An Opening and an Opportunity in Central America

Photo by Lutheran World Relief

Ambassador Daniel Speckhard, president & CEO of Lutheran World Relief, wrote this op-ed that was published by The Hill on Sept. 3, 2015.

For years, Central America has been plagued by corruption and violence.  In recent months however, calls to reject the status quo – from citizens and civil society groups – have grown louder. That cry for change gives the U.S. a window we can use to slow northern migration and help to bring stability to the region. 

In Honduras, thousands protest every Friday, carrying bamboo torches and handmade signs through the capital city, demanding an end to corruption. Similar mass mobilizations are happening in Guatemala, where an alliance of workers, farmers, teachers, students, business groups and the Catholic Church hierarchy have joined common cause in calling for the resignation of the nation’s president. He has been implicated in a corruption scandal that has already resulted in the ouster and arrest of the vice president and the departure of 14 cabinet members.  

Such large-scale demonstrations, resignations of government officials and renewed calls for anti-impunity commissions have all formed part of a remarkable Central American summer of discontent.  

These public demonstrations offer a glimmer of hope to a region suffering from a humanitarian crisis years in the making. While the social and economic problems of Central America are complex, it is clear that any can children arriving at the U.S. border in recent years, fleeing violence in their home cities, towns and villages. These images of real suffering moved many, and added more heat to the U.S. political firestorm over immigration poeffective response must address the root causes of violence, poverty and corruption. 

The harbinger of the region’s humanitarian crisis was the increase in unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the U.S. border in recent years, fleeing violence in their home cities, towns and villages. These images of real suffering moved many, and added more heat to the U.S. political firestorm over immigration policy. Refugee advocates pushed U.S. authorities to recognize the need for immediate protections for many fleeing Central America, while investing in long-term solutions focused on the most vulnerable.

For those of us working in the region, this refugee influx confirmed what our local partners and communities in Central America have been saying for years: many lack basic human rights such as freedom from violence, the opportunity to earn a livelihood and access to basic services such as water and sanitation, education and health. 

Some of the challenges are structural: namely, inequality and unresolved issues from previous conflicts. And while recent trade deals may have helped, progress has been uneven and the poorest people have seen few benefits. Regional and global challenges, such as economic disparity, violence and climate change only serve to compound the failure to extend the benefits of growth to the rural economy. 

Additionally, Central America is subject to a deeply destructive northern demand for illegal drugs and clandestine markets awash in arms. Gangs, corrupt policing and impunity inhibit economic and political participation and reinforce a culture of violence that is a major “push” factor to migration.   

Addressing these challenges is not simple. They involve changes by both governments and aid planners. This is one of the reasons long-entrenched problems have resisted some of the most well-intended policies. 

The state, the private sector and international actors, and most especially, local civil society, must work together. To address rural economic opportunity, a special emphasis should be placed on the role of social movements, cooperatives and farmer associations—the deep tissue of civil society and rural economy that has been silenced or submerged in the violence and economic exclusion. 

We need to mobilize communities and hold all parties accountable: donors for their pledges of local ownership rather than top-down approaches; and local governments for enforcing strong guarantees of transparency, participation and rule of law, including protection for farmers’ groups, journalists and human rights defenders. 

I recently traveled to Honduras, where I visited an indigenous community located in Copán Ruinas, near the Guatemalan border. I was struck not only by the challenges but also the possibilities. My organization, Lutheran World Relief, is working with a very capable local NGO, the Christian Organization for Comprehensive Development of Honduras, to help farmers improve and diversify their crop production, combat leaf rust in their coffee crops, and earn a sustainable income. With a model of accompaniment and respect for local knowledge, I saw innovation and resilience promoted through partnership—a way forward even for those groups most marginalized. 

The administration addressed the Central American crisis in its fiscal year 2016 budget based on the region’s own Alliance for Prosperity plan. So far, Congress has not supported that approach.  

Robust, but smart assistance is required. But for such aid to be effective, the U.S. should support civil society in the region. It will be especially important to address needs in the rural areas, where much of the migration flow starts.  The summer’s protests have presented us with an opening and an opportunity. Our support for civil society could contribute to lasting and positive change for all Central Americans—and that would indeed be very good news.


Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian organization. He previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as ambassador to Greece and to Belarus, deputy chief of Mission in Iraq, and a senior official at NATO.