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If U.S. Wants Return On $4 Billion Central America Investment, Look For Anti-Alonzos

Phil Laubner
Catholic Relief Services
DUST BOWL DISTRESS A Guatemalan woman examines her family's corn crop ravaged by the effects of climate change.

COMMENTARY The Biden Administration must look beyond the Northern Triangle's hyper-corrupt, hyper-incompetent governments to make its aid plan work.

A couple years ago, while reporting on the sudden surge of Central American climate change refugees pouring into South Florida, I called up Guatemala’s then-environment minister, Alfonso Alonzo, to find out how the government was helping campesinos confront the eco-catastrophe.

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He unabashedly admitted he hadn’t much of a clue. He just as unabashedly admitted he had no environmental mitigation experience: he was a media consultant whom then Guatemalan President and clown-in-chief Jimmy Morales had given the job because he was a political crony.

“Besides,” Alonzo said, in a tone that seemed to suggest I was interrupting lunch, “the U.S. is the country producing all the greenhouse emissions causing this problem. They’re the ones who should fix it.”

I couldn’t help recalling that astonishing chat with Alonzo this week — when the U.S. did announce it will try to help fix it. Vice President Kamala Harris said that as part of an additional $310 million infusion of aid to Central America’s beleaguered Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the U.S. will allot $125 million to tackle the global warming-induced dust-bowl disaster plaguing the region’s agricultural zones. The larger goal, of course, is to curtail the illegal immigration from those zones amassing on the U.S. southern border.

READ MORE: Honduras' Crooked President Deserves the Same 'Gringo' Treatment Venezuela's Got

Real quickly here, I’ll applaud the Biden Administration’s worthy, sensible efforts to address that migration at its source instead of at the border. But just as quickly, I’ll urge the Administration to remember Alfonso Alonzo — because believe me, he’s the rule, not the exception, when it comes to the level of government aptitude in the Northern Triangle.

Yet that’s the level of government aptitude the U.S. is staring at to help administer its $310 million grant — not to mention the overall $4 billion Biden hopes to invest there.

Since political hacks are the Northern Triangle's administrative reality – and a big reason apocalyptic poverty and violence are its reality – the U.S. has to promote a new administrative reality.

I’m certainly not saying Biden should kibosh the idea because of all the Alfonso Alonzos. Fixing the crisis in Central America is the only long-term way to fix the crisis at the border. I am, however, saying that since political hacks are the Northern Triangle’s administrative reality — and since that's a big reason apocalyptic poverty and violent crime are the region's socio-economic reality — the U.S. might want to work harder at promoting a new administrative reality.

In other words, welcome to the U.S.’s Central American Catch-22 — which it helped create over the past century.


Washington’s chronic, cynical interventions there — especially its use of the isthmus as a bloody, Cold War proxy battlefield in the 1980s – helped spawn the hyper-corrupt and hyper-incompetent governments that still hold court today. Especially leaders like Morales and el miserable Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whom U.S. federal prosecutors have fingered for aiding drug cartels (which he denies).

That’s the same hyper-corrupt and hyper-incompetent ruling class (Biden's top Latin America advisor, Juan Gonzalez, recently termed them "predatory elites") the U.S. is placing its $4 billion bet with.

And yet, if we were to bypass that cabal – let’s say, as hypothetical fantasy, Biden doesn’t let one Northern Triangle finger touch one U.S. aid dollar and mandates only yanqui personnel carry out every inch of the projects – we’d be doing nothing to create the kind of leadership and citizen engagement we need there to create the social and economic conditions that reduce mass migration.

Then Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (left) and then Environment Minister Alfonso Alonzo in 2019.
Then Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (left) and then Environment Minister Alfonso Alonzo in 2019.

But don’t forget, Biden supporters will say, the aid includes anti-corruption programs too. True, but they’re rarely enough. It seems the more substantive solution is to add something to the aid to-do list: identifying and recruiting these countries’ anti-Alfonso Alonzos as managers. Meaning, the usually younger, better trained, less corrupted and, yes, more idealistic folks proving their worth in government agencies, NGOs and private companies. They’re the Peace Corps types waiting to be found in countries where the U.S. usually sends the Peace Corps.

I’ve seen American agencies like USAID locate them in places like Honduras. I’ve watched institutions like the U.N. locate them in places like Guatemala – where anti-Alfonso Alonzos helped build the International Commission Against Impunity, or CICIG, which in recent years finally started bringing the country’s more sinister corruptos to trial.

CICIG was so successful that Morales parked army tanks in front of its offices and shut it down. But it showed the talent and character that exist there.

Talent and character that can give you a better return on $4 billion.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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