Shadow Government

Washington’s $1 Billion Central America Challenge

How to build the right kind of future with Central America.


The Senate Homeland Security Committee is holding a series of timely hearings this week revisiting the summer 2014 border crisis to ensure that, should there be a next time, the Obama administration won’t get caught napping again. That crisis saw thousands of illegal Central American immigrants, including many unaccompanied minors, surging across the United States’ southern border, overwhelming local authorities and inflaming the broader debate over immigration.

Wednesday’s hearing, focused on understanding and addressing the root causes of the crisis — the so-called “push” factors — is particularly important, as it gives lawmakers an opportunity to flesh out details of the administration’s proposed $1 billion Central America assistance plan. Vice President Joe Biden has been the administration’s point man on pitching the plan, writing recently in the Hill, “The president and I are determined to address conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and help these countries on their path to economic prosperity. To that end, we requested $1 billion in next year’s budget to help Central America’s leaders make the difficult reforms and investments required to put the region on a more stable and sustainable path.”

Months ago, I wrote that the administration should step up to the plate to address the regional security issues that were causing people to flee their countries for the United States. This they have now done. But equally important is ensuring that it’s not just any plan, but the right plan.

Sensing the opportunity they had before them, last September the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador presented an ambitious “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” which proposed actions to deal with everything from gang violence and lack of investor confidence to the effects of climate change and gender inequality. While their proposed plan hit all the right aspirational notes (even if it was far too broad), it failed to articulate a credible plan to address weaknesses in local governance, controls on corruption, and political commitment — all of which are central to turning the criminal tide.

That the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — are in need of U.S. assistance is indisputable. Not only is the United States a stakeholder in regional stability. The domestic demand for illicit narcotics drives a large measure of the crime and corruption plaguing those societies that force citizens to find peace and security elsewhere.  However, U.S. policymakers and congressional overseers need to proceed carefully in implementing any new assistance package to Central America so that scarce U.S. resources aren’t squandered into the corrupt ether, or else used to build white-elephant development projects that end when the money does.

As an example of the difficult terrain, officials in El Salvador still haven’t published final results of national legislative elections that took place on March 1, elections that were cited by the Organization of American States as having “severe difficulties.” Given that the ruling leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is closely allied with authoritarian Chavismo (the movement founded by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez) and Castro’s Cuba, democratic opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations are concerned that the delayed release casts doubt on the true composition of the new Legislative Assembly, where opposition parties have joined forces to resist the further erosion of democracy in El Salvador.

Be that as it may, many see a Central America aid package as replicating Plan Colombia, the successful U.S. collaborative effort with Colombia that did so much to improve security and suppress criminality in that country (Adm. James Stavridis had a good piece on the comparison here). Indeed, if that is the case, then U.S. policymakers and congressional overseers should bear in mind two crucial lessons from Plan Colombia that should guide thinking on a Central America plan. First, political will on the part of the recipient governments to make difficult choices on rooting out corruption and mobilizing elites to make sacrifices is essential to any aid plan. Second, no amount of economic assistance in vulnerable regions will succeed without establishing a modicum of security first.

Central American governments must understand that Plan Colombia has set a new standard for major U.S. foreign assistance programs. No longer are they troughs for the politically connected to feed at, at the expense of the most needy. Congress should demand accountability, transparency, and that local leaders stand and deliver on political will to end corruption, impunity, and privilege. In fact, they would do well to first demonstrate a measure of that political will to make those difficult decisions before any meaningful resources start to flow.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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