Give Joe Biden credit. As a 78-year-old mainstream politician, he's made some surprisingly bold moves domestically when it comes, for instance, to climate change even if his plans have been quite literally paralyzed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his coterie of Republican extremists. So perhaps it's not exactly good news when, on one issue, they seem to agree with him. I'm thinking of the Biden administration's urge to launch a new Cold War with China and make Taiwan, not Kabul or Baghdad, the hot spot of the planet.
At least, it's good to see that progressives have taken note of the increasingly depressing reality of the Biden version of foreign policy in Asia. Recently, more than 40 progressive groups signed an eloquent letter calling on "the Biden administration and all members of Congress to eschew the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations and instead prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy, and cooperation with China to address the existential threat that is the climate crisis." If not, as anyone knows who's been paying attention to the heat and fire that have overwhelmed much of a megadrought-stricken American West, we face something like doom on this visibly overheating planet of ours. Those groups, in turn, seem to have some support in the House of Representatives at least from progressives like California Congressman Ro Khanna.
Sadly, China isn't the only place where Biden and his foreign-policy crew seem determined to replay the long-gone Cold War era. As TomDispatch regular Aviva Chomsky, author most recently of Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, points out today, the president's new plan for Central America, supposedly aimed at the "root causes" of migration to this country, is the disappointing equivalent of ancient history when solutions are actually available. He's once again offering that region the kind of "aid" that helped create today's "migrant crisis." No, he's not Donald Trump at the border, but he's ensuring a planet on which Trump and crew will undoubtedly thrive.
In the cases of both China and Central America, some new thinking is deeply overdue. Unfortunately, in the mainstream world of Washington, it shows little sign of arriving any time soon. Tom
Migration Is Not the Crisis
What Washington Could Really Do in Central America
Earlier this month, a Honduran court found David Castillo, a U.S.-trained former Army intelligence officer and the head of an internationally financed hydroelectric company, guilty of the 2016 murder of celebrated Indigenous activist Berta Ca'ceres. His company was building a dam that threatened the traditional lands and water sources of the Indigenous Lenca people. For years, Ca'ceres and her organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, had led the struggle to halt that project. It turned out, however, that Ca'ceres's international recognition she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 couldn't protect her from becoming one of the dozens of Latin American Indigenous and environmental activists killed annually.
Yet when President Joe Biden came into office with an ambitious "Plan for Security and Prosperity in Central America," he wasn't talking about changing policies that promoted big development projects against the will of local inhabitants. Rather, he was focused on a very different goal: stopping migration. His plan, he claimed, would address its "root causes." Vice President Kamala Harris was even blunter when she visited Guatemala, instructing potential migrants: "Do not come."
As it happens, more military and private development aid of the sort Biden's plan calls for (and Harris boasted about) won't either stop migration or help Central America. It's destined, however, to spark yet more crimes like Ca'ceres's murder. There are other things the United States could do that would aid Central America. The first might simply be to stop talking about trying to end migration.
How Can the United States Help Central America?
Biden and Harris are only recycling policy prescriptions that have been around for decades: promote foreign investment in Central America's export economy, while building up militarized "security" in the region. In truth, it's the very economic model the United States has imposed there since the nineteenth century, which has brought neither security nor prosperity to the region (though it's brought both to U.S. investors there). It's also the model that has displaced millions of Central Americans from their homes and so is the fundamental cause of what, in this country, is so often referred to as the "crisis" of immigration.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. began imposing that very model to overcome what officials regularly described as Central American "savagery" and "banditry." The pattern continued as Washington found a new enemy, communism, to battle there in the second half of the last century. Now, Biden promises that the very same policies foreign investment and eternal support for the export economy will end migration by attacking its "root causes": poverty, violence, and corruption. (Or call them "savagery" and "banditry," if you will.) It's true that Central America is indeed plagued by poverty, violence, and corruption, but if Biden were willing to look at the root causes of his root causes, he might notice that his aren't the solutions to such problems, but their source.
Stopping migration from Central America is no more a legitimate policy goal than was stopping savagery, banditry, or communism in the twentieth century. In fact, what Washington policymakers called savagery (Indigenous people living autonomously on their lands), banditry (the poor trying to recover what the rich had stolen from them), and communism (land reform and support for the rights of oppressed workers and peasants) were actually potential solutions to the very poverty, violence, and corruption imposed by the US-backed ruling elites in the region. And maybe migration is likewise part of Central Americans' struggle to solve these problems. After all, migrants working in this country send back more money in remittances to their families in Central America than the United States has ever given in foreign aid.
What, then, would a constructive U.S. policy towards Central America look like?
Perhaps the most fundamental baseline of foreign policy should be that classic summary of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. As for doing some good, before the subject can even be discussed, there needs to be an acknowledgement that so much of what we've done to Central America over the past 200 years has been nothing but harm.
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