U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

Trump on NAFTA: An Offer Canada Can’t Refuse?

By Malcolm Fairbrother*

Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in July 2018. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat last week to abrogate free trade with Canada while signing a new bilateral agreement with Mexico alone has led many to think that NAFTA – which will be 25 years old on January 1, 2019 – has no future.  But the likeliest outcome remains just a set of fairly modest changes to the agreement.  Much of Trump’s bluster on NAFTA does not reflect the facts in U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade, though Canadian officials will still have to take his threats seriously.  Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose government sat out the United States’ renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico this summer, rushed to Washington after the bilateral accord was announced, launching new talks with U.S. counterparts.  While Trump has said he will make no concessions, Freeland has continued seeking common ground, and looks ready to compromise on at least some issues.

  • The best econometric studies suggest that North American free trade has had disappointingly modest benefits – nowhere near advocates’ earlier projections. But the transition costs of moving to a world without free trade would still be enormously costly for Canada.  The economic and political risk of the highly unlikely, but not completely inconceivable, scenario of losing NAFTA entirely are just too great for the Canadian government to bear.

Canada, which in past negotiations stood up for Mexico on some key issues, now finds itself in the ironic position of looking to Mexico for support.  The two countries are often in a position to benefit from working together, but Trump’s wrath has tempted each to throw the other under the bus – a classic prisoner’s dilemma.

  • In the last few weeks, Mexico decided to give the U.S. what it wanted: most importantly, protectionist rules of origin for autos and textiles, and some enhanced intellectual property rights. Mexico calculated that, compared to Trump’s threats not long ago to kill NAFTA in its entirety, these concessions were a modest price to pay to keep the agreement alive.  Also importantly, Mexican leaders appear to have avoided a national humiliation of epic proportions – putting an end to Trump’s dream of getting Mexico to pay for the wall he wants to build on the border.
  • Looking for a much-needed “win,” Trump has now made an offer he thinks Canada can’t refuse. His wish list covers things Canada specifically fought hard for in the original free trade talks back in the 1980s and 90s, including protections for Canada’s cultural industries and agricultural supply management programs, and what Canada’s trade minister said in 1992 were “the vitally important dispute settlement provisions” of Chapter 19.  Now, just as Canadian opponents of free trade forewarned in the 1980s, Canada’s economy has become so enmeshed with that of its much larger neighbor that the government cannot say no to the demands of an aggressive administration in Washington.

Yet the situation does not spell disaster for U.S.-Canada trade or for Canada itself.  Trump’s claims notwithstanding, the U.S. Congress has final say over U.S. trade policy, and most of its members (with business lobbyists whispering in their ears) recognize that severing the many economic ties built up between Canada and the United States over the last quarter-century would be unnecessarily disruptive and costly.  Freeland and her negotiators will know that Trump’s threat to kill free trade is not really credible.

  •  Even caving on all of Trump’s demands would not be catastrophic for Canada. Contrary to Trump’s zero-sum perspective on trade (like on everything else) as an international battleground, most of the important conflicts with respect to trade are actually within countries.  Canada’s supply management system favors the country’s producers at the expense of consumers, for example, just as do strict rules of origin for U.S. textiles manufacturers.  So while the transition costs of dismantling free trade in North America would be substantial, the impacts of the changes Trump is proposing would be tolerable to all three countries – even if some make no sense (the sunset clause); are just giveaways to specific industries (stricter patents for pharmaceuticals); or favor some industries at the expense of others (U.S. lumber producers and U.S. home builders, respectively, as regards the possible elimination of Chapter 19).  For Canada’s government, the heaviest costs of compromise will be political: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will have to choose which bitter pill to swallow, as any concessions will lead to angry recriminations from one domestic constituency or another.

September 7, 2018

* Malcolm Fairbrother is Professor of Sociology at Umeå University and a researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies, both in Sweden.  He is originally from Vancouver, and has been a visiting researcher at multiple institutions in all three countries of North America. He has also participated in the Center’s North America Research Initiative.

Haiti: Increasingly Alone

By Fulton Armstrong

A bird's eye view of a residential neighborhood in Haiti

A residential neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. / UNICEF Canada / Flickr / Creative Commons

Haiti’s international backers are increasingly leaving the impoverished Caribbean country to its own devices, but Port-au-Prince remains woefully ill-prepared to face its many challenges alone.  Competing priorities and distractions seem to be the main causes of the international retrenchment.  Perceptions that international aid, particularly the billions of dollars in assistance since the 2010 earthquake, has been squandered – as well as general “donor fatigue” worldwide – appear to be secondary factors.

  • The United Nations, two months after the inauguration of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in February 2017, determined that Haitian institutions were sufficiently strong for the UN to withdraw last October the remaining 2,300 peacekeepers in the Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) that had been deployed since the 2004 military coup. In its place, the UN is establishing this April a small “Mission for Justice Support” (MINUJUSTH), meant to strengthen the justice system, policing, and human rights protections – leaving all security responsibilities to Haiti’s 15,000-man police force.
  • International support for UN efforts to stem the cholera epidemic caused by UN peacekeepers after the devastating earthquake in 2010 has been lacking. About 10,000 Haitians (of an estimated 817,000 infected) have died, including 159 (of 14,000 new cases) reported in 2017.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported last month that only $4.8 million out of the $34.5 million requested for cholera response has been funded.
  • The United States, Haiti’s biggest benefactor (having disbursed at least $3.9 billion in post-2010 earthquake aid), is pulling back in disruptive ways. The administration of President Donald Trump, who while campaigning in 2016 pledged to be Haiti’s “biggest champion,” in November announced suspension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 59,000 Haitians living legally in the United States since the earthquake – giving them until March 19 to leave the country or face deportation.  Trump’s reported reference to Haiti and Africa as “shitholes” during a meeting with U.S. Congressmen last month also infuriated Haitians.
  • Food aid continues to flow, but donors have come through with less than half of the $56 million the UN urgently called for in the wake of Hurricane Matthew last October. The World Food Program reports that 50 percent of Haiti’s 10.7 million people are undernourished – including 1.3 million in “Phase 3 crisis” and 3 million in “Phase 2 stress.”
  • Even international partners have disappointed Haiti as well. Reports that Oxfam personnel held sex parties and paid for sex have prompted admissions that some staff’s behavior was “totally unacceptable.”  The group’s Haiti country director has conceded that he made “mistakes” by having a sexual relationship with a woman and was aware of the parties and prostitutes.  Other reports indicate that Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) repatriated 17 employees for “misconduct” that the organization is not willing to discuss.

President Moïse, who two weeks ago completed his first year in office, has had few options for dealing with these challenges.  His appeals for international support are falling on deaf or distracted ears.  It is by now well established that the international community’s “pledges of aid” invariably fall short of stated commitments, but defending his poor but proud nation from being called obscenities by the U.S. President is a task that his hapless predecessors did not have to deal with.  To prepare for the withdrawal of MINUSTAH, he has reconstituted a Haitian National Army – a force of 3,000-5,000 whom he promises will “help the people … not be an army of repression” – but the move has reopened fresh wounds from years of military abuses.  He has condemned the “sexual predator” international staff who exploit “needy people in their moment of greatest vulnerability,” but he needs to maintain good relations with NGOs in general, since they have often become the sole suppliers of public goods that ideally would be provided by the state.  Haitians’ frustration was palpable last week when a fire destroyed much of Port-au-Prince’s famous Marché en Fer (Iron Market), a historic symbol of popular commerce rebuilt after the earthquake which has become a profitable tourist destination – another sign that fate is simply not on their side.

February 20, 2018