, as analyses from universities and think tanks indicate.

Brian A. Nichols during the interview on his official trip to Spain.
Brian A. Nichols during the interview on his official trip to Spain.JUAN BARBOSA

Q. What are you asking Beijing to do to alleviate the problems that fentanyl is generating?

A. The U.S. is asking China to participate in the global coalition against fentanyl, in the hope that it can contribute expertise about its industry and its processes for monitoring the chemicals. The U.S. will not wait, though: we will seek joint operations and dialogue, regardless of China’s participation in the coalition.

Q. Because of your diplomatic experience, you know Peru well. What do you think of the investigation opened against President Dina Boluarte?

A. The country is experiencing political tension, between the center and the provinces, but also between different political forces. Despite having had seven presidents since my arrival in 2014, Peru has maintained a level of economic growth and institutional stability. The country has overcome many challenges, and I hope it will continue to succeed. It is a key partner in trade, agriculture, or for its gas exports; we collaborate in the fight against drug trafficking and in promoting democratic stability. It is a country that we value and in which we want more democratic stability. The current government has been a good partner. The president [Boluarte] was at the White House for the APEP [Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity] summit in November [2023], and also in San Francisco. That gave her the opportunity to converse with the president [Joe Biden]. We look forward to interacting with the Peruvian government in the future.

Q. Today [Tuesday], Israel attacked a convoy of the NGO World Central Kitchen, which provides food to Gaza, killing seven members of the organization. Do you think it went too far in this attack or others it has carried out in the Gaza Strip?

A. What has happened is extremely concerning. The authorities are investigating and we await the outcome. Secretary of State Blinken has visited the region on several occasions; we have supported a cessation of hostilities through a resolution in the U.N. Security Council. We will continue to press for a peaceful resolution based on the two-state solution.

Q. It is true that Washington has displayed a harsher stance with Israel, has it considered reducing its arms support?

A. We share Israel’s goal of defeating Hamas, which is responsible for the worst massacre against the Jewish people since the Holocaust. And we share the goal of ensuring Israel’s security. We aspire to long-term peace and security, aligning ourselves with principles that reject the use of Gaza for terrorism, oppose the displacement of its population and reoccupation by Israel, and support a two-state solution with robust security for Israel. We have discussed with Israel the imperative of increasing and sustaining humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza; 100% of the population of the Gaza Strip is severely food insecure and in need of assistance.

Q. Are you concerned that the EU is holding elections for the European Parliament under the threat of Russian interference?

A. We have to guard against interference by Russia — also by China — in our democratic processes. That requires collaboration between countries, pointing out what we see. We have already seen Russia’s interference in electoral processes in the United States, in Latin America and in Europe, among others. European authorities have the tools to guard against hacking and political interference.

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