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

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. 

Policemen detain a demonstrator during a march
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.
REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

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. 

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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 The moves have since been rescinded, but once protests got under way, they grew to include demands that the president resign.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. 

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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.