US-Central America Relations: Using Aid as a Foreign Policy Tool Will Backfire
A caravan of thousands of people, mostly Hondurans, is currently in southern Mexico as it attempts to reach the US in search of a better life. This situation has prompted harsh criticism from President Donald Trump, who has threatened to cut financial aid to Honduras and the other Central American nations where the migrants originate from. This is a bad idea that will backfire rather than help the situation.
Caravans and Statements
The caravan originated in San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city well known for high levels of gang-related crime and violence. This mass of human beings has already walked through Honduras and Guatemala and has entered Mexico. While most of these individuals are Hondurans, others have joined as it made its way north, from neighboring countries like El Salvador and Guatemala—these three nations are known as the “Northern Triangle.” How many migrants constitute the caravan is unclear; estimates put the number at between 4,500 and 7,000.
At the time of this writing, thousands of caravan members have entered Mexico, and many have others have applied for temporary visas or refugee status. Nevertheless, many have entered without proper documentation by crossing the Suchiate River or turning to human traffickers. According to CNN En Espanol, some 3,000 Hondurans are returning home rather than facing additional risks to reach the US
President Trump, who campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, has demanded that the caravan not reach the US. On October 22 he tweeted, “Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the US. We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them.” In a separate tweet, he declared that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” the caravan.
President Trump has often accused undocumented Latin American migrants of being violent criminals. Furthermore, there is no evidence that “Middle Easterners” are part of said caravan.
In short, blackmailing the three Northern Triangle governments into stopping their citizens from migrating is a bad foreign policy strategy.
First of all, these three nations have historically been faithful US allies; in fact, the US military has facilities at the Palmerola base in Honduras, home of Joint Task Force Bravo; and the Cooperative Security Location in Comalapa, El Salvador. Moreover, in an example of desiring to support its ally, Salvadoran troops fought in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition. Hence, it makes little geopolitical sense to alienate reliable US partners in the region, particularly at a time when Washington requires regional support and cohesion to deal with hemispheric problems, such as Venezuela—in fact, Guatemala and Honduras voted in favor of a US-backed resolution in the Organization of American States that attempted to suspend Venezuela earlier this year.
Secondly, these three nations are poor, and they rely on foreign assistance. Should the US cut off aid, the situation would get worse, not better. For example, ForeignAssistance.gov explains that in 2019 Washington plans to provide $65.75 million to Honduras; these funds will be utilized to (hopefully) improve democracy, human rights, and governance, as well as economic development and education. Meanwhile, USAID reports that in 2016 a total of $127 million was donated to Honduras across all US agencies, with the main targets being programs on violence prevention, counter-narcotics, and strengthening justice and human rights. In other words, the money will be used precisely to improve the situation that prompted the caravan to leave its homeland in the first place.
Additionally, there is the obvious question of how exactly these Northern Triangle governments could stop their citizens from leaving. None of these countries have particularly large militaries or police forces—which contributes to the ongoing wave of violence in the region, which in turn prompts migration—that can be deployed along their common borders. Moreover, the region’s geography does not help the situation, as it is a dense jungle with several rivers, not to mention the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range. In other words, a border wall across these countries is not a possibility.
Without a doubt, there is a valid concern of whether US economic aid to the Northern Triangle nations is having a positive effect nowadays. For example, in 2019 Washington plans to provide $69.41 million to Guatemala in foreign assistance, with $20 million going to the rule of law, civil society and good governance. This is ironic as Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is behaving in an increasingly dictatorial manner, exemplified best by his refusal to allow the head of Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez, into the country. The reason for this is CICIG’s work on cracking down on corruption in Guatemala, which includes the president himself.
Violence, poverty, and lack of opportunities for a good life prompted a new caravan of thousands of people to leave Honduras en route to the US, where they hope to have a good life. Mass migration is certainly a problem that governments need to deal with, but punishing the countries where these migrants come from is not a solution, particularly given that these nations are reliable US allies. Cutting economic aid will make the situation worse, not better, because such a policy won’t address the causes of why this migration occurred in the first place.
As a corollary to this analysis, it is important to point out that on October 23 Infobae.com reported that a new caravan is being organized, this one out of El Salvador. If President Trump cuts foreign assistance to these nations, what leverage will he have left to influence them?
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Photo Credit: Protestor holding no more false borders sign. By Rochelle Brown, via Unsplash.