As the Biden administration focuses more on Central America in its quest to stem migration, it faces a region that has seen democratic and economic deterioration compounding long-term challenges.
Back-to-back hurricanes, a coffee leaf rust outbreak, drought and the Covid-19 pandemic have worsened conditions in a region that already had some of the highest homicide rates in the world, forcing many to leave their families and seek opportunities. in the USA. An estimated 311,000 people have left El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle, each year in recent years.
All three countries are among the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and, in 2019, ranked near the bottom for GDP per capita among countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and extreme poverty there.
President Joe Biden has asked Vice President Kamala Harris to work with the Northern Triangle countries where most of the adults, children and families who attempt to cross the border come from. It’s a job Biden had as vice president, but conditions in the region have deteriorated since then.
Over the next few years, that will be a delicate balance for the Biden administration, which has placed the fight against corruption, democracy and human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, while aiming to help governments to curb migration to the United States. In Guatemala, Harris said the US Treasury, state and justice departments will work with the government to train local law enforcement and support Guatemalan prosecutors in their anti-corruption efforts.
As the administration injects $ 4 billion into these countries over the next four years, investing and engaging in high-level diplomacy, one of the key issues will be partnership with the country’s current governments.
The very popular President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, 39, is particularly difficult on the administration.
Last month, the US Agency for International Development redirected aid from El Salvador’s National Police and a public information institute to civil society groups over “deep concerns” over the dismissal of five Supreme Court judges and the Attorney General. Harris criticized the move, which many see as one of Bukele’s last checks on power, on Twitter.
Bukele recently declined to meet with Ricardo Zuñiga, who was asked by Biden to focus on the Northern Triangle countries, during Zuniga’s recent visit to El Salvador. The Salvadoran president is said to have received a similar snub from the Biden administration when he unexpectedly visited Washington in February.
In neighboring Guatemala, the legislature refused to take the oath of office for the president of the Constitutional Court after her re-election. They dropped a corruption charge against a jailed former president and arrested former investigators who had built cases against him. And Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been accused of protecting drug traffickers, and his brother has been sentenced to life in prison for cocaine trafficking by a Manhattan court.
Former President Donald Trump had become an ally of the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries and turned a blind eye to corruption as the three countries agreed to crack down on migration and take in asylum seekers who had been turned away from the US border. He froze some aid to the region in 2019, saying the three countries had done too little to stop a wave of migration at the time. Critics have called Trump’s policies draconian and inhumane and say they have affected the impact of the work being done to improve conditions there.
Officials in the Biden administration have said that little of the $ 4 billion will go to central governments, but rather to non-governmental organizations and other private entities.
Diplomatic hurdles 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 oversight requirements, but they use a lot of it for salaries and expenses, instead of reaching the people who need it most. .
Michael Shifter, chairman of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, explains that part of the reason aid has not reduced the flow of migrants is that it needs to be consistent and sustained over a long period of time.
“It is not about reacting to a crisis, but trying to create the conditions that avoid the crisis and prevent the crisis from happening,” he said. “And we haven’t seen that from the United States.”
Paul Angelo, a Latin American studies researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, says it’s important for the United States to be continually engaged in these countries, so that people can envision their future in their home country, rather than in the United States. “These are not quick fixes. These are generational changes, ”he said.
Angelo highlighted the success of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, which was established in 2006 with support from the United Nations and the United States. Its objective was to prosecute serious crimes committed by “criminal groups suspected of having infiltrated state institutions” and to fight corruption. It has convicted more than 400 people and has contributed to a drop in homicides. But the CICIG, like similar groups in the region, was disbanded in 2019 as the Guatemalan government felt threatened by prosecutors at the time. The Trump administration has abandoned its strong support for the commission.
Angelo said CICIG was symbolically important in giving Guatemalans the kind of hope many need to envision a more positive democratic future in their country. The continued support of these types of entities by the United States is important, Angelo said.
While some of the region’s more recent setbacks like Covid-19 will improve with more vaccinations, challenges such as worsening climatic conditions and ongoing questions regarding governments’ commitment to the rule of law will continue. to present obstacles that have no easy solution.
Still, experts say the United States needs to be consistent in its focus and work on policies that can improve the lives of the region’s most vulnerable populations.
“When people have hope in their current situation, when they have hope in the life they lead on a daily basis, this is when they feel comfortable envisioning the future in their home country, “Angelo said,” and they’re not necessarily looking for a way outside. “
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