WASHINGTON – As thousands of migrants seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration says it’s committed to promoting “a safer and more prosperous Central America” as a way to stem the tide of people fleeing poverty, violence and corruption in their home countries.
But that pledge – issued on Tuesday in a new State Department strategy toward Central America – may ring hollow in places like El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
For one thing, President Donald Trump has threatened to cut assistance to those countries, not increase it, citing their governments’ inability to curb the desperate outflow of migrants. Trump also wants to end a decades-old humanitarian immigration program that would force tens of thousands of legal Central American immigrants to return to their countries.
But long before Trump took office, the U.S. has had a checkered history of involvement in Central America – and some say American foreign policy in the region has caused the instability and inequality at the root of the current crisis.
“The current debate … is almost totally about what to do about immigrants when they get here,” says Jeff Faux, a distinguished fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “But the 800-pound gorilla that’s missing from the table is what we have been doing there that brings them here, that drives them here.”
Decades of U.S. intervention
From the perspective of Faux and others, the answer goes back decades. There was the CIA’s covert operation to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected president in 1954. And America’s intervention in El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s. And the Obama administration’s refusal in 2009 to label the ouster of Honduras’ president a military coup – even though soldiers dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night and sent him into exile in his pajamas.
“We’ve sent troops there, we’ve suborned governments there, and basically we have been supporting the elites who protect U.S. business interests,” Faux said.
The decades-long history of American intervention has left Central American governments weak and fragile, he argued, while empowering oligarchs and drug cartels, which has, in turn, fueled the corruption and gang violence that’s driving residents to flee.
“People are leaving because the corrupt governments (supported by the U.S.) have tolerated and encouraged the growth of these criminal organizations,” he said.
But others argue it’s overly simplistic, or even flat wrong, to blame the U.S. for the current problems in Central America.
“Of course, yes, the U.S.’s direct intervention and U.S. policies have absolutely destabilized” Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central American countries, creating long-term problems in the region, said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas.
But, she said, “it’s one factor of many.” She cited a confluence of other dynamics – from birth of the MS-13 gang in Los Angeles to the precipitous drop in world coffee prices – that have come together to spark the current migration crisis.
Lawyers for the family of a seven-year-old girl who died while in US Border Patrol custody say she did not suffer from a lack of food or water before authorities picked her up. US officials say she had not had anything to eat or drink for days. (Dec. 17)
Coffee market collapse
The collapse of the coffee market, for example, has made it nearly impossible for Central American growers to earn a living. Many coffee farmers in the region are now operating at a net loss.
“Our people are starving,” Ricardo Arenas Mendes, president of Anacafe, a producers’ group based in Guatemala, told Reuters in September. “Every day we have this price crisis, there is more illegal immigration from our countries to North America. That is a very dangerous situation,” he said.
The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, said the crisis has thrown 90,000 small coffee producers in his country into extreme poverty. “On average, a cup of coffee could be five dollars in New York. Of those five dollars, maybe two cents reach coffee producers in Honduras,” Hernandez said during a meeting in October at the State Department.
Ana Rosa Quintana, a Latin America policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, says “there really is no way to draw a line from (American intervention in Central America) to what we’re seeing now.”
“It’s been nearly 30 years since the end of their civil wars,” she said, and yet the governments remain “incredibly weak and ineffective.” They have failed to develop into strong democracies – and failed to create safe societies for their people.
Quintana said the drug trade has been a major driver of the instability and violence. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are all transshipment points for cocaine and other drugs smuggled to the United States, a top drug-consuming country.
“It’s an incredibly corrupting influence,” Quintana said. “Look what happened with the president of the brother of Honduras.”
On Nov. 26, prosecutors in New York charged Antonio Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman and the brother of the current president, with conspiring to bring tons of cocaine in the United States. The indictment casts Hernandez as “a large-scale drug trafficker” who oversaw processing and distribution of cocaine from Colombia through Honduras to the United States, according to the Associated Press. The president has not been implicated and has distanced himself from his brother’s actions.
But for Faux, the arrest of Hernandez is further evidence that America’s history of propping up less-than-popular regimes has fostered corruption and allowed the drug trade to flourish. In 2009, when Honduran soldiers ousted the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, the Obama administration equivocated on whether to label it a coup, although the State Department eventually pressed for new elections.
The Trump administration has been quick to embrace Zelaya’s more conservative successor, Hernandez, despite accusations of electoral fraud and protests that killed more than 30 people.
TPS time bomb
Central American governments have also pleaded with the administration over the last year to continue the Temporary Protected Status program, a humanitarian initiative created in 1990 to help immigrants from countries that suffered war or major natural disasters.
Administration officials argue that TPS has been wrongly extended for years, and that conditions in those countries are now suitable for thousands of their residents to return home. The administration tried to end TPS, but in October a federal judge, citing its unconstitutionality and racial bias, put a temporary halt to the plans.
Nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, 57,000 Hondurans and more than 2,500 Nicaraguans may be forced to return to their countries if TPS ends.
In dealing with the latest migrant caravan crisis, the White House has mostly focused on clamping down on the border – restricting asylum and calling for tougher immigration laws. On Tuesday, the State Department said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet with his Mexican counterpart for in late January 2019 “to agree on a strategic framework for our cooperation in Central America to address root causes of migration.”
In a Dec. 1 interview with a Latin American division of Voice of America, Pompeo said the U.S. was determined to work with Mexico to “create opportunities in the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) so these people will have better lives there. After all, that’s what it’s really all about. It’s the capacity to live their lives the way they want to with economic success and freedom.”
Mexico’s new President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has proposed a Marshall Plan for Central America – calling for a $30 billion investment over the next five years to spur economic development and create jobs in the region. Obrador has pitched the Trump administration on the idea, hoping the U.S. will partner with Mexico on the initiative.
In Tuesday’s announcement, the State Department mentioned Obrador’s “ambitious plans to promote economic growth.” But the administration has not committed to invest any money in that plan, instead touting the possibility of leveraging private investment through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the federal agency that helps American businesses invest in foreign countries.
“The administration’s new strategy is more smoke and mirrors than substance,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chair of the Appropriations Committee. “In terms of real money, they are doing less than what’s been done in the past.”
Meanwhile, “they aren’t really talking about the elephant in the room,” Leahy said, which is that the Central American governments “have not shown that they are serious about stopping the corruption and impunity” that have contributed to migration. The senator said there’s “a growing reluctance in Congress to provide more aid to corrupt governments that have done too little to help their own people climb out of poverty.”
For now, the president is focused on getting $5 billion in funding for his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. That, he says, is the key to stemming illegal immigration.
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