How Central America Could Win from Trump's 'America First' Policies

Container ship. Pixabay/Public domain

The suspension of U.S. participation in TPP is potentially good news for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The United States continues to be frustrated by a lack of progress in Central America even with a growing body of work supporting economic development, crime and insecurity. After years of slow burn, regional realities exploded onto Washington’s political agenda at the end of the Obama administration with the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors at the Southwest border of the United States. Despite the obligation of hundreds of millions of dollars since then—and a commitment for hundreds of millions more—indicators in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have barely budged since the end of the vicious civil wars over twenty years ago. Now, the election of Donald Trump has raised additional concerns. By restricting entry into the United States for migrants from Central America, including asylum seekers, while seeking to deport undocumented migrants back to their home countries, U.S. actions could inadvertently intensify pressure to the breaking point on already-stretched national and regional democratic institutions.

To ensure this is not the case, in mid-June the U.S. Secretaries of State and Homeland Security, together with their Mexican counterparts, will host a meeting in Miami of leaders from the Northern Triangle countries and ministerial-level representatives from others in the region. Vice President Pence is also likely to attend. This initiative is designed to set a new agenda building prosperity and improving security, while also seeking to target U.S. assistance and other assistance more effectively and galvanizing improved regional coordination and cooperation. One desired outcome would be the facilitation of new, unprecedented waves of investment from the private sector that will support economic growth and create jobs in the Northern Triangle. This would offer undeniably better options for citizens beyond the Scylla of a dangerous, uncertain trek north and the Charybdis of living in constant fear and even the possibility of premature, gang-involved death.

It is an effort that will disappoint without a radical rethinking and refocusing of regional priorities.

The situation on the ground in the Northern Triangle remains fluid and difficult. Some 50 percent of Central Americans overall live in poverty, many without access to clean water, electricity, health care and quality education. Malnutrition is widespread in some areas. High unemployment plagues the region, and, with over 60 percent of the population under the age of thirty, the high percentage of youth without jobs or going to school full time is a significant concern. To make matters worse, periodic natural disasters, including hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes rock the region, knocking precious percentage points off GDP in those nations least-equipped to recover lost growth.

Meanwhile, security in the Northern Triangle is fraught, with murder rates well above global averages. Located between the world’s largest illegal drug-consuming nation and one of the world’s largest drug-producing regions, Central America is at the most basic level victimized by geography, a prime transit route for illegal activities that both overwhelm and undermine the capacity of governments to address them. The region is also challenged by state-enabled criminality: Venezuela’s government and military are credibly alleged to be actively trafficking rather than controlling illegal drugs; a different government in Venezuela would presumably support rather than undermine Central America’s desperate fight. Gang activity and the easy availability of high-caliber weapons and other weapons also contribute significantly to insecurity, at times giving criminals the ability to outgun state actors. The attractiveness of gang membership is exacerbated by the lack of economic opportunity and also the lack of effective policing and judicial process. Impunity is rife, as is corruption. Deep social divisions within countries and deep political divisions between and among countries hamper governance and cross-border cooperation.

It is a potent mix. While the primary responsibility for addressing these issues resides with the nations themselves, it is in U.S. interests, given history, values and connectivity with the Northern Triangle, to help, and we have the capacity to do so. Importantly, continued engagement also provides the United States with the opportunity to address core interests at their source. The United States has already provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development and security assistance to the region through fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2017, and is a strong and vocal supporter of international efforts to reduce corruption such as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras. These are worthy efforts. And the United States has also been a key actor in seeking to promote political stability and keeping presidential elections open and fair; it must continue to play this role in the run up to presidential elections in Honduras in November.