By Hector Perla, Guest Scholar at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
The flood of Central American child refugees arriving on our southern border is not just a humanitarian crisis, it is a man-made disaster. These children are the “canary in the mine” pointing to a deeper, toxic problem confronting Washington. Republican congressional leaders argue that this flood of unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border is caused by U.S. government policy. They are right: our government created this refugee crisis. But they are dead wrong on which policy caused the influx.
While politicians from all levels of government claim to identify the root cause of this mass exodus, none of them have reflected on the fundamental role that U.S. foreign policy toward Central America has played in provoking this catastrophe. Instead, focus has been on surface-level trigger mechanisms such as escaping gang or drug violence, grinding poverty, or the alluring temptation of a better life offered by human traffickers. Worse yet, Republicans have capitalized politically on these children’s suffering by blaming the Obama Administration’s allegedly lax immigration policy as a convenient scapegoat for the children’s influx.
The politicians’ myopic scope views this tragedy as an immigration problem, resulting in shortsighted policy prescriptions that treat the symptom and not the disease. The reality is that this massive human exodus is caused by a pair of failed bipartisan U.S. policies toward Central America that have developed over the past 10 years and are now bearing their bitter fruit.
The first is the Bush Administration’s imposition of CAFTA, the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA restructured trade relations with the region and gave unprecedented power to U.S. corporations such as Monsanto, which is on the brink of creating a monopoly for its genetically modified seeds. CAFTA’s net result has been the devastation of Central American economies, particularly agriculture. Family farmers’ ability to make a living was destroyed by cheap, subsidized, U.S. agribusiness imports that rake in about $20 billion USD annually. Compared to the relatively miserly sum of about $100 million USD that the U.S. government has pledged in aid to Central America, it is clear that this money will not make a dent in the influx.
The second cause is Washington’s on-going hostility toward leftist Central American governments seeking to implement social reforms intent on leveling the playing field in one of the most unequal regions in the world. Most prominent is our government’s failure to defend democracy in Honduras when President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a military coup in 2009. Since then, all the mildly social democratic reforms that he had begun implementing, such as raising the minimum wage, have been rolled back. Moreover, the coup weakened the country’s already fragile institutions, leaving the government unable to provide basic security. Today, Honduras has the dubious distinction of leading the region in the number of children fleeing their homeland.
Nicaragua presents a sharp contrast—an equally poor country that receives far less aid from the United States because of our government’s hostility toward the Sandinistas, Nicaraguan children are only a few among the influx of Central American migrants. Why? Since coming back into power in 2006, the Sandinistas have enacted strong poverty alleviation programs designed to enable the poor to become self-sufficient through small-scale agricultural productions and businesses. Similar programs by the Salvadoran government implemented in 2009 hold out similar hope. Today El Salvador, historically the leading Central American exporter of people fleeing violence and misery, is a distant third.
The only solution to the human suffering we are witnessing is to restructure our ill-conceived free-trade agreement with the region in a way that allows Central American governments to stimulate local businesses and agricultural production. This means actively supporting Central American governments’ political agenda of uplifting the economic and social well-being of their people, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable members of their societies. Failure to do so entails deliberate complicity in perpetuating this man-made disaster.
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.