As the Biden government shifts its focus to Central America to stem migration, it faces a region that has experienced democratic and economic decline that exacerbates long-term challenges.
Successive hurricanes, one eruption of Coffee sheet grate, Drought and the Covid-19 pandemic have made conditions worse in an area that already had some of the highest homicide rates in the world, forcing many to abandon their families and look for opportunities in the United States. An esteemed 311,000 people have left El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the so-called Northern Triangle, annually in recent years.
The three countries are among the poorest in the western hemisphere and in 2019 were at the bottom of the Latin American and Caribbean countries in terms of GDP per capita. The pandemic has exacerbated inequality and extreme poverty there.
President Joe Biden has appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to work with the Northern Triangle countries that are home to most of the adults, children and families trying to cross the border. It’s a job Biden had as vice president, but conditions in the area have worsened since then.
In the next few years, it will be a delicate balance for the Biden administration, which puts anti-corruption, democracy and human rights at the center of its foreign policy while also aiming to help governments curb migration to the US. In Guatemala, Harris said: The U.S. Treasury Department, State Department and Justice Department will work with the government to train local law enforcement agencies and assist Guatemalan prosecutors in fighting corruption.
With the government pumping $ 4 billion into these countries, investing and engaging in high-level diplomacy over the next four years, a key issue will be working with the country’s current governments.
The widely popular President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, 39, poses particular challenges for the government.
Last month the US Agency for International Development redirected help from the El Salvador National Police and a public information institute to civil society groups on “deep concerns” following the ousting of five Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General. Harris criticized what many consider to be one of the final tests of Bukele’s power Twitter.
Bukele recently refused to meet with Ricardo Zuñiga during Zuniga’s recent visit to El Salvador, who was tapped by Biden to focus on the Northern Triangle countries. The Salvadoran President allegedly received a similar snub from the Biden administration when he made an unannounced trip to Washington in February.
In neighboring Guatemala, the legislature refused to swear in the President of the Constitutional Court after her re-election. They dropped a transplant charge against a jailed former president and arrested former investigators who had set up cases against him. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was charged with protecting drug traffickers and his brother was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Manhattan court for cocaine trafficking.
Former President Donald Trump had become an ally of the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries and ignored corruption when the three countries agreed to crack down on migration and take in asylum seekers who had been turned away at the US border. He froze some aid to the region in 2019, saying the three countries had done too little at that point to stop a surge in migration. Critics have called Trump’s policies draconian and inhumane and say they influenced the impact of the work that was done to improve conditions there.
Biden government officials said few of the $ 4 billion will go to central governments, but rather to non-governmental organizations and other private entities.
Diplomatic obstacles aside, critics of US aid to Central America say it has not slowed migration in the past. They say the money usually goes to American companies that have large offices that meet regulatory requirements, but they spend a lot of it on salaries and expenses instead of reaching the people who need it most.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, says the aid has not affected the flow of migrants, among other things, because it needs to be sustained consistently and over an extended period of time.
“It does not react to a crisis, but tries to create the conditions that avoid the crisis and prevent the crisis from occurring,” he said. “And we didn’t see that from the United States.”
Paul Angelo, a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow in Latin American Studies who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, says it’s important that the U.S. continuously engage in these countries so that people envision their future in their home country can than in the US. “These are not quick fixes. These are generation changes, ”he said.
Angelo referred to the success of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, which was founded in 2006 with the support of the United Nations and the United States. Its aim was to prosecute serious crimes by “criminal groups believed to have infiltrated state institutions” and to fight corruption. It helped convict over 400 people and helped reduce the number of murders. But the CICIG, like similar groups in the region, was disbanded in 2019 as the Guatemalan government felt threatened by the prosecutor at the time. The Trump administration dropped its strong support for the commission.
Angelo said the CICIG was symbolically important in giving Guatemalans the kind of hope many need to envision a more positive democratic future in their country. The consistent support of these types of entities by the US is important, Angelo said.
While some of the region’s recent setbacks such as Covid-19 will improve with more vaccinations, challenges such as deteriorating climatic conditions and ongoing questions about governments’ commitment to the rule of law will continue to be obstacles that are not easily addressed.
However, experts say the US must be consistent in its focus and work towards policies that can improve the lives of the region’s most vulnerable populations.
“If people have hope in their current situation, if they have hope in the life they lead every day, then they feel good when they imagine the future in their home countries,” said Angelo, “and they don’t search necessarily looking for a way. “