Why should we give aid to Central America’s most troubled countries? Because we helped create the trouble

REUTERS/Luis Echeverria
From left to right: El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales and Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez during a photo opportunity before a meeting at the National Palace of Culture in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in June.

Central Americans risk the trip north and an unwelcoming reception at the U.S. border to escape rampant gang violence at home. They may also hope for economic opportunity. Both statements are true as far as they go.

Besides building a border wall to keep such would-be immigrants out, President Trump has threatened to cut off aid, declaring that “when countries abuse us by sending their people up — not their best — we’re not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we?”

On Thursday, Trump went back at the issue, comparing those arriving at the border to uninvited people you’d order off your lawn.

The analogy invites a question: In a fearful and polarized age, would most Americans — regardless of political persuasion — turn away a desperate stranger in their front yard? Or would they look for a way to help?

Few doubt that countries of Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have created a lot of the problems that cause people to flee. But to answer Trump’s question about government aid, their troubles are partly our mess, too.

Elites — often connected to U.S. political or business interests — have perpetuated gross inequalities in Central America, while U.S. policy priorities can contribute to instability. Sometimes it’s security forces, which may be funded by Washington, that are responsible for the violence.

In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernandez, an ally of the country’s business and military elite, appeared to be losing his bid for re-election last November when the vote counting suddenly stopped. After it resumed, Hernandez was leading, and ultimately he was declared the winner. The U.N. charged that Honduran military police used excessive force putting down ensuing protests, in which more than 20 people died. Despite reservations about the process, Washington backed Hernandez.

Honduras is the “spoiled child of the U.S. in Central America,” according to a diplomat quoted in a report by the International Crisis Group. Hernandez is taking on drug traffickers and gangs, and the government says the murder rate — which hit 85.5 per 100,000 people in 2011, fell to 42.8 last year.

Honduras’ economy is growing, but the World Bank lists the country as the most economically unequal in Latin America. More than 60 percent of its people are poor; in rural areas, one in five lives on less than $1.90 a day. The Organization of American States reported that indigenous people fighting business interests over land rights or mining projects, and union leaders in particular face intimidation and violence, and that such factors “push” migration.  

An Associated Press report in January cited Honduran government documents (which the government dismissed as fake) that said the new national police chief helped a cartel leader deliver nearly a ton of cocaine in 2013. Critics charge Hernandez is becoming one more right-wing Central American strongman. Citing the example of a 2009 coup, the International Crisis Group says instability caused by the election dispute could hamper Honduras’ fight against crime.

Meanwhile, El Salvador, led by a former leftist rebel from the bitter civil war of the 1980s, isn’t growing as fast as Honduras. But the World Bank gives it credit for reducing inequality, and improving access to health care, education and clean water.   

While it still is one of the most violent places in the world, the murder rate in El Salvador is dropping, too, from about 80 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 60 a year later. Trump rails regularly about Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, but the gang started on U.S. streets among Salvadorans displaced by the civil war. It was exported to El Salvador — not the other way around.

Authorities have tried to have it both ways with MS-13. Jose Miguel Cruz of Florida International University reports that Salvadoran prosecutors allege both main political parties — right- and left-wing — paid MS-13 to turn out some voters and suppress others in 2014 presidential elections. A recent CNN story says the U.S. government has provided millions of dollars to elite police and military forces that are accused of illegally executing gang members — which could backfire by making gang resistance more fierce, or by turning dead gang members into local folk heroes.

Guatemala elected a comedian, Jimmy Morales, to take on corruption and impunity, poverty and violence in 2015, just as the previous president, vice president and other officials were going to jail.

The World Bank says that Guatemala’s poverty, malnutrition and maternal-child mortality rates are among the worst in the region, and that more than half of the country’s poor are indigenous people. U.S. development aid under a program launched in the Obama years has been weighted toward infrastructure projects that may harm indigenous communities, according to this report.

Morales now has his own corruption problems, and has tried to expel the head of a U.N.-backed anti-corruption commission.

According to Arturo Matute of the International Crisis Group, cleaning up the country means confronting an old guard linked to organized crime and involved in activities such as people smuggling and drug trafficking, which hurt Guatemala’s many poor.  

People will always be tempted to move for a chance at a better life. As long as there are drugs, guns and poverty, these will be violent countries. Some aid money will get swallowed up by corruption. Understand that, be clear about who’s responsible for what, and you might make progress.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Larry Lamb on 07/06/2018 - 11:29 am.

    History of neglect

    It is so unfortunate that thru so many administrations since Reagan, the US has willfully ignored our own hemisphere. (I am not saying Reagan did anything correct for the region.) If we really wanted to decrease immigration from Central America, we would work to stabilize one of the most destabilized regions in the world. Probably every dollar spent in that region would be far more productive than every $1000 spent in the Mid-East– but Central America has no narrative-Christian-value to the end-of-days right wingers running the US government now.

  2. Submitted by joe emanon on 07/06/2018 - 12:08 pm.


    Let’s use the correct analogy. What would most Americans do if a bunch of strangers broke into your house?

    • Submitted by Dave Eischens on 07/12/2018 - 10:53 pm.

      better analogy

      If someone came knocking on your door asking for help, what Minnesotan wouldn’t go out of their way to help them? It’s who we are.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/06/2018 - 09:57 pm.

    Forgetting recent history

    As one who followed the situation in Central America closely in the late 1970s and 1980s, I know that the average American has forgotten (or never known) what went on in that region during the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations.

    I knew people who had lived or traveled in Central America, as tourists, students of Spanish, Peace Corps volunteers, or missionaries, and they all spoke of extreme social inequality, few avenues for advancement, and violence against ordinary people who tried to improve conditions.

    In other words, people there had every reason to revolt, far better reasons to revolt than our own middle class or wealthy Founding Fathers did.

    During that period, I heard a talk by a Catholic priest who had worked at a refugee camp for Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Mexico. Someone asked him why the guerrilla wars were happening [in the and the 1970s and 1980s], when people in those countries had always been poor and oppressed.

    “The most revolutionary development in Central America has been the battery-operated radio,” the priest said. “Yes, people were miserable, but since they never went very far from home, they just thought that everyone lived like they did. The people in the refugees camps told me that until they heard broadcasts from Cuba, they had never dreamed that it might be possible to send their children to school or to go to a doctor when they were sick. At first, I cautioned them that Cubans have no political freedom and live on a food rationing system, but they would just laugh in my face and say, ‘Do you think WE have any political freedom?’ Do you think that we are guaranteed ANY food?'”

    He went on to say that the governments of those countries created new guerrillas through their own heavy-handed tactics against suspects. They might torture and kill a suspected guerrilla, or worse yet, torture his family members in front of him, but his previously apolitical friends and family would be so outraged that they would run away to the mountains to join the rebels.

    The Reagan administration was so obsessed with “fighting Communism” that it could not see (or did not want to see) that there were worse things than Communism. At the same time that it was raising a fuss over the political murder of one priest in Poland, the government of El Salvador was murdering dozens of people, including religious figures, using “right-wing death squads” that were somehow impossible to catch, even when they killed Archbishop Romero while he was celebrating Easter Mass in a crowded cathedral.

    As it coddled the brutal governments in northern Central America, it spent years undermining and combatting the one successful revolution in the area, even to the point of endangering Costa Rica’s neutrality by staging Contra attacks from there. While the Sandinista government had its problems, it was at least trying to remedy the grave social injustices that had long prevailed there and should have been encouraged rather than squelched. While the Republicans led this offensive, the hawks of the Democratic Leadership Council, to their everlasting shame, also supported this policy, although they wanted a kinder, gentler undermining of the Nicaraguan government. There was no organized effort in Congress to advocate just leaving Nicaragua alone to work out its own issues.

    But that would have been out of character for the Reagan administration, whose simplistic political philosophy divided the world into two camps: Communists (who were pure evil and incapable of change) and people who were or claimed to be anti-Communist (who were at least tolerable, including the Afghan mujahedin–the precursors of the Taliban, the murderous Argentine and Uruguayan juntas, the military governments of northern Central America, and several African dictators).

    The refugees from Central America are ultimately the U.S. government’s chickens coming home to roost.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 07/07/2018 - 08:38 am.

    Central America countries

    caused their own decline by politicians and higher ups in Government getting into bed with the drug business. Corrupt Government officials made millions off the drug trade while the people suffered. If the people want their country back they must stay and fight the corruption.
    Blaming America (cottage industry for some) is silly. Having a strong border that stops drug trafficking and human trafficking (mostly of children, which is utterly disgusting) will make the Central American people stay and fight for a better country.. One in 4 or 5 Salvadoran’s live in the USA (remember we are not doing enough to help). If they want a better country the people will have to rise together to make it happen.
    Once Obama administration allowed “catch and release” policy, political asylum claims went for 40k a year to 450k plus a year. Once traffickers found out that folks crossing with minors would be released in America, pending a court date (which 80% don’t show), the floodgates open. Now that was America’s fault.

  5. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 07/07/2018 - 01:31 pm.

    Blame Game

    It is a ludicrous stretch to blame the USA for the current situation of violent gangs and corrupt society in these countries. The only Americans to blame for the gangs would be the drug users here. As for the corruption and elitist societies, all the blame must be laid on Spain and native tribal cultures alone. We may have interfered with elections and blocked a rise of Communism and other things, but we did not create the situation. The people are themselves to blame for not fighting to change it, and we do not owe them sanctuary or anything else, other than, say, positive investment in their nations, which you would probably see as more interference. I don’t know of any former Spanish colony that does not suffer from corruption, cruelty, violence and elitist society. That is their legacy. And for Puerto Rico to become a state, we have to erase that legacy there, too.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/07/2018 - 09:42 pm.

      Costa Rica, while still poorer than the U.S., gave up militarism in the 1940s and has prospered relative to its neighbors by emphasizing education and eco-tourism.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/07/2018 - 09:40 pm.

    I wonder about the sincerity of the anti-immigration absolutists

    because their “solutions” are all directed at the would-be immigrants and asylum seekers.

    Where are the punitive measures for people who HIRE undocumented immigrants? At present, the penalties are so light that some employers call ICE on their own workers if said workers start asking for better pay or working conditions.

    Furthermore, all the emphasis is on Latino migrants, yet I have never heard an anti-immigrant type rail against the Asians and Eastern Europeans who simply overstay their tourist visas and quietly melt into the general population while working illegally in businesses owned by members of their ethnic group. When I lived on the East Coast in the 1970s, the New York area was full of people who had emigrated illegally from Ireland, and no one seemed concerned.

    You want to stop illegal border crossings? Increase the penalties on employers so that they risk losing all the assets of their business if they are caught hiring undocumented workers.

    Living in Oregon, I saw firsthand the hypocrisy of rural legislators waxing hysterical about illegal immigration, when everyone knew that few farms or ranches in the state operated without immigrant labor. Even in Portland, it was obvious where the Latino day laborers gathered to be hired for construction or landscaping work.

    Do a thought experiment. Suppose Canada had a $30 minimum wage (it doesn’t, of course) but there were unscrupulous employers willing to hire American citizens who crossed the border illegally and pay them $20 an hour for unskilled labor. Don’t you think Canada would attract a lot of Americans who were trying to get buy on $10 an hour here?

    These are not evil people trying to cross the border. They are trying to ESCAPE the evil people in their home countries. I’m not saying “Let everyone in.” Far from it. But I would like to see some of the blame for the current situation directed at businesses that are all too happy to take advantage of desperate people.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 07/09/2018 - 08:13 am.

      The subject was Central American

      Migration, caused by USA, so addressing visa overstays didn’t seem relevant. Since you brought it up I’m all for removing anyone who is not in our country legally. I’m also for E-verify and going after businesses that knowingly hire illegals from any country. I would not be able to stay in Ireland, France or any other country without proper documentation, so why is ok here in the USA?
      Merit based immigration with temporary work visas, a solid border, punishment for businesses that hire illegals, eliminate anchor babies, flexibility on demand for skilled worker would help America. Problem is too many elected folks in DC (unelected Swamp career bureaucrats too) don’t want to solve this issue for a multitude of reasons. So Americans are left to speculate that folks who want strong borders and a merit based immigration system are somehow anti Central American as you suggested.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/11/2018 - 10:18 am.

        Ireland and France and other Western European countries

        levy harsh penalties on anyone who hires a non-EU resident, so harsh that naive American students who go there on their own, outside of an established internship program, with the hope of finding “a summer job” soon learn that their only legal option is to work for room and board on a farm.

        By the way, if “eliminating anchor babies” had been in force in 1899, my maternal grandmother, who was born two weeks after her parents arrived from Germany, at a time when there were few immigration controls, except that you couldn’t be diseased or a criminal, and there were no restrictions on numbers, could not have been born a U.S. citizen. Where do you draw the line for determining when a baby is an “anchor baby”?

        Note that in the lead-up to Britain returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, affluent Hong Kong residents flew to Canada to have babies in Vancouver, so not all “anchor babies” are born to the poor.

        Also note that until 1965, when the quota system established in the 1920s, due to prejudice against Eastern and Southern European and Asian immigrants, was finally abolished, there were NO restrictions on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/13/2018 - 03:50 pm.

        Anchor Babies

        Despite the hysteria raised by the nativist media, “anchor babies” are not a thing. While the babies themselves are US citizens and not legally subject to removal, their parents receive no special consideration under US immigration law. Once the child turns 21, he or she may sponsor their parents under a family unification visa (you know, the kind of visa used by Trump’s in-laws to immigrate). There is no guarantee that the parents will be able to come in, and being the parent of a native-born US citizen doesn’t get them any advantage.

        That is not to say that it hasn’t been tried. It just to say that it doesn’t work the way Lou Dobbs would have you think. “Birth tourism” is also a real phenomenon among wealthy foreigners, but most of them understand that they are just giving their child the advantage of having the certain option of living in the US legally.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/10/2018 - 10:27 am.

    Ms. Sandness

    I just want thank Ms. Sandness for her thoughtful and informed comments. The US has been messing around and messing up Central and South America for over 100 years. Any idea that whatever is going on there is not a product of that colonial legacy is simply ill informed.

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