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The errors of American diplomacy in Central America

Nicholas Virzi
27 de mayo, 2021

In my April 2, 2021 article, The American Hegemony and The Predatory Elites, I wrote about the latent threats present in America’s strategy of pushing for rapid changes in the political systems of the countries in the Central American region. The main threat is that the region’s rulers tire of the constant American pressure to make decisions that the US sees necessary to advance its interests in its backyard sphere of influence. Tiring of unyielding American pressure, Central American political leaders can resort to using something that American diplomats apparently believe that they don’t have… options.

The US positions itself as the leader of a transnational fight against corruption. This fight is directed against regimes in the region that the US considers effectively hinder the development of the Central American region, resulting in a lack of job creation and the consequent irregular emigration towards the US. The US bases its strategy and discourse on relevant facts. Available corruption data demonstrate a strong correlation between corruption control and widely available indicators of prosperity and quality of life. However, the US strategy is based on certain premises that do not stand strict scrutiny:

The current migration crisis is the fault of the region’s governments

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Corruption should be the number one priority for US foreign policy in the region

Countries cannot develop in the presence of corruption

The US is the example to follow on the matters of corruption control and and an impartial justice system

The US is a reliable ally for the region’s rulers

Countries in the region have no choice but to obey US dictates.

The first point is not as simple as the US would like it to be. The US is right to affirm that bad Central American governments have hampered the development processes, resulting in a lack of employment opportunities at the local level. However, some factors commonly cited as the drivers of emigration have been varying in the opposite direction with respect to the surge in migration levels. Violence in Guatemala, for example, has been steadily declining, in a significant manner, since 2009. Corruption, of course, is a factor. However, it is always present in the region. It would be prudent to keep in mind that a constant cannot explain variations as drastic as those which have occurred since Joe Biden assumed the presidency of the US.

The truth that the US State Department ignores is as simple as it is relevant. The crisis on the US border is due to the hasty decisions made by the US president himself in his quest to reverse everything and anything that his predecessor did in the White House. The current border crisis is attributable to none other than President Biden himself. Under his watch, and directly stemming from his ill-conceived immigration policies, the US has been sending self-defeating messages throughout the region. Expectations have been raised across the region that the US has relaxed its enforcement of American immigration laws. The perception among migrants is that if they make it across the US border, they will be allowed to stay, particularly if they use children as passports. That perception is an accurate one.

Points two and three can be analyzed together. Point two is just wrong. From an internationalist perspective based on realist thinking, America’s first priority should be to maintain America’s hegemony in the region, which is key to US security. America has always had the good fortune of having its enemies far from its own shores. America’s main wars are fought in faraway regions. That’s a unique luxury that other great powers have traditionally not enjoyed. In this context, corruption, however important, moves to a minor level compared to the security imperative of maintaining American hegemony in Central America. With respect to item three, corruption surely undermines the development potential of any country, but it does not make it impossible. China’s development experience demonstrates this. In many cases, development has preceded substantial corruption mitigation.

As to point four, the US is hardly the best example for leading a transnational anti-corruption fight. Nor is it the best example of a country with an impartial justice system. According to the data, the US is the most corrupt country among developed countries. The US is not even in the top 30 countries in the world in freedom from corruption, according to the latest World Bank data. Likewise, recent scandals of selective justice in the US have not been lost to the rest of the world. In the US, the DOJ, the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS have been politicized to oppress political voices on the right of the political spectrum, with total impunity. On a more personal front, President Biden’s own family has been famously involved in the trafficking of political influence, also with complete impunity. In contrast, former President Trump was impeached for inquiring into such activities. There can be little doubt that if a Guatemalan official had engaged in the conduct attributed to the son and brother of President Biden, the State Dept. would be advocating for a criminal investigation against said official, and for his detention during the length of the trial. Unequal treatment before the law is evidence of the worst form of politicized and selective justice, and it happens in the United States, for the whole world to see. When regional rulers see that President Trump was targeted during his campaign, his presidency, and even now in his post-presidency, they cannot help but think that the US plans to do the same to them. That alone would give them pause to cooperate fully with American policy in the region. To put it simply, America does not practice what it preaches, and that is evident for the world to see.

With respect to the fifth point, America’s reputation as a reliable ally for the region’s rulers is not as strong as the US would like to make everyone think. Modern history does not support the thesis that the US is a rock solid ally. As a case in point, governments in the region allied with the US during the Cold War to combat the threat of global communism. It should be emphasized that at that time the US itself put democracy and corruption at a lower level of priority, below its national security interests. To defeat communism in the region, the US allied with authoritarian governments, under the correct premise that an even worse totalitarian enemy was the bigger threat. This strategy had been recommended by American diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick in her essay Dictatorships and Double Standards, published in 1979. 

How did America reward its allies for their loyalty? The US in recent decades has embraced the very groups that historically had opposed American intervention in the region, abandoning in the process the key players who had proven their value as US allies, the military and the private sectors. This move had been foretold during the Cold War. In the midst of the fight against communism, the US cut off military aid to Guatemala during the Carter Administration. Guatemalan army nonetheless defeated the Marxist guerrillas and launched the process of democratic transition, which has proceeded to the present day. It was after the end of the Cold War that the US went on to support the same groups that opposed the US during the Cold War. The best example was the presence of Ambassador Arnold Chacón in the trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt for alleged war crimes that, if true, would have occurred during the civil war when the governments of Guatemala (and El Salvador) fought head-on against America’s enemies.

The American ambassador appeared at the Ríos Montt trial to send a message of support to groups aligned with the Marxist guerrillas, who were responsible for the assassination of the US ambassador to Guatemala, John Gordon Mein, as revealed by US State Department documents.

We come now to the sixth incorrect point on which US strategy in the region is based. Contrary to what the US State Dept. would have everyone think, the region’s rulers do have options in the face of American pressure. Drawing upon the classic work by Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, they can simply exit the American orbit and look to other international partners. China is an example of one such rising power eager to penetrate America’s sphere of geopolitical influence. To a lesser extent, Russia has the same intentions. Both countries want nothing less than the same type of presence in the immediate sphere of influence of the US that the US has in their own respective spheres of immediate influence.

Both Russia and China have been recently approached by Honduras and El Salvador, with the naked intention of sending a clear message to the US. The question at hand is no longer whether the peoples of El Salvador and Honduras would be better off being allies with the US. The answer to that question is clearly yes. The point is that Central American rulers have little to lose with openness to China, for example, and much to gain. If Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras turn to China, the US will most likely not stop investment, tourism or trade with the region. The logic of responding to this situation would be to give more, not less, support in each of these areas, to counter China’s penetration into the region that the US has long treated as its own backyard since the 19th century. Greater Central American openness does not imply a choice between the US and China. It does involve an end to US hegemony in Central America, however. The US is the country that has the most to lose in this realist analysis of international relations as they pertain to Central America.

Unlike El Salvador, Guatemala has not yet taken steps to signal intentions to approach America’s main rivals. What has kept Guatemala firmly in the American camp is the affinity for the American system that exists within Guatemala’s economic elites and the Guatemalan military, two groups that US diplomacy has hardly favored of late. It remains to be seen how much longer the traditional fidelity to the United States by the Guatemalan army and the Guatemalan economic elites will hold. After all, these sectors have become the favorite punching bag for American experts on Central America. The American State Dept., for its part, continues to promote the very same local actors who have long yearned to see the end of American hegemony in Central America.

We may have a clue if wiser heads will eventually prevail in light of the recent news of the overtures between Russia and China and El Salvador and Honduras. Much note will be taken of the actors that Vice President Kamala Harris chooses to meet with during her much-vaunted upcoming visit to Guatemala in June, 2021. If Harris comes to engage in a divisive discourse on the presumed faults of local “predatory elites” and chooses to prioritize her meetings with the very same sectors who criticize the Guatemalan private sector, the military and, yes, American hegemony, the stage will be set. The Guatemalan right may join the left in its disdain for the US, and exercise its options accordingly.

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