The U.S. Presidency has historically offered very little to the people of Central America, though it remains important in defining politics and the democratic cultures of isthmian nations. The office has been a force for warmongering, destabilization, for disciplining labor, for the feeding of global commodity chains, and, in its most positive expression, for creating good “investment climates” to the benefit of transnational corporations and local elites, all under the aegis of protecting national interests sold to the region through the guise of friendship, alliance, progress.
To achieve these self-serving goals, the United States has funneled resources into Central America to squash efforts for self-determination and, in turn, has earned itself a decisive role in the administrative life of regional countries. Minute changes in U.S. policy have direct and sometimes lasting consequences for the people of Central America. Today, the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala bear the marks of these historical maneuverings. The U.S. imperial relationship to Central America has continually sharpened economic and social contradictions, turning transnational migration into, for many, the sole option for survival. From the home to the maquila, from the canton to the marketplace, U.S. power has impacted, if not wholly determined, how life is lived in Central America.
Days from now U.S. citizens will vote for who they believe is best equipped to steer the imperial warship for the next four years. Their options aren’t the most appealing: one is a tried-and-true fascist authoritarian, a white supremacist megaphone who has galvanized and emboldened the hemisphere’s right-wing populists like El Salvador’s very own Nayib Bukele; the other is a lukewarm right-centrist who appears poised to push a strategy for development as usual for the region, and who in his capacity as Vice President watched as a coup d’etat consolidated in 2009 Honduras. The consequences of those years are still being played out as post-coup support—in particular through the U.S. Department of Defense—has effectively condemned Honduras to a country mired in corruption, extrajudicial violence, and a culture of impunity. These choices, from the point of view of Central Americans whose life depends on U.S. ties, be it a source of income through migrant networks or as a beacon of hope for some imagined future, 2020’s options appear, if cynically, identical.
For those aggrieved and humiliated by the United States recently or in prior presidential administrations, these contests offer little respite from the hardships they experience. What they do offer seems more of the same, if of a different shade, for Central Americans both in the United States and at home.
In popular discourse, despite empty humanizations and moralizations of the immigration crisis, U.S. politicians vacillate in their descriptions of Central Americans as criminal nuisances, subhuman incompetents, or helpless victims in need of pity, obfuscating the United States’s key objective: maintaining the region as a site of profiteering, extraction, the exportation of cheap food, and sweatshop labor. The United States’ historical role in producing intergenerational suffering is today played out by the human drama of migration, one that, as candidates trade blame on who started it, remains fundamentally agreed on and ahistorical. There continues to be an amnesia around the U.S. role in shaping Central America and its current crisis, an inability and lack of political will to reckon with recent history, instead choosing to overlook popular desire for systemic change while dangling paths to citizenship, criminalizing huge swaths of its populations, and offering repackaged forms of securitized governance and conditional aid.
In El Salvador, for example, the U.S. Embassy continues to have an outstretched influence in the day-to-day functioning of the country. As visible during the Covid-19 emergency, pandemic aid such as respirators, quack treatments, and medical equipment was coordinated by Embassy channels, where humanitarian assistance arrived in the country in what appeared as an exchange to ensure the intake of deportees. Disaster help, including assistance to rebound from Tropical Storm Amanda, seemingly relied on being in the good graces of the United States, which during the Trump era has meant stroking the ego of the U.S. Presidency, along with its local appointee, the U.S. Special Operations Command military officer-turned-Ambassador, Ronald D. Johnson.
In neighboring Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández remains in power largely because of the United States, whose support of the coup —through 8-years of Obama, and now four of Trump —has kept him as an esteemed partner. In the name of fighting drugs, transnational crime, curbing migration, and increasing economic aid—within a poisonous and exhausted neoliberal economic framework—this now normalized arrangement has exposed the United States as supporting corrupt governments that utilize repression, disappearance, and intimidation towards political opposition and environmental defenders.
Both U.S. options represent the legacies of a political system that has brutalized Central America and that chokes it into ideological submission in order to maintain access to cheap labor, raw materials, and consumer markets. This has been the case for generations, a kind of truism of the U.S. relationship to Central America: nations made to pay tribute to empire in return for life support in the form of conditional aid, investment, and attention, even.
Why should this election matter to Central Americans? There are countless reasons. But first, because the livelihoods of over 200,000 Salvadoran, Honduran, and Nicaraguan compatriots, in addition to thousands of Caribbean, African, and South Asian families, all hang in the balance. Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, remains a stopgap for real immigration changes and has become a flexible policy of unscrupulous political use in the United States and in the region. Another is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, a temporary measure that prevents the U.S. from deporting the undocumented. The Salvadoran right-wing has, for instance, utilized the tentativeness of these policies as a way to garner votes and stoke fear into voters by claiming that only their candidate will ensure that TPS is not revoked. In prior Central American presidential campaigns, such as in Tony Saca’s 2004 victory, the ARENA right-wing asserted that remittances will only continue flowing into the country if they occupy the presidency. ARENA’s “dirty campaign” used anticommunist fear tactics to win the election against the then-candidate Schafik Handal. For numerous families for whom remittances provide their only safety net, this discourse takes on a very real existential dimension. This perverse arrangement is politically advantageous for in-region conservatives as much as it is for U.S. ones, where the livelihoods of migrants and undocumented persons are the bargaining chip. Zealously exploiting the dependencies between the U.S. and Central America becomes indispensable for conservative candidates, which then stifles in-country political experimentation towards left-wing projects. In the region, these dirty campaign strategies continue by painting doomsday scenarios with the lives of Central American families to gain the popular vote.
As El Salvador enters into a major election year where control of the Legislative Assembly is up for grabs, and Honduras barrels towards its General Election in late 2021, the effect of having a Democrat or a Republican in the White House will have both expected and unexpected effects. The role of the United States will figure prominently in these national campaigns, while the part of the U.S. Embassy’s appointees, depending on the ideological shifts taking place in society, will shape their involvement, and the atmosphere of policy promotion.
Historically, Central America’s political evolution has been dependent, for better or for worse, on the changes of U.S. state managers and their local emissaries. In a state of neo-clientelism, U.S. embeddedness in Central American affairs determines the expansion or contraction of traditional political institutions. We need not look too far back in hemispheric history—just to the 1980s—to find instances of U.S. support for fascism, dictatorship, as well as genocidal and religious fanaticism. For Central Americans who struggle for a better future in the region today, U.S. permissiveness towards Bukele’s anti-democratic excesses, Hernández’s narco-governance, as well as Trump’s gangsterism in strong-arming “Asylum Cooperation” agreements, reveals continuities as to how US global power persistently operates.
In this framework, U.S. foreign policy via the State Department, coupled with the pressure exerted by its Presidency, changes the dynamics of the political terrain in Central America. It can embolden or reduce the vitality of social movements; here we only need look at how the FMLN’s historic victory in 2009 El Salvador was possible through an extended Pink Tide moment and what was then regionally felt as a progressive shift after the election of Obama.
We are at another critical juncture now. As authoritarian populism and fascism seeks to settle in, new conditions of possibility are needed, requiring we push for a more favorable terrain on which to struggle. While regional relations will forever be blemished by the history of bipartisan adventurism, war, and meddling, for the region’s near-term, this election represents the immediate rejection of the Trumpian order and its imperial revanchism. A change of current conditions can, one hopes, aside from recovering from a string of setbacks, enable movements—from feminist, queer, Indigenous and Afro-descendant, to migrant rights, labor and the multisectorial struggle for water and environmental rights—to reemerge and chart paths toward overcoming the confining limits of the present.
Jorge E. Cuéllar is Mellon Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College.