Consolidated Appropriations Act Puts the Northern Triangle in Focus – Margaret D. Hayes

Over the last several years, the United States has seen an influx of migration from Central America, including a high number of unaccompanied children. The majority of these migrants come from the ‘northern triangle’ (i.e., El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). There, they face a range of issues including lack of economic opportunities, poverty, high levels of crime, drug trafficking and corruption. Some argue that the 750 million that has been appropriated to Central America in the recently passed federal budget will counter the underlying factors that have led to this surge in migration. James Carroll, Managing Director of the Inland Islands Society, therefore sat down with Margaret D. Hayes, Adjunct Professor at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, to discuss how these and other developments will shape American foreign policy in Latin America.

The 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR 2029) appropriates $750 million to the countries El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala due to the recent spike of migration to the United States. And, the Obama Administration’s strategy in Central America appears to have shifted towards addressing border security and the reintegration of migrants, as well as the causes of migration through various social programs. How has foreign policy in Central America evolved over Obama’s presidency?

The United States (US) has been honing its foreign policy instruments since the mid 2000s. Today’s policies toward Central America reflect that fine tuning.  They are more multidimensional and focused on coordination among donors, local ownership of projects and results, and emphasis on regional collaboration,and coordination among donors, — all of which are seen in recent programs for Central America.  The US  encouraged development of the collaborative Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle and US support to the Plan will reflect greater focus on development than security with emphasis on job creation, education, governance and anti-corruption, and regional integration. US will coordinate its contributions with those of the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, Organization of American States, other international donors (e.g., European Union) and contributing countries like Colombia and Chile.

Outmigration from Central America continues to be high and will be so until job opportunities are created, corruption is controlled and citizen security is improved in the region.  The recent upsurge of child migrants may have occurred because of misleading information about legislation regarding child migrants that was believed to allow children easy access to family reunion and, if unaccompanied, to status in the US.  An effort is being made to clarify US immigration laws and numbers have declined somewhat. At home in the US authorities struggle to deal with existing  undocumented migrants from the region. Deportations are controversial and immigration has become deeply politicized in the context of the 2016 Presidential race, as well as the massive exodus from Syria. The Supreme Court will now decide the legality of President Obama’s efforts to deal with long term undocumented residents and their children. Continuing migration makes the development goals all the more important, but results will take time. Patience is thin.

The Act stipulates that seventy-five percent of the funds are conditional based on if the countries meet certain requirements related to governance, corruption and human rights. Will this incentive work in improving those areas highlighted by the bill?

Conditionality can be a powerful incentive to implement and follow through on policy changes. Under the Alliance for Prosperity, the Central American countries have adopted the framework of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which identifies country recipients based on a performance indicators in three areas of commitment: rule of law and governance, investment in people, and economic freedom and openness. Emphasis is placed on local government ownership and commitment to implementing necessary reforms. El Salvador became a recipient of an MCC Threshold grant in 2006, Honduras in 2013 and Guatemala in  2015. Results to date suggest that conditionality.

Does The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle prepared by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras represent a realistic plan to address the underlying causes that currently plague countries in the Northern Triangle?

The Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity is ambitious and focuses on what needs to be done in order to realize future economic growth, more even income distribution, security and governance. Among the key areas of collaborative effort that have been identified are the creation of government audit mechanisms to counter corruption, energy diversification and integration, primary, secondary and vocational education efforts, promotion of private investment and a “single window” for foreign investors, anti-money-laundering mechanism and others. The Inter-American Development bank will monitor and advise the countries.  All of this is ambitious, but donors – the US, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank, and World Bank are in agreement with the goals and will tailor their financial assistance to support programs to achieve them. The real challenge will fall with the individual countries that must pass laws to facilitate some of the changes and then implement those laws. They may not succeed in addressing all of the goals set out in the Plan, but if they can make substantial progress on some, they will have changed future prospects for growth dramatically.

Honduras and the Organization of American States are close to agreeing to an international anti-corruption team to train Honduran officials to better prosecute public corruption cases. Although skepticism toward the administration remains high within Honduras, do you believe this partnership could result in a similar impact as seen in Guatemala?

The partnership  could  lead to the kind of results seen in Guatemala, though the OAS doesn’t have the direct experience of implementing Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in Guatemala, and so will have to learn its way. The anti-corruption theme is one of the key dimensions of the Alliance plan, and the OAS has been active in Honduras  in advising on improving procedures for implementing its own OAS Anti-Corruption Convention. The success of the cooperation will depend on Honduras’ willingness and ability to implement and institutionalize best practices introduced by an OAS team.

Jimmy Morales, newly elected president of Guatemala, rode a wave of anti-corruption and transparency to president. He lacks political experience and his party, National Convergence Front, holds a minority of seats in congress. Does Mr. Morales represent a new era of politics in Guatemala or will the traditional elite continue to dominate politics?

As US Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, remarked at a public forum dealing with corruption in the region, Latin American voters are “mad as hell” about corruption among government officials. Jimmy Morales’ election is a consequence of that anger. He will have significant challenges to implement reforms given his minimal support in the Parliament, lack of experience in governing and the very high expectations for change among the populace. Much will depend on the quality of people he names to major offices and the public’s patience and continuing support for his anti-corruption platform. The CICIG will continue to function in Guatemala which is a plus for him.  But change will be an uphill struggle.

Recently, we have witnessed some major shifts with respect to US policy towards Cuba. How has the slow process of normalizing relations with Cuba altered politics across the region?

Normalization has removed one excuse for reluctance on the part of some Latin American countries to cooperate with the US. Other changes – the election of Mauricio Macri to the Presidency in Argentina, the Venezuelan opposition’s win in Parliamentary elections, and the pending end of the civil war in Colombia also contribute importantly to change. The end of the commodity boom means that all countries need to look to their economic interests more than political posturing.

In response to the recent surge of Cuban nationals traversing through Central America, several Central American governments prohibited them from crossing their borders. Ultimately they have come to an agreement that will allow the Cubans to be flown to El Salvador and then proceed through Guatemala and Mexico towards the United States border. Is it in your opinion that the current US immigration policy towards Cuban nationals needs to be changed?

The Wet foot-Dry foot policy should be revised to reflect both the evolving normalization of relations and the potential for a changing environment in Cuba. Countries of the region should not be facilitators of massive migration out of Cuba as Ecuador has recognized. The Cuban government must also recognize that its current policies are not encouraging growth and prosperity on the island and need to change.  Cubans will seek to leave as long as there is no opportunity to prosper and to speak out on the island.

In your opinion, will this agreement set a precedent that will undermine border security and regional cooperation?

I do not believe the agreement to allow the Cuban migrants to leave Costa Rica and continue on their journey will undermine either border security or regional cooperation – unless it happens repeatedly. As noted above, Ecuador has ended its policy of visa-free travel between Cuba and that country. This will make the trick much more difficult in the future. Nevertheless, outmigration will continue unless there is opportunity in Cuba.

Finally, Roberta Jacobson’s nomination as ambassador to Mexico has been widely supported by Congress as well as Mexico, but her appointment has been in limbo. Has a lack of an ambassador to Mexico put border security at a risk?

The Congressional hold on the Senate Floor confirmation vote on Roberta Jacobson’s nomination as ambassador to Mexico has not put relations with Mexico or border security at risk, but does reflect how politicized the Obama administration’s initiative to dramatically revise the US posture toward the Castro regime in Cuba is for some Americans. The capture of El Chapo Guzman on January 8 reflects in part the cooperation that has been built over time between US and Mexican agencies.  The absence of an Ambassador in Mexico City does frustrate the further deepening and widening of that cooperation.  The vote should be held.

Margaret D. Hayes is an adjunct professor in the Center for Security Studies and Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University.

James Carroll is the Managing Director of the Inland Islands Society.

The views expressed represent those of the respective contributors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed. Please send any responses to pr@islandssociety.org. Our editors will consider any and all responses for future publication.

Image Credit: Maryland GovPics via Flickr CC

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