El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua: so far from God, so close to the United States

The title of this article refers to a phrase attributed to the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz but which was actually written by the intellectual Nemesio García Naranjo. It continues to accurately reflect the plight of the imperial power’s closest neighbours. The influence, most often negative, that the United States has exerted on the countries of Central America and the Caribbean ever since the days of the Monroe Doctrine has shaped many moments in their history and has marred their development.

The five countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) that once formed part of the Federal Republic of Central America (1824-1839) signed the General Treaty of Central American Economic Integration in 1960 to establish a common market. The first stage was successful, although the benefits were not equally distributed, with Honduras and Nicaragua faring least well. Since then, their paths have diverged or converged, depending on the matter in question.

During the so-called golden era of the Central American Common Market (CACM), Guatemala, for example, enjoyed the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates – 9.5 per cent in 1963 and 8.8 per cent in 1968 – of the previous 60 years. This growth was accompanied by a rise in the middle class and an upsurge in trade union organising.

Integration in the region has been beset by many upheavals, such as the brief war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 or the armed conflicts that ravaged El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua from the 1970s until the late 1980s. The year 1993 saw the adoption of the ‘variable geometry’ approach, which allows two or more countries to conclude agreements and move to greater levels of integration, which the others can sign up for at a later stage.

It was this approach that paved the way for the Central American Mobility Agreement, signed in 2006 between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, known as CA-4, which gives the citizens of these countries freedom of movement on presentation of a national identity card.

Costa Rica, unlike the CA-4 group, is well placed in terms of social welfare and economic performance indicators (68th position in the Human Development Index – HDI – and a member, since May 2020, of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Meanwhile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras (in 124th, 126th, 127th and 132nd position in the HDI) are the last four Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries in the medium human development group according to the HDI.

Other data providing an insight into the situation in the CA-4 countries includes decent work-related indicators. According to the 2015 Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Better Jobs Index, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala rank lowest among the 18 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. As regards freedom of association, a research paper by the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) – Unionisation and Union Density in the Americas – reports that union membership rates relative to total employment in 2010 was 12 per cent in Nicaragua, 8 per cent in Honduras, 7 per cent in El Salvador and 2 per cent in Guatemala.

In light of the crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, a look at public health spending is also important. Given that per capita public health spending ranges from US$565 in Guatemala to US$400 in Honduras, whilst the average for LAC is US$1,320, direct household expenditure on health in the four Central American countries is high, and can push them into poverty (not only lower income households but also the middle classes).

The United States’ (negative) influence on Central American development

Prime examples of the United States’ negative influence on CA-4 countries include its role in the 1954 coup in Guatemala, putting paid to a development process based on agrarian reform that was threatening the interests of the United Fruit Company (UFCO); the subjecting of Honduras to the dictates of the banana companies, in particular the UFCO; and the armed interventions in Nicaragua – the direct intervention between 1912 and 1933 that gave rise to the Somoza dictatorship, and its indirect intervention, through the Contras, between 1980 and 1991, to topple the Sandinista regime.

During the Trump administration, US pressure on the region has been focused on the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, on account of their migration flows to the US.

According to the US Census Bureau, 3.5 million immigrants from Central America were residing in the country in 2017 – 1.4 million from El Salvador, 959,000 from Guatemala, 655,000 from Honduras and 263,000 from Nicaragua. The survey on Guatemalan migration conducted in 2016 by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that an estimated 2.3 million Guatemalans were living in the United States, of whom 1.8 million send remittances.

The fact that the flow of Nicaraguan migrants to the United States is relatively low partly explains why the Ortega government is not subject to the same level of pressure and threats from the Trump government as that directed at the Northern Triangle countries. The main destination for Nicaraguans is Costa Rica. An estimated 294,000 Nicaraguans were living there on a permanent basis in 2017, and another 100,000 cross into the country each year to do seasonal work in the agricultural sector.

The CA-4 countries also have in common weak public institutions, low fiscal capacity and high levels of corruption. Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP ranges from a minimum of 10.5 per cent in Guatemala to a maximum of 18.2 per cent in El Salvador, whilst the average for LAC countries is 30 per cent. But, regardless of their fiscal capacity, high levels of corruption mean that a significant part of these resources are appropriated by the mafias holding these states hostage. According to Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, El Salvador ranked 113th, Honduras and Guatemala 146th, and Nicaragua 161st.

Corruption in the CA-4 countries has worsened since the beginning of this century, due in part to the crookedness of the political parties, be they on the left or the right, and the weakness of their justice systems. In the case of Guatemala, virtually the whole government headed by Otto Pérez Molina from 2012 to 2016 is in jail.

In El Salvador, the last two presidents of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party faced criminal proceedings. Francisco Flores died in 2016 while under house arrest, and Antonio Saca was sentenced to 10 years for misappropriating more than US$300 million. Mauricio Funes, who served as president for the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), was accused in June 2016 of misappropriating US$351 million) but was granted political asylum in Nicaragua in 2016 followed by citizenship in July 2019.

In Honduras, the Liberal Party (PLH) and the National Party (PNH) have been alternating since the start of the 20th century. The differences between the two parties are increasingly blurred whilst their leaders’ and governors’ links to corruption are becoming increasingly clear. In 2017, former president (2010 to 2014) Porfirio Lobo’s son was sentenced to 24 years in jail for drug trafficking. The current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, was implicated in a drug trafficking case in the United States and his brother Antonio was convicted in October 2019.

Meanwhile, Daniel Ortega has been building a dictatorial regime in Nicaragua since his election in 2007, repressing political opposition, marginalising independent trade unions, undermining oversight bodies and persecuting civil society organisations. Whilst he and those close to him accumulate large fortunes, he established a marriage of convenience with the business sector, which was thankful for the favourable investment and business environment maintained in the country.

In April 2018, after the popular protests against the reforms made to the social security system, the public’s reaction led to the breaking of the tacit agreement between Ortega and the business community. He nonetheless continues to keep a tight grip on the situation, using the pro-government ‘mobs’ to discourage any expression of discontent.

Brakes hit on migration, but migration is the ‘only way out’

The fight against corruption in CA-4 countries, the most important and successful manifestation of which was the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which led to the establishment of a Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), suffered a severe defeat when the mandate of the CICIG was brought to an end in September 2019, followed by the shutdown of the MACCIH in January 2020.

The transfer of the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, following Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy there, was the masterstroke that enabled the government of Jimmy Morales to press ahead with the plan to dismantle the CICIG. The members of the ‘Pact of the Corrupt’ (members of congress, civil servants and state contractors), in partnership with the business sector, led a successful campaign through traditional media and social media channels to discredit the CICIG.

But the price paid by the Guatemalan government has been the country’s total subordination to the dictates of the Trump administration, especially on all matters related to migration.

The pressure exerted by the United States reached the point that, following a meeting in December 2019 with the acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, the security ministers of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua announced that they would promote the amendment of the CA-4 Convention, without indicating what would be changed but it is obvious that, to meet US demands, one of the greatest achievements of Central American integration was going to suffer a huge setback. Guatemala’s minister of the interior – a prominent member of the ‘Pact of the Corrupt’ – claimed the move was justified, as “some members of society who engage in illicit activities are taking advantage of the benefits of the CA-4”.

The balance of political power is not tipped in favour of solutions designed to reduce the high levels of inequality, which is the main structural problem of the four countries, and even constitutes a barrier to their economic growth. Their social and economic policies are geared towards protecting business interests rather than building welfare states. And in spite of all the risks and obstacles, the lack of opportunities leaves young people with only one way out: migration to the United States.

This article has been translated from Spanish.