Stay at home

Morton Schamberg (1881–1918), View from the rooftops, Photograph, 1917.


The United States seeks to halt Central American migration northwards.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Costa Rica on June 1st and 2nd to find the square of the circle: to discuss a program to contain the migratory avalanche from Central America to the United States, in the midst of a chaotic scenario. US interventions often contributed to accentuate the tensions and conditions that ended up generating this desperate wave.

In the Costa Rican capital, Blinken met with the foreign ministers of the member countries of the Central American Integration System (SIECA) and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard. The visit was one more step in an effort to which the new US administration is dedicating some of its main resources. This is a particularly sensitive phenomenon in the three countries of the so-called “northern triangle” of Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, whose relations with the United States go through different periods.

In early April, it was Ricardo Zúñiga, a diplomat of Honduran origin tasked by Biden with dealing with the causes of Central American migration, who made his first trip to the region. Zúñiga visited Guatemala and El Salvador, but not Honduras, his home country. He met in Washington with Honduran Chancellor Lisandro Rosales and other ministers in the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother was convicted of drug trafficking and is imprisoned in the United States. The president himself was accused of the same crime in a New York court. In El Salvador, Zúñiga was not received by President Nayib Bukele. Relations were strained when parliamentarians dismissed members of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General of the Republic, after the new legislative assembly (in which Bukele has a majority of 1 votes out of 64) took office on May 84 members).

The United States expressed "serious concerns" about what happened and the chargé d'affaires in San Salvador did not attend a meeting called by Bukele to brief the diplomatic corps on the nature of what happened. There is no need to stress the absolute fragility of the Salvadoran economy vis-à-vis the United States: the currency in circulation is the dollar, there are nearly three million Salvadorans living in the United States (many of them undocumented), whose remittances represent almost a quarter of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country.

In Guatemala, the problems are different, and in a virtual conference with President Alejandro Giammattei on April 26, US Vice President Kamala Harris expressed her concern about corruption and bad governance. Harris, tasked by President Biden with tackling the challenge of illegal immigration on the southern border of the United States, intended to visit Guatemala and Mexico on June 7 and 8, just one week after Blinken's visit to San José. “Here Harris will be able to see the great poverty that affects the majority of Guatemalans. According to ECLAC, at the end of 2020, Guatemala would have 21% of the population living in extreme poverty, and 59,9% at the poverty level,” said a note published in the Guatemalan newspaper Crónica on 5 in June.

Stay at home

Such intense diplomatic activity can only be explained by the dimensions of the phenomenon in US domestic politics. Arrests of undocumented migrants at the Mexican border soared in March, reaching a 15-year high, according to official data. US border control agents with Mexico are making about 6.000 arrests a day, an unprecedented level, officials say. Among these immigrants – the vast majority of whom come from the Central American “northern triangle” – the number of unaccompanied minors also registered a 100% increase in one month.

The challenge for the United States is to convince Central Americans to stay at home. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama asked Congress for a billion dollars for development programs in the three countries – which he called Alliance for Prosperity – to face the causes of violence and lack of opportunities, which promote immigration. Did not work. First, Congress reduced the amount to $750 million. But it was not a problem of resources, but of ideas.

 Mariana Alfaro published an article on the subject in The Washington Post on June 1st. “I spoke with the Democratic representative for California, Norma Torres,” she said. She is the only Central American in Congress. “Torres told me that the United States has repeatedly sought to promote development programs in the region, and the truth is that we have very little to show for it,” she said. “Governments cannot be trusted, so other alternatives must be sought, such as collaboration with the private sector and non-profit organizations,” added Torres.

Biden had contacted 12 major US corporations, including Microsoft, Mastercard and Nespresso, to propose investment in the region. Torres thinks the idea could work, and the companies seem excited. O The Wall Street Journal announced that Microsoft had plans to facilitate internet access to three million people in the region by July next year and create digital training centers for young people and women.

Mastercard intends to incorporate five million people in the region to the financial system and give one million micro and small companies access to digital banking. Yogurt maker Chobani is willing to promote incubation programs for local producers in Guatemala; and Nespresso, a unit of Nestlé, plans to buy coffee from El Salvador and Honduras, with a regional investment of at least US$150 million by 2025.

smoke screen

It is difficult to understand how these programs will bring opportunities and development to the population of the three countries. Everything seems to be much more of a business opportunity for companies.

In mid-May, while alternatives were still being discussed in Washington, Vice President Harris declared that there would be little progress if corruption in the region persisted. That was the main reason why efforts would now turn to the private sector and civil society.

But the political use of the issue of corruption has had devastating effects in the region. The most dramatic example was that of Brazil, where this tool was used to remove the then favorite candidate for the presidency of the republic, former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, condemn him and put him in prison through the abuse of legal instruments. , used by complicit judges, colluding with judicial sources and US companies. The instrument was also used in Ecuador and Bolivia and in other countries in the region, with the same destabilizing political effects. It is also not difficult to predict that, from an economic point of view, the proposal will be transformed into a new instrument for extracting wealth from the region, aggravating the structures that end up forcing its citizens to migrate following the route of wealth.

Biden's plan for Central America is nothing more than a smokescreen, said Aviva Chomsky, coordinator of the Center for Latin American Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, in an article published in The Nation on April 1st. In his opinion, the essence of the plan is that millions of dollars will be used to reinforce military and police capabilities in these countries and thus protect an economic model based on private investment and profit exports. Instead of solidarity with Central America, it actually promotes the old model of economic development”. “The model that Washington continues to promote,” said Aviva Chomsky, “is based on the idea that if Central American governments can attract foreign investment through improved infrastructure, tax cuts, and less stringent environmental and labor laws, the 'free market' will promote investment, employment and economic growth, which (in theory) will prevent people from thinking of immigration as a first option”. But, she warns, Central American history has repeatedly shown that exactly the opposite has occurred.

Foreign investment came to the region eager to take advantage of the fertile land, natural resources and cheap labor. A form of development that explored banana and coffee plantations in the 80th century, as well as other more modern forms later on, that ended up fueling the revolutions of the XNUMXs, especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and also the current wave of migration, in search for better living conditions.

Almost a century ago, a notable Costa Rican writer, Vicente Sáenz, analyzed in dozens of pages Central America's economic and political relations with the United States. Sáenz reminded us that, between 1927 and 1929, Central American producing countries exported 36 million bunches of bananas to the United States, producing a net profit of 50 million dollars at the time. But United Fruit paid the producing countries one cent per bunch exported: US$360.000, which was split between Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. When Guatemala tried to charge more for its bananas, the United States staged a military coup that ended the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954; coup that is at the origin of the country's profoundly disorganized and corrupt political system to this day, which keeps the indigenous population marginalized and impoverished and sustains an unfair distribution of wealth.

Aviva Chomsky recalls that the United States spent the 1980s trying to crush the successful Nicaraguan revolution and armed movements against the far-right governments of El Salvador and Guatemala, and that “the peace treaties of the 1990s put an end to armed conflicts, but they never resolved the deep social and economic differences that gave rise to them”. They have by no means put an end to poverty, repression and violence, he says.

vital alliance

Moses Nain, a prominent member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Venezuelan conservative, complained of excessive attention to the migration problem on the border with Mexico, saying that things were not going well in the rest of Latin America. “If you ask the Biden team about their hemispheric agenda, the answer you get will start – and often end – with the southern border of the United States,” says Naim. In his opinion, migration from countries in the northern triangle of Central America is far from being the greatest challenge that Latin America represents for Washington's interests.

The two giants in the region – Brazil and Mexico – are, in his opinion, in the hands of populists, openly opposed to any form of power control. In Peru, two “abominable candidates” were vying for power in the June 6 elections; while in Ecuador, a neoliberal president, whom Naim considers “centrist” (with whom he sympathizes), will face a very fragmented congress that will not allow him to govern.

 In Colombia, where right-wing governments unleashed an unavoidable wave of murders of social leaders and social protest took to the streets more than a month ago, Naím sees the danger of an “extreme left” candidate defeating those who turned the country into the America's most trusted ally in the region. An alliance that Blinken called "absolutely vital" in a meeting with his Colombian counterpart, Marta Lucía Ramírez, who traveled to Washington in the midst of her country's crisis to seek support from the US administration.

Ricardo Zúñiga had said, after his tour of Central America, that the United States did not intend to impose its model on Central America, but to support the region's countries in creating “safe, prosperous and democratic societies”. But Blinken put things right. He warned, in San José, that the United States would only lift the sanctions imposed on countries like Nicaragua or Venezuela if those governments changed course and oriented their policies in favor of democracy. The same policy, encouraged by the conservative sectors of the opposition that, both in Venezuela and in Nicaragua, are knocking on Washington's doors in search of interventions that will facilitate the achievement of their objectives and that will end up, in the long term, opening the way for the desperate migration to the North.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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