No form of government in existence has found immunity to corruption. When trust is eroded by abuse of public office for private gain, policies become less effective and fair. The lack of political will and neighboring cooperation to promote integrity inevitably ensues havoc within a country—such as mismanagement of natural resources, poverty, and social unrest. This casts doubt on the conditions of safety and opportunity extended by the government. This is a state of affairs that Central America has cyclically encountered, contributing to the fact that 55 percent of all U.S. immigration cases stem from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
The United States is rehashing the carrot and stick approach in Latin America, this time in Central America in an effort to stifle the recent uptick in migration from the region. The Biden administration is entrusting a special task force with the mission to support local prosecutors’ fight against corruption, carrying forth the U.S. president’s commitment to recalibrate the scales of justice in the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—collectively known as the Northern Triangle. Regional stability is contingent on addressing corruption and lack of public infrastructure, and may only be achieved with foreign support. To address poor governance, the U.S. finds itself on a tightrope of balancing soft and hard power to restore peace and prosperity, a venture the country has familiarized itself with historically.
After meeting with a group of Latin American leaders in 2009, then Vice President Joe Biden signaled a renewal of partnership, “the time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen, is over,” in spite of U.S. influence in the region waning and Latin American countries growingly expanding relations with China and Russia. However, in the space between this speech and Biden’s embark on establishing his own presidential foreign policy in the region, Latin America’s proclivity to the causes and consequences of corruption has exacerbated.
As social issues such as social unrest, economic instability, and political turmoil have unraveled at almost unparalleled rates, America has spectated its neighbors from afar. Nearly two decades of poverty reduction efforts have been erased by pandemic measures, leaving Central America particularly bruised by setbacks of COVID-19. The Trump Administration declined to intervene or lead in Central America, beyond its “safe third country” deal which required migrants from El Salvador and Honduras to seek asylum in Guatemala first, majorly preventing migrants from Central America from reaching the U.S. southern border
Following the Trump Administration noticeably turning its head from cooperatively intervening in Latin America, and instead confronting autocratic regimes with debilitating sanctions and threatening rhetoric, the region is eager for rest after erratic diplomacy.
Biden’s career-long interest in Latin America could be of use in restoring American leadership, particularly in Central America. American domestic policy largely relies on stability on the U.S. southern border. If the Biden Administration plays its cards correctly, the dynamic of American engagement has the ability to transform, engaging in the internal affairs with support of regional governments so long as there is multilateralist cooperation on issues pressing for all participating parties—climate change, migration, economic development, and trade.
However, the relationship between the U.S. and Latin American countries is distinguished by a long history of harm and distrust, entangled by imperialistic and interventionist behavior. Manifest Destiny was coined in 1845 to describe the American ideology of continental expansionism in the Western Hemisphere. Sparked by the Mexican-American war, Manifest Destiny was used to justify the expansion of the U.S. under the pretext of a providential right based on racial and cultural superiority. President Hoover availed ‘American Exceptionalism’ as the backdrop between the U.S. as a leader of the New World and foreign administrations still run by social systems of the Old World. In the wake of the Great Depression, Hoover blamed America’s economic despondency on its relationship with the international economy. He rethought economic realities with the countries of South and Central America, nonetheless believing that America’s rugged individualism and democracy could not be replicated in these regions. Reagan revitalized this confidence in America as a vision to the world through his evocation of “a city on a hill,” arguing that America had the strength to transcend any international affray. Walt Whitman used the terms ‘America’ and ‘democracy’ synonymously. This fervent conviction in American uniqueness has chronically been deployed to justify U.S. intervention across the globe, especially in its own backyard.
The 1823 Monroe Doctrine triumphantly casted down European powers from further colonization and stringing puppet monarchies to protect newly independent Latin American states, ascribing the U.S. as a regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. The 1904 Roosevelt Corollary asserted the U.S.’s self-imposed role as policeman of the West by declaring that the U.S. would view any attempt by a European power to control any country on their side of the world as a hostile act. Most importantly, the Corollary noted that the U.S. would intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American countries to prevent unruly economic management and political disorder if necessary. The U.S.’s long history of intervening in the daily affairs of Latin American nations reveal that tensions between the neighboring regions are not new, but the region’s antagonist image of Washington is similar to that of the Bush era in the early 2000s.
Biden may dampen this polarization through regional cooperation. The Biden administration’s task force in Central America is being led by Vice President Kamala Harris, members of the U.S. Justice and State Departments, and Ricardo Zuniga, special U.S. envoy for the Northern Triangle. In addressing the “root causes” of illegal immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, Biden seeks to realize his soft power promise of protecting peace, prosperity, and security in the region, but finds challenge in preventing the possibility of his aid package falling partly to graft. Conversely, the Biden administration is also quietly deploying its hard military and economic power as it works with local government enforcement.
The “carrot” strategy accounts for the endowment of $310 million in humanitarian aid towards the “immediate needs” of migrants in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This is cause for worry as the state administrations of the Northern Triangle are infamous for mishandling resources and embezzling public funds. In Honduras, U.S. prosecutors are investigating President Juan Orlando Hernandez for participating in the nation’s large-scale narcotics trade, encouraged by the fact that in 2013 he had received millions of dollars in drug-trafficking proceeds in exchange for protection from prosecutors and law enforcement. His brother and former Honduran congressman Juan Hernandez is sentenced to life in person for drug trafficking as of this past March. When public funds are diverted into the private hands of a small few, this imposes bleak implications for the actual lives of the citizenry.
In addition to governmental graft and corruption, countries in the Northern Triangle experience hardship from failing infrastructure and poor electricity, and its populations suffer from nutritional and agricultural issues. Family units are divided by violence and migration, laying groundwork for increased crime and gang participation. Elites in these countries have been building economic caldrons of security for themselves rather than financing tax reform to rebuild public services. As a result, El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. Rates are driven by femicide and gangs that are financed by extortion and cartels which supply illicit drugs for U.S. consumption and are fueled by U.S. extradition practices. The U.S. has the power to dampen these issues through accountability practices that will ensure economic assistance is directed towards justice reform, effective public spending management, and professionalization of the police force.
Enclosed in Biden’s “US Citizenship Act of 2021” is his commitment to promote “the rule of law, security, and economic development in Central America” in order to “address the key factors” fueling immigration. The U.S. revisits its policeman role when Latin American internal affairs pose a potential danger towards its own national security, in this case coming twofold in the form of a migration issue and economic opportunity. The U.S. has more free trade partners in Latin America than anywhere else in the world. In the Northern Triangle, U.S. factories employ 160,000 Hondurans and 55,000 Salvadorans, producing everything from clothing to electronics and medical devices.
Central America’s cheap labor, fertile lands, and plentiful natural resources have been exploited by foreign investors throughout its history. The theoretical strategy for encouraging citizens to not migrate elsewhere is predicated on the belief that if Central American governments can attract foreign nations with sophisticated infrastructure, tax breaks, weak labor and environmental laws, then the free market will do its job in ushering investment and employment. Naturally, as is the case for most developing, formerly imperialized countries, the exact opposite has occurred in Central America. Whether it be bananas and coffee in the 19th century, sugar, cotton, and cattle after the second World War, or revolutions in the 1980’s, the adverse economic strain of exploitation and corrupt leadership has perpetuated the northern-bound mass migration issue unfolding today. To support the high-consumption lifestyles that define first world countries like the United States, cheap exports are produced in places like the Northern Triangle, leading to deforestation and other activities that accelerate climate change. This directly impacts the livelihoods of Central Americans as it increases the likelihood of intense storms, floods, droughts.
Intersecting strains of violence, weak public infrastructure, food shortages, and the COVID-19 pandemic have caused large numbers of citizens to flee to their northern borders. This is where the “stick” approach of the agreement comes in. The Northern Triangle agreement provides aid for the Mexican, Honduran, and Guatemalan governments to deploy police and military forces in order to block the recent uptick in migrants. In March alone, 170,000 individuals arrived at U.S. borders from Central America, numbers unheard of in the last decade. For almost two decades, the United States has been funding its southern neighbors’ military and police forces to enforce U.S. immigration priorities. In chain of effect, Mexican forces are regularly deployed on the U.S.’s southern border, and Guatemala on its border with Honduras.
Without abandoning the U.S.’s identity as a promoter of justice, and contrary to its predecessor, in exchange for border protection, the agreement also ensures that the rule of law is being strengthened through “conditional funding” to the countries of the Northern Triangle. The Biden administration seeks to revitalize anti-corruption organizations and bodies which were either defunded or dismantled in recent years. In aid to prevent corrupt candidates from occupying federal positions, Ricardo Zuniga reported that the U.S. government has authority from Congress to create an Engel List of Central American officials involved in corruption, revoke their travel visas and impose financial sanctions on them. Such sanctions often entail freezing U.S. assets and forbidding American entities from conducting business with undemocratic actors.
The Biden administration has not made a detailed plan available for the public outlining what the funds will target, how funds will be allocated, and how long it will take for migration to be impacted. The United States is the leading player when it comes to foreign aid; however, a common concern is whether foreign aid goes corrupt. One-fifth of economic assistance goes directly to governments while the other portions are given to non-profit organizations, multilateral organizations, or elsewhere. When the U.S. wishes to support a country with a corrupt government it will typically funnel money through private tunnels, like the Honduran private organizations CICIG and MACCIH, which independently investigate dirty money and empower anti-corruption reform.
While Joe Biden’s posture contrasts starkly with that of his predecessor in terms of alliance, aid, and cooperation, will he shake things on a deeper international moral level? In 2020, 13,000 of more than 328,000 migrants were unaccompanied children, fleeing from poverty, violence and forced migration. As Biden renews the tactic of strengthening its neighbors’ border security, in many cases, children and adolescents are forced to return to their countries where they either do not have a home to return to, end up in considerable debt, or are sometimes recruited by gangs and are prone to human trafficking. Between 2011 and 2016, for every additional homicide per year in the region, an additional 3.7 unaccompanied children showed up at the U.S. border. Child migrants’ motivations for traveling north include economic reasons, seeking to reunite with family from the U.S., and ultimately seeking protection from imminent danger in their mother countries.U.S. legal immigration categories consist of family migration, work migration, and asylum migration. These three categories individually do not address the realities which children migrating to seek better education, safety, and economic security face. Migration from these regions is driven by a complex web of humanitarian issues that are not always taken into account. Opening up realistic legal pathways for immigration has already been proven to reduce irregular migration such as in the case of Mexico. For instance, the number of border apprehensions for Mexican immigrants has fallen more than 90 percent from its peak in 1955 when the Bracero program tripled in size, allowing entry to millions of temporary farm migrants from Mexico, some of which Reagan eventually gave amnesty to in the 80’s. This is a prime example of the intersection between domestic and foreign policy. Being geographical neighbors, changes in U.S. policy in Latin American often has a direct impact on the flow of people, trade, and political-social dynamics.
What is Biden’s next step in Central America? Will he reapply a bandage to the region desperately calling for a long-term fix, or will his administration truly get to work undoing the deep rooted cyclical issues the region suffers from? If the U.S. is set for global success it must begin within its own side of the hemisphere. The U.S. should work to encourage the Northern Triangle countries to create sustainable fiscal plans with greater transparency to provide reliable avenues for domestic investment. It must also work to integrate its youth and young adults into the workforce, especially since only 27.3 percent of young people in Honduras are neither studying nor working—the highest rate for youths in Latin America. The core solution to the deeply rooted issues of displacement, violence, and environmental havoc is predicated on tackling the needs of the labor force rather than those of production demands. The region suffers from a labor force that is underpaid, underskilled, and uneducated. The region deeply requires a strengthening of quality of education, to both increase student retention and develop secure communities. The lack of economic opportunities, infrastructure, and security makes migration a necessity rather than an option.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates commends the U.S. as a “beacon to oppressed people everywhere,” an image which Biden must reignite by delivering long term fiscal security and reliable institutional infrastructure for its citizens. In 2018, Biden wrote an essay about his image of Latin America and his vision for the U.S. as “the driving force” to “enable all of our countries to prosper and grow.” Beginning with multilateral dialogue, the U.S. has the opportunity to not only reestablish America’s image as the Western Hemisphere’s guardian of universal rights, but also to legitimize fragile democracies, which continue to be trampled by the corruption that plagues the region.