Category Archives: Central America

‘A human tragedy’

I spoke with CNN's Catherine Shoichet in Forget conspiracy theories about migrants. Here's what experts say is going on. And it's not about the midterms. Here is some of what Catherine and I spoke about.
The situation is complicated, Allison said.
"There are contradictory things that we're still trying to tease out about the root causes," he said.
In Honduras, for example, the murder rate -- one factor analysts typically cite when they study why people migrate -- has been declining.
But despite the lingering questions about these large groups forming, Allison said the most important thing to do right now isn't to pinpoint why they're leaving; it's to address the humanitarian crisis that's emerging as they make the trek.
"These are people who really, with the information that they have available to them, have decided that this is their best opportunity. It's not something they take lightly. It's not something we should think they're being manipulated by Honduran politicians or US politicians to do," he said.
You can read the rest of the article here.

When Trump was elected, the goal was to prevent conditions from getting much worse.

The United States opening its doors to greater numbers of Central Americans fleeing violence is necessary. However, it is not a solution. The Trump administration has gone all in on deterrence. Charging first time border-crossers with crimes. Separating parents from families. Making it more difficult for people fleeing violence to demonstrate credible fear at the border and winning asylum in the legal system. Threatening Mexico and Honduras if they are unable, or unwilling, to prevent desperate people from reaching the US border.

The Obama administration clearly did not have a pro-human dignity approach to migration. However, there were efforts to make it safer for migrants to apply for asylum in their own countries without passing through treacherous terrain in Mexico. Of course, that was at the same time that the US administration sent additional resources to Mexico for it to fortify its southern border with Guatemala. The difference between the Obama and Trump on immigration is significant but more a matter of degree.

The Obama administration also pushed for $1 billion in assistance to the region to tackle the root causes of why people are fleeing. The amount on its own was not enough but it was a good start. Unfortunately, it's not clear yet what that money has accomplished and whether anymore will be forthcoming from this administration. The previous administration supported rule of law programs like CICIG and MACCIH. These two institutions have continued to come under attack by the region's political elites, and cracks in US support are becoming more evident. The US made significant investments through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Partnership for Growth, CARSI, and dozens of other economic, security, and governance programs. There was little evidence of sustained progress even with this assistance.

There's very little evidence that this administration cares about tackling the root causes of violence in the region. When Trump was elected, the goal was to prevent conditions from getting much worse. That's probably still the goal. Conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have not improved. Nicaragua's "paradise" has been shattered. Mexico can't figure out whether it needs to sell out its southern neighbors and its own soul in order to remain in the relative good graces of its northern neighbor. This is a time when the region needs more attention and assistance. It doesn't mean that we had to double down on the support that the previous administration provided. There are other tools available.

However, it's not clear that the Trump administration has any intention of supporting those programs implemented during the previous administration or coming up with plans of its own or in consultation with our neighbors.

Central America needs its fiscal house in order

There always seems to be some new, relatively small-scale, project launched to help Central American countries improve their rates of tax collection. Already starting with low rates, millions are then lost through corruption, tax evasion, and weak efforts at tax collection. The result is that the region's institutions and infrastructure are bankrupt. The absence of strong institutions and adequate infrastructure subsequently discourages private investment.An editorial at Bloomberg View says something needs to change.
Broadening the income-tax base and cracking down on evasion could raise substantially more revenue for education and other vital public services. Greater transparency would boost taxpayers' confidence and their willingness to pay into the system. Higher cash transfers, more precisely targeted at the poorest, would get more bang for the anti-poverty buck.
Right now, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are in effect outsourcing the uplift of their poorest by exporting undocumented immigrants. In 2015, each took in remittances equal to more than 10 percent of GDP -- a strategy that may be crimped by the U.S. immigration crackdown. The willingness of the U.S. and other aid donors to continue helping countries that refuse to help themselves is not limitless. Central America's governments need to get their fiscal houses in order.
The US and international community have often complained that the governments of Central America refuse to make the difficult tax decisions to adequately fund the responsibilities of each state. However, they have been reluctant to punish those countries for the lack of compliance because the result would be greater hardship and suffering, and possibly increased migration of the region's people to the US. Most people end up worse off. The new US administration does not appear against pursuing policies that make most people worse off. However, with its eyes now set on reducing the tax burden paid by the wealthiest citizens through tax reform in the US, perhaps the Trump administration will find it hypocritical to push for increased taxes in Central America.

Guatemalan elites getting uncomfortable

CICIG and Guatemala's Public Ministry continue to try to clean up the country's political system. As we saw last week, abuse of power, nepotism and favoritism, and other forms of corruption cost lives. We've been reminded of that when public attention turns to the dire state of the country's public hospitals and, more recently, shelters to protect young men and women.

As of this week, authorities have begun legal proceedings against over 40 current and former members of congress on charges ranging from abuse of authority and false(or phantom) jobs to money laundering and corruption. At least nine have been indicted for crimes committed during the internal conflict.

It's no surprise, then, that pressure is being ratcheted-up against CICIG from within the country. President Jimmy Morales has had to publicly deny that he is considering replacing CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez. However, Morales went out of his way to remind everyone that it is his right to ask for Velasquez's replacement or to not have his or CICIG's mandate renewed.

Senator Patrick Leahy warned that Guatemala would risk continued US support if Morales moved to replace Velasquez of CICIG.
"If the leaders of Guatemala support Thelma Aldana and Iván Velásquez ... we will do our part to support the Alliance for Prosperity. But if there are attempts to undermine or shorten the work of these two exceptional officials, then Guatemala's leaders must seek support elsewhere," Leahy wrote in a separate statement.
While Leahy, one of the most influential senators in matters related to Central America, addressed his message to the "leaders of Guatemala" in general, he explicitly mentioned President Morales. 
Aldana and Velásquez "have received anonymous threats and attempts to intimidate them, and there is concern that President Morales opposes the renewal of Velasquez's appointment -- whose term ends in September -- or that he will ask the Secretary General of the United Nations to remove him," Leahy said. 
Political leaders in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are all connected to alleged criminals - Morales' son; Hernandez' brother; and Ortiz's business partners. US leverage over Central America has helped protect attorneys general in each country investigate these and other crimes. Leahy and other members of the US congress are going to have to keep up the pressure on Central American elites. They no longer had Biden in their corner and I'm not sure there's anyone in the new administration with interest in the region.