SAN ANTONIO HUISTA – An American contractor traveled to a small town in the mountains of Guatemala with an ambitious goal: to boost the local economy and hopefully even convince people not to migrate north to the United States.
Half an hour after meeting coffee farmers, the contractor excitedly revealed the tool he had brought with him to change their lives: a brochure inviting farmers to download an app to check coffee prices and “a part of modern agriculture to be”.
Pedro Aguilar, a coffee farmer who hadn’t asked for the training and didn’t see how it would stop someone from going to the border, looked confused. Eyeing the US government logo on the brochure, he started waving it around asking if anyone had a phone number to call Americans “and tell them what our needs really are.”
“You have never helped me,” said Aguilar after the training a few weeks ago, referring to American aid programs aimed at stimulating the economy and preventing migration. “Where does all the money go? Where is the help? Who knows?”
As Vice President, Joseph R. Biden Jr. led a tremendous push to discourage people from entering the United States by donating hundreds of millions of dollars to Central America in hopes of making the region more tolerable for the poor – and thus less abandoned would it.
Now, as President Biden, he’s doubling that strategy once again, hiring his own Vice President Kamala Harris on the tricky challenge of executing his plan of raising $ 4 billion in a remarkably similar approach as she travels to the region on Sunday.
“As Vice President, I have focused on providing the help needed to address these causes of migration,” Biden said in a recent speech to Congress. “It helped keep people in their own country instead of being forced to leave the country. Our plan worked. “
But the numbers tell a different story. After the United States flooded Central America with relief supplies for years, migration from the region skyrocketed in 2019 and is on the upswing again.
Here in Guatemala, which has received more than $ 1.6 billion in US aid over the past decade, the poverty rate is rising have risen“Malnutrition has become a national crisis, corruption is rampant, and the country is sending more unaccompanied children to the US than anywhere else in the world.
This is the stark reality Ms. Harris faces as she takes responsibility for building up the same kind of aid programs that have struggled in the past to contain migration. It’s a challenge that initially frustrated their top political advisors, some of whom viewed Mr Biden’s mandate as one that would inevitably fail them in the first few months of their tenure.
Her allies worried that she would be expected to solve the entire immigration crisis, and resented that the early reports of her new roles seemed to blame her for the recent surge in children crossing the border without adults cross, juggle.
Ms. Harris, who has little experience in foreign policy and no history in the region, has already been criticized for not visiting the border. At a recent press conference, a group of Republicans showed a carton of milk that had been mocked to display a picture of Ms. Harris headed “MISSING AT THE BORDER” while holding a press conference detailing their plans to visit the region.
The political risks are evident, including the obvious pitfalls of investing billions in a region where the President of Honduras has been linked to drug traffickers and embezzled US aid funds, became the leader of El Salvador for breaking democratic norms and the Government denounced by Guatemala was criticized for prosecuting public officials who fight corruption.
Even so, Ms. Harris and her advisors got warm to the task, say several people familiar with their way of thinking at the White House. They say it will give her a chance to dive right into foreign policy and prove she can pass the test in chief by negotiating with world leaders on a global scale to address one of America’s most persistent problems.
This test begins on Sunday when Ms. Harris makes her first international trip to Guatemala and Mexico, where she will detail efforts to reduce migration to the United States by improving conditions in those countries.
“Injustice is a major cause of migration,” Harris said during a May 19 meeting at the White House with four women fighting corruption in Guatemala. “It leads to people in the region leaving their homes involuntarily – that is, they don’t want to leave, but they flee.”
While White House officials say their drive to help Central America can do a tremendous amount of good, there is growing recognition within the Biden administration that all of the money spent in the region did not do enough to discourage people from migrating , said several administrators and others with knowledge of the discussions.
“We looked carefully at several of the programs that were raised,” said Nancy McEldowney, a longtime diplomat who serves as national security advisor to Ms. Harris. “She obviously learned a lot from what then Vice President Biden did. And that’s why we are very aware that we have to learn both positive and negative things about what happened in the past. “
Foreign aid is often a difficult and sometimes flawed tool for advancing American interests abroad, but it is unclear whether there are any easy alternatives for the Biden administration. President Donald J. Trump’s solution to migration centered on draconian policies, the Critic Sentenced as Unlawful and inhuman. In addition, members of the current administration claim that Mr Trump’s decision to freeze some aid to the region in 2019 weakened the impact of efforts to improve conditions in the region.
However, experts say the reasons why years of aid failed to contain migration are much deeper. In particular, they find that much of the money goes to American companies, which devour much of it for salaries, expenses, and profits, often before any services are provided.
From 2016 to 2020, according to U.S.A.I.D. 80 percent of American-funded development projects in Central America are entrusted to American contractors. The advantage is that these companies have large offices that are able to meet the stringent regulatory requirements for handling millions of taxpayers’ money. The downside, critics say, is that much of the money goes into these bureaucracies instead of reaching the people they want to help.
Half a dozen development professionals who worked with or for the contractors said the companies could easily take about 50 percent of the aid money received and pour it into overheads – including generous executive salaries – and corporate profits. When asked about this number, U.S.A.I.D. did not deny it.
“It’s a business,” said Carlos Ponce, a professor of nonprofit management at Columbia University who has worked for several US-funded programs in the region. “And the same implementers keep winning the orders, although they have implemented poorly in the past, have no effect and do not change anything.”
YOU SAID. would not give an estimate of how much taxpayers’ money for certain projects in Central America is eaten up by administrative costs, as the agency is “legally prevented” from disclosing “proprietary information” from its partners.
“It’s an incredibly opaque situation,” said Eric Olson, Central America Aid Expert at the Seattle International Foundation. “It’s like this is a national secret.”
Ms. Harris’s staff is keen to ensure that as much aid as possible goes directly to the communities for which it is intended.
“She is concerned to make sure we get the maximum benefit from every single dollar we spend,” said Ms. McEldowney. When asked if this included checking the flow of money to US contractors, she said, “We are looking into this issue.”
Even when aid has reached Guatemala in recent years, it has often brought little change, according to interviews with dozens of US-funded projects in the country’s western highlands.
One called the Rural Value Chains Project spent part of its $ 20 million building outbuildings for potato growers – many of which were quickly abandoned or torn apart for scrap.
“This brings no value to the people,” said Arturo Cabrera, a local government official, and peered into an unused outbuilding. “It doesn’t generate income,” which is what people ultimately need, he added.
One achievement touted by Nexos Locales, a $ 31 million project managed by Development Alternatives Incorporated, a Bethesda, Md. Company, was creating an app that residents can use to watch theirs local government has spent money. Aid workers said many residents did not have a smartphone and that they could not afford to pay for the data to use the app, even if they did.
The company made no comments and directed questions to U.S.A.I.D. But several people who worked for or advised Nexos said they were frustrated with what they viewed as wasted funds on dubious accomplishments. They described being forced to count results, e.g. However, e.g. how many meetings they held and how many people attended, had no idea whether these activities had a lasting effect.
“You felt powerless because you knew what young people or women needed and we couldn’t do it,” said Alma López Mejía, an indigenous leader of the K’iche ’Maya and a former manager at Nexos.
When helpers appeared one after the other in the city of San Antonio Huista about six years ago, Elvia Monzón was relieved.
Then it seemed as if everyone Ms. Monzón knew had left the area, which stretches over a mountain range where coffee fields bask in a perfect mix of sun and rain. On a clear day, you can see Mexico from the gravel road that winds through the city.
Ms. Monzón’s husband was already in the United States and her then 14-year-old son asked her to take him there. When she didn’t want to, he went alone and, as his mother said, made it safely across the border.
For decades, migration to the USA followed a pattern: apart from some increases in migration from Central America after civil wars or natural disasters, it was mainly single Mexicans who went north in search of better jobs and pay.
Then, in 2014, officials noticed the prerequisites for a big change: Record numbers of Central American children and families crossed the borderto flee gang violence and widespread hunger.
The Obama administration addressed the delicate immigration policy in part by removing undocumented workers, which earned the president the nickname “deportation” from critics. But he also oversaw an infusion of new aid funds that, in theory, would make countries like Guatemala more bearable for the poor. Mr Biden was tapped to help pay $ 750 million to the area.
Since then, at least three programs have come to San Antonio Huista, totaling more than $ 100 million in US funding, in hopes of making life better. But in interviews, Ms. Monzón and more than a dozen other coffee farmers could not point to many long-term benefits here, despite the attention.
Time and again, helpers came to hold many seminars on topics the farmers are already familiar with, such as planting new coffee beans, and then left.
“So much training, but where is the money in the end?” Asked Ms. Monzón. “Aid does not reach the poor.”
YOU SAID. said its programs in Central America have had “demonstrable success” in creating tens of thousands of jobs in the region over the past few years, increasing sales for small businesses, and contributing to “declining migration intentions” by some Hondurans receiving services.
The agency found that American companies that manage aid in the area outsource some of their work to local groups, that no formal lawsuit has been filed against Nexos Locales, and that the construction of outbuildings or smartphone apps is a small part of the effort Representing Guatemala.
Some programs, such as the violence reduction efforts in Honduras and El Salvador, have worked well, independent study have found.
“All activities carried out with U.S.A.I.D. funded will benefit countries and people overseas, even if managed through agreements with US-based organizations, ”said Mileydi Guilarte, assistant administrative assistant at U.S.A.I.D. work on the funding of Latin America.
But the government’s own assessments do not always match. After evaluating five years of aid spending in Central America, the Government Accountability Office made a blunt assessment in 2019: “There is limited information available on how US aid has improved prosperity, governance and security.”
A U.S.A.I.D. Evaluation of programs to help Guatemalan farmers found that from 2006 to 2011, income rose less in areas that benefited from US aid than in similar areas that did not intervene.
Mexico has pushed for a more radical approach, urging the United States to give cash direct to Central Americans, which were hit by two brutal hurricanes last year. But there is also a clear possibility – that some simply use the money to pay a smuggler to travel across the border.
The farmers of San Antonio Huista say they know exactly what is keeping their children from emigrating. Right now, the vast majority of the people here make their living selling green, unprocessed coffee beans to a couple of huge Guatemalan companies. This is a great way to bring food to the table – assuming the weather cooperates – but it doesn’t offer much more than the subsistence level.
Farmers here have long dreamed of escaping this cycle by roasting their own coffee and selling bagged brown beans to American businesses and consumers, making more money.
“Instead of sending my brother, father, son to the United States, why not send my coffee there and be paid in dollars?” Said Esteban Lara, the head of a local coffee cooperative.
But when they asked a US government program for funding to develop such a company, Ms. Monzón said, they were told that “the money is not intended to be invested in such projects.”
Nowadays, groups of their neighbors leave for the United States every one to two months. So many workers have left this town that the farmers are trying hard to find workers to harvest their coffee.
One of Ms. Monzón’s oldest employees, Javier López Pérez, left the country with his 14-year-old son in 2019 during the last major wave of migration from Central America to the United States. Mr López said he climbed over the border wall with his son when he fell and broke his ankle.
“My son screamed ‘Papi, no!’ And I said to him: ‘Go on, my son’”, said Mr López. He said his son made it to the United States while returning to San Antonio Huista on his own.
His family was then thrown out of their home, which Mr López had given as security to the person who smuggled him to the border. Then the house they moved into was destroyed by the two hurricanes that struck Guatemala late last year.
Ms. Monzón took Mr. López to one of her relatives’ homes and then got the community to cobble together enough money to pay enough concrete blocks to build an apartment for the family.
While mixing cement to tie the blocks together, one of Mr López’s sons, Vidal, 19, confessed that he had spoken to a smuggler about the same trip that had met his father who was realistic.
“I said to him: ‘Son, we were hungry and thirsty on the way, and then look at what happened to me, look at what I lost” said Mr López, touching his still mutilated ankle. “But I can’t tell him what to do with his life – he’s a man now.”