LAWRENCE – If the Biden administration hopes that spending $4 billion on Central American development will relieve political pressure at the southern U.S. border, it needs to be smarter than its predecessors about how the money is spent, according to one expert on the region.
Brent Metz, University of Kansas professor of anthropology, has lived with, researched and written extensively about the Indigenous peoples of the tri-border region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. He is available to journalists to comment on what drives refugees northward and what the U.S. can and should do to help the region’s people.
Metz said President Joe Biden’s approach to refugees is already better than that of his predecessor and that the spending plan could be transformational if invested better than in the past.
“Over seven decades, U.S. development and military expenditures in Central America have been, at best, partially successful and have, at worst, contributed to mass emigration,” Metz said.
Metz said Biden should focus resources on Central America’s semi-subsistent farmers, or campesinos, in a way not done since the Cold War.
“Campesino agriculture was attacked by U.S.-promoted trade policies favoring agri-industry and the extraction of raw materials, such as minerals and hydroelectric power, at the campesinos’ expense" since the 1990s, Metz said. "If campesinos have been fortunate enough to grow surplus grain, they can’t compete with the prices of U.S. grain grown under better conditions with billions of dollars of annual subsidies.”
Trade deals like the Central American and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) “poured salt in the wound,” Metz said, by categorizing “displaced, politically cheapened campesino labor to be the region’s ‘comparative advantage’ for low-paying, underemploying sweatshop and plantation jobs.
“Contrary to the free-market capitalism touted by the lords of economic growth, campesino resources and self-determination are being stolen at gunpoint,” he said.
An influx of $4 billion can provide for a fundamental reset in U.S. development approaches, according to Metz.
So, what is needed to bolster campesino agriculture? Help dealing with the effects of U.S.-driven climate change, he said.
“Terracing and reforestation to protect the topsoil from erosion and conserve rainwater, composting to rebuild soil, irrigation systems, better long-term forecasts for determining which crops to plant, new experimental crops and the return to old ones suited to the region, and ongoing improvements to socially and culturally accessible family planning so that projects have a chance of keeping pace with a young, growing population, albeit growing at a slower pace,” Metz said.
Then there is the need to address organized crime, he said, by building up Central American nations’ justice systems.
“One of the biggest drivers of emigration is threats from organized crime, including that integrated in the highest levels of government,” Metz said. “The U.S. Agency for International Development has wisely devoted resources to legal institutions and human rights, but not to the infiltration of mafias at the highest levels of government. Judicial systems must protect would-be emigrants from predatory mafias, gangs and mega-projects. We should support independent legal institutions such as the former U.N.’s International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala, which brought the highest state criminals to justice.”
Metz is author of the book “Ch’orti Maya Survival in Eastern Guatemala” (2006, University of New Mexico Press) and the forthcoming “Where Did the Eastern Mayas Go? Decolonizing Ethnography and the Historical, Relational, and Contingent Interplay of Ch’orti’ Indigeneity” (University Press of Colorado). He co-edited “The Ch’orti Area, Past and Present” (2009, University Press of Florida).
He is affiliated with KU’s Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies.
He is a founding member of topical interest group on migration of the Society for Applied Anthropology (see “How Do We Talk About Migration? Voices from the United States and Mexico” and his chapter, “Causes of Migration to and from the Ch’orti’ Maya Area of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador,” has been accepted for the upcoming volume “Human Migration: Biocultural Perspectives” (University of Oxford Press).