Corruption and Violence, Not Failed Ideologies, Are Driving Central America’s Exodus

Corruption and Violence, Not Failed Ideologies, Are Driving Central America’s Exodus
A Honduran migrant mother and her child stand in line to board a bus that will take them and other migrants to Monterrey, from an immigration center in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, July 18, 2019 (AP photo by Marco Ugarte).
Latin America is experiencing the largest migration crisis in its modern history, with millions of people fleeing desperate conditions in Central America and Venezuela in search of refuge elsewhere in the hemisphere. Nowhere has the human drama translated into a more acute political battle than in the United States, where President Donald Trump has placed immigration at the center of his administration’s agenda, making it a prominent issue in the nation’s political debate in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Last week, Judah Grunstein, WPR’s editor-in-chief and a longtime friend, offered a thoughtful analysis of the reasons triggering the regional crisis and this human exodus. Thoughtful, yes, but I believe Judah got it wrong. The main problem with his argument is that he placed it in what is an increasingly irrelevant post-Cold War framework. In the aftermath of the Cold War, governments in Latin America followed two distinct paths, he explained. The choices were the market-oriented Washington Consensus, or the revolutionary leftist strategy of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Each approach was based on assumptions that promised much and delivered little, leaving behind economies in shambles. With both paths failing to improve conditions, Judah concluded, the inevitable response for much of the population was to leave. “It’s hard not to see the region’s current humanitarian crisis through the prism of those earlier misguided assumptions,” he wrote. Maybe it’s hard not to see it this way, but it’s worth trying. In Judah’s framing, the two models offered a left-right binary choice, much in the style of the Cold War era. And there’s no doubt that remnants of Cold War ideologies were at play—Chavez was clearly an heir to the revolutionary rhetoric and aspirations of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. But those musty old ideological divisions are not very useful in explaining why, for example, El Salvador is one of the countries whose population is today fleeing en masse. After all, until a few months ago, El Salvador had alternated between leftist and right-wing governments that traced their lineage to the combatants in that country’s civil war, with no significant impact on policy or quality of life for the population. In fact, while the Washington Consensus has been discredited, it left behind economic paradigms that are tacitly accepted across the political spectrum. Governments on the left—like those in Bolivia and Uruguay—as well as the right accept the need for fiscal responsibility and generally seek to attract foreign investment. There are tactical and ideological differences, to be sure. Leftists have nationalized industries and expanded social programs, for instance. But every country, including every leftist government, is trying to harness the power of the market. What Judah’s analysis overlooks are the most powerful factors fueling the current crisis: corruption and the associated collapse of the rule of law. There’s no question that poverty, lack of economic opportunities and the search for a more prosperous life are major drivers of migration in Latin America and globally. But what we see, above all, is a stampede of people fleeing for their lives. And they are fleeing not only because their lives are in danger, but because governments have proven incapable, unwilling or too deeply compromised to protect them.

It is no accident that the principal sources of migrants in Latin America today are also the most corrupt countries with the highest murder rates.

The telltale sign that this is not just an economically driven migration is that people are fleeing with their families. When the search for economic opportunities is the principal motive to leave, most migrants tend to be men. They frequently leave their families behind and help support them by sending much of their earnings back home to support relatives. It’s worth noting that those remittances, amounting to billions of dollars, have been a primary source of hard currency for many countries in the region, and provide a vital boost to their economies. With families leaving together, there is a strong possibility that remittances will fall sharply, creating even more of a downdraft on economic growth. The factors driving the region’s “perfect storm” include its history and geography. It was the setting for Cold War proxy conflicts that flooded the countries with weapons. After those civil wars ended, the U.S. deported some of the young men who, having fled the violence to the U.S., created gangs in American neighborhoods and prisons. That transplanted now-notorious gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 to Central America, where fragile new democracies struggled to establish themselves just as South American drug cartels began diverting their trafficking routes through the region. With billions of dollars to spend and no scruples about bribing and killing to get their way, narcotraffickers found that gang members were ideal recruits. The gangs took off, and their tactics grew more brutal and more widespread, affecting a broader segment of the population. What we hear from people fleeing their countries in the current Central American migration wave are stories about unendurable lives under the constant threat of extortion and murder. History has shown that an immediate threat of death is more powerful than any other motive driving people to flee their homes. That’s why large-scale human migrations occur during wartime and famine. That’s why Central Americans are heading out with children in their arms, braving exhausting, dangerous treks of thousands of miles, despite the knowledge that when they reach the U.S. border they will be met with appalling treatment. In this case, there is no war, but there is a pernicious phenomenon at play: a vicious cycle of corruption, which makes countries more attractive to organized crime, which then further infects government institutions. That ends up poisoning decision-making and governance, destroying the rule of law, repelling investors and undercutting job creation. This then perpetuates poverty, making the countries more fertile for corruption and fueling another round of the cycle. It is no accident that the principal sources of migrants in Latin America today are also the most corrupt countries with the highest murder rates. Venezuela, which receives more attention for its spectacular economic collapse, ranks in some studies as the country with the world’s highest murder rate. Along with Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, it is among the top 10 deadliest countries not at war. The Venezuelan economy’s crushing collapse has created massive food insecurity. Along with criminality and corruption, it easily explains why millions have fled. Above all, the prescription for solving this large-scale humanitarian catastrophe is to restore the rule of law so that the region can tackle corruption. That, in turn, could help usher in governments focused on smart policymaking rather than personal enrichment. In Venezuela that’s a uniquely complicated task, but in Central America the answer is much more straightforward. The international community, and the U.S., should insist on an approach that had already started paying dividends before governments in the region began to actively undermine it: providing assistance to independent prosecutors to investigate and root out corruption. That would make an even greater difference than financial assistance. It is certainly better than building border walls or anything else the Trump administration is pursuing in its regional push to crack down on the flow of migration, rather than the factors driving it. The primary driver of emigration from the region today is not disappointment with failed political ideologies, but the fact that a failure of rule of law, which fuels and is fueled by corruption and ineffective governance, has made flight the best chance of survival for the region’s most vulnerable and desperate populations. Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is a regular contributor to CNN and The Washington Post. Her WPR column appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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