Image credit: - Photo: 2018

What Prosperity for Central America Under US Hegemony?

Viewpoint by Marcelo Colussi*

GUATEMALA CITY (IDN) – Between 50 and 60 percent of the inhabitants of the three countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) live below the poverty line, and this structural and chronic poverty is compounded by alarming rates of delinquent violence (largely a product of this state of impoverishment).

In past decades, the entire region has witnessed bloody armed conflicts (Guatemala with 245,000 victims, El Salvador 75,000 and Honduras serving as the base of operations for the Nicaraguan Contras), which has strengthened a culture of violence that has become “normal” to a very large extent, given that the respective States have not adequately dealt with the after-effects of war.

This explosive combination of poverty and violence, coupled with historic corruption and impunity by governments, make daily life so difficult that countless inhabitants of the region are taking the road to the United States in search of better conditions for survival.

Regardless of whether this migration is an authentic ordeal (of every three people who try it, only one reaches destination – the American dream; another is sent back being refused entry to US territory; and another dies in the attempt), once and if they reach the United States, these precarious workers – without papers, always hiding from the authorities and denigrated by the prevailing racism – send remittances to their respective countries.

In Guatemala these represent 12 percent of GDP, while in Honduras and El Salvador they represent 15 percent. Even knowing the martyrdom that constitutes the fact of being a “wetback” – the derogatory term used in the United States to describe an illegal immigrant – governments try to ignore the problem, because that foreign exchange helps mitigate the precariousness of local family budgets to some extent.

There is no end to this migration, despite the bogging down of the US economy that has been dragging since the severe crisis of 2008.

In 2014, it erupted in a major crisis of unaccompanied migrant girls and boys, with more than 40,000 detained in their attempt to enter the United States. By the end of the following year, 21,469 people were being detained at the southern border of the United States.

In the face of all this, during the presidency of Barack Obama, Washington came up with the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America initiative as a purported solution to the migratory explosion.

The “backyard” of the United States

These three countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – as dependent nations and located in an area especially important for the geopolitical strategy of the US imperial power – are part of what Washington considers its natural “backyard”. The southern border of the empire today passes through the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America; that is why US hegemony reigns in everything in that region.

It is for that reason, therefore, that a major – perhaps the main – actor in the national politics of the area is the US embassy. So much so, that recent Honduran presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla was able to say without embarrassment: (…) it is the United States which decides things in Central America (…).

The United States, as a primordial world capitalist power, is not in the same position of absolute leadership as when the Second World War ended in 1945, when it alone accounted for 52 percent of gross world product, with an unquestionable currency and military supremacy over the rest of the planet, being the only country to possess the atomic weapon at that time.

However, even though today its economy is showing no clear sign of being on the rise, it is far from being an empire in decline. It is true that in the international arena it is now competing with other poles, mainly in the economic sphere, such as the European Union or Japan; but even more so, with the rising economies – and with the enormous political and military influence – of China and Russia.

These struggles mean that in this area, considered by the United States as its “private property”, it will protect its interests to the end. Hence, the Chinese and Russian appearance in the region is sounding alarms. In fact, the People’s Republic of China is present in Nicaragua through construction of the inter-oceanic canal being carried out by the Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, and the Russian Federation is expanding through its mining investments. In addition, both countries are showing a growing commercial and cultural presence.

Although the US economy is not the same locomotive as it was six or seven decades ago, Washington’s hegemony continues to prevail in the world, and even more so in the Latin American region, in Central America.

Its military power is enormous, with half of the military spending of the entire planet concentrated in its hands. Its economy is largely based on the war industry: five percent of its GDP comes from the military-industrial complex, which leads to wars all over the world (inventories must be renewed, naturally).

Despite some slowdown, it remains, in any case, a leader in science and technology, although now competing on equal terms with these new players. The cutting-edge industries, such as communications and everything that has to do with digital technologies, are controlled to a very large extent by the empire.

It is true that the dollar is gradually ceasing to be the international currency par excellence, but even the globalised financial system depends in good measure on the US economy. And even though its global hegemony is today qualified/threatened by the Chinese and Russian presence, Latin America continues to act as its reinsurance.

The continent south of the Rio Bravo continues to be its area of dominion, which is why it places special emphasis on maintaining it under its hegemony. For this reason, it has more than 70 military bases with state-of-the-art military technology that control the territory (land, water, air and cyberspace).

It is from this region that it obtains a very good part of resources for its economy, which is considered a strategic reserve for its project of global hegemony in the current century. Here it finds oil, fresh water, strategic minerals and tropical forest biodiversity. Unluckily for them, the countries of the Central American Northern Triangle possess many of these resources.

Although Central America does not represent a large market for the US economy (barely one percent of its foreign trade), it has a strategic value both as a reserve of resources and in political-military terms. That is why it is not neglected.

This may explain, for example, the way in which it sought at all costs to block presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón in Guatemala in the 2015 elections, because although Baldizón was a wealthy businessman and clearly from the right in ideological-political terms, he opened the door to Russian mining investments.

It also explains how it supported the recent virtual coup d’état in Honduras, helping to establish a monumental electoral fraud to block an opposition social-democratic candidate like Salvador Nasralla, and backing neoliberal Juan Orlando Hernández – a character who ensures the continuity of pro-Washington policies, even supporting open repression – for the presidency

The zeal of the empire is enormous, and its presence continues to be a determining factor in the political dynamics of these three countries.

Interventionism under the guise of promoting prosperity

Historical interference by the United States in the region, making these small countries virtual protectorates, has also been expressed in the advising, financing and even leadership of counterinsurgent and genocidal strategies during the wars fought decades ago – the effects of which are still present – in the framework of the Cold War, making the area one of the hottest areas on the planet.

The presence of imperialism in that Northern Triangle is openly manifested in its interventionist policy, demonstrated by the military occupation it maintains (with four bases in Honduras, one of them in Palmerola, with high technology capable of facilitating attacks on Cuba and Venezuela, and with the continued presence of advisors and military missions), trade and treaty impositions (such as CAFTA), and the overdetermination of economic policies established by organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank, all related to the geopolitical strategy of Washington. Or in the imposition of initiatives such as the recent Plan of the Alliance for the Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.

This Plan, at least theoretically, constitutes an effort by the US government to improve the internal conditions of the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America, in order to avoid the flood of migrant population, which represents a social and political problem at home.

On paper – although the reality is something else – it basically focuses on addressing the structural factors that drive the continued exodus of the Central American population, ceasing to focus on containment and security initiatives, which have historically had a more punitive character and have had less to do with promoting development.

From this point of view, it could even be thought that this Plan represents a significant advance insofar as it could help alleviate the chronic poverty of the Central American region somewhat.

Originally, when it was approved by President Obama, the Plan envisaged assistance of one billion dollars for the area, over five years, to be distributed equally among Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But changes were not slow in coming about.

During the previous Democratic administration, the US Congress approved only 750 million of the 1,000 requested, thus reducing the initial figure. This aid would constitute only 20 percent of the resources needed to implement the Plan; the rest would have to be provided by the States of the Northern Triangle with their own funds and private investments, plus loans granted by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

But already with the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, the funds contributed by the United States have been reduced to 460 million dollars, a figure that still has to be approved by Congress for the 2018 budget.

The proposal establishes four strategic lines: 1) stimulating the productive sector to create economic opportunities that improve the situation of the population; 2) developing opportunities for integral growth; 3) improving public security; and 4) improving access to the legal system with strengthening of government institutions to increase confidence of the people in the State.

The initiative supposedly seeks revitalisation of the regional economy, which would bring prosperity by creating a good climate for business development. This bonanza would then serve to make the population more “prosperous”, not to leave in torrents as migrants in search of better conditions.

The fallacious neoliberal logic of “spill theory”

Implementation of the Plan is to be sought through the attraction of private investment (largely foreign, given that national capitals would not have sufficient capacity to promote the desired development), the launching of large-scale infrastructure modernisation projects, the reduction of energy costs and the promotion of sectors such as textiles (maquilas), tourism and agro-industry. Social programmes occupy a secondary place.

It is clear that the prosperity which is talked about is conceived from a neoliberal logic. Read then: “spill theory”. Private investment would generate good business, and growth of the economy would bring, through spill, benefit for the great popular masses. What a monumental deception! It has been more than demonstrated that it never works like this.

At least in the peripheral countries, the so-called countries of the Third World, where investment is made because labour is extremely cheap compared with that of developed countries and where national states guarantee situations of open exploitation, this spill theory is pure fallacy. Who will benefit will be the great national capitals and, fundamentally, US investments.

The current extraction industry (large-scale mining, hydroelectrics, extensive monocultures for agro-export) shows where prosperity goes: for the working class there is nothing like that.

In other words: there will be prosperity for investors (national and foreign), at the expense of the great popular masses, with the aggravating factor of a direct attack on the environment, because most projects will occur within the framework of the most brutal extractivism.

Monumental operations of social control

But there is something equally worrying, or even more worrying, next to this pillage disguised as “prosperity”. Of the current 460 million dollars allocated to the Plan, 348.5 million – or almost 46 percent of the total funds of the Alliance for Prosperity – are destined for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

One of the mainstays of the initiative, the improvement of public security, then becomes as important as private investment that takes advantage of low local wages. In reality, security is the complement of investment, of the “good business climate” that the governments of the region must ensure.

In other words: the repressive mechanisms of national states are strengthened, militarising societies even more, preparing the conditions of repression in case the pressure cooker explodes. Public security here should be understood as “security for investors”.

CARSI is a derivative of the Merida Initiative, a security cooperation agreement designed, ideally, to combat drug trafficking in Mexico and the Central American area. But just looking at the cost that the war against drug trafficking has had in the Aztec country, with a bloodbath that has left more than 100,000 dead, is frightening.

Those alleged crusades against “demons” like the drug cartels, such as Plan Colombia, later renamed Plan Patriota (100,000 Colombians killed, 10,000 million dollars paid to the US arms industry), do not bring the slightest benefit to the ordinary population.

They are, in any case, monumental operations of social control, which swell the coffers of the North American military-industrial complex and, at the same time, derail any attempt at popular organisation in the countries in which they take place. CARSI is part of that logic, that history. It is a descendant of Plan Colombia.

Theoretically, this security initiative, which accompanies the Alliance for Prosperity, has five objectives: 1) create safe streets for the citizens of the region; 2) disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband in and between the Central American countries; 3) support the development of the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran governments as strong, capable and responsible; 4) restore the effective presence of the State, services and security in communities at risk: and 5) encourage greater levels of coordination and cooperation among the countries of the region, other international partners and donors, in order to combat threats to regional security.

It cannot even be said that “benefit of the doubt” comes in here. Private investments, very prosperous for investors, and guaranteed repression before the popular proposal. That’s what it’s about, and nothing else. It seems that for the great majority of ordinary Central Americans prosperity will have to continue waiting.

* Born in Argentina, Marcelo Colussi studied psychology and philosophy and now lives in Guatemala, where he is a university professor and social researcher. He is a member of Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: la Quinta (The Fifth). This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Spanish under the title Alianza para la Prosperidad en Centroamerica: Ninguna Prosperidad! in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris. Views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily of IDN-INPS. [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 January 2018]


IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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