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US as a good neighbor to Central America

Progress in reform

Like recent presidents, President Trump seeks to uplift Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to help stem the flow of drugs and migrants. US priorities in the region may shift but its neighborliness should not.

Salvadoran soldiers participate in a ceremony for the Tri-National anti-gang task force in Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras, November 15, 2016.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

For several decades, the United States has found it easy to answer the biblical question “Who is my neighbor?” Recent presidents have offered money, trade, and advice to three impoverished nations of Central America – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Now President Trump plans to continue the tradition. His administration will hold a high-level conference in Miami on June 15-16 aimed at uplifting the so-called Northern Triangle.

The longtime US focus on its most-troubled neighbors is partly benevolent, partly self-interested. The three countries are a major source of gang violence, drugs, and unauthorized migrants, especially children. In Congress, a bipartisan consensus still supports spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to address the root causes of these problems by creating economic opportunity and rule of law in Central America.

“The idea of us coming alongside Central Americans themselves to try to improve their own conditions, their own democracy, or their own markets I think is an important use of the United States’ political will,” says Sen. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma.

The US effort is similar to a recent attempt by the European Union, led by Germany, to create jobs and better governance in Africa in order to stem the flow of migrants into Europe.

The three Central American countries have shown progress in reforms, especially in tackling corruption. Outside donors are also better able to hold each country more accountable for any aid spent. “We’re pushing on a more open door than we were before,” says the former US ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte. “The political convergence at the moment is quite good in terms of the governments of those countries wanting to work with us, which has not always been the case.”

The barriers to success, however, are still high. About 50 percent of Central Americans live in poverty while some 60 percent of the population is under age 30. On average, 19 out of 20 murders remain unsolved. And the size of armed groups exceeds the size of the countries’ armed forces.

The US holds itself partly responsible for these woes. Its high drug use has turned the region into a prime transit route for criminal traffickers, which only worsens corruption and an exodus of people fleeing violence.

Mr. Trump’s priorities for Central America differ from those of his predecessors. His budget proposal would reduce the amount of aid and put a focus on creating better conditions for investment. He also wants to apply more rigorous conditions to aid. And he has asked Mexico to better assist its southern neighbors.

The US emphasis may change. But the neighborliness should not.