Monday, April 8

CFR: Telling the truth but still lying about Central America's Northern Triangle

In June 2018 the (American) Council on Foreign Relations published a paper on the causes of violence in the "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in Central America. According to CFR, the violence has driven the large waves of migration to the United States from those countries during the past decade -- a view of the situation that is supported by the United Nations and the entire international establishment to include the American one. 

The very title of the CFR paper, Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle, keeps the authors confined to discussion of the link between violence and migration, which tags the rise of organized crime that drives the violence to the outcome of decades of civil wars that wracked the region:
At war’s end, a large pool of demobilized and unemployed men with easy access to weapons morphed into organized criminal groups, most notably in El Salvador. In Guatemala, groups known as illegal clandestine security apparatuses and clandestine security apparatuses grew out of state intelligence and military forces.
Having defined the Northern Triangle's migrations as flights from violence, the authors go on to explain why the violence has persisted lo these many years:
Weak, underfunded institutions, combined with corruption, have undermined efforts to address gang violence and extortion. Tax revenues as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in the Northern Triangle are among the lowest in Latin America, exacerbating inequality and straining public services. Transparency International, a global anticorruption watchdog, places all three countries in the bottom half of its corruption perceptions rankings.
Then the authors, Rocio Cara Labrador and Danielle Renwick, delve into the all-important question of what governments in these countries have done in their clearly failed attempts to stop the violence and concomitant rampant crime. (In one sentence, these governments got very nasty, creating a backlash among the downtrodden that worked in the crime cartels' favor.)

The authors finish by examing what a succession of U.S. administrations (Bush 2, Obama, Trump) have done to respond to the crime crisis in the Northern Triangle, which if we take the present migration statistics as a guide, clearly hasn't been much.

This is not to disparage the paper, which presents lots of interesting data. (Did you know that 95 percent of crimes in certain regions go unpunished?) But against what's really been going on in the Northern Triangle lo these many years, the authors might as well have dredged up recipes for wiener schnitzel.

Once we look outside CFR's carefully boxed discussion, we first see entire societies that became dependent on remittances. From anthropologist Daniel Reichman's latest analysis of Central American migrations to the United States:
Since the 1990s, the economies of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have become heavily dependent on remittances, the money sent home by migrants abroad. In some years, remittances account for more than 20 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in these countries. There is no way for those countries to survive without remittances.
In the US, a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy has created a new demand for workers, particularly in food service, construction, hospitality, and health care. The pull of a strong US economy is important; if there are jobs waiting, people will come. Day laborers in Central America earn in one day what they could earn in a half hour in the United States, so people are willing to take extreme risks to get here.
But why have these countries become so dependent on remittances? For a big part of the answer, I return to a January 2017 report for The Huffington Post, which I republished at my blog in November 2018. It's titled Land Grabs Are Partly To Blame For Skyrocketing Violence In Central America: "Global firms and local elites are taking land from farmers, which pushes them to cities, where jobs are few."

But it's not just a connection between violence and the land grabs; it's the story of the Northern Triangle for much of the last century going back to the original "Banana Republic" in Honduras. It's a story that has been repeated in regions all across the world, only the story keeps getting worse. 

As early as 2008, a top British investigative journalism team, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, sounded the alarm by warning:
Almost half of Cambodia has been sold to foreign speculators in the past 18 months -- and hundreds of thousands who fled the Khmer Rouge are homeless once more.
By the end of 2010 GRAIN was repeating the British  journalists' warning as it applied to Latin America:
The history of Latin America is one of agrarian conflicts, and of indigenous peoples struggling to defend their ancestral territories. A new chapter of this history is opening. Another wave of land grabbing is hitting the Americas, and this time it operates from a distance and wears a halo of “neutrality”. 
Today’s land grabbers (as thoroughly explained in governmental web brochures) say that they are merely responding to food insecurity and a world crisis “that forces us to grow food wherever we can, even if we outsource production, because we will bring home this food for the benefit of our citizens”. 
But when we dig a little, the financial monster shows its tail. The land grabbers are in fact big corporations and joint ventures investing enormous amounts of money in land, food production, the export and import of commodities, and food-market speculation.
Millions of hectares of farmland in Latin America have been taken over by these foreign investors over the past few years for the production of food crops and agrofuels for export. 
Much of the money comes from US and European pension funds, banks, private equity groups, and wealthy individuals like George Soros, and it is being channelled through special farmland investment vehicles set up by both foreign and local companies.
Brazil’s largest sugar company, COSAN, has a specialised farmland investment fund called Radar Propriedades, which buys Brazilian farmland on behalf of clients such as the Teachers’ Insurance and Annuity Association–College Retirement Equities Fund of the U.S. 
Louis Dreyfus, one of the world’s largest grain-trading multinationals, has a similar fund into which American International Group (AIG) has invested US$65 million.
While media attention has focused on land deals in Africa, at least as much money and more projects are in operation in Latin America, where investors claim that their farmland investments are more secure and less controversial – ignoring the struggles over access to land being waged in practically every country on the continent.
More and more investors and governments from Asia and the Gulf are training their sights on Latin America as a safe place in which to outsource food production. Most governments in Latin America embrace these developments, with diplomatic missions frequently being sent abroad to sell the advantages of investing in their countries’ farmland.
Obviously these developments haven't trickled down to the dispossessed. That's the story behind the story of wide-scale violence and organized crime in the Northern Triangle.

As for remittances, I don't recall seeing a report from the World Bank on the downsides of migrant labor for the host countries. For example I don't think the Bank -- or the remittances-collecting governments in South Asia and the Philippines -- have ever gotten around to mentioning that imported foreign labor transformed rich Gulf Arab nations into virtual slave societies

And no mention from the International Financial Community that industrialized levels of remittance outflows drain much-needed revenue from communities in the United States and Europe that host large numbers of migrant workers.

As to the remittances-led Golden Age of the globalized work force, we can see how this is shaking out when governments kept in power by remittances no longer have to bother even with giving lip service to international norms of behavior established by the largest aid-giving countries.

In summary, we have raised up a system that rewards the behavior of locust swarms among large numbers of humans. Maybe the Council of Foreign Relations will get around to publishing a paper about that someday, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting. 

See also Honduras: From Banana Republic to Remittances Republic to Failed State (Pundita, 11/2018), which at the end provides a suggestion to any government that is serious about saving its nation.  


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