During the summer of 2014, the migration crisis reached American televisions with the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors at the US Border. In response, the United States government has taken steps to pressure the governments of Central America to combat violence, and has called for foreign investment in the countries.
In January 2015, Vice President Joseph Biden took to the editorial pages of The New York Times to propose a plan for Central America to address the problems that spur the tens of thousands of migrants to make the dangerous journey to the United States.
“Inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime and a lack of investment are holding these countries back,” the vice president wrote in his op-ed. “Six million young Central Americans are to enter the labor force in the next decade. If opportunity isn’t there for them, the entire Western Hemisphere will feel the consequences.”
“Success all depends on whether the plan can generate decent employment, if any. But in reality it will only lead to the promotion of more megaprojects.”
The vice president and Obama administration have proposed a plan to increase investment in the region by multinational companies, promising an additional $500 million in economic aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Soon after, the vice president traveled to Guatemala to meet with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina to discuss the plan.
Biden’s plan comes after the Mexican government released statistics on migrant deportations as part of “Plan del Sur,” a plan that Mexico and the United States devised to “secure” the southern border with Guatemala. According to government documentation, 42,697 Hondurans, 40,311 Guatemalans, 20,269 Salvadorians, and 976 Nicaraguans were detained and deported just from Mexico alone between January and November 2014, as part of the US and Mexican plan to control the southern border with Guatemala to limit migration from Central America. The Mexican government estimates that in 2015, the number of detained will increase by 150 percent.
Many of the region’s policy analysts are not enthused about Biden’s plan.
“It is more of the same,” Byron Garoz of the Guatemalan IXIM Center for Rural Studies, tells Truthout. “Supposedly their plan is to combat the causes of migration. The success all depends on whether the plan can generate decent employment, if any. But in reality it will only lead to the promotion of more megaprojects – land speculation, energy, and mining – which all cause more social conflict and displacement.”
In fact, Obama’s plan echoes Plan Colombia, launched in 1999, to combat drug trafficking, poverty, corruption and a guerrilla insurgency in Colombia. That plan led to further militarization and a free trade model that hurt rural farmer, and led to one of the worst, largest and most violent conflicts over mining and other development projects in Latin America.
“There is no opportunity . . . We are unable to sustain on growing food for our local market, and there is little opportunity for work in the cities. That is why I left.”
Fifteen years later, the Obama administration seeks to initiate a new plan modeled after Plan Colombia to stymie migration from the northern triangle of Central America. Yet according to experts, the plan overlooks one of the root causes of the current migration crises: the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The Migration Pipeline
Tomás Hernandez is an indigenous farmer, or campesino in Spanish, who knows what “free trade” agreements mean for the small farmers of the world: hunger, displacement and loss of autonomy.
Hernandez is from the department of Totonicapán in the highlands of Guatemala. For generations his family tended their fields of maize, beans and other crops. But in late 2006, after the value of corn collapsed, he made the difficult decision to leave his home and make the arduous journey to the United States.
Eventually Hernandez was deported back to Guatemala, where he returned to his family’s fields.
“There is no opportunity,” Hernandez explained to me over a beer in a cantina in Totonicapán. “We are unable to sustain on growing food for our local market, and there is little opportunity for work in the cities. That is why I left.”
Hernandez’s story reflects the reality of free trade agreements: CAFTA displaced rural farmers across Central America, forcing them into what Alvaro Caballeros calls the “migration pipeline.”
The trade agreement increased rural poverty and urban violence, and exacerbated the migration crisis.
In a report on migration from the Guatemalan National University of San Carlos, researchers stated, “The reality of free trade is that there is a magnet created between the weaker economies and the larger economies that attracts people.” The rural migrants move to the city in hopes of finding opportunity, but can’t. They then make the decision to search for opportunities abroad.
Land Grabs and Misery
The Central American Free Trade Agreement is an agreement between the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic. It was first proposed in 2001 by the administration of George W. Bush, with negotiations beginning in 2003. The trade agreement looked to break down tariffs for imports and guaranteed that corporations could protect their rights of investment, their patents and sue governments over infringements on their investments.
“The trade agreements represent the neoliberal consensus,” Jesus Garza from the Honduran Coalition for People’s Action, tells Truthout. “[They open] up the frontiers of the country to the importation of cheaper products and exportation of primary resources. We (in Central America) are now living in constant crisis.”
Migration from Central America existed well before the signing of CAFTA by the Bush administration in 2005. Decades of war and civil strife in Central America sparked the earliest waves of migration beginning in the late 1970s. Yet by the mid 2000s, the waves had begun to decline due to the stabilization and hope brought by the peace accords. However, the signing of the trade agreement increased rural poverty and urban violence, and exacerbated the migration crisis.
In February 2015, Garza’s organization participated alongside the IXIM CER, and other organizations from across Central America that observe and research the impacts of free trade agreements in the region, to issue a 10-year assessment of the trade agreement. They found that the agreement “has not led to the development,” but rather “it has only led to further dependence on larger economies, such as the United States.”
“We are losing land that was once used for the production of staple foods to mono-crops, which are meant for exportation.”
Guatemala has historically been plagued by land conflicts because of the concentration of land ownership by a small land-holding elite. The largely indigenous populations have been forced to farm whatever space they are able to find to grow their crops. Prior to the trade agreement, land equality was improving; but today, 2.3 percent of the population owns over 80 percent of the land.
“The agriculture sector has been the most heavily affected,” Alvaro Caballeros, an investigator for the Guatemalan Coordinator of Non-Governmental Organizations and Cooperatives (CONGCOOP), tells Truthout. “The agriculture sector has been the hardest hit [by the trade agreement]. It has squeezed the rural famer, and added pressure on the rural economy, and contributed to the movement of people from the field, to the city, to the migrant trail.”
“Furthermore, this reflects the grand problem of the land that we face in Guatemala,” adds Caballeros. “The expansion of land for the production of products for export has fueled the conflict over land. We are losing land that was once used for the production of staple foods to mono-crops, which are meant for exportation.”
Land that was once used for the production of agriculture was sold for the production of African palm oil, sugar cane and coffee. Since 2006, in Guatemala, 570 hectares has been lost to the production of export agriculture and led to the eviction of communities.
Rural communities have been hit hard by the land conflicts, to be sure. But in addition, they must compete with the importation of cheap subsidized corn from the United States. The price of corn has steadily increased, but rural farmers are unable to benefit from the rise in prices due to competition from subsidized corn imported from the United States.
Corn wasn’t the only crop that was impacted by the trade agreement in Guatemala. After 2006, wheat producers in the western highlands were nearly driven out of the market due to competition from imported wheat. Prior to the trade agreement, Guatemala produced over 50,000 tons of wheat annually, but it has since fallen to 5,000 tons, and today, the country imports nearly 90 percent of its wheat.
“The deterioration of the economy and the social structure is directly related to the signing of CAFTA, which leads to migration to the United States. There is no opportunity here in Honduras, which has also driven crime and violence in the region.”
According to a report issued in 2011 by Caballeros and CONGCOOP to mark five years of CAFTA, the departments of Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, and Huehuetenango have seen massive declines in population, with some unofficial estimates stating that Huehuetenango alone has lost one-third of its population to migration. These three departments, which in the past relied heavily on subsistence agriculture, have become the largest “sending” departments in Guatemala, as farmers have had their economies and livelihoods collapse.
CONGCOOP attributes these declines directly to the effects of the free trade agreement, stating, “The rural population is forced to leave and seek opportunities outside the country.”
The situation is repeated in other Central American countries, especially in El Salvador and Honduras.
“Every day (in El Salvador) there are less campesinos,” Edgardo Mira of the Salvadorian Center for the Investigation of Investment and Commerce, tells Truthout. “The production in the field has been transformed from subsistence farming to production of products such as coffee or sugarcane for the international market.”
“Those who leave the field move to the city in hopes of finding work,” added Mira. “But they only find lack of opportunity and insecurity. It is then that they decide to migrate to where the opportunity is – in the United States.”
The impacts of the Trade Agreement permeate well beyond the rural farming communities and expand into the urban centers as well. According to Jesus Garza, CAFTA has contributed to the rise in urban violence, which has contributed to the flow of migrants northward.
“For me it is clear,” Jesus Garza tells Truthout. “The deterioration of the economy and the social structure is directly related to the signing of CAFTA, which leads to migration to the United States. There is no opportunity here in Honduras, which has also driven crime and violence in the region. It (the trade agreement) has brought an unobtainable desire for the North American lifestyle. The drive to consume has driven the narco-trafficking and violence.”
The Continued Assault on Farmers
Luis Velásquez, the former Guatemalan minister of the economy under the presidency of Alvero Colom, once told a story about speaking with a poor campesino in one of the provinces of Guatemala. He asked a farmer, “What do you grow on your land?” The farmer responded, “Nothing, because I cannot compete with the cheap corn from the United States.”
The already broken rural agriculture system in Guatemala faced yet another assault during the summer of 2014. In June, the Guatemalan government secretly passed Decree 19-2014, the “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties,” which became popularly known as “the Monsanto Law.” The law aimed to bring Guatemala into accordance with sections in CAFTA about the protection of intellectual property rights.
Valásquez describes the section as being “one of the most dangerous parts of the trade agreement,” because of its impact on small farmers. The law would have allowed Monsanto to gain a near monopoly over the production of seed in Guatemala, as well as protect its investment in hybrid seed. Farmers would face massive fines if any were caught using seed with Monsanto’s patented genes. This clause represented a threat to the production of corn across Guatemala.
The law was repealed in September, after nearly two weeks of protests by indigenous campesinos and human rights organizations. Despite this victory, the threat persists: The law may well pass again in a new form.