The sudden interest in Central American affairs, due to the crisis along the Mexican-U.S. border, is starting to evolve into a generational turning point in the North’s understanding of its southern neighbors. There is tremendous momentum being generated out of Capitol Hill to re-learn the intent of laws governing asylum and economic cooperation in the Americas in attempting to get a grip on the motivations of tens of thousands of families willing to put their children through harrowing, life-threatening conditions just to get to the doorstep of the United States.
Congressional leaders, especially female Senate members, are appalled. The president wants billions. Both CAFTA and NAFTA’s sustainability are being questioned. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are being discussed at dinner tables across the land. And of course there is a sharp-edged division between political parties – with some feebly arguing that ‘securing the border’ will deliver a quick fix and ‘send a message’ to those parents willing to take such risks.
The Bigger Picture
Take a step back from the hyperventilating, and you realize that the border crisis is a symptom of a more fearsome malignancy: The United States continues to pay a big price for its addiction to illegal drugs (the single biggest cause of social and economic unrest in Central America). Is the United States keen to establish some accountability for drug violence in the region and the wide ranging instability resulting from cultivation and distribution of illegal substances? Absolutely not. Instead, critics want to place all the blame on nations south of the border.
Can the U.S. become a better neighbor? It’s a question that needs to be asked at times like this – and Capitol Hill needs to be smarter about engaging business leaders to figure out how lasting economic reinforcement is a far better investment than dropping millions more into ‘anti-gang’ activity. (For a comprehensive view on many U.S. programs in Central America – many of them laudable in their goals, see this White House Fact Sheet.)
“The U.S. – along with Mexico, Colombia, and others – needs to do a better job of helping Central American countries help themselves” – Senator Tom Carper, D-Del.
We have to start asking why our collective understanding of Central America – and Mexico – is so immature and unevolved. Notice this week TV show pundits struggling to explain basic geographic facts about the region and politicians revealing a complete lack of recognition that millions of U.S. jobs are dependent on goods and services consumed inside Mexico’s borders.
Will the United States – still an adolescent nation in the eyes of many – cling to its insidious sense of superiority throughout this traumatic moment?
During a Senate Homeland Security committee hearing yesterday, Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, grilled several senior leaders from U.S. agencies about the aid the U.S. distributes to Central America – specifically demanding metrics that would reveal the impact of these programs – which can range from youth-gang reduction programs to community policing. No one uttered the words ‘drop in the bucket’ but clearly the magnitude of the societal instability for the underclass in these countries is not easily solved through well-meaning, but generally small-scale, U.S. interventions.
Yet when Francisco Palmieri, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Caribbean and Central America in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, started talking about the importance of economics and job opportunities for youth it was as if the glow of a Hollywood spotlight descended on the proceedings. There was a collective sigh, a sudden recognition that economics do matter and that the United States could actually look to engage rather than defend.
Palmieri is a career State Department leader who made clear that the motivations to flee a country would be greatly reduced if there were economic reasons to stay at home. As Palmieri spoke, McCaskill’s tone softened. For a moment, she seemed to see a longer-term solution to the intensity of the current crisis.
“I think we need to be doing everything we can on all levels – both promoting economic growth, expanding repatriation, sending more people back. All of these things have to be done; this is a complex problem, and there is no easy simple solution,” said Palmieri.
New Priorities Needed
Of course, and let’s be really clear on this – there is no magic to building stronger economies in Central America and we’ll be the first to argue that any broad U.S. initiative that is portrayed as a ‘jump start’ to improve investment and working opportunities in these countries should be viewed with caution. At the same time, the expense to protect borders, house and feed minors and add stress on an already over-stressed Health and Human Services Department should trigger those of us in the Latin America investment advocacy camp to argue that those funds are better earmarked toward in-country, bedrock-building approaches to reward new business ventures – all the way from ICT to manufacturing and light industrial – that also strive to shut out cronyism and corruption.
Yet, it’s not so much the solution that Capitol Hill should be chasing after at this moment. What is far more important is to understand the real cause, and identify with the very familiar need to support one’s family.
The tremendous success of Nearshore ICT and captive and shared services center investment in the Central America region – creating more than 30,000 jobs over the least eight years – should also not go unnoticed. If you’re an American reading this commentary and have participated in creating jobs and generating stability in the CALA region, it might be the right moment to speak up and explain to your congressional representatives that we’d rather see the formation of boot camps for under-privileged kids in Guatemala than foster homes for illegal minors in San Antonio.
There are so many complex facets to this issue that trying to ‘win’ our way out (a typically American approach) will only prolong the inevitable.
“The U.S. – along with Mexico, Colombia, and others – needs to do a better job of helping Central American countries help themselves.” The United States needs to “help them create a more nurturing environment for job creation. Restore the rule of law. Lower energy costs. Improve workforce skills and access to capital,’ said Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman, Senator Tom Carper, D-Del.
He’s right. But will he and his colleagues have the heart to do a better job?