Will U.S. Aid Address the “Root Causes” of the Crisis in the Northern Triangle?

By Fulton Armstrong*

Women carry home their monthly food aid rations through a USAID-funded program in Guatemala/ USAID/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s statements this month on the need to address the “root causes” – including government corruption – of the ongoing surge of migrants fleeing the Northern Triangle of Central America reflects the strong agreement among analysts that lasting solutions will require deep reform within the region, but the Administration’s kid-gloves treatment of those governments risks repeating the errors of the past. Harris and Ricardo Zúñiga, the U.S. envoy coordinating policy toward the area, have emphasized the difficult task of real reform while also addressing the immediate challenge of the humanitarian crises contributing to migrants’ desperation.

  • While recommitting to a campaign promise to spend $4 billion in the Northern Triangle, the Administration last week announced an additional $310 million in emergency assistance to mitigate suffering from recurrent droughts, food shortages, COVID‑19, and back-to-back hurricanes last November. Even before those calamities, 60 percent of Hondurans lived in extreme poverty, and malnourishment stunted the growth of 23 percent of children nationwide. The World Food Program in June 2020 reported that 2.3 million Guatemalans (14 percent) were suffering from food insecurity, and another 800,000 would soon follow. Malnutrition among Guatemalan children under five has skyrocketed.

Addressing “root causes” will be much tougher than sending aid. Zúñiga argues that success will depend on drastically reducing the corruption that robs citizens of state resources and fuels other crime and violence, particularly senior political and military officials’ cooperation with narcotraffickers. Harris has supposedly mentioned this in several virtual meetings with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and will stress it during a visit to the region in June. The Administration is also creating an “anti-corruption task force” to enforce the policy, and Zúñiga offered $2 million to El Salvador if it pursues a hybrid anti-corruption effort called CICIES. Corruption is an endemic problem in all three countries, but the Harris initiative seems most sorely tested in Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández has emerged as the poster child of what a U.S. District Judge last month called “state-sponsored” trafficking.

  • The U.S. drug convictions of Hernández’s brother, Tony, in 2019 and of trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez last month both featured apparently credible testimony about the President’s personal role in protecting the flow of narcotics through Honduras to the United States. These allegations come on the heels of waves of evidence of other corruption, human rights violations, and electoral fraud he has engaged in.
  • Nonetheless, the White House has publicly stated that “we are going to work with [Hernández’s] government and … seek areas of common interest.” While U.S. officials have severely criticized Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – whose migrant flow is a fraction of Honduras’s – for anti-democratic digressions, they have been relatively silent on Hernández. His efforts to portray himself as an indispensable ally appear to have earned him that latitude. Last year, after U.S. concern about trafficking rose, he won brownie points for supporting legislation deterring private jets from entering the country. Recently, he has mobilized the military several times to stop migrant caravans from leaving the country.

This is not the first U.S. Administration to try to cajole corrupt Central American incumbents to become allies in eliminating their own corruption. The humanitarian crisis requires the Harris team to send aid quickly and to collaborate with the same governments that have aggravated, and sometimes caused, people’s suffering. But the Biden Administration hasn’t given an indication yet that it can avoid being taken to the cleaners as previous administrations have, including President Obama and Vice President Biden when they teamed up with the Inter-American Development Bank for the Alianza para la Prosperidad. That initiative cost hundreds of millions but, as the current migration surge indicates, the “push” factors behind it continue to grow. Obama/Biden also made significant efforts – for example, helping CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras begin important processes – but local officials and their elite allies managed to get out from under both.

  • It’s a long shot that, without threats of sanctions similar to those levied against leaders who are not U.S. “allies,” Washington can get these governments to undertake major reforms that would threaten leaders’ wealth and power. But if the United States and others can break the vicious cycle of corruption, bad governance, poverty, and flight in the Northern Triangle, they will be laying the groundwork for breakthroughs far beyond the migration crisis on the U.S. border.

April 30, 2021

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1 Comment

  1. fernando rojas

     /  April 30, 2021

    Congratulations! Attacking the root causes in the three countries is not only an important component of the solution –it is a sine qua non factor for policy success.

    Reply

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