Central America braces for the unexpected under President Trump

President-elect Trump has been oustpoken on his plans for Mexico, but what policies await the ailing Central America region? Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

As the United States prepares to inaugurate president-elect Donald Trump, Central Americans are mostly just confused about what his government will hold for the region.

The ambiguity doesn’t emerge from any campaign trail promises. With the exception of Mexico and Cuba, one gets the impression that Donald Trump is unaware that the rest of Latin America exists.

But Central America’s historic, economic and geopolitical proximity to the US means that any political change in the north has powerful repercussions for this isthmus of 42 million people.

In government, business and the intelligentsia, the most optimistic stance right now is uncertainty. For others, Trump’s election foretells an era of terror, in which nationalism and protectionist policies will unleash on Central America a series of uncontrollable events.

The ties that bind: narcotics, children and money

The sensitive Central America-US relationship is most delicate on issues of drug trafficking, immigration and the economy.

In recent years, the US has concentrated its foreign assistance to the region on combating drug trafficking, as Central America is a key transit route between South American drug-producing countries and US consumers.

This economic and technical assistance, which aims to increase the capacity of governments in the “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) to fight cartels, has been met with suspicion. Its main outcome – to empower the military – is troubling in a region where armies have historically turned their repressive forces against citizens, particularly the most vulnerable sectors.

Migration is another critical link between Central America and the US. According to a 2015 study by the Migration Policy Initiative, Central Americans constitute 8% of all US immigrants – almost 2.5 million people – but 15% of undocumented immigrants. From 2000 to 2014, the number of illegal Central American migrants rose 195%, from 546,000 to 1.6 million.

Unaccompanied minors atop La Bestia, the Mexican train that many Central American migrants ride to get to the US. Reuters

These immigrants represent an important source of income for their home countries, sending some $US16.47 billion back in remittances.

The US government has had diverging reactions to this situation, from hardline policies like arrests and mass deportation to proposals of pathways to citizenship.

In 2016 a surge in unaccompanied minors, mostly from the Northern Triangle, spurred the US senate to pass a nearly US$3 billion cooperation program to help stem the security crisis fuelling these record levels of migration.

The US also has substantial commercial ties to Central America. In 2015 it represented 45% of foreign investment in the region and consumed 50% of all Central American exports. These figures are down from the last decades of the prior century, when the US represented more than 60% of foreign trade and investment, but the US is still a hefty market for the small Central American market.

Central America 2017-2021: an educated guess

Given how little Trump has said on the subject of Central America, it is impossible to predict his policies. But regarding drug trafficking, migration and investment, it is a fair bet that that his administration will intensify some existing programmes and diverge markedly in others.

There is likely to be a considerable increase in current US policies to combat drug trafficking, growing America’s already muscular military and policing assistance programmes in the region.

This in turn raises the risk of abuse of power by the armed forces, which Central Americans have been wary of since the 1980s, when military corps – many of them funded and training by the US – brutally murdered political dissidents, Indigenous people and other innocents across the region.

Central Americans are wary of US aid aimed mostly at militarising the regon’s law enforcement to fight drugs. Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

Upping the iron fist approach necessarily would not necessarily result in a decrease in the amount of drug flows. Not only has interdiction been proven not to deter trafficking, but cartels are constantly finding new ways to improve logistics and increase productivity. In Central America, as in Mexico, the war on drugs has just radically increased violence across the region without making a dent in business.

Nor would mass deportation of the sort Trump has promised be new for undocumented Central American migrants. According to the International Migration Organisation, 420,000 people were summarily removed from the US from 2015 to 2016.

Still, if Trump follows through on his threats (and if the US has the capacity to implement them), that number would rise exponentially. The reduction in money sent home from the US, along with the social vulnerability of recent returnees, many of whom would have weak or no community ties, would bring enormous social problems to Central America.

Such a double impact would inevitably increase violence in an already bloodied region: in 2012 Central America’s homicide rate was 26.5 killed per 100,000, while the worldwide average was 6.5.

A rare ray of hope for the region may by that the president-elect has thus far expressed no inclination to touch commercial ties between the US and Central America, which are governed by the Central American Free Trade Agreement. It is conceivable, however, that this could follow any US renegotiation of NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, a favourite threat from Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Will Trump also repeal CAFTA, the trade agreement between Central America and the US? Daniel Leclair/Reuters

Still, Trump’s public threats against Ford and Toyota, could easily provoke a general reduction of US investment across the globe. In Central America this would have devastating repercussions, particularly if it reduces the region’s already scarce job opportunities, one of the key drivers of migration.

To quote a Costa Rican saying about uncertainty, we’ll have to wait until the clouds of the day clear before a deeper, more deliberate analysis of Trump’s impact on Central America becomes possible.

In the meantime, to confront the unknowns of a Trump presidency, Central America must try to understand Trump’s policies, and use that knowledge to forge alliances – among themselves and with influential players in the US – to create for, first time in many years, a joint regional strategy toward the incoming American administration.

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