On an interfaith trip to Honduras and Guatemala in August led by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity that included religious leaders from across the United States. Talking with the people there, we learned that violence pervades much of the region and is so daunting that they find it challenging, though not impossible, to dream of a country where all have opportunities for success. We heard from strong people of faith that much of the violence that has caused thousands of migrants to flee to the North is imported from the North; and oftentimes, specifically the United States. To that end, we heard one consistent message throughout our journey: much of the “Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity,” designed by governments in the region and the Inter-American Development Bank and promoted by the Obama Administration, is a plan to prosper a few at the expense of the many. As the House and Senate return from August recess and take up the appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year, Congress can choose to throw money at failed policies that have caused this mess, or drastically change the focus of U.S. policies that impact the region.
The U.S. Congress can and should do better.
Earlier this year, Vice-President Biden traveled to the region to meet with leaders of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to “discuss steps to stimulate economic growth, reduce inequality, promote educational opportunities, target criminal networks responsible for human trafficking, and help create governance and institutions that are transparent and accountable.” That certainly sounds good, but the brave faith leaders we met with are not just skeptical about the effective implementation of the plan; they are convinced it simply will not benefit peoples’ lives. Families have been decimated by internal rural-to-urban migration and the lack of employment in cities. The lack of employment, along with targeted violence that haunts the urban sectors have forced family members – including small children – to begin the long and extremely dangerous journey north in order to survive.
The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity proposes a number of steps to reign in corruption in the countries that make up the Northern Triangle. However, a large part of the plan hinges on leaders already engaged in corruption to suddenly police themselves and increase accountability and transparency. If Congress is truly serious about aiding the people in these countries and addressing root causes of migration, then any policy proposals must address land reform, creating a more equitable distribution. The militarization of society that continues to drive displacement must be scaled-back and there must be a reform of the tax collection systems so that resources can be more equitably distributed. This is what we heard from the faith leaders who were there.
How could a plan designed to strengthen weakened economies that are so dependent on agriculture fail to mention the need for greater ownership of the land by the people who work the land? Could it be that ensuring more citizens in the Northern Triangle have land of their own on which to farm and make a living would take away from the insidious influence of extractive industries which enrich multi-national companies from countries like the United States, Canada and China? Tragically, people are literally dying to save their land from extractive industries that are displacing families and stealing the natural resources that belong to the people.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy associated with increasing funding through the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity is that much of it would actually increase the violence in this region and benefit greedy US defense contractors. Increasing the number of police, specifically in Honduras, to 6,000, while also militarizing them with the latest gear from US defense contractors will only result in more violence committed against the citizens of these countries and create more of a rush to flee to the North. Why are we blithely out-sourcing the militarization of police forces in other countries that have struggled with this problem for years when President Obama has issued an order here in the United States banning the Pentagon from issuing certain military weapons to local police departments?
In the end, we learned that the greatest threat of violence is extreme poverty, something that too many citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are forced to live in. The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity should be named the Alliance for US Prosperity. It is an intentional strategy intent on creating even more prosperity for the very few affluent of the Northern Triangle whose livelihood is united with the political and economic interests of the United States. The people of Central America we talked with do not want the Plan for US Prosperity. They have dreams for their countries to be places where justice and equality can be attained by all of the citizens of their countries. Their dreams are focused not on securing the prosperity of foreign countries or mining companies or multinational corporations. They want honest leadership, health and education infrastructures that work effectively, police that do not abuse their power, and access to land so that all people have the same opportunities for success. Thus, Congress would do well to ensure any funding in the foreign operations appropriations bill will nurture the budding movements for democratic engagement and land reform. It is time for the United States to be on the right side of history in our relationships with the people of Central America.