This summer, Congress will decide whether to support the $1 billion aid package to Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Prompted by the surge of children and family to the US’s southern border last year, the “Strategy for Engagement in Central America” aims to attack the ‘root causes’ of unauthorized migration.
Promoted by Vice-President Biden, the plan has been endorsed by commentators across the political spectrum.
Biden’s plan would invest in border security, law enforcement, economic development, and the UN’s new human rights initiatives in the region. These measures will purportedly keep Central Americans at home, busy with new jobs in safer communities under more transparent, responsive governments. At the same time, tighter border enforcement is intended to discourage migration.
What’s the likelihood that US aid will achieve these outcomes?
We are a group of social scientists*, each of us with decades of research experience with the very populations targeted in Biden’s plan. We are painfully aware that Central America’s rural and urban poor need support. This past April, we met in Chicago and discussed the aid package’s likely impacts.
Our conclusion? Biden’s package is guaranteed to deepen—not alleviate—the problems faced by Central America’s poor majority.
1. The aid package would reward Central American governments for their corruption and blatant disregard for the needs of their people.
The plan includes $540 million–a four-fold increase over recent levels— for ‘development assistance.’ Meanwhile, this month has seen the streets of Honduras’ and Guatemala’s capital rocked by peaceful protests, as hundreds of thousands of citizens express their disgust at damning evidence of corruption at the highest levels. In Honduras, politicians have been raiding the state health care system for private gain; in Guatemala, the vice-President resigned as the depth of her private enrichment from public funds came to light.
If the United States government pours this aid package into Central America, the primary effect will be to continue to enrich a tiny, corrupt elite. Central American governments have even leveraged their well-known corruptibility to justify the need for U.S. aid money to build “accountability” and “transparency”!
Are we really so easily fooled?
2. Dangerous border crossings increase migrant and family debt, deepening migrant desperation.
The package extends some $82 million for border security, specifically to bolster Mexico’s southern border and expand the repatriation of Central American migrants from the United States.
Tighter border security is not a proven deterrent for migration. Instead, it makes migrants more vulnerable. Tighter security forces migrants into the hands of smugglers to seek increasingly remote and perilous crossings, where they are exposed to greater risks from the elements and organized crime. This “funnel effect” at the U.S.-Mexico border already results in hundreds of migrant deaths in the desert borderlands annually.
In expanding risks, border security also increases smugglers’ fees. These costs ($6,000-$8,000 in Guatemala), are well out of the reach of most prospective migrants—unless they literally bet the farm. Poor farmers get the cash to pay smugglers by mortgaging their homes and productive land to local informal lenders at interest rates hovering around 10% per month. In many cases, a U.S. wage is the only way to pay down this scale of debt.
When the trip doesn’t go well—when ‘beefed up’ border security results in apprehension, detention, and deportation—outstanding debts can plunge migrant households into deep financial crisis, often exacerbating the very economic conditions driving migration in the first place. Faced with insurmountable debt, families double down to finance the next attempt. Ever-deeper in the red, they are bound to attempt the crossing again and again, taking ever-greater risks to do so. Debt obligations, the threat of failed mortgages, and desperation are so deep, said one migrant, that “you just throw yourself at the border.”
Expanded border security not only empowers coyotes and other criminal groups, it can perpetuate the very migration it seeks to impede.
3. The aid package would bolster big industry and big agriculture.
The bulk of the aid package, some $541 million ($381 in new spending) is for development assistance, the majority of which will support so-called “economic development.”
In the past, ‘big aid’ investments have typically subsidized large and medium-scale agricultural enterprises, and protected large U.S. agriculture companies under trade agreements. If history is any guide, these policies will decimate existing programs that provide economic benefits like seeds, fertilizer, technical assistance, and cooperative markets for small-scale farmers.
For small farmers, the result is land loss, rural underemployment, and the miseries of low-paying plantation wage work. In fact, work on sugar and banana plantations is characterized by brutal conditions, pesticide exposure, and chronic dehydration. Such work has even spawned its own suite of chronic illnesses, like the fatal kidney disease that has hit epidemic proportions among sugarcane workers in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
No money in the proposed aid package will support smallholders. This only intensifies the already appalling inequality characterizing Northern Triangle land distribution, accelerating further northward migration of those whose ambitions aim higher than plantation drudgery.
4. The aid package sees kids as the enemy.
The aid package promises $220 million for ‘citizen security.’ This is a euphemism for targeting urban street gangs. However, there is abundant evidence that national security forces lump violent gang members and (innocent) poor urban youth together as targets. They have effectively declared war on their own teenagers. No wonder this is the primary demographic fleeing violence and poverty by heading north.
5. Drug traffickers would be enriched and emboldened.
The aid package promises $205 million –an increase of $100 million— to bolster militaries’ ability to fight drugs and organized crime.
Who benefits when more money is put into fighting drug trafficking organizations operating in the Northern Triangle? Three groups:
First, the militaries—who get more funding and weapons with which to play the futile cat-and-mouse game of chasing traffickers around the region.
Second, governments, who get to say they are fighting Washington’s “War on Drugs,” currying favor with Washington. They leverage that ‘good soldier’ reputation to access funds like those proposed in the Alliance for Prosperity.
Third, Central American traffickers and other drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). More interdiction means more risks for traffickers. More risks means they can charge a higher ‘risk premium’ to the cartels they supply. This puts more money in the pockets of criminals—money that is used to corrupt judges, police, prosecutors, and politicians.
That’s why any aid package that funds drug interdiction AND seeks to invest in anti-corruption measures is doomed to not just fail, but to make the problem worse.
6. More boots on the ground means more terror, not more security.
The U.S. spent much of the 1980s and 1990s backing repressive military regimes and—in Nicaragua—counter-insurgency forces. These militaries tortured, slaughtered, and ‘disappeared’ hundreds of thousands of civilians. And the U.S. really never stopped funding them—as of now, the U.S. spends approximately $60 to $80 million a year for U.S.-style training and for U.S.-manufactured weapons for anti-terrorism, gang policing, and counter-narcotics.
Some commentators have welcomed the fact that the aid package “only” gives about a third of the entire package to the countries’ militaries. What’s forgotten is that this approximately $220 million is in addition to the around $120 million already committed in 2014 to foreign military financing, policing support, and other security initiatives.
Why is this a problem?
Because it will buy more of the same. In fact, it will buy more of the worst. The number of contemporary ‘disappearances’ in Guatemala over the past 10 years—25,000 people, or 2,500 per year—is already the same as the estimates of those who disappeared during the height of Guatemala’s civil war. In Honduras, more citizens have been disappeared, tortured and murdered by police and military forces since the 2009 coup than during the entire 1980s, when the CIA-trained ‘Battalion 3-16’ death squad kept the population in terror.
This means that for the average Central American citizen, ‘boots on the ground’ doesn’t mean security, it means terror. How can Central Americans be expected to believe that the same uniforms that torture and disappear their loved ones will now protect them?
7. The aid package would undermine real human rights, and encourage environmental devastation.
The aid package promises $31 million in new spending to support efforts by the UN to extend the recognition and realization of human rights in Central America, in part through a new Honduran UN office.
But extending ‘rights’ in countries rife with corruption does new violence. For example, recent recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to ancestral territories in Nicaragua and Honduras is having an effect far different from what might be expected. Indigenous lands are not made more secure against outsider invasion. Instead, the extension of property rights in the presence of corrupt judiciaries only makes land more “legible” to usurpers, who use violence and bribes to trick native peoples out of their once collectively held ancestral lands.
The aid package also promises funds to support regional economic growth. This is code for megaprojects like hydroelectric dams, gold mines, mega-ports, and trade corridors. These projects typically come at high environmental and social cost. The rural poor and indigenous peoples are rarely alerted—let alone consulted—about the imminent expropriation of their lands and resources.
Together, the extension of property rights and the support of megaproject development pave the way for the ultimate prize: a legal foundation for corporate exploitation of the forests, lands, minerals, water, and hydrocarbons held within Central America’s indigenous and public lands. This is a recipe for dispossession and dislocation—leaving rural folk with little hope but to head north to survive.
What SHOULD be funded? Families’ real needs: healthcare, education, small farmers, and micro-entrepreneurs.
What SHOULD U.S. taxpayers be supporting? Let’s look to the ways that Central Americans themselves invest their money. In 2013 alone, Guatemalans working overseas sent home $5.5 billion in remittances; Salvadorans $4.2 billion; Hondurans $3.2 billion, and Nicaraguans $1.1 billion—a whopping $14 billion in all.
That remittance money eclipses any development aid or foreign investment in those countries. And it’s being sent to family members back home to pay for food, education, health care, housing, smallholder farming, and small business start-ups.
Central Americans have the highest rates of remittance sending per migrant in the world, with flows comprising between 10 and 17% of national GDPs. These hard-working Central Americans are investing most in the things that make life worth living: family. So instead of undermining those efforts—as Biden’s “aid” package would—let’s start over.
Scrap Biden’s plan and go back to basics. It’s time we had the backs of Central America’s working families. Let’s look to where they’re putting their money and do the same.
It’s time to invest in public health, public education, small farmers and small business in Central America. Nothing else.