Central America: US pushes new ‘Plan Colombia’

On Jan. 29 the administration of US president Barack Obama announced that its budget proposal to Congress for fiscal year 2016 (October 2015-September 2016) would include $1 billion in aid to Central America, with an emphasis on El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The goal is to help "implement systemic reforms that address the lack of economic opportunity, the absence of strong institutions and the extreme levels of violence that have held the region back at a time of prosperity for the rest of the Western Hemisphere," according to a White House fact sheet. The New York Times published an op-ed the same day by Vice President Joseph Biden explaining the request as a way "to stem the dangerous surge in migration" last summer—a reference to an uptick in border crossings by unaccompanied Central American minors that peaked last June and quickly diminished in subsequent months.

The $1 billion proposal appears to be a more detailed version of a plan presented by Vice President Biden and the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Washington on Nov. 14. It provides "over $400 million" for "trade facilitation" and other forms of economic development; "over $300 million" to "advance regional security efforts"; and "nearly $250 million" to "strengthen institutions," including "rule-of-law institutions" so that they can "better administer justice." In his op-ed Biden indicated that the US proposals for Central America are modeled on Plan Colombia, a $9 billion program started in 1999 as a "war on drugs" effort. The vice president claimed that Colombia is now "a nation transformed."

The economic reforms in the proposal are aimed at "creating business environments friendly to entrepreneurs." "Central American economies can grow only by attracting international investment," Biden wrote. The US is "ready to work" to help "ensure that local enterprises get the most out of existing free trade agreements," such as the 2004 Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). (White House Fact Sheet, Jan. 29; New York Times, Jan. 29)

Despite its neoliberal economic features, the proposal has the support of at least some center-left Latin American leaders, including Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a leader in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), once a leftist rebel group. With the US aid in the proposal "we have opportunities to go on working to guarantee you the right to education, to health, to live in families," he told a group of Salvadoran school children on Jan. 31. (La Prensa Gráfica, El Salvador, Feb. 1) Center-left Chilean president Michelle Bachelet also backs the plan, which includes having Central American countries join the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc currently composed of Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. Bachelet was in Guatemala on Jan. 30 for talks with Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina about his country's request to be admitted to the alliance. (Télam, Argentina, Jan. 30)

The proposal emphasizes the need to reform Central American justice systems but doesn't give specifics. On Feb. 2-3 the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CorteIDH), an agency of the Organization of American States (OAS), held hearings on a complaint by four Honduran judges over their dismissal from their posts after they publicly opposed the June 2009 military coup that removed former president José Manuel ("Mel") Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) from office. Former judges Guillermo López, Luis Alonso Chévez, Ramón Enrique Barrios and Tirza Flores say the dismissals violated their free speech rights. The current Honduran government supports the removal of the judges. Government attorney Jorge Serrano argued that the action "doesn't violate…precedents set by the inter-American system." (Tico Times, Costa Rica, Feb. 4, from AFP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 8.