Central America Wants Answers from Obama

Danilo Valladares

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 25 (IPS) — Central America is cautiously hoping that the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to El Salvador Mar. 22-23 will give tangible form to Washington’s commitment to protecting immigrants and fighting organized crime in the region, analysts told IPS.

“President Obama could reduce deportations or tone them down” as a goodwill gesture, said Marta Altolaguirre, former Guatemalan deputy foreign minister and ex president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On his second trip to Latin America, Obama will visit Brazil, Chile and El Salvador Mar. 19-23, to talk to their leaders about issues of common interest, such as the economy, employment and security, the White House announced.

Central America is particularly interested in security cooperation, as well as migration issues.

Obama’s inauguration in January 2009 raised great expectations in Central America, including hopes of better treatment for an estimated 12 million Central American and Mexican immigrants living in the United States and thousands more who seek to cross the border every day.

“It was hoped that (the Obama administration) would make greater efforts to pass immigration reform” that would provide a path to citizenship, Altolaguirre said. But Guatemalans “have been disappointed by discrimination against them. Why have citizens of other Central American countries been given TPS (Temporary Protected Status), but not immigrants from Guatemala?”

In 1998, after Hurricane Mitch devastated the region, the United States granted TPS and work permits to immigrants from Nicaragua and Honduras. In 2001 the same benefits were given to Salvadorans after a deadly earthquake.

A total of over 300,000 immigrants from all three countries benefited from protected status and successive renewals of their TPS visas, which are usually extended for 18 months.

Yet Guatemala, with thousands of victims from natural disasters and close to a million citizens living in the United States as undocumented immigrants, is still waiting for the approval of TPS cover for its citizens that it requested in June 2010.

Meanwhile, laws and measures against immigrants are proliferating in the United States, and thousands of Central Americans have been deported.

Guatemala, for instance, had a record 29,000 of its citizens deported from the United States in 2010, at least 1,000 more than in 2008, when the previous record was set.

Another key issue at Obama’s meeting with moderate leftwing Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes will be the heavy negative impact of public insecurity and organized crime on the region, according to Altolaguirre. And with good reason.

The area known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, made up of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, has “the highest homicide rates in the world,” according to the 2010 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The study says the average murder rate for the 2003-2008 period was 61 per 100,000 population in Honduras, 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador and 49 per 100,000 in Guatemala, while further north in Mexico it was 12 per 100,000.

“Guatemala is the northernmost Central American country, has the biggest problems with organized crime and is hit the hardest” by the drug war raging in Mexico between rival drug cartels and between the cartels and the government, Altolaguirre said.

The Salvadoran member of the Central American Parliament for the rightwing opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), Julio César Grijalva, said the region is hoping for concrete responses in the areas of security and migration from the meeting between Funes and Obama.

“The United States has always washed its hands of crime and migration, saying that they are our problems,” Grijalva complained.

“But this region is just a corridor to funnel drugs into the United States, and a large part of the productivity in that country is due to the work of our people there,” he said.

In the view of Costa Rican political analyst Claudio Alpízar, Obama’s visit to El Salvador will be merely “symbolic.”

“The spotlight will be on Brazil and Chile, because of what they represent in the world economic scenario and because they may have a higher degree of affinity with U.S. political strategy,” he said.

Recalling U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Costa Rica in March 2009, Alpízar said “It was just a courtesy gesture.

“Historically, Latin America has resented the United States’ lack of commitment to promoting more comprehensive development in the Americas, as it has always focused more on Europe and Asia,” he said.

However, Honduran historian Mario Argueta told IPS “the fact that Obama will be meeting at least one of the five Central American presidents indicates that the region is not being totally forgotten or ignored by Washington.”

Other Central American presidents have not been invited to San Salvador during Obama’s flying visit. But Funes, who met with Obama in Washington in March 2009, has said he will act as spokesman for the common interests of the region.

In addition, Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez said he would take the opportunity, at a meeting of Central American foreign ministers to be held in Guatemala City Mar. 14, to listen to suggestions for issues to broach during Obama’s visit.

According to Argueta, one of Washington’s main concerns is security in the area. “The United States is alarmed that Mexican drug traffickers are opening branches in Central America, and that the flow of drugs is increasing.”

But the talks in San Salvador will not only be about migration and security. The Salvadoran Foreign Ministry announced a total of five items on the provisional agenda: the fight against poverty, security, migration, trade, and climate change and clean energy.