Central America is at a breaking point.
The region is faced with a multiplicity of crises which make it even more vulnerable, despite the extreme fragility it has known for three decades.
The pandemic has increased inequalities as well as poverty and extreme poverty (from 33.7% to 40.2% in Nicaragua and from 7.4% to 11.9% in El Salvador, respectively) and exacerbated structural weakness national economies.
According to a report by the Executive Secretariat of ECLAC, regional GDP contracted by 6.2% in 2020. Historically, the structural realities of socio-economic inequalities have coincided with fragile and even collapsing states. and produced high levels of violence.
In this context, a different issue has emerged on the agenda: proof of the climate emergency in Central America. With two hurricanes, Eta (November 13-14) and Iota (November 17-18), the region is feeling the effects of climate change.
However, support for reconstruction is again debated and aid to the region presents itself as a political and moral dilemma.
This reflection is based on two aspects: the promise of renewed attention from the new American administration, with the alliance plan for the prosperity of the northern triangle redesigned, and the arrival of international aid after hurricanes Eta and Iota.
Why a political dilemma?
In 1998, Central America was severely affected by Hurricane Mitch.
It was a first manifestation of the devastation that such climatic events could engender in the face of the inability (to protect and rebuild) and the lack of preparedness (to anticipate) States in the face of climate risks.
Even so, the problem of the limits of the Central American states in terms of regulation and fulfillment of their sovereign duty already arose.
At that time, the region was inundated with funds for international cooperation, in particular through the Madrid Group, which helped shape a “Modernization and Transformation Agenda for the 21st Century”, the objectives of which were to strengthen the capacities of States.
After more than 20 years, what have been the results? Non-existent or insufficiently developed capacities; to co-opt and capture external cooperation funds; massive corruption.
In the period following Hurricane Mitch, the Nicaraguan case was emblematic, due to the embezzlement of millions of dollars.
Currently, there is a feeling of “déjà vu”. Faced with the impacts of hurricanes Eta and Iota, pledges of aid have multiplied: the IDB with $ 1.2 million; the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with $ 750,000 and USAID with $ 17 million, among others.
The implementation of this assistance after the disaster again raises the question of the capacity of States to implement it.
It is in this context that Joe Biden’s project is presented, which consists of reactivating the plan created in 2014 to strengthen governance in the region with a contribution of US $ 1 billion, which was canceled under the administration of Donald Trump in early 2017.
Biden’s future plan is to reactivate the United States’ commitment to Central America with a $ 4 billion program for migration, security, rule of law, corruption and development against poverty.
However, both reconstruction aid and American cooperation are taking place in a context of extremely high institutional fragility, intensified by the economic, social and health crises. Democracies have been further weakened by severe cases of corruption and strong political and institutional instability.
In these contexts, there is a risk of diversion, co-option or capture of resources. In fact, when Biden says “the challenges ahead are great.” “But if there is political will, there is no reason why Central America cannot become the next great achievement in the Western Hemisphere,” he says, suggesting a long series of challenges.
Will the post-Mitch effects be reproduced in Central America?
Since 1998, climate threats have intensified and are diagnosed as irreversible. In this context, the Isthmus of Central America is one of the most vulnerable regions on the planet. The political dilemma has become a moral one.
After the passage of two hurricanes, a bleak future approaches the region.
Climate change will intensify events such as floods, droughts, hurricanes and storms, with immediate consequences such as landslides, windstorms, destruction of homes, displacement, etc.
And Central America will face a wide variety of natural seismic threats, earthquake episodes, extreme weather events, sea level rise.
In view of the disasters that have occurred and especially the limited capacity of States, the question of aid distribution must be posed in new terms.
How long will the idea remain that populations and territories threatened by climate change can be approached with international aid?
At the global level, the legitimacy of States is called into question because they do not have an adequate structure to deal with phenomena of transnational scope.
In Central America, there are also very vulnerable societies and delegitimized and ruined states, with the exception of Costa Rica and Panama.
Central America – particularly the countries of the Northern Triangle – is a region of outgoing human flows, and this will intensify with successive climatic catastrophes that will turn parts of its territory into inhospitable areas.
The foreign policy of the new Biden administration and the reactivation of aid to the region, as well as the rest of the international aid injected into regions suffering from natural disasters, invites reflection to avoid repeating mistakes.
In addition, the nature of the aid itself needs to be reassessed so as not to continue to apply corrective measures instead of addressing structural causes.
This double dilemma leads us to reflect on the adaptation and extension of human consequences in the medium and long term, as well as on the plurality and heterogeneity of the actors who can intervene, beyond the State.
Faced with this scenario, it is necessary to take into account new modes of governance, particularly regional and multilateral.
On December 12 of last year, a new Climate Action Summit was held, during which the strengthening of cooperation between the Isthmus States, the consolidation of regional technical institutions and the challenge of great integration of the region into multilateral diplomatic arenas. .
In short, these are some of the major challenges facing Central America in the 21st century.
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Translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima