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Is a ‘Marshall Plan for Central America’ the best way to stem migration?

Policemen detain a demonstrator during a march
REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera
Policemen detaining a demonstrator during a march against President Juan Orlando Hernandez government's plans to privatize healthcare and education, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on June 4.

If you believed all the scary stories, it might seem that nearly everyone in Honduras is planning to flee to the United States, if they haven’t already. The fact is, though, that a lot of people are on the streets fighting, and a few dying, for a chance at a better life at home.

The plight of people fleeing Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries — Honduras, as well as El Salvador and Guatemala — was highlighted this past week by the tragic photo of a Salvadoran man and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. Immigration was a major focus of the first two debates among Democratic candidates for president, including calls for a “Marshall Plan” for Central America – an idea proposed by Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Central America has been receiving U.S. attention — wanted and unwanted — for a long time. Aid continues to flow. President Trump in March ordered aid to the Northern Triangle countries frozen, but the government announced in mid-June that it would go ahead with the majority of it. Protests in Honduras, however, show that some of the advice and assistance Central America gets is counterproductive. 

Massive infusions of aid to improve living conditions have been tried elsewhere. It’s an attractive idea. But it’s also very easy to throw away a lot of money and get relatively little for it.  So caution is warranted. 

After negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, Honduras’ unpopular U.S.-backed President Juan Orlando Hernandez tried to impose reforms this spring that protesters feared would privatize the education and health care sectors and lead to large job losses. The moves have since been rescinded, but once protests got under way, they grew to include demands that the president resign.

The army and military police have been deployed across the country of 8 million people, and they’re using live ammunition. Several people have been killed. Protesters started a fire at the gates of the U.S. Embassy and trucks with logos of the Dole food company have been attacked. 

To many, Hernandez looks like another corrupt, old-fashioned Central American strongman. Opponents charge that he shouldn’t have been allowed to run for re-election in 2017. Even then, he appeared to be losing until vote counting was halted. After it was restarted, he came out on top. There is also the drug trade. The president’s brother was arrested in Miami last November and charged with cocaine trafficking. U.S. court documents filed in May revealed that the president himself had been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration in the same probe. 

Until recently, at least, Hernandez looked a lot better the farther north you went. His pro-business policies have the economy growing. The World Bank reported in April that Honduras’ economy grew by 4.8 percent in 2017, 3.5 percent last year, and is projected to add 3.6 percent this year. 

The IMF and the U.S. might be quite pleased with that growth rate, but it’s not helping most people. As the World Bank points out, Honduras has the highest level of inequality in Latin America. More than 60 percent of its people live in poverty. 

Honduras also managed to cut its astronomical homicide rate in half between 2011 and 2017. U.S. training, weaponry and other security assistance certainly helped. But gangs are still a huge problem, as this New York Times report from May makes clear. And U.S. equipment and training also has been used by units cracking down on protesters. 

According to these charts compiled by the Washington Office on Latin America, the U.S. spends considerably more on security, justice, drug and border control in Honduras than it does on economic growth, development, good governance and human rights. Overall, the total amount of aid Trump ordered cut in March was $615 million ($432 million was restored). To put that in perspective, Congress just approved $4.6 billion in humanitarian aid for the border. And Trump shut down the government over his demand for $5 billion for a wall. 

So is a Marshall Plan the answer? If you spend more ensuring people have jobs and security at home, it stands to reason that you won’t need to spend as much at the border. But it depends on the details, most of which have yet to be filled in. 

Here are a couple of pretty obvious ideas for how to start. 

First, Central Americans have been dealing far too long with what North Americans want. The U.S. for decades has been pursuing policies that encourage inequality along with growth. But protesters in Honduras don’t appear to want that. How about focusing on what would work for them rather than force feeding them on U.S. policy dogmas? 

Second, some money inevitably will be wasted on boondoggles or siphoned off by corrupt officials. It happens; deal with it. The trick is minimizing losses, picking partners (probably not Hernandez) and programs carefully, and getting the most bang out of the good investments. 

Even with the best strategy, things would change slowly and partially. But unlike a wall, at least some of the money actually would help someone. It might save another father and daughter from floating face down in the Rio Grande. 

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/01/2019 - 12:39 pm.

    If you want to talk about throwing away money with little benefit, talk about the Trump tax cuts. But perhaps for conservatives, spending money to remedy the damage the US has done to Central America and to promote public safety and economic development is simply not a deserving cause.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/01/2019 - 01:18 pm.

    Like most of the worlds problems, multiple approaches are required.

    It’s not like people really want to leave their homeland, it is because they feel that they have to. Perhaps because of lack of food, lack of money, lack of jobs, oppressive crime, authoritarian government, out of control violence.

    Multiple problems, multiple approaches.

    The answers need to be applied at the pond filling the migration hose, not at the hose end because the rising discontent will overflow–with what result?

    Look at the success of the Taliban for an answer.

  3. Submitted by John Evans on 07/01/2019 - 04:55 pm.

    One thing you didn’t mention is that the vast majority of the aid money appropriated to Honduras is not given to the government, but granted to various NGOs to address particular problems. Apparently, they get some measurable results.

    Street-level crime seems to be a major driver of emigration. That can be addressed by fostering municipal-level police forces made up of local civilians. This also requires a well-managed and supervised criminal court system.We can help with both of these problems.

    The crime problem is not at all helped by increasing the resources and domestic authority of the military, which is the approach favored by Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte. Both of these insane authoritarian ghouls are still around, and still popular in Republican policy circles. Their approach still dominates US policy in the region, and putting an end to it would, in the long run, do a lot to slow emigration from Honduras.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 07/01/2019 - 10:03 pm.

      I also heard on PBS that many in Central American countries did find helpful efforts to provide funding for non govt agencies to assist with jobs and start up businesses. However, Trump cut it–is anyone surprised. Add to it there are many smugglers who provide false hope to people wanting to flee. This is a situation where we desperately need experienced politicians who can see the big picture and the complexities.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/02/2019 - 08:06 am.

      “The crime problem is not at all helped by increasing the resources and domestic authority of the military, which is the approach favored by Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte. Both of these insane authoritarian ghouls are still around, and still popular in Republican policy circles. Their approach still dominates US policy in the region, and putting an end to it would, in the long run, do a lot to slow emigration from Honduras”

      I would like to remind Dems, in 2011 Honduras elected a leader from the left. There was a right-wing, corporate supported coup, and both Obama and Hillary stood up for the coup, Hillary even lecturing Honduran mothers sending their kids across our border.

      Just a reminder why Hillary lost…because she is seen by many of us to be an amalgam of neoliberal economics (austerity for the many, every advantage for the few) and neoconservative warmongery, which has been so very destructive to the entire hemisphere. Which is what many of us see in the DNC, and in many if not most of the current Dem party Pres candidates.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/04/2019 - 09:56 am.

        Yes, and right-wingers and “moderate” Democrats justified it by saying that this leader *expressed a wish* that he could run for a second term, something which the Honduran Constitution does not allow at present.

        He didn’t even do anything about trying to win a second term.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/02/2019 - 08:53 am.

    Until the triangle countries are run by honest folks, giving money (Marshall Plan) is a waste. Drug cartels/gangs run these countries, until their own citizens stay and fight for a change nothing will change. Look at the Iranian deal where we gave Iran 150 Billion dollars, none of that made its way to the citizens, all of it was gobbled up by corrupt leadership. Fool me once shame on you, twice shame on me.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 07/02/2019 - 09:59 am.

      JS Please stop with the Iranian $150B propaganda. If I confiscate $200 of yours and it takes 40 years for me to give you your money back did I give you that money or pay back money that was originally yours? .2nd point how do you know who got what? Inside track to the Iranian economy?

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/02/2019 - 04:14 pm.

        If I held your family hostage for years and you froze my account, I wouldn’t expect my 200 bucks back…. The Iranian hostage situation in the 70’s led to frozen accounts.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/04/2019 - 09:57 am.

          The hostages were all released unharmed, including one who was released early because he was showing signs of multiple sclerosis. Get over it.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/02/2019 - 12:40 pm.

      “Drug cartels/gangs run these countries, until their own citizens stay and fight for a change nothing will change.”

      Would you say the same thing about American parents who leave the inner cities for the suburbs? That they should stay and fight for a change, rather than decamping?

      “Look at the Iranian deal where we gave Iran 150 Billion dollars, none of that made its way to the citizens, all of it was gobbled up by corrupt leadership.”

      1. Iran is not Central America;
      2. We “gave” Iran its own money back. It was a refund, not a gift;
      3. Who said it was supposed to go to the citizens of Iran? It was a refund of money paid for arms that the US will not sell to Iran.

      “Fool me once shame on you, twice shame on me.”

      So you’re not voting for Trump in 2020. Good to know.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 07/02/2019 - 04:19 pm.

        Inner city folks are trying to fight back versus the gangs, Triangle countries should do the same. Leaving your country does nothing but exasperate the situation. Iran may not be Central America but corrupt leadership is corrupt leadership… Plain and simple, money won’t help, just make certain folks feel better, which is a waste of time.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/02/2019 - 04:40 pm.

          “Inner city folks are trying to fight back versus the gangs”

          Is that why we always hear about the flight of the middle class to the suburbs? They’re letting the poor people take care of it?

          “Leaving your country does nothing but exasperate the situation.”

          Where there are armed gangs wandering the streets, impressing children and adults into their ranks, when there are no civil institutions to stop them, when there is no economic future because of the breakdown of society . . . sure, the average Central American worker is going to stand and fight.

          From the comfort of the United States, it’s easy to say they should just stay at home and make things better. Life in the real world is different. It’s more than a little condescending to talk about “making things better” when the people who are supposed to be doing that are living in the fall-out from a civil war and the ensuing collapse of society. This is not a matter of circulating a few petitions and holding some candlelight vigils, with a speech by the local police chief. These are people who will be killed if they dare raise their opposition to being victims.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 07/02/2019 - 10:05 am.

    Central America is a bit of a mess, suggests that folks going north are not so much immigrants as refugees. America has had its fair share of involvement that helped cause a lot of this unrest, drug wars/cartels, Iran Contra, Sandinista’s, Noriega, etc. I agree it may take some form of a Marshall plan, but not sure how it would be set up or pulled off. One may be able to make the argument that a Marshall plan of sorts may be less expensive than dealing with he refugee/immigration problem. The US however does not have a good record dealing south of the border. Present administration can’t even deal squarely with one of our biggest trading trading partners!

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 07/02/2019 - 10:27 pm.

    So the question was wether a Marshall Plan would work. I cannot see any reason such and effort would not be effective. Thing of all the money we have spent for military training and enforcement with such programs like the School of the Americas. How did that work out. Remember even with the Marshall Plan plenty of people left various European countries. Back in that era these people were referred to as displaced persons. Quite a different mindset then what is now offered. But for a Marshall Plan to work the American mind set needs to change and we once again as we had value the four freedoms.but Fox squawk sure gets in the way of that.

  7. Submitted by John Evans on 07/05/2019 - 03:18 pm.

    Honduras has many specific problems that can be alleviated by specific solutions. The US could provide training and funding so that local units of government can develop civilian police departments that have enough cops, who are well trained and evaluated, and decently paid. This would decrease the street-level crime and street-level corruption that plagues the country.

    They also need a better-developed criminal justice system, with well-trained and decently paid prosecutors and judges. They probably need the same kind of help for their civil court system as well, so that people and companies can do business freely and fairly, and free markets can flourish.

    This can all be done in conjunction with international organizations that develop, and assist governments in implementing, the best practices in the the major functions of government.

    This won’t stop the six-figure bribes the major narcotraffickers throw around, but that’s not what causes most of the suffering and desperation in Central America.

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