November 18, 2020 – Central America is facing a profound humanitarian crisis due to the socioeconomic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and a devastating hurricane season. Environmental degradation, constant attacks on institutions and cases of corruption only aggravate the situation. This blog explores the cocktail of issues in the region and the role that U.S. foreign policy could play in addressing them.
At the beginning of the month, the Atlantic coast of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua was devastated by tropical storm Eta. Intense rains caused landslides in Guatemala that buried entire towns. The communities most affected are primarily those which have historically been victims of exclusion and extreme poverty, especially the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. The State response has been limited and has not reached areas most in need. Tropical storm Eta also wreaked havoc on extremely poor southeastern Mexican states, which are home to indigenous populations, transit points, and waiting areas for migrants and asylum seekers. In Tabasco, the state hardest hit by floods, the migratory station (a place of detention for migrants) was converted into a space to care for people affected by the storm.
The situation is worsening, as just two weeks after the storm, incoming hurricane Iota is projected to hit the northern coast of Nicaragua as well as affect Honduras and El Salvador. Iota is arriving in mid-November when hurricane season should be over. Scientists indicate that environmental degradation and climate change are related to having more destructive hurricanes. Ironically, the poorest countries – which contribute to climate change the least – are the ones that suffer most from the consequences. In El Salvador, just one week before Eta, a strong storm caused a landslide that covered a rural community. The tragedy could be related to deforestation resulting from housing construction and the monoculture industry.
Natural disasters are compounded by corruption and attacks on institutions, even during the pandemic. In El Salvador, journalists published investigations alerting that the Salvadoran government committed crimes of corruption during its pandemic response. The Attorney General’s office and the recently established International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity (CICIES) are now investigating corruption in the government’s contracting of services and purchasing of supplies. The government hindered the Attorney General’s work by appointing special operations agents from the National Civil Police to prevent the ordered searches from being carried out. It is concerning that a police force created from the Peace Accords that ended the civil war (1980-1992) is being utilized for this purpose. In Honduras, the National Center for Anticorruption indicated that $33.1 million dollars were arbitrarily used for purchases to ease the pandemic’s impact. Defending the rule of law, including the proper administration of justice, is essential to strengthening democracy in countries devastated by poverty.
While the situation in Central America worsens, political changes in the United States could create an opportunity to re-establish priorities. In his presidential campaign, President-elect Joe Biden presented a plan for Central America and outlined elements of his foreign policy towards Latin America, that include addressing both climate change and corruption. Additionally, the 117th Congress, to be installed in January, will have the responsibility of approving legislation that includes economic and technical assistance for natural disasters, including those generated by climate change; supervising assistance efforts in the region; making aid conditional on respect for human rights and the fight against corruption, as pillars to generate constructive relations between the United States and Central America.
The loss of life and property due to wind, floods and landslides, combined with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, form the perfect context for a new Central American “exodus.” Guaranteeing that public resources are put towards assistance and lessening the inequalities and injustices that provoke forced migration is a top priority. As a transnational civil society, we must defend democratic institutions and the implementation of public policies that respond to the needs of those in highly vulnerable conditions who will be most affected by natural disasters, climate change, and poverty.