President Trump has threatened to cut off or substantially reduce economic aid to the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if they do not prevent their people from joining the migrant caravan making its way to the United States. This is a typical Trump threat, lacking in specifics and based on the erroneous idea that the United States has been duped by foreign nations that take advantage of the country’s goodwill and money. When it comes to U.S. foreign aid, however, few claims could be more distant from the truth.
Since at least World War II, the United States has leveraged foreign assistance to encourage or impose policies favorable to its interests worldwide. And minimizing migration has been one of these policies for decades. In 1977, the State Department explicitly labeled stemming “the tide of undocumented aliens entering the U.S. from Central America” as a regional policy goal.
But the United States has sabotaged itself. The migration crisis stems not from foreign nations duping the United States but rather from American economic development policies designed primarily to promote goals — including anti-communism, unregulated foreign markets and, later, drug control — that have exacerbated the poverty, despair and violence such policies were supposed to alleviate.
In many ways, the administration’s fixation on stopping migration aims to fix a problem that the United States helped create. During the Cold War, the United States knit together a sprawling network of government agencies and private organizations to turn economic development across Latin America, Asia and Africa into a weapon against the Soviet Union. Economists, social scientists and politicians believed that poverty made people susceptible to communism, and they set out to build programs to halt the spread of this competing ideology by increasing economic growth.
Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, President John F. Kennedy began the Alliance for Progress in Latin America to contain communism in the hemisphere. But prioritizing anti-communism actually led to development programs and strategies that intensified inequality, bred corruption and relied on physical force. Development advocates maintained the paternalistic belief that dictators could bring about political, social and economic transformation more quickly and effectively than democratic governments.
As a result, the United States channeled economic development programs through anti-communist authoritarians who conveniently also guaranteed labor and trade policies favorable to the United States. American diplomats and developmentalists glad-handed with dictators such as Gen. Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua and Oswaldo López in Honduras.
But these brutal American allies channeled economic benefits into the hands of their friends and supporters, leaving the rest of their countrymen to fight over scraps. Politically connected landowners evicted small farmers from their plots and business executives squashed workers’ organizations, often with the assistance of U.S.-trained and supplied armies.
Growing inequality and political repression drove people from their homes and communities in search of safety or greater opportunity. Some fled because their political positions made them vulnerable to harassment, imprisonment or death. Countless others migrated because they were unable to make a living in an oligarchic system where land, jobs and other resources were forcefully concentrated in the hands of a privileged few.
By the mid-1970s, development’s proponents and critics from donor and recipient nations alike agreed that past practices had not improved the global standard of living.
Critics on both sides hammered American development policies: USAID’s significant involvement in the Vietnam War elicited accusations that “humanitarian” foreign aid was actually part of an imperial strategy. At the same time, development’s conservative opponents lamented the wasted American tax dollars sent to foreign nations. Responding to this criticism, the United States experimented with different development programs before landing on a dual strategy prioritizing economic deregulation and the global war on drugs in development programs during the 1980s.
Like the economic modernization programs that preceded them, new American initiatives further destabilized Central American societies. The United States and international governmental organizations leveraged economic development funds to coerce foreign governments into reducing state regulation, thus expanding opportunities for foreign trade and investment.
These structural adjustment programs created hundreds of thousands of low-wage jobs, particularly in light manufacturing. These jobs, however, came at the expense of social safety-net programs, such as schools, hospitals and labor protections, which might have otherwise allowed vulnerable workers to withstand the shocks of recurrent economic crisis that have accompanied globalization. Without these basic provisions, people often decided to immigrate to countries where wages were higher, making it easier to support families back home.
At the same time, anti-drug programs reshaped Latin America in a way that further drove migration. The drug war failed, merely rerouting the international drug trade it aimed to stop. Even worse, it enlarged and empowered cartels and gangs that have effectively replaced local government and police in some regions. In other locations, cartels and governments work hand in hand to operate paramilitary groups that rule through extortion, violence and terror. Taxi-drivers and shopkeepers pay “war taxes” to secure their own protection.
This international offensive shows the deadly, and deeply embedded, nature of economic and military aid. As reporter Dawn Paley notes, simply blaming gangs and drug traffickers for violence overlooks the economic conditions and state security apparatuses — both a byproduct of American interference — that fuel instability and drive migration.
In 2008, the United States renewed its investment in anti-narcotics programs in Central America. U.S. aid to Honduras skyrocketed, but the homicide rate has also continued to tick up. The migrant caravan is made up largely of Hondurans who see no other way to save themselves and their families than to flee.
In the shadow of this history, Trump now threatens to cut economic assistance unless Central American governments stop the mass migration of refugees. He does not want to cut economic assistance because it has failed to make foreign people healthier, wealthier and happier. He wants to cut it because foreign governments have disobeyed his order to stymie the migrant caravan and need to be punished. Trump vilifies refugees as criminals — his favorite slur to wield against foreigners and nonwhites — but they are driven by violence, poverty, landlessness and disenfranchisement for which the United States cannot avoid blame. The migrants are humans with families, friends and rights — including the international right to movement guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As we wade through a period of increasing nationalism and “America first” ideology, economic assistance’s contradictions will become even sharper. The people traveling to the United States are searching for a better life, in part because United States has made life in their own countries demonstrably worse.