Learning from the Past in Central America

Francisco Altschul and Mauricio Silva / Publicado el 4 de February de 2021

The Northern Triangle offers a unique opportunity for the Biden administration to demonstrate a new approach toward Latin America, but to do so it must learn from the past. The USA and Central America have many more common challenges now: our democracies are at risk; internal violence is a threat; populism is growing; and we need to control the pandemic and recover our economies. Hopefully, those common threats and the expressed commitment by the new Biden administration, will enable a better approach towards the region’s development.

Under President Obama, the USA tried to slow migration from those countries with the program Alliance for Prosperity. The initiative was based on good principles: stop migration by developing the region; target assistance to areas with high poverty, high violence and migration indicators; strengthen weak government institutions; confront corruption and stop impunity. But the initiative failed. Few resources too late. In practice, action against corrupt governments was not taken. Most of the funds of the Alliance for Prosperity went to American priorities and consultants.

The Trump administration made things even worse. According to the Americas Barometer in all three countries perception of corruption has increased and aggregate indicators of democracy decreased, since Vice President Biden left the White House in 2017. For that same period, in Honduras and El Salvador, trust in the United States government declined.

Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador continue to be in crisis. Economic and social inequality have increased; levels of crime and violence continue to be high; governments continue to be corrupt and democracy has weakened; distrust in government and the rule of law are increasing. Natural disasters hit the region during the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis, all of which have shaken a region already faced with daunting challenges.

Key lessons emerge from those experiences. Democratic governance is at the heart of the countries moving forward, but there is a strong resistance to reform by essential actors who want to maintain the status quo. Corruption undermines everything, it needs to be confronted directly and at all levels. For that, political will is basic, but it must be built and rooted in local actors. To achieve this, strong messages that the Biden administration sends about ending authoritarian practices and corruption are essential.

Ending migration is a medium-term goal. Meanwhile a more human approach to dealing with this issue must be adopted by all countries involved, including close coordination with Mexico. Clear measures to ensure respect of human rights of migrants must be taken as soon as possible. The establishment of good governance and the rule of law are also medium-term targets. Short term gains such as the anti-corruption commissions or punishing the little fishes, will not solve the problem. We need to build strong institutions at the local level to fight impunity. Disbursements of foreign aid should be conditioned to governments meeting specific targets. The Millennium Corporation has been using this as an effective measure to pressure governments to meet agreed upon goals.

Financial sustainability is as important as political capital. The economies in all three countries are very weak and unstable. We need new economic models guided by the principles of greater equality, environmental sustainability and job creation in the region. Difficult political decisions must be taken to achieve more stable public finances, strong support for local actors that move in that direction is helpful. The USA should play a leading role in the fight against COVID and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance to the people devastated by the hurricanes in the region.

The common challenges we face are huge and not easy to confront. But they are commensurable to the needs, thus, easier to solve in the case of the small countries in Central America. We are convinced that we need to learn from the past and that change is only possible if it comes from the local actors. However, the political will expressed, and the four billion dollars promised, by the Biden administration, are key to make recovery possible. A stronger and more just Central America is possible and is the only way to stop migration. Supporting that will be a good fresh start for the Central Americans and a realistic goal for the Biden administration.


Francisco Altschul was Ambassador for El Salvador at the White House. Mauricio Silva was Executive Director for El Salvador and Central America at IDB.