America´s Best Friend
The worst kept secret of US foreign policy in Central America is becoming harder to ignore. The humanitarian crisis at the US border with Mexico that exploded beginning in March of 2021 has little to do with long-term root causes. The famous push factors that drive emigration are, indeed, violence, lack of economic opportunities and corruption. However, these may explain the constant flow of illegal immigration to the United States year after year, but they are not driving the border surge of 2021.
The crush that has erupted at the US Border with Mexico stems directly from the early decisions of the new Biden administration to undo everything Trump. These include the decisions to rescind the remain in Mexico policy, to not deport or separate immigrant family units, and to knowingly tolerate the rampant fraud perpetrated on an asylum system that was designed exclusively for political refugees.
Simply put, there is little or nothing Central American governments can do to stem the emigration surge, not when the US government implements policies that serve as overpowering pull factors.
The US knows this. At least, Vice President Harris does. It´s why Team Harris quickly transformed her task from solving the border crisis to addressing the root causes of illegal immigration. This root cause narrative focuses on the long run, avoiding any and all performance metrics, conveniently absolving anyone from assuming responsibility for solving a border crisis that is principally of the White House´s own making.
The border crisis will not simply go away, however, and that will add to Biden`s political problems. The American public already appears to be losing patience with the government over the border crisis. Biden approval is at 38% and Harris is officially the most unpopular Vice President in modern history. Already prepared to lose control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, the Democrats are eager to avoid a red wave that may also cost them the Senate.
Turning to domestic political issues to protect incumbent political advantages will not be easy. Geopolitical tensions mount due to China´s aggressive campaign to exploit every advantage arising from the perception of American weakness abroad. Before shifting its energies and attention to the more pressing problem of Asia, however, the Biden Administration urgently needs to solve the border crisis, which shows no signs of abating.
The Biden administration needs local allies in Central America if it is to accomplish the stated goal of reducing illegal immigration. The governments of Honduras and El Salvador are not playing ball, and have begun courting relations with communist China, a grave blowback and potential game-changer for US hegemony in the region.
Relations with the Guatemalan government have also cooled due to recent US sanctions for alleged corruption imposed on the Guatemalan attorney general and secretary for international affairs of the public ministry. Among the stated reasons for sanctioning the attorney general, outside of the American court system, was that she was ignoring certain cases based upon political considerations. This is an accusation which has become common in the US as well.
The US is increasingly finding itself left without many authentic local allies. At least not ones that could help it accomplish its stated goals on migration, security and the drug trade. The US has one last option left, and it has always been the best one.
In the Guatemalan private sector, the US will find an enthusiastic partner, with the singular capacity to generate the employment and positive future expectations necessary to mitigate the emigration flows to the US. The US would be wise to work with the Guatemalan private sector, an eager partner.
The Guatemalan private sector has always been pro-American. Even today, it still prefers to side with the US and Taiwan, rather than permit China further inroads into the region, which she is gradually achieving at a sure-footed pace. Taking the US as its model, the Guatemalan private sector wants a property rights regime like the American one, to stem the increasing abuses against private property that disincentivize investment and job creation. It also wants a regulatory framework for the labor market like the American one, with geographically differentiated minimum wages. With that, the private sector could directly increase employment levels in Guatemala, something that would serve our common interests.
Unfortunately, American diplomacy has operated under other criteria. High-ranking US officials have excoriated the Guatemalan private sector as a collection of “predatory elites” who don´t pay taxes (false), are loathe to compete (false), and are in tacit alliance with drug traffickers (a calumny). These unfounded accusations have long bewildered the Guatemalan business community, whose members overwhelmingly believe strongly in the traditional American principles of republican government, law and order, individual rights, and market economics.
There are many quick wins for the US in working with the private sector in Guatemala. Good faith acts to signal positive intentions to work with the private sector would go a long way to secure win-win advantage for both sides. One way to do this would be to immediately lift tariffs on exports of Guatemalan steel to the US. This sector is in danger of being displaced by Korean steel behemoths when the free trade agreement that the Guatemalan government is bent on signing with South Korea comes into effect. For an administration that has wanted to undo everything Trump, here is its chance to do so in a way that aligns with its stated policy goals in Central America.