On January 29, the Obama administration announced a proposal to provide $1 billion in aid to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “address the lack of economic opportunity, the absence of strong institutions, and the extreme levels of violence that have held the region back at a time of prosperity for the rest of the Western Hemisphere.”
According to an op-ed by Vice President Joe Biden in The New York Times the same day, these measures are needed to prevent problems like “the dangerous surge in migration” that occurred “last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our southwestern border.”
That “surge” has already ended, and it’s not clear how “dangerous” it ever was – except to the refugees who were fleeing danger in the first place – but Biden’s right on one thing: poverty, inequality and violence in places like Central America are major causes of forced migration, so dealing with these issues is part of a sensible approach to prevention. Moreover, the proposed aid has some good features, like funding for youth centers; this may explain why progressive politicians like Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén are willing to go along with the White House plan.
But for the most part, the aid package continues the same policies that helped create Central America’s problems.
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The package includes $400 million for “[p]romoting prosperity and regional economic integration,” with an emphasis on such goals as “trade facilitation” and “creating business environments friendly to entrepreneurs.”
In other words, it promotes the neoliberal economic policies the United States has been pushing on Central America for the past 25 years – “free trade,” “open markets” and privatization. These policies were formalized in the 2004 Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which encouraged the region to rely more heavily on trade with the United States – and meant it was hit harder when the US economy tanked in 2008.
Meanwhile in South America, since the 1990s, many governments have at least partially rejected the neoliberal market logic: re-nationalizing industries, instituting poverty reduction programs (like Bolsa Familia in Brazil), and developing regional trade blocs like ALBA and Mercosur that reduce dependence on the US market.
From the 1990s to 2014, income inequality decreased significantly in 12 Latin American countries, with the biggest decreases in the six Latin American countries that now have progressive or populist governments emphasizing social programs: Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Brazil (in order from the greatest decrease to the lowest). An International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper admitted that the decrease in inequality was at least partly attributable to higher education spending, as well as to increased taxes.
Over the same period, inequality actually increased in Honduras and Costa Rica, despite (or because of) “strong growth momentum”; Honduras was the only Latin American country where poverty also increased, according to the IMF working paper. Honduras topped the list in income inequality: The highest-earning 10 percent of households took in 46 percent of the country’s income – 55 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Ninety percent of the Honduran population is left struggling to survive on an average income of under $7 a day.
Another $300 million of Biden’s package would be earmarked for “[e]nhancing security.” This means giving still more aid to the police and armed forces of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In his op-ed, Biden mentions the 1999 Plan Colombia as a model for security enhancement.
If Colombia is the model for Biden’s plan, then Central America has nothing to look forward to. With Plan Colombia, the United States has used the “war on drugs” as a pretext to bolster the Colombian military’s war on its opponents, including both armed rebels and unarmed civil society organizations. While Biden claims Plan Colombia as a success story, the violence there continues: Twenty trade unionists and at least 40 human rights defenders were murdered in 2014, and Amnesty International reports that death threats against advocates, activists, politicians and journalists surged at the end of the year. Colombia has the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced persons – more than 5 million at the end of 2013, with 150,000 more displaced each year.
One effect of Plan Colombia has been to push drug trafficking deeper into Mexico and Central America. Since 2008, the US government has provided more than $1.2 billion in training, equipment and technical assistance to Mexico as part of the “Mérida Initiative,” an aid package ostensibly aimed at fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.
But as in Colombia, this US “assistance” in Mexico has a less than stellar record. At least 60,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico from 2006 to 2012. Many of the guns used in this wave of murders come from the United States. Of more than 99,000 weapons the Mexican government recovered and submitted to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for tracing between 2007 and 2011, nearly seventy percent originated in the United States. The percentage is probably similar in Central America; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that easy access to firearms is a major factor in the growing homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Mérida Initiative does nothing to stop the flow of guns into Mexico, and the US government’s efforts to address illegal weapons trafficking seem like a bad joke: The Department of Homeland Security has begun screening southbound rail shipments for weapons (just in case arms dealers decide to start sending guns to Mexico by train); and in 2011, the US Office of Management and Budget started requiring federally licensed firearms dealers in Southwest border states to report to the ATF any time they sell more than one semiautomatic rifle to the same unlicensed person within five days. (None of the three states that stretch along 93 percent of the US border with Mexico requires gun buyers to have a license or permit of any kind, or imposes any restrictions on the purchase of automatic weapons.) These measures followed a scandal over an ATF operation that allowed hundreds of weapons to end up in the hands of criminals in Mexico.
An April 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service on the Mérida Initiative notes that “the apparent weakness of Mexico’s criminal justice system seems to have limited the effectiveness of anticrime efforts.” The US government has failed to enforce the human rights conditions built into the Mérida Initiative and continues to back the Mexican government’s military-led security strategy, even as the country’s human rights situation worsens. More than 22,600 people have been disappeared in Mexico in the past eight years, with over half of these disappearances taking place since 2012.
At the same time it has devastated Latin America, the US government’s “war on drugs” has done nothing to reduce drug abuse or drug violence in the United States; instead it has served as a rationale for the mass incarceration of African Americans that legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls the “New Jim Crow.”
How Did We Get Here?
“Is all this really our fault?” some may ask. “Can’t refugees stay home and fix their own countries instead of coming here?”
In 1944, a popular uprising in Guatemala led to the ouster of US-backed dictator Jorge Ubico, followed by the country’s first free, fair and democratic elections, which brought Juan José Arévalo Bermejo to the presidency with 85 percent of the vote. With popular support, Arévalo’s government began confiscating foreign estates and redistributing them to peasants; requiring landowners to provide adequate housing for rural workers; building new schools, hospitals and homes; introducing a new minimum wage; and encouraging the growth of labor unions.
Still, rural areas remained under the old semi-feudal system, ruled harshly by private landowners and US companies like United Fruit, which owned vast banana plantations and controlled the railroads. Popular support for true agrarian reform – the redistribution of rural land to the people who worked it – brought Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, Arévalo’s defense minister, to the presidency in 1951. Arbenz deepened Arévalo’s reforms, instituting a land distribution program and building a highway and port to break United Fruit’s monopoly on infrastructure.
Eager to crush “communism” and restore United Fruit’s profits, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) joined with right-wing Guatemalan military officers to overthrow Arbenz in a 1954 coup. Decades of brutal repression ensued, peaking in the 1980s, when the Guatemalan military slaughtered 200,000 people and eliminated entire rural communities in a “scorched earth” policy.
We shouldn’t be surprised when the conditions we helped create make people want to leave their countries.
This may seem like old history. But there has been no justice in Guatemala: The vast majority of the military human rights violators have never been held accountable. And although Bill Clinton officially apologized for the US role in 1999 – stating that US “support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression . . . was wrong” – neither the US government nor the United Fruit Company – now Chiquita Brands – has ever paid any reparations.
The More Things Change . . .
Indeed, US policy in Central America has continued the pattern set by the 1954 coup in Guatemala, with the United States intervening economically and militarily at every turn to defend its interests and the profits of its corporate partners – sponsoring wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala throughout the 1980s, and sweatshops and “free trade” since the 1990s, along with continued violent repression against those who dare to resist.
Today in Guatemala, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report continuing attacks and threats against human rights defenders, trade unionists, and journalists; increasing gender-based violence against women and girls; and rampant impunity. Yet since 2009, the United States has provided $129 million in military and police aid to corrupt Guatemalan forces who are not held accountable for abuses.
Across the southern border in Honduras, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya became president in 2006 and responded to grassroots demands with progressive policies like raising the minimum wage by 80 percent and providing direct assistance to the poorest Hondurans; poverty and inequality declined. In 2009, Zelaya was ousted in a violent coup by powerful right-wing elites, with tacit support from the US government.
The post-coup governments reversed Zelaya’s reforms, empowering corporations and reducing labor protections and freedoms. The country’s already-high homicide rate jumped by 50 percent from 2008 to 2011, accompanied by a major increase in political repression; the murder rate in Honduras was the highest in the world in 2013. At least 35 Honduran union activists have been reported murdered since the 2009 coup. Honduran workers and community leaders who met with an October 2014 AFL-CIO fact-finding mission reported increased militarization and widespread corruption among security forces. The Honduran government itself admits that as much as 70 percent of the nation’s police forces are corrupt and can’t be reformed. Yet US military and police aid to Honduras from 2008 to 2015 has totaled more than $61 million.
What’s bad for Hondurans seems to be just fine for the companies that profit from low-wage labor. Despite labor protections supposedly embedded in CAFTA-DR, 60 to 70 percent of employers in Honduras pay less than the legal minimum wage of $100 dollars a month. In 2012, the AFL-CIO and more than two dozen Honduran trade unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint with the US Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs, accusing the Honduran government of violating CAFTA-DR labor protection provisions by failing to enforce labor laws in the manufacturing, agriculture and port sectors. The complaint included evidence of child labor, insufficient access to justice, and violations of the rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and acceptable working conditions.
The complaint demanded that Honduras make an effort to enforce labor law and resolve individual claims, and that the US government investigate the situation and issue a report on its findings as mandated by CAFTA-DR’s provisions. Two years later, the AFL-CIO and Honduran groups are still waiting for the report.
The Right to Stay Home
The bottom line is this: We shouldn’t be surprised when the conditions we helped create make people want to leave their countries. And we shouldn’t be surprised that Central Americans haven’t managed to overcome crime, violence, corruption, exploitation and poverty – since it seems like every time they try, our country provides money and weapons to governments trying to halt their efforts. If we want Central Americans to have the right to stay home and make change in their own communities, we’ll have to – at the very least – stop making things worse for them with unfair trade pacts and military “aid.”
If, instead, we keep ramping up the same trade policies and security assistance that have driven thousands of people into forced migration, it’s reasonable to expect that many thousands more will continue to make the same journey to our borders. Instead of closing the door on them, why not shift away from the policies that caused them to flee?
Unfortunately, the Washington establishment isn’t likely to change course on its own. But there’s plenty we can do right now:
• Take action now to halt the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new trade pact that would speed up the “race to the bottom.” We can also continue to push for renegotiation of existing pacts like NAFTA and DR-CAFTA, and demand that our government uphold whatever protections these pacts are supposed to include.
• Join anti-sweatshop campaigns and help workers defend their rights in Central America and beyond. Students can take action to demand that their universities contract athletic wear from companies like Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic, where workers have won a livable wage and the right to a union.
• Support efforts to reverse harsh drug laws and incarceration and redirect resources to community-based treatment and prevention programs.
• Support campaigns to crack down on militarization, including the manufacture, sales and trafficking of weapons.
• Support Central American activists struggling to regain community control of land and resources, like the farmers of the Aguán valley of Honduras, who have been fighting for years to reclaim their land, now being used for export products like biofuels.
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