Elephants in the Room

The United States Has a Lot Riding on the Honduras Election

Central America isn’t beyond repair, but there aren’t a lot of good people we can work with right now.

People take part in a rally supporting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 5. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)
People take part in a rally supporting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa on Nov. 5. (Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Honduras has a presidential election this month. The pro-U.S. president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is seeking reelection and ahead in the polls. A Hernández win would be not only good for Honduras but also for the region and the United States. Washington has invested significant money in Central America to help turn the security and economic situation around. Moreover, with bad interlocutors in Guatemala and El Salvador, losing Hernández would be a real setback.

When the arrival of 70,000 unaccompanied minors from the region in 2014 put the Northern Triangle back on the map, President Hernández was the leader who called for a “Plan Colombia” for Central America. In response, the three presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras came together and put forward their own plan, called the Alliance for Prosperity. The Inter-American Development Bank, a large funder and significant influencer in the region, supported this process.

The unaccompanied minors crisis got a Republican Congress and the Obama administration to put up more than $1 billion and make a five-year commitment of additional U.S. foreign assistance and diplomatic attention as part of the Alliance for Prosperity to the region. President Donald Trump has continued this support, putting forward in his budget to Congress for fiscal year 2017 over $600 million in support of the region. But this commitment requires leaders who are willing and able to make changes in their countries, because our money can only go so far.

In El Salvador, there is a distinctly anti-American government with a hostile relationship to the Salvadoran private sector, which makes progress hard. Legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador will take place in March 2018; the next presidential election is in early 2019. The good news is that the pro-business Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party is leading in the polls over leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party. However, there is a large group of undecided voters (60 percent) that could sway the elections either way.

In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales is squandering his political capital. Morales, a former comedian, ran on a platform of clean government. Guatemala, in essence, partially outsourced its prosecutor functions to a U.N.-supported body called CICIG, which has successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile cases — including ones that removed the immediate past president and vice president for corruption. But CICIG has now begun an investigation against Morales for failing to disclose $900,000 in campaign contributions. And Morales’s move to close CICIG has precipitated a political crisis whose outcome is unclear; what is clear is that it’s going to stop or slow any progress on economic or political reforms in the short- to medium-term.

In spite of the recent setbacks in the region, a different future for the Northern Triangle is possible — but we have to think in terms of decades, not years. A prosperous and safe Central America would retain its best people and would attract migrants back from the United States. These countries have made progress in years past and could return to a better path: one particularly notable period of progress, in the mid-1990s, was in El Salvador when it enjoyed 8 percent growth rates, significant poverty reduction, and the achievement of an investment-grade credit rating.

Some 20 years ago, Colombia was being written off as a failed state; it took at least 10 years to turn it around. There continue to be problems in Colombia, but there’s also been a great amount of success. With the right political partners and the ongoing support from the United States and others, the Northern Triangle could achieve something similar. That has been the rationale for the major increase in U.S. foreign aid to the region. Given the problems in the other two countries right now, a victory by Hernández would be a piece of good news.

The Northern Triangle region has great agricultural and logistics potential, with its proximity to the United States and South America, and access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Moreover, the region has a young and cost-effective labor force with increasing numbers of bilingual training programs. Industries such as tourism, agribusiness, textiles, manufacturing, and business-processing outsourcing (e.g. call centers) are all part of the region’s future.

Of course, plenty of problems remain in Honduras and the rest of the Northern Triangle, starting with extremely high levels of gang violence and limited economic opportunities. Excluding Haiti, these countries remain some of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Tackling corruption remains a huge challenge, but according to statistics from the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the murder rate in the country fell by 30 percent in 2011-2015. Policy abuse and impunity led to the creation of a police reform and purge commission in 2016, after reports involved high-ranking police officials in the killing of chief of the anti-drug directorate in 2009 and his advisor in 2011. In an effort to continue combating police corruption, President Hernández extended the commission’s mandate until 2018 and has so far purged 20 percent of the police force.

Several high-profile human-rights cases have made it harder for the U.S. Congress to provide assistance to the region, however. The murder of the activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras is a tragedy and the perpetrators should be brought to justice.

But what is needed is political will, capable leadership, and pro-economic growth policies. Understanding this, Honduras has launched an ambitious program of economic development within the Alliance for Prosperity framework, called “Honduras 2020.” The plan seeks to cut migration in half by 2020 through generating 600,000 jobs in Honduras in a number of key industries and boosting exports.

If Hernández loses the election, the United States will have no effective partners in the region, the effectiveness of our billions of dollars would be at risk, and more people might be tempted to come to the United States.

Daniel Runde is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he also holds the William A. Schreyer chair in global analysis, and a former USAID official in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @danrunde

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