Central America has lately been prominent in the news, with controversy over how to respond to migrant caravans arriving through Mexico at the U.S. border — up to 10,000 refugees may seek asylum in the United States, much to the chagrin of President Trump.
The president has used the situation to amplify his calls for a border wall, even though the number of unauthorized immigrants has been steadily falling and comes mainly from overstayed visas rather than illegal crossings.
More recently, an agreement that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico has created turmoil in Tijuana and other border cities. Mexico and the United States have also proposed a bilateral investment program to curb migration from Central America. Disagreement over the border wall led directly to a U.S. government shutdown and a threat to cancel U.S. support to the region.
Overall, the crisis in Central America is having a dramatic impact on U.S. politics.
All this follows an earlier determination by the Trump administration that removed temporary protected status granted to tens of thousands of Hondurans after a 1999 hurricane had ravaged their country. The administration claimed that conditions had improved sufficiently in Honduras to warrant suspension of protected status, despite the fact that Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. (In fact, its rampant corruption from the drug trade has been investigated in detail by the U.S. government’s own Drug Enforcement Administration.)
There’s a strong case for continued protection for Honduran refugees and the other thousands from Guatemala and El Salvador who have joined them, most of them desperate individuals frantically seeking a new life. Americans have always felt a strong obligation to help those less fortunate, hearkening back to a broad sanctuary movement that directly supported refugees during the Cold War conflicts of the 1980s.
Still, almost totally absent from this discussion is any awareness of U.S. responsibility for the repressive and corrupt governments that have been the driving force behind this flood of refugees.
A Shameful History
A hundred years ago, American businessmen basically took control of Central America.
With the mostly white, Spanish-speaking aristocracy in the region, they set up subservient governments that strongly supported U.S. commercial interests at the expense of the indigenous populations. The U.S. government turned a blind eye to, or abetted, this repressive commercial domination of “banana republics.”
The situation was exacerbated by the Cold War against Soviet communism. Unfortunately, that struggle was given such overwhelming priority in foreign policy that the United States often supported brutal autocrats so long as they were anti-communist. In Central America, this intensified existing U.S. support for its repressive governments.
In post-war Guatemala, popular uprisings had brought in reform governments that directly threatened U.S. business interests, leading to a CIA-led invasion that resulted in a bitter civil war. The United States a supported series of repressive governments responsible for widespread massacres in the country, for which President Clinton eventually apologized.
A U.N.-sponsored peace accord in 1996 ended the civil war and led to free elections, but resulted in deeply corrupt governments. The current government is in the process of trying to terminate a U.N. commission investigating corruption. The United States, initially a strong supporter of the commission, has fallen silent.
The situation is no better in El Salvador, which also had bitter civil conflicts in the 1980s. Pre-war political turmoil had the commercial elites strongly supporting the country’s military government’s brutal suppression of rural resistance. A post-war coup and reform governments supported economic development, but a brief war with Honduras and rising opposition led to another coup and then a civil war.
Opposition elements consolidated into a single Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), and the U.S. government began actively training military elements to suppress it. In many cases these military units committed grievous human rights abuses.
A U.N.-sponsored peace accord in 1992 saw the FMLN transition into a political party which went on to win national elections. But poor economic conditions and drug trafficking led to the rise of two violent street gangs that the government has been totally unable to suppress.
Honduras returned to civilian rule after the peace accord with El Salvador, and the United States established a continuing military presence. As the Honduran army became heavily involved with anti-guerilla activities, a CIA-backed campaign became entangled in a range of extra-judicial killings.
This involvement deepened in June 2009, when a coup d’etat ousted the elected President Manuel Zelaya. The United States declined to insist on Zelaya’s return, instead continuing cooperation with the new government. U.S.-trained forces continue to suppress popular demonstrations in the country, and the government continues to favor foreign corporations at the expense of the local population.
The situation is further complicated by the U.S. demand for illicit drugs — and its prohibition of them — which fuels much of the criminality in the region, as well as helping to destabilize Mexico.
Overall, the current dismal governance in much of Central America is a direct result of callous U.S. policies.
A Mini-Marshall Plan
With the refugees from these countries now arriving at the U.S. border, the situation is a stark reminder that the United States has a fundamental stake in global peace and prosperity.
In the case of Central America, the solution lies not in domestic U.S. adjustments alone, but actions in the countries of origin of the desperate refugees fleeing brutal conditions. President Trump’s threat to cut off U.S. aid to the countries refugees flee is exactly the opposite of what’s really needed — a comprehensive regional strategy for economic development in support of democracy and human rights.
The problems have been a century in the making and certainly won’t be resolved overnight. There needs to be an integrated network of actions to stabilize the region, stem the flood of refugees, and align the U.S. with global forces for democracy and development rather than repression.
A significant step could be some sort of mini-Marshall Plan with a Regional Development Council, a comprehensive collaboration to support modern economies.
Upgrading schools and infrastructure would be critical early steps, and returning refugees could contribute significantly to such activities. Agriculture remains the basic driver of local economies ever since banana production brought about an initial economic surge. The situation has been complicated by recent droughts which have added food distress as a major element motivating refugees to flee.
Thousands of current and recent refugees from Central America should be involved in such development programs, helping to make real change in their home countries.
There’s some infrastructure for this already. An “Alliance for Prosperity” launched under President Obama led to Conferences on Prosperity and Security in Central America, the latest held just last month. The National Democratic Institute has also sponsored a conference of Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — to advance a regional legislative agenda on security and human rights. The recent announcement on an investment program could significantly expand these modest efforts.
Such coordination needs to be on a broader regional basis and at the governmental level, developing economies that reduce violence and work for everyone. It cannot be simply be a U.S. effort, so the inclusion of Mexico in the proposed investment program is very encouraging.
China has also pledged $150 million in support of development in El Salvador, and the World Bank has long been promoting jobs in the region. Former Secretary of State George Shultz has recommended working with the Inter-American Development Bank to redirect its finance focus to its poorest member countries.
The principal emphasis should be on infrastructure and public health plans that support economic expansion with immediate job opportunities, as well as a regional market to expand the Central American economies.
Economic development has to be tied to governance improvements, reducing violence with rule-of-law and anti-corruption measures. Former Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton has made several concrete recommendations on these lines, starting with encouraging governments to broker peace deals between rival gangs while addressing underlying causes.
This requires an unremitting focus on corruption and support to prosecute high-level crimes, reinforcing such prior actions as the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations supporting the prosecution of high-profile crimes in Honduras.
Any such efforts also have to be on an international level. The United Nations, for example, had an independent investigator in Guatemala whose efforts had led to meaningful criminal justice reforms, anti-corruption laws, and high security courts for the prosecution of powerful individuals. But he was banned by the current government without any major international objections.
The United States needs to strongly support such anti-corruption initiatives and work to expand them across the region. Civilian and military officials who fail to cooperate need to be publicly identified, with restrictions placed on their financial dealings as well as travel of their family members to the United States.
Alongside this top-down approach, the United States can help to mobilize citizens and local civil society to reestablish public safety. In Honduras, a U.S. partnership with the Alliance for Peace and Justice helped collect data on violence, vet and purge the police force of corrupt officials, and implement new laws for safer streets. Some 25 community centers now provide safe spaces and programming for young people. Throughout the region, the United States has backed land registration of the disempowered to counter the prevalence of violent, illegal seizures of private property.
All these initiatives are positive steps, but they need expansion and strong support to protect both indigenous populations and the free press essential to anti-corruption efforts.
Initial steps would have to be with those governments which proved to be most cooperative, demonstrating the potential for broad development, focusing on specific industries (such as agriculture and tourism) and working jointly to set up Enterprise Zones insulated from broad political dysfunction. These zones could employ local individuals fleeing violence in their home areas.
Winding Down the Drug War
Illicit drugs remain a fundamental cause for violence and a major challenge for the region, with the demand driven from within the United States. Secretary Shultz stresses the need to reduce this demand with improved economic conditions at home and expanded domestic drug reduction programs.
The failure of the supply-side approach can be seen in the fact that the United States has the highest drug use among major economies despite leading a global war on drugs for decades. Instead of prohibition, decriminalizing use and small-scale possession of drugs, legalizing responsible marijuana use, expanding well-vetted drug treatment centers, and improving economic prospects for people in the United States could gradually reduce both drug use and profits going south to drug lords, which would reduce incentives for violence while hopefully mitigating the worst impacts of the related U.S. opioid crisis.
Resources currently spent on disrupting supply and paying for the costly domestic incarceration of drug users could be used instead to support drug demand reduction and treatment efforts, as well as development efforts in trafficking regions. There are also broad opportunities to intensify international cooperation on obstructing drug traffic routes and their associated violence, minimizing the associated corruption, and complicating financial support for drug operations.
Parallel with this, there needs to be significant improvement in the capacity to fairly and swiftly assess the claims of asylum seekers in the United States. Those who meet the criteria should be admitted without delay.
That means more humane conditions for people awaiting a hearing, more interviewers who determine whether migrants meet the “credible fear” threshold, and more immigration judges. The inadequacy of current capacity has contributed to a backlog of some 1 million cases in the immigration courts. To address this aspect of the challenge, the Deputy Attorney General has recently recommended the establishment of a new appellate court for immigration appeals.
The United States needs to stop quibbling over short-term responses to the Central American crisis and focus on realistic positive programs to address it. Instead of spending an estimated $40 billion on an ineffectual border wall, the money would be much better spent promoting prosperity and improving local governance to minimize the number of refugees who are displaced in the first place.
There are many good options. Combining U.S. ingenuity with local initiatives and enforcing the rule of law could significantly reduce violence and improve economic prospects in the region — and, hopefully, give people a real choice to flourish in their home countries.