The question is: what form will this aid take? If it continues in some of the same patterns that created a bleak U.S. legacy in the region – patterns that set the stage for today’s problems and continue through current trade and “drug war” policies – perhaps this money will do more harm than good.
Some reporters and many scholars outlined this legacy last summer when much of the U.S. media finally awoke to the plight of Central American children fleeing murderous transnational gangs and drug cartels that have taken over swaths of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries dubbed the “northern triangle.”
The legacy is not a pretty one: it includes more than a century of U.S. backing of brutal right-wing dictatorships that gave preferential treatment and valuable land to U.S. companies. In Guatemala’s case, the CIA-backed coup in 1954 overthrew a democratically elected reformer, leading to decades of war and U.S-funded military regimes that committed genocide against their indigenous populations. In the 1980s, the United States spent billions on wars in the region in the name of fighting Communism, wars that killed thousands of civilians and devastated the area.
The Obama administration wants to address economic security and poverty in those countries. It’s important to look at what the United States is already doing. Reports show that in the past decade, the pact known as the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (or CAFTA-DR) is quickly following in the footsteps of Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
In other words, it is turning Central American countries into export zones by allowing U.S. and multinational agri-businesses to sell or “dump” products subsidized by the U.S. government in those markets. Cheap imported U.S. rice and corn have put hundreds of thousands of Central American small farmers out of work, turning them into a mobile cheap work force in urban centers for new maquiladoras or sweatshops, which have relocated from the United States to benefit from CAFTA’s low tariffs and relaxed labor standards.
Drawing on its own research and that of social scientists in the United States, one group last year called upon the big U.S. textile and apparel manufacturers to launch a multimillion dollar fund to help unaccompanied minors and refugee children from Central America – given, what it called, the “ties between economic insecurity via CAFTA, resulting drug trade and violence and subsequent migration.”
When Vice President Biden talked about increased “international investment” for Central America, the question to ask is what that will look like, not just for the companies but for Central America. The connection between investment and migration is rarely part of the national discussion. Will investment create jobs with wages on which Central Americans can live or will it further the type of CAFTA and NAFTA investments that scholars say lead to social instability, entrenched poverty and further migration?
He prodded the three nations of the northern triangle for better “transparency” in order “to ensure that international assistance is spent accountably and effectively.” Recently, the Obama administration was called upon to do the same by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The GAO found that the U.S. government has failed to sufficiently track the progress, efficiency or effectiveness of the $1.2 billion already allocated to Central America in security-related aid since 2008. Without a thorough assessment of the impact of these programs, it’s unclear how the Obama administration plans to move forward with additional funds.
Meanwhile, numerous reports show that the U.S. security aid and “drug war” is exacerbating the violence by funding costly and sometimes violent “mano dura” or heavy-handed military style policing at the expense of decriminalizing efforts that have worked elsewhere.
The corrupting power of narco-profits matched with the proliferation of U.S. arms has left the population terrorized by criminal gangs who operate with impunity – or in collusion with local officials – doing business not just in drugs but also kidnapping, extortion and robbery.
So, too, have U.S. immigration policies contributed to the violence, particularly since the crack-down from the late 1990s onward after a new law expanded the list of deportable crimes. Thousands of Central Americans members of Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs – including people who as children fled the U.S.-backed wars of the 1980s and later gravitated to gangs in places like Los Angeles – were deported back to the northern triangle. There they continued to flourish with other gangs while local governments did little to nothing to help reintegrate them back into society.
Vice President Biden mentioned that this new aid would go to “community policing,” and said that some communities are already seeing improvements from U.S. programs for police training and youth centers similar to Boys and Girls Clubs. So far these efforts have failed to stem the violence.
On that point, the United States could learn from another Central American country where community policing has made an enormous difference, a country that is not overrun with its neighbors’ problems – Nicaragua.
That country – where President Daniel Ortega was the nemesis of late President Reagan during the Contra wars of the 1980s – stands in stark contrast to its violence-plagued neighbors. Despite the proximity and the fact that it is Central America’s poorest country, Nicaragua’s children are not fleeing in high numbers to the United States.
Several reports last summer, like one from KPBS, outlined why: chief among the reasons was the nationwide community policing that dated back to the 1980s, when the Sandinistas thoroughly cleaned out and rebuilt formerly corrupt military and police agencies.
Its successes have come about while receiving the least amount of aid from the United States.
Nicaragua has plenty of its own problems, but its crime rate is a fraction of its neighbors in the northern triangle, which hold some of the worst homicide and other crime rates in the world. As this Fusion article noted, Nicaragua has seen increased trade with the United States and investment in part through the grassroots level of tourism and remittances.
Whether the United States scraps its current patterns in the “northern triangle” countries and takes a page from Nicaragua remains to be seen. What’s also in question is whether the U.S. government will recognize its own past and current role in Central America’s crisis and change course.
When it comes to this increased aid package, I can’t think of a better way to sum it up than what Fusion wrote:
“The U.S. can’t solve Central America’s problems by throwing money at it, ramping up repressive military and police operations in the region, and political glad-handing. That’s banana republic politics, and it’s never worked out well before. Instead of trying to fix Central America by doing more of what’s not working in the northern triangle, perhaps Uncle Sam should take a lesson from what it’s not doing in Nicaragua.”