This year Guatemala inaugurated a new president: Jimmy Morales, a former comedian known for a racist television show in which he regularly performed in blackface and mocked Guatemala’s indigenous populations. Morales, who took office on January 14, had positioned himself as a political outsider who was able to ride the wave of popular discontent to the office. But before his inauguration, Morales was paid a special visit by US Vice President Joseph Biden, whose late arrival disrupted the events planned for the day. Biden privately met with the new president in an upscale hotel in Guatemala’s wealthy Zone 10. Guatemala’s daily newspaper reports that the two discussed the importance of Washington’s latest plan to curb northern migration, the Alliance for Prosperity.
A month prior, the US Senate passed the controversial Alliance for Prosperity Plan as part of the 2016 budget on December 18, 2015, in a vote of 66 to 33. The plan includes $750 million to improve governance, strengthen security and promote the economic integration of the northern triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In late 2015, Mexico and Nicaragua were both added to the plan, with each country receiving nearly $120 million of the funds made available to secure their borders.
Critics have argued that the Alliance for Prosperity continues the long tradition of US intervention in Central America.
In a New York Times op-ed, Biden called for the plan following the migration crisis of 2015, and proposed the plan as a means to curtail the reasons for migration from the northern triangle of Central America. “The economies of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras remain bogged down as the rest of the Americas surge forward,” Biden wrote, emphasizing the reasons for this plan. “Inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime and a lack of investment are holding these countries back.”
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The plan further strengthens the Guatemalan Public Ministry and offers continued support for the United Nations-backed Guatemalan anti-corruption body, the International Commission Against Corruption in Guatemala. It also seeks to create a similar anti-corruption body in Honduras, which will be called the International Commission Against Corruption in Honduras. The plan makes modest efforts to improve the dismal state of education and health care across the countries of the northern triangle, as well as to improve rural farmers’ access to financing in key sectors through funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
However, while the problems being confronted are real, a number of policy analysts, activists and other concerned residents of the region are questioning whether the US-led plan is really a viable route to addressing them. Critics have argued that the Alliance for Prosperity continues the long tradition of US intervention in Central America, and builds off the 2006 Central American Free Trade Agreement and Plan Mesoamerica, which are aimed at integrating the infrastructure of Central America and southern Mexico through the expansion and interconnection of electrical systems, highways, telecommunications, security and economies.
“This plan increases the control of the US, and further makes the region more dependent on the US.”
“This plan increases the control of the US, and further makes the region more dependent on the United States,” said Edgardo Mira, an analyst from the Salvadoran Center for the Investigation of Investment and Commerce, which monitors free trade and investment in El Salvador. “The financial resources of this plan come as a factor to increase the dependence of our countries economically, politically and [in terms of] security. This is not a favorable solution for the people, and will not improve their livelihoods due to this control.”
Other analysts are having a sense of déjà vu in looking at Washington’s latest plan. According to Jesus Garaz, an analyst from the Honduran Coalition for People’s Action, the Alliance for Prosperity builds off pre-existing US interventions in the region, cementing the United States’ influence and control over the security and economies of Central American nations.
“This is just an extension of Plan Mesoamerica,” Garaz told Truthout. “It is all part of the United States’ call for regional integration, which is part of their plan to control the region militarily and economically.”
Continuing and Expanding US Influence in the Region
At the core of the Alliance for Prosperity is a concern over the violence surging across the northern triangle of Central America, which Washington has identified as a major driver of migration.
“Investment is affected by the violence,” Garaz said. “It is this violent image that scares away investment, so the response is more security to present the climate of peace.”
However, the plan has come under sharp criticism from analysts across the region, many of whom fear that the social component, which looks to improve education, health care and rural economies, will be lost to the question of security, and this will contribute to the militarization of the region, like what occurred with similar plans in Latin America.
“When Washington is talking about human rights, they are not talking about the rights of the indigenous peoples.”
“The emphasis on addressing the social problems [in the region] were not made a priority,” Garita Gutiérrez told Truthout. “The threat is that the Alliance for Prosperity may shift to a security plan. But security isn’t enough. There are deep social issues in these contexts that are not being solved in this plan – specifically there is no development for rural areas.” He added, “A focus on security will only lead to more of the same.”
Washington has tried to assure critics that the new Alliance for Prosperity contains the mechanisms to protect “human rights,” but analysts such as Garaz are skeptical.
“When Washington is talking about human rights, they are not talking about the rights of the indigenous peoples, and they are not taking about the rights of the poor,” Garaz told Truthout. “The only right that the United States is talking about in their discourse is the right to free speech, and the rights to political participation.”
The plan calls for the expansion of police reforms and moves to limit the presence of the Guatemalan military on the streets of major cities. But according to the US congressional budget for 2016, the plan comes alongside increased military aid for the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The plan also expands the presence of the military along the borders as part of Inter-Agency Task Forces, such as Task Force Xinca along the Guatemalan border with El Salvador, or the binational Task Force Maya Chortí along the Guatemalan border with Honduras.
“The private sector and the governments agree on one thing: security,” Gutiérrez told Truthout. “But 20 years after the signing of the peace accords in Guatemala, security hasn’t changed anything for most of the population…. And if this is the approach that we have with the Alliance for Prosperity, then we’ll have another Plan Colombia or Mérida Initiative.”
Washington’s Plan Colombia Public Relations Campaign
There is a long precedent for military-related “partnerships” between the United States and Central American countries. In 1998, the Clinton administration launched Plan Colombia in order to curb drug trafficking, fight organized crime and combat the FARC insurgency in Colombia. Nearly 10 years after Plan Colombia, the Bush administration proposed the Mérida Initiative as an attempt to counter rising crime in Mexico through security cooperation. Critics have argued that these plans both led to increased human rights violations, further militarization and the rapid dispossession of indigenous land by transnational companies.
“Plan Colombia has achieved some results, but is far from being a success, at least in terms of its stated goals,” wrote Raúl Zibechi, a Uruguayan analyst and journalist, in an article for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada in 2008. “However, both the Plan Colombia (phase 1), and its second phase are proving successful in two respects undeclared laterally and not even mentioned in the proposal: Business is booming and the destabilization of the region has climbed several steps.”
He adds, “Thanks to the intensification of the war promoted by the Plan Colombia are already 4 million displaced, 10 percent of the population, being expelled precisely from those areas desired by the multinational businesses. It can be said that the policy of forced displacement is functional, and necessary, for the landing of multinationals.”
For example, thanks to Plan Colombia, the palm oil industry saw rapid expansion, leading to the displacement of rural farmers, according to Colombia-based journalist Teo Ballvé. He argues in his investigation for the North American Congress on Latin America that this occurred, in part, thanks to funds from the USAID. Furthermore, Ballvé argues that the funds at times ended up in the hands of paramilitaries accused of human rights violations, and strengthened drug trafficking.
Both the White House and US Southern Command have responded to criticism of previous plans by carrying out a public relations campaign to improve the image of Plan Colombia. Officials particularly emphasized Plan Colombia’s benefits at the time of the debate over the Alliance for Prosperity.
In May 2015, US Gen. John F. Kelly wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald to present an alternative history of Plan Colombia.
“Colombia taught us that the key to defeating violent, illegally armed groups is a strong, accountable government that protects its citizens, upholds the rule of law, combats corruption and expands economic opportunity for all,” Kelly argued in his op-ed. “The military has embraced human-rights training and is sharing its expertise with their beleaguered Central American neighbors.”
As Zibechi and Ballvé have noted, plans such as Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative, as well as development plans like Plan Mesoamerica, are all parts of the same interventionist strategy of the United States in Latin America. The Alliance for Prosperity represents the continuation of these interventionist strategies that look to impose a model of development based on the extraction of primary resources from the northern triangle of Central America. One way in which the Alliance for Prosperity could reflect the impacts of Plan Colombia is in the further expansion of energy production in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Continuing Neoliberalism in Central America
Following the victory of Jimmy Morales in the second round of elections on October 25, US Vice President Joseph Biden made a call to the president-elect to offer his congratulations on the victory. Among the topics covered between Biden and Morales were the importance of the Alliance for Prosperity and the continued expansion of energy production in Guatemala, as well as the regional integration of energy systems.
The White House’s call for an expansion of energy production in Guatemala was not a new one. In March 2015, the White House released a document entitled “US Strategy for Engagement in Central America,” which includes plans for regional integration, free trade, the promotion of security and police reforms, and an emphasis on energy production in the region.
With the integrated system, “Central America would attract more investment, lower energy prices, and advance energy security,” the report states. “However, the full benefits will only accrue if countries adopt integrated regulatory regimes and governance policies that attract foreign investment, increase modernization and privatization, and encourage adoption of regional energy solutions.”
These calls for the expansion of energy production in Guatemala continue the plan that was set forth as part of Plan Mesoamerica, which established Guatemala as the primary producer of energy for the Central American Electrical Interconnection System. This has not limited the expansion of energy production in Honduras and El Salvador, which have both seen the rapid expansion of energy production, but rather, places Guatemala as having a comparative advantage in energy production. The Inter-American Development Bank has called for the doubling of energy production in Guatemala by 2027. The majority of this expansion is based on the production of hydroelectricity.
The United States has pushed for the integration of the energy market between Mexico and the US, and the US could look to benefit from the expansion of energy integration between Mexico and Central America. Furthermore, this integration and expansion greatly benefit transnational energy companies due to the privatization of energy in the late 1990s. Today’s expansion is based in the privatized production and distribution of energy, and has represented a major area of investment for transnational energy companies.
The first attempt at regional integration of electricity began in the late 1970s with the expansion of hydroelectric production in Guatemala. This expansion ended with the Chixoy Dam massacres, in which the military killed hundreds of Achí Maya people along the Río Negro in the department of Baja Verapaz.
Energy production has been a source of social conflict since it first began to gain steam in 2007. The continued expansion of energy production is likely to generate more conflicts in indigenous and mestizo communities through the massive eviction of rural communities, and result in widespread human rights violations across the region by transnational companies.
The continuation of the plan in Central America extends what Guatemalan sociologist Gladys Tzul Tzul has referred to as the “aggressive dispossession of communal lands” that followed the signing of the peace accords. It is through this policy of dispossession that transnational companies are seeking to exploit the national resources of the region and expand energy production.