To stop migration from Central America, the Joe Biden administration has a $ 4 billion plan to “develop security and prosperity” in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, home to more than 85% of all Central American migrants who came to the United States in the last three years.

The United States seeks to address the “factors that push people to leave their countries,” namely violence, crime, chronic unemployment, and a lack of basic services, in a region where there is a lot of public corruption.

The Biden plan, which will be partially funded with funds that were used for immigration detention and the border wall, is based on a solid analysis of the dire socioeconomic conditions in Central America. As the former president of Costa Rica, I can attest to the dire situation faced by people in neighboring nations.

I also know that money alone cannot build a viable democracy. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador make up the “Northern Triangle” of Central America, a poor region that ranks among the highest homicide rates in the world.

These countries need working education, housing and health systems. They need reliable economic structures that can attract foreign investment. And they need inclusive social systems and other crime prevention strategies that enable people to live without fear.

Such a transformation cannot occur without strong public institutions and politicians committed to the rule of law.


Biden’s aid to Central America comes with strict conditions, requiring the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to “undertake significant, concrete and verifiable reforms,” including with their own money.

But the United States has tried unsuccessfully to make changes in Central America for decades. Every American president since the 1960s has launched initiatives there.

During the Cold War, the United States aimed to counter the spread of communism in the region, sometimes militarily. More recently, US aid has focused on strengthening democracy, investing in everything from judicial reform and women’s education to agriculture and small businesses.

The Barack Obama administration also spent millions on initiatives to combat illegal drugs and weaken street gangs, called “maras,” whose brutal control over urban neighborhoods is one of the reasons migrants say they flee.

Those multibillion-dollar efforts have done little to improve the region’s dysfunctions.

If anything, Central America’s problems have worsened. COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in the region. Two Category 5 hurricanes struck Honduras in two weeks at the end of 2020, leaving more than 250,000 people homeless.

To imagine a solution to the problems of Central America, the history of Costa Rica, a democratic and stable Central American country, is illustrative.


Costa Rica’s path to success began shortly after independence from Spain in 1821. It developed a coffee economy that linked it from the beginning to the development of the global capitalist economy. While other Central American countries fought protracted civil wars, Costa Rica adopted a liberal constitution and invested in public education.

Costa Rican democracy was strengthened in the 1940s with a constitutional amendment that established a minimum wage and protected women and children from labor abuses. He also established a national social security system, which today provides medical care and pensions to all Costa Ricans.

These reforms triggered a civil war. But the end of the war brought positive transformations. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army. No defense spending allows Costa Rica to invest in human development. The country also created a credible electoral system to ensure the legitimacy of elected governments.

Over the next seven decades, consecutive Costa Rican governments expanded this welfare state, developing a large urban and rural middle class. Costa Rica, already a trusted ally of the United States when the Cold War began, was able to maintain progressive policies that, in other countries, the US government viewed suspiciously as “socialist.”

Today, Costa Rica invests almost 30% of its annual budget in public education, from kindergarten to university. Healthcare represents about 14.8% of the budget.

The United States is not an attraction for Costa Ricans. The nation itself has hosted hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants.

Migrants flee repressive political systems prone to militarism, autocracy and corruption. In large part, this is because many Central American countries are dominated by small but powerful economic and political elites, many of which date back to earlier generations.

During the Cold War, they put down popular revolutions that pursued structural transformations, from more equitable taxes and educational investments to land reforms, that could end centuries of oppression and deprivation, often with the support of the United States.

Biden’s adviser, Juan González, says the president’s plan requires the active participation of this “predatory elite.” In March, he told NPR public radio that the administration would take a “partnership-based approach” in Central America, using both “carrots and sticks” to push powerful people who may not share America’s goals to help its own people. The United States will also recruit local human rights organizations and pro-democracy groups to help its cause.

It’s too early to tell whether the long-awaited partnerships with Central American leaders will materialize: The Salvadoran president recently refused to meet with Biden’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle. The president of Honduras was named in a criminal investigation in the United States into his brother’s alleged drug trafficking ring.

Yet without American resources being offered, Central America’s problems will persist. Money alone will not solve them, but it is a necessary piece of an enormously complicated puzzle.

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