There is also a direct social and economic link between Central America and the United States. Billions of dollars are sent home annually by hundreds of thousands of Central Americans working abroad, especially in the United States. Without remittances from workers -- nearly two billion dollars from the U.S. to El Salvador alone -- Central America would already be destitute.
Central America, a traditional hotbed of politics and poverty, became a Cold War battlefield in the 1970s and 1980s. The United States invested vast amounts of emotion and money in this region to halt the spread of communism. However, since the Cold War ended, the countries of Central America have slipped back to near invisibility on the U.S. radar screen of national interests.
The Central American countries saw some economic and social progress in the 1990s. Costa Rica became an international poster child for environmental management, and Panama gained control of the Canal. The economies of all the Central American countries grew at moderately favorable rates and all have enjoyed at least a few years of peace and democratically elected governments.
Humanitarian and economic difficulties, especially in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, now threaten that progress. The first problem is of divine origin. Central America is prone to one natural disaster after another: drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, was one of the worst disasters, destroying homes, roads, and cropland and leaving hundreds of thousands of people destitute.
Along with Mitch, international coffee prices plummeted and a serious drought in 2001 caused food production to decline. "The drop in international coffee prices to their lowest level in a hundred years, in real terms, is an economic and social disaster that has cost Central America, directly or indirectly, 600,000 jobs" said a World Bank official recently. In 2001, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 1.6 million people in Central America needed emergency food aid.
The situation will worsen over the next several months. Many coffee growers and pickers in Central America have a little money in their pockets right now from the coffee harvest season that ended in March, but it's a long time until November when the next season begins. To make matters worse, experts are warning that coffee prices may remain low.
The food shortage could quickly skyrocket if, as some forecasters predict, the El Niño climatic phenomenon causes the drought to continue this year. The farmers plant their crops when the rains come in May or June. If the rains are inadequate, yields will be lower and hunger will increase. The World Food Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development already have emergency programs in place in Guatemala to fight growing malnutrition, especially among children.
Poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua is compounded by social problems that a decade of democracy has barely touched. More than one-half of the population is still poor and about 30 percent is still illiterate. Guatemala has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world.
Political corruption is also a problem. The Guatemalan government is criticized for its slowness and inefficiency in implementing a peace agreement. Conversely, a new government in Nicaragua is popular, at least temporarily, because of its strong stand against corruption. But politics in Central America has always been a profit making enterprise for many of its practitioners.
In a March speech in Monterrey, Mexico, President Bush reversed a trend of American inattention to the rest of the world by promising an increase in U.S. economic aid, after years of decline. The President has also proposed the negotiation of a Central American Free Trade Agreement.
In the long-term, the U.S. needs to work with responsive business, government, and civil society elements in Central America to devise a strategy to help the Central American countries overcome poverty and social injustice. That will require facilitating trade, adopting enlightened immigration policies, reducing corruption, and protecting the environmental treasures of this region. The Central American countries need to come up with national visions to which all can subscribe.
The immediate need is increased humanitarian assistance to help Central America's poorest and most vulnerable people. The United States should respond quickly to the urgent humanitarian needs in our own backyard and, at the same time, expand our attention to helping these small countries build more just, equitable, and prosperous societies.
Larry Thompson of Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy organization, recently visited Guatemala and Nicaragua.