Since coming into power, the Trump administration has pursued a Latin America policy that is both deeply cynical and disadvantageous to the interests of the United States. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Central America, where the Trump administration has ignored the lessons of history and adopted a profoundly misguided approach to the two most pressing issues confronting the region of corruption and migration.
To understand how, look to Guatemala, which held presidential elections last month. For nearly 30 years, it has struggled to emerge from the long shadow cast by its brutal civil war, which pitted a left wing insurgency against a series of repressive dictatorships supported by the United States. As a result, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and also one of the most corrupt and dysfunctional.
The United States holds no small responsibility for this dismal state of affairs. During much of the Cold War, Washington repeatedly intervened in the domestic situation of Guatemala to empower autocrats and human rights abusers, resulting in disastrous consequences not only for Guatemalans, but also for the interests of the United States.
Corrupt and indifferent leadership and broken rule of law have turned Guatemala into a major center of drug trafficking and produced an epidemic of violent crime and a bleak economic outlook for millions of Guatemalans already living on the edge of destitution. These conditions have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of Guatemalan asylum seekers at the southern border of the United States.
Any sensible United States policy toward Guatemala must, for both moral and strategic reasons, reckon with this legacy and strive to address the poverty, violence, and impunity that remain at the root of the current challenges in the country. Such a policy approach need not exclude more targeted interventions aimed at managing migrant flows or curbing transnational crime, but to ignore the drivers of these problems or even worse, to aggravate them, would indeed be a grave mistake.
Yet this is exactly what the Trump administration has done. Its budgets have sought to slash assistance to the country, including a 75 percent reduction in funding for programs aimed at strengthening democracy and human rights. Even more troubling, the Trump administration has allowed Guatemalan elites to attack and undermine one of the few institutions in Latin America that has a proven track record of exposing corruption and strengthening the rule of law, which is the International Commission Against Impunity that is supported by the United Nations.
On migration, meanwhile, the Trump administration successfully strong armed outgoing President Jimmy Morales into an agreement under which Guatemala would serve as a “safe third country” for asylum seekers. Under the deal, asylum seekers who pass through Guatemala on their way to the United States could be returned there by federal authorities to have their asylum claims heard. Beyond the absurdity of expecting a country with fragile and corrupt institutions and widespread violence to process so many asylum seekers in a safe and orderly manner, the deal was arguably illegal under Guatemalan law and deeply unpopular domestically.
These misguided actions converged in the dispiriting elections, which saw right wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei prevail. Not only did he win by promising a law and order crackdown, but the electoral contest was further marred by the disqualification of a popular reformist candidate on dubious legal grounds. Giammattei, a former director of prisons, was backed by the same elites that campaigned for the dismantling of the International Commission Against Impunity under Morales.
Unsurprisingly, Giammattei has announced that he does not intend to renew the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity. Also unsurprisingly, his successful campaign was bolstered by his criticism of the “safe third country” agreement under Morales, which Giammattei he intends to revisit. There is little to celebrate in this outcome. After years of slow but tangible reform, the country appears poised to backslide into impunity and violence, while Guatemalans continue to flee crushing poverty and crime in large numbers.
The Trump administration appears set on repeating its failed approach elsewhere in Latin America, notably in Honduras, where the United States has also slashed foreign assistance, ignored creeping authoritarianism, and pursued a “safe third country” agreement, even as President Juan Orlando Hernandez faces accusations by federal prosecutors that he used the proceeds of drug trafficking to fund his election campaign.
If there are any lessons in United States policy towards Central America, it is that pursuing political objectives in the short term at the expense of bolstering democracy and human rights only leads to more trouble down the road, often at great cost to the people living in these countries. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems to have no interest in learning from the past, but rather seems determined to repeat it.
Trevor Sutton is a policy fellow with the Center for American Progress and was a former investigator for the United Nations Development Programme.