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A neglected ‘cold war’ and humanitarian tragedy at our doorstep

Drug War casualty. The body of a young man shot in 2013 in Acapulco, Mexico. --Flickr, missing you …

Guest op-ed by Mauricio Vivero, executive director at the Seattle International Foundatrion (a backer of Humanosphere, full disclosure). This post first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea has some U.S. policymakers dusting off the Cold War playbook. Looking at Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine and the slew of speeches flung back-and-forth between the White House and the Kremlin, they recall a not-so-distant history when the problems of countries and regions were understood not on their own terms, but rather through the narrow lens of superpower rivalry. Some of the rhetoric we hear today has echoes of that perspective.

For some observers, our neighbors in Central America in particular, this comes as no surprise. Seeing Central America through a narrow lens has been a longstanding problem that continues to this day. At one time, the U.S. government saw every issue in the region as part of a proxy battle with the Soviets. U.S. involvement in Central America’s internal affairs — including covert operations, CIA-engineered coups, and cozy relations with repressive governments — was justified by the need to prevent the spread of communism in our hemisphere.

But the end of the Cold War didn’t stop U.S. policymakers from seeing Central America through a narrow lens; the focus merely shifted away from communism and toward the drug war.

Today’s U.S. policy in the region has one focus: to stop drug-trafficking organizations that State Department and Pentagon officials alike consider a matter of national security because they stimulate drug abuse and violence in the United States, undermine democracies in the region, and can potentially finance terrorists.

During the past decade, the United States has militarized the war on drugs, not only training law enforcement agents in Latin American nations, but also involving their militaries and pouring money into radars, planes and ships. At $20 billion dollars, it is the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War.

The problem is that a one-sided approach focused mostly on law enforcement and military efforts isn’t going to stop the flow of drugs. Issues such as illegal drugs and citizen security are intrinsically tied to endemic poverty, lack of sustainable development, and weak governments. There’s no question that what’s happening today in Central America is vital to U.S. interests, but what we need is a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy based on mutual respect. We need to help build effective governments, generate employment and economic opportunity, and support programs for women and youth that give them hope for the future in their home countries.

This is particularly true because in many ways, Central America’s problems become our problems. Eighty percent of all drugs arriving in the United States flow through Central America. The associated poverty, illegal drug trade, and drug-related violence in Central America can be felt not only in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, but also in Omaha, Austin and Seattle.

And alongside our strategic interests, the human suffering caused by violence and other factors in the region can no longer be ignored. In 2013, U.S. immigration officials recorded a total of 36,026 “credible-fear” asylum declarations, driven largely by an influx from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, in which migrants from were allowed to remain in the United States for fear of being harmed on return to their homelands. That total was nearly triple the number recorded during fiscal year 2012 and about six times the average annual total during the Bush administration. In a congressional hearing in December last year, Representative Zoe Lofgren of California wisely noted that Congress should pay heed to the “brewing refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.”

To make matters worse, in 2013, the U.S. government detained 38,000 children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that had traveled to the United States alone without parents. All were fleeing the same conditions that have made Central America an undeclared humanitarian crisis: violence, forced gang conscription and lack of opportunities. All of this is happening right at our doorstep.

The United States needs a new “good neighbor policy.” The term was first coined in a 1928 speech by President Hoover, who declared, “We have a desire to maintain not only the cordial relations of governments with each other, but also the relations of good neighbors.” President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull declared in 1933 that the United States was committed to a policy of non-intervention in Latin America, which became known as the Good Neighbor Policy. Good relations with Latin America during World War II also helped persuade Latin American countries to join the Organization of American States, a multilateral organization that is largely funded by the U.S. government to this day.

The challenges facing Central America present us with an opportunity to radically alter our engagement with the region in order for these countries to become less violent, more prosperous and democratic, and in the process lift millions of people out of poverty. Philanthropy can lead the way in this effort. As a foundation, our mission is to improve the lives of vulnerable people, especially our neighbors in Central America. We believe the region has tremendous potential: committed local leaders, rich opportunities for community and civic engagement, and the ability to create more dynamic economies providing better futures to millions who live in social and economic exclusion.

With every investment, we see citizens organizing to hold their governments more accountable, improving access to basic needs such as education, and reducing the desperate need to emigrate in order to secure a better life.

The United States and Latin America share a long history. There are 53 million Latinos in the U.S., including 3.1 million from Central America — the fastest growing segment of the Latino population in America.

It’s time to shift U.S. foreign policy priorities and focus on improving lives in Central America. Being a good neighbor is also a good policy, helping advance our national interests.


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