Hope Fading for Guatemalan Spring

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Jimmy Morales

Photo Credit: Publinews Guatemala / YouTube / Creative Commons

The high hopes created by Guatemala’s peaceful, democratic change of government last year are hitting the shoals of reality.  Guatemalans managed a major political crisis in 2015 in an exemplary way: massive citizen demonstrations against authorities accused of corruption lasted four months without a single incident of violence.  Acceptably free and fair elections took place just three days after disgraced President Pérez Molina resigned, and a transition government was formed as mandated by the Constitution to govern until Jimmy Morales, the new Guatemalan President, was sworn in on January 14.  Although lacking experience, a cabinet, and a plan, Morales inspired confidence with a very good slogan (that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”) and good communication skills honed as a former TV comedian.  Voters had rejected and punished the “old politics” and felt hope that honesty would prevail.

Since Morales took office, however, serious mistakes have caused confidence to dim.

  • His reluctance or inability to answer questions from journalists and to refrain from underestimating audiences by telling silly jokes and childhood stories are raising concerns among observers of an emerging authoritarian personality.
  • Secrecy surrounding his cabinet selection process has led to missteps. His Minister of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing was forced to resign after just 11 days in office – in the face of evidence of tax fraud and a serious conflict of interest.
  • His first approach to Congress was only to reverse the position on 2016 public debt cuts that his representatives advocated last November. Asking Congress to reduce debt proved popular back then, but now transfers to the Public Prosecutor Office or to the public university can be made only if the original debt amount is restored by Congress.  That condition is not only unpopular; it risks hampering the effort to prosecute corruption.
  • Instead of asking Congress for an urgently needed budget increase to solve ongoing shortages of medicines and equipment in public hospitals and clinics – almost a humanitarian tragedy, he accepted pharmaceutical company donations of expired medications – in a deal redolent of past corruption.
  • Morales’s political party, Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), has grown substantially in Congress by receiving “turncoat” congressmen, directly contradicting an important campaign promise. “Turncoating,” jumping from party to party in Congress (always for a “price”), is one of the practices condemned in 2015 as part of the “old politics” and was strongly rejected by voters who trusted Morales.  The Public Prosecutor Office has received complaints denouncing bribes, government jobs, and contracts offered to “turncoats” now affiliating with the FCN.

Events in Guatemala over the past year present a huge contrast with what the country was a couple of decades ago – triumph for a society deeply marked by civil war, poverty, and brutal inequality, with the fresh hope of a new democratic spring.  Jimmy Morales appears to be squandering a historic opportunity to harness this democratic momentum.  Voters who set aside concerns about his links to right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war could soon feel deceived because the “old politics” is still in place.  Guatemala’s democratic spring may fade before it blooms, sowing the seeds of crisis and instability in the future.

February 22, 2016

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015

Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

A New Line of Defense: Trends at Mexico’s Southern Border

By Dennis Stinchcomb

The boat to Mexico.  Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

The boat to Mexico. Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

Statistics show that the United States is relying on Mexico to do what U.S. immigration law and the Northern Triangle countries can’t: keep Central American children out of the U.S.  In 2014, the same year in which Mexico announced tightened security measures along its southern border with Guatemala and Belize, Mexican authorities deported over 18,000 children, up 117 percent from just over 8,000 the previous year, according to Mexican government figures.  A similar increase is already being registered in 2015.  During January and February of this year, deportations of minors from Mexican soil tallied over 3,200 – a 105 percent jump from the same period in 2014.  Since launching what U.S. officials have dubbed a “layered approach” to immigration enforcement, data reveal several noteworthy trends:

  • Mexico’s get-tough approach has prevented a significant number of migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the first seven months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 witnessed a 48-percent decrease in unaccompanied child apprehensions and a 35-percent decrease in family unit apprehensions along the U.S. border.  However, considered in light of the unprecedented number of deportations from Mexico, these figures suggest that child and family migration from Central America remain at historic highs. 
  • Central American children detained in Mexico are unlikely to be offered forms of humanitarian protection mandated by international law. Despite increases in child detention and deportation, a report by Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute points to inadequate screening and arbitrary detention as among the obstacles preventing tens of thousands of children from seeking and receiving relief from removal.
  • Both Mexican and U.S. data show that a growing share of child and family migrants are Guatemalan. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of Guatemalan children deported from Mexico during the first five months of FY15 doubled since the same period last year and now accounts for 60 percent of all child deportations from the country.  Meanwhile, the share of child deportees from Honduras dropped from roughly one-third to less than one-quarter, and those from El Salvador fell off slightly to just above 15 percent.  An analogous shift is also evident at the U.S.-Mexico border where Guatemalans now comprise 35 percent of unaccompanied child apprehensions compared to 25 percent during FY14.  Similarly, the proportion of Salvadoran and Honduran children has declined from roughly 25 percent each to 18 and 9 percent, respectively.
  • Smugglers and migrants are already adapting to heightened enforcement in Mexico and charting new, more dangerous routes north. Local media reports have covered migrants’ attempts to bypass border checkpoints by sea and traverse Mexico undetected on foot or in third-class buses.  Data show that successful migrants are crossing into the U.S. at less traditional and harder-to-access points.  At the height of last year’s crisis, the majority of migrants were surrendering themselves to border officials in the Rio Grande Valley along Texas’ southern-most border.  While apprehension in the Rio Grande control sector have decreased significantly this year, three sectors – Big Bend (Texas), El Paso (Texas and New Mexico), and Yuma (California) – have registered at least double-digit percent increases in both child and family apprehensions.

During Mexican President Peña Nieto’s recent visit to Washington, President Obama stated that he “very much appreciate[d] Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children [crisis].”  Despite applause from the White House, Mexico’s aggressive border enforcement – driven at least in part by U.S. encouragement and funding – has implications for Mexico’s already problematic human rights record.  While it is true that Mexico’s actions have largely staved off a repeat of last year’s crisis, it has yet to translate into the sort of political bargaining chip the Obama administration has hoped might sway the immigration policy debate in the U.S.  With comprehensive immigration reform legislation long dead and recent executive actions on indefinite hold, the administration apparently hopes that ramped-up enforcement will improve prospects for congressional approval of $1 billion in development assistance to the Northern Triangle.  But with Mexico’s clampdown blocking another surge of migrants into the U.S., many legislators are likely to question the prudence of pouring more money into corrupt, dysfunctional regional governments.  By backing the militarization of Mexico’s southern border, moreover, the administration is privileging political goals at the expense of humanitarian objectives and is indirectly complicit in blocking thousands of Central American children from accessing lawful forms of relief for which most are likely eligible.  Meanwhile, Mexico’s migrant extortion market continues to boom as vulnerable children and families seek new routes north at the mercy of increasingly brutal transnational networks.

June 4, 2015

Civics Lessons from Guatemala

By Robert Brenneman*

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor with sign "We demand justice" Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Vice President of Guatemala Roxana Baldetti (l) and a protestor holding sign that proclaims “We demand justice.” Photo Credits: Surizar / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemala’s popular movement for justice and transparency is suddenly and happily discovering that nothing breeds success like success.  Many Guatemalans have grumbled for years about rampant corruption among the political class, but in recent weeks a surging popular movement has finally emerged giving voice and energy to years of that frustration with impunity and graft.  The movement picked up steam after a public exposé of a shadowy tax fraud and contraband network called “La Línea,” orchestrated out of Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s office by her private secretary.  The report was produced by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  (Click here for analysis of the Commission’s renewal.)  President Pérez Molina not only renewed CICIG’s term until 2017; on May 7 he also accepted the resignation of Baldetti and her secretary, who had served as the key money-raising dealmakers for his administration.  The U.S. Embassy suspended the visas of many of the officials named in the report, including the luckless former vice president herself.

These actions have not been enough to appease the appetite for justice and transparency sought by the growing crowds of flag-waving nonviolent protestors converging each Sunday afternoon in front of the Guatemala City’s Municipal Palace.  An estimated 57,000 gathered under thunder and pouring rain on May 17.  Empowered by the relatively swift impact of their movement, and outraged by the mounting evidence pointing to the president’s personal connections to the corruption network, the crowds of protestors  led principally by students of the public university  have shifted to demanding that the president himself step down.  Pérez Molina, sensing that the wheels are coming off his administration, has requested the resignations of his closest advisors and top officials, including his Interior Minister and his Chief of Strategic Intelligence.  He has revoked or rescinded several of the most lucrative (and obviously corrupt) government contracts that he had vociferously defended only a few weeks ago.

President Pérez Molina’s political future remains up in the air.  Many Guatemalan political analysts believe he should step down.  José Rubén Zamora, founder of Guatemala’s influential daily El Periódico, argues that resigning is “the only way out of an impossible labyrinth” of the president’s own making.  But many others view the president’s fate as less important than whether the country takes advantage of the opportunity to use public pressure to pass sorely needed structural reforms.  For years Congress has ignored several bills that would tighten campaign finance rules and bring transparency to government contracting.  Since pay-to-play politics is not unique to this administration, fixing the problem will require legal and structural changes, not merely changing the nameplate on the presidential suite.  One hopeful sign is that Manuel Baldizón, leader of the opposition Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER), has not managed to coopt the popular outrage to kickstart his own election campaign.  A popular banner at the protests warns him “¡No te toca!” (“It’s not your turn!”).  The leaders of the movement recognize that Baldizón – who has many skeletons in his own closet and heads another investment-financed party – is hardly the answer.  The protesters’ focus on reform rather than politics suggests that the most certain – and long-lasting – outcome of all is the strengthened civic sphere that appears to have emerged as the protests grow and the newspapers report daily arrests and resignations.  In this civics lesson, the Guatemalan public is both pupil and teacher.

May 26, 2015

*Dr. Brenneman teaches sociology at St. Michael’s College and is author of Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America (Oxford University Press 2012).

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Central American Minors: Headed Home?

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

Two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last year, two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center during the height of its operation. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Legislative safeguards have protected from deportation most of the 68,000 unaccompanied children (UACs), almost all of them from the Northern Triangle of Central America, who were apprehended at the southern border of the U.S. last year – but the challenges are far from over.  This temporary reprieve comes despite warnings by the Obama administration at the height of the crisis – and U.S. embassy-supported education campaigns in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since then – that youth considering flight to the U.S. will be returned home.  Provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 have aided these Central America kids to legally remain in the U.S. by making them ineligible for expedited removal or voluntary departure until their cases are decided by an immigration court judge.  Attempts by the Department of Justice to fast track initial hearings have yet to result in expedited case closures, as judges typically issue continuances to children securing legal counsel and soliciting forms of deportation relief.  While it is still too early to predict case outcomes, several trends are evident:

  • Available data suggest that large numbers of UACs are benefiting from relief codified in U.S. immigration law, including asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and non-immigrant visas for victims of trafficking and other qualifying crimes. According to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, approval rates for asylum applications submitted by minors have hovered around 80-90 percent for the past year.  (The bulk of applications of the most recent wave of arrivals have not yet been decided.)
  • More than 7,000 child migrants have been ordered deported between October 2013 and January 2015 for failing to appear in court, but their attorneys and advocacy groups have blamed an overburdened and resource-starved court system, pointing to documented instances in which clients were never notified of their hearing date or notices arrived late or were sent to the wrong address. In other cases children have been ordered to appear in court hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they have been placed in sponsor care.  With sufficient evidence, children who have received deportation orders in absentia may file motions to reopen their cases.
  • Access to legal representation continues to impact case outcomes. In fiscal years 2012-14, 73 percent of UACs with attorneys were permitted to remain in the country, compared to just 15 percent of children without representation.  According to federal data obtained by Syracuse University, as of October 31, 2014, less than one-third of UACs in pending cases had secured an attorney.

While the fate of these Central American kids hangs in the balance, so too do the legal protections that guarantee their day in court and their access to deportation relief.  An emboldened Republican-controlled Congress has resuscitated efforts to amend the TVPRA provisions protecting these children from expeditious return to their home countries.  Similar bills still under debate by the House Judiciary Committee propose tighter restrictions on the most commonly solicited forms of relief – asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.  Asylum seekers, for example, would face shorter filling deadlines and be required to wait for hearings in a “safe” third country.  A proposed revision to the hotly contested SIJS statute allowing abused, neglected, or abandoned children to reunite with a second parent in the U.S. would have serious repercussions for Central American UACs, many of whom are in the care of parent sponsors.  Meanwhile, a steady flow of new arrivals – 12,500 UACs and 11,000 family units since last October – are added to backlogged court dockets and increase the likelihood of a due process crisis.  Observers in the region and in Washington are acknowledging gingerly the possibility of a new wave of youth migration during the coming months, as conditions fueling the exodus from Central America remain acute.  The politics of such a renewed surge are complex, and may shape both the immigration policy debate in the U.S. and the prospects for Congressional approval of the administration’s request for $1 billion in development assistance for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.

March 26, 2015

Inter-American Educational Exchange: A Drop in the Bucket

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

The Obama administration’s program for strengthening inter-American ties through cooperative education – “100,000 Strong in the Americas” – is now several years old and making incremental progress toward its stated goal of a multilateral exchange of 100,000 students between the United States and Latin America.

  • The latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows that the number of Latin American students studying in the United States during the 2013-14 academic year (AY) rose 8.2 percent from the previous AY to 72,318 – the largest number to date and the largest annual percentage increase in at least 15 years. Mexico and Brazil now rank ninth and tenth respectively as places of origin for foreign students in the United States.
  • The most recent data on U.S. students studying in Latin America is less promising. In the 2012-13 AY, 45,473 U.S. students studied in Latin America, the highest number to date but a smaller annual percentage increase (1.8 percent) compared to the late 2000s.

Countries’ investments in such exchanges vary widely.  Under “100,000 Strong,” figures for U.S. spending are elusive.  In early 2014 the State Department announced the creation of the Innovation Fund, partnership grants that will be awarded over the next several years to strengthen collaboration between higher education institutions – including 38 grants totaling over one million dollars last year.   Mexican President Peña Nieto has introduced Proyecta 100 Mil, which in addition to sending 100,000 students to the United States by 2018, hopes to entice 50,000 U.S. students to study at its own universities.  (U.S. students in Mexico dropped from 10,000 in 2005-06 to less than 4,000 in 2012-13 because of security concerns.)  Both countries’ financial commitment to international education pales next to that of Brazil.  President Rousseff announced last summer the renewal of its Science Without Borders program, the first phase of which cost US$1.36 billion.

These programs, universally seen as laudable, have thus far let certain countries fall through the cracks.  Vice President Joe Biden recognized in his recent New York Times editorial that “inadequate education” is one of the barriers holding back Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which thousands of children have fled in recent years.  The development assistance portion of President Obama’s proposed $1 billion budget for Central American assistance is in part slated for strengthening literacy and vocational education.  Bringing Central America into the Innovation Fund program is a logical addition to the President’s efforts, yet Central American partners were notably absent in 2014.  Only one of the five grant rounds was open to Central American countries – where it arguably could have a greater national-level impact – and of the 109 recipient institutions of Innovation Fund grants, only two were from the region – and none from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).  That disparity suggests that, in spite of the rhetoric, education exchange is considered a supplementary tool rather than a leading means of bolstering development in Latin America.  While the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program deserves applause as a cooperative, multilateral program, it remains an underutilized tool of U.S. engagement in much of the hemisphere.

February 16, 2015

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015