The United States Has a Lot Riding on the Honduras Election

Central America isn’t beyond repair, but there aren’t a lot of good people we can work with right now.

Honduras has a presidential election this month. The pro-U.S. president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is seeking reelection and ahead in the polls. A Hernández win would be not only good for Honduras but also for the region and the United States. Washington has invested significant money in Central America to help turn the security and economic situation around. Moreover, with bad interlocutors in Guatemala and El Salvador, losing Hernández would be a real setback.

When the arrival of 70,000 unaccompanied minors from the region in 2014 put the Northern Triangle back on the map, President Hernández was the leader who called for a “Plan Colombia” for Central America. In response, the three presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras came together and put forward their own plan, called the Alliance for Prosperity. The Inter-American Development Bank, a large funder and significant influencer in the region, supported this process.

The unaccompanied minors crisis got a Republican Congress and the Obama administration to put up more than $1 billion and make a five-year commitment of additional U.S. foreign assistance and diplomatic attention as part of the Alliance for Prosperity to the region. President Donald Trump has continued this support, putting forward in his budget to Congress for fiscal year 2017 over $600 million in support of the region. But this commitment requires leaders who are willing and able to make changes in their countries, because our money can only go so far.

In El Salvador, there is a distinctly anti-American government with a hostile relationship to the Salvadoran private sector, which makes progress hard. Legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador will take place in March 2018; the next presidential election is in early 2019. The good news is that the pro-business Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party is leading in the polls over leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party. However, there is a large group of undecided voters (60 percent) that could sway the elections either way.

In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales is squandering his political capital. Morales, a former comedian, ran on a platform of clean government. Guatemala, in essence, partially outsourced its prosecutor functions to a U.N.-supported body called CICIG, which has successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile cases — including ones that removed the immediate past president and vice president for corruption. But CICIG has now begun an investigation against Morales for failing to disclose $900,000 in campaign contributions. And Morales’s move to close CICIG has precipitated a political crisis whose outcome is unclear; what is clear is that it’s going to stop or slow any progress on economic or political reforms in the short- to medium-term.

In spite of the recent setbacks in the region, a different future for the Northern Triangle is possible — but we have to think in terms of decades, not years.

In spite of the recent setbacks in the region, a different future for the Northern Triangle is possible — but we have to think in terms of decades, not years.

 A prosperous and safe Central America would retain its best people and would attract migrants back from the United States. These countries have made progress in years past and could return to a better path: one particularly notable period of progress, in the mid-1990s, was in El Salvador when it enjoyed 8 percent growth rates, significant poverty reduction, and the achievement of an investment-grade credit rating.

Some 20 years ago, Colombia was being written off as a failed state; it took at least 10 years to turn it around. There continue to be problems in Colombia, but there’s also been a great amount of success. With the right political partners and the ongoing support from the United States and others, the Northern Triangle could achieve something similar. That has been the rationale for the major increase in U.S. foreign aid to the region. Given the problems in the other two countries right now, a victory by Hernández would be a piece of good news.

The Northern Triangle region has great agricultural and logistics potential, with its proximity to the United States and South America, and access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Moreover, the region has a young and cost-effective labor force with increasing numbers of bilingual training programs. Industries such as tourism, agribusiness, textiles, manufacturing, and business-processing outsourcing (e.g. call centers) are all part of the region’s future.

Of course, plenty of problems remain in Honduras and the rest of the Northern Triangle, starting with extremely high levels of gang violence and limited economic opportunities. Excluding Haiti, these countries remain some of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Tackling corruption remains a huge challenge, but according to statistics from the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the murder rate in the country fell by 30 percent in 2011-2015. Policy abuse and impunity led to the creation of a police reform and purge commission in 2016, after reports involved high-ranking police officials in the killing of chief of the anti-drug directorate in 2009 and his advisor in 2011. In an effort to continue combating police corruption, President Hernández extended the commission’s mandate until 2018 and has so far purged 20 percent of the police force.

Several high-profile human-rights cases have made it harder for the U.S. Congress to provide assistance to the region, however.

Several high-profile human-rights cases have made it harder for the U.S. Congress to provide assistance to the region, however.

 The murder of the activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras is a tragedy and the perpetrators should be brought to justice.

But what is needed is political will, capable leadership, and pro-economic growth policies. Understanding this, Honduras has launched an ambitious program of economic development within the Alliance for Prosperity framework, called “Honduras 2020.” The plan seeks to cut migration in half by 2020 through generating 600,000 jobs in Honduras in a number of key industries and boosting exports.

If Hernández loses the election, the United States will have no effective partners in the region, the effectiveness of our billions of dollars would be at risk, and more people might be tempted to come to the United States.

 

Catalonia Leaving Spain Would Be Like Illinois Leaving the United States

In Spain’s hour of trial, it deserves full U.S. support.

10/12/2017

Oct. 12 is Spain’s National Day — its Fourth of July. On Thursday, this Oct. 12, Spain’s allies ought to stand with Spain as it faces its greatest test in Catalonia.

Spain’s 1978 constitution is similar to the U.S. Constitution in a number of ways. The U.S. Constitution does not contemplate secession. Without being too melodramatic, the United States fought the Civil War partially on the issue of whether or not states could secede.  The U.S. federal government would intervene if, for example, Louisiana or Illinois sought to secede.

The Spanish government is doing the same in Catalonia. On Dec. 6, 1978, Catalonia voted 90 percent in favor of the 1978 constitution. This granted Catalonia many benefits including: Catalan as an official language, recognition of the Catalan “nation” within Spain, and bilingual education. The Catalans have gained a great deal. They have abused it with their recent referendum and do not deserve international support.

Spain has had 40 years of democracy, rule of law, and international prosperity. Spain joined NATO and the EU. Spain has been a net contributor to the rules-based international liberal order, as I have written before.

A smaller, weaker Spain is not in the interest of the United States, just as an independent Scotland and an independent Quebec have not been in the American interest in the past. President Barack Obama came out against an independent Scotland. President Bill Clinton came out against and independent Quebec. That is why President Donald Trump rightly came out against Catalan independence in informal remarks in the last couple of weeks.

The so-called vote that happened a few weeks ago was an act of political theater. Just as the United States would not tolerate such a vote in Louisiana or Illinois, the Spanish ought to undermine this illegitimate act. The vote did not enjoy a high turnout, there were numerous acts of fraud, and it was a massive provocation. Yes, there was police violence, but the king came out squarely on the side of the national government.

King Felipe VI gave the speech of his career after the vote. He called out the secessionists, asking them to return to legality. He reminded all, including the Catalans, that Spain has enjoyed peace, prosperity, and an important role in the world. The speech is very reminiscent of the speech that his father Juan Carlos I gave on Feb. 23, 1981, putting down an attempted coup.

The regional president, Carles Puigdmont, announced earlier this week a declaration of independence but put it in suspense. The Catalan secessionists are hoping for outside mediation and to be legitimized — seen as equivalent to Spain. The United States, the EU, the Vatican, and various important countries, including Mexico, have all come out and largely signaled they will largely not take the bait.

If there is an official declaration of independence by Catalonia, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said that Spain’s national government will invoke article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, under which the national government would intervene in the running of Catalonia, and region-wide elections would be called.

Spain is a great friend and ally of the United States. Just as we would ignore secession on the part of Louisiana or Illinois, the Catalan nationalist’s cause should be ignored, and the Spanish national government should be given our 100 percent support in this hour of trial.

article published in foreignpolicy.com on November 14, 2017.

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