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Can political leadership in Central America reverse conditions fueling migration?

July 25, 2014 at 6:19 PM EST
President Obama met with the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to address the U.S. border crisis. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Anita Isaacs of Haverford College to better understand the violence, instability and lack of economic opportunity that is driving children in Central America to flee.
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TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to the crisis at the U.S. border, and what’s driving the wave of migrant children to make the dangerous journey.

As we saw from President Obama’s meeting today with the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many of the factors at play stem from violence and instability in those countries.

To help us better understand the situation in Central America, Anita Isaacs is a professor at Haverford College. She studies U.S.-Latin America relations and regional politics. She also recently returned from Guatemala as part of a State Department study on civil society.

So, I want to ask, even with these kind of lofty aspirations that the president laid out today, what’s the likelihood that the underlying conditions in these countries changes?

ANITA ISAACS, Haverford College: Yes, I mean, I think that’s a great question.

And I think that, you know, the leaders, the president — the Central American leaders came to the United States to request a compassionate response from President Obama and the U.S. Congress and the U.S. people.

And I think that, to some extent, you know, amid the sea of anti-immigrant diatribe, we have seen some compassionate responses from — both from some members of Congress, Representative Engel in particular, and from sectors of U.S. society.

I think the real challenge now is whether we are going to see the same compassionate response in Central American countries, where the conditions that are — that fuel migration speak to tremendous inequalities, tremendous poverty and tremendous violence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We have heard more recently about the violence. What are some of the more underlying kind of structural factors at work?

ANITA ISAACS: Yes.

I mean, violence — well, there are all different kinds of violence in Central America. There is violence that is connected to drug traffickers. There’s also violence connected to other organized criminal syndicates that are involved in contraband and smuggling and human trafficking.

And there’s violence that is associated with gangs. And it’s the gang violence that, in many respects, is fueling the migration of children to the United States. The gang violence is really borne out of economic poverty, desperation.

It’s what children and young people turn to when there are no other opportunities. So it’s really at its source where you see countries that are mired in poverty that have some of the greatest levels of inequality anywhere in the world, and in which children really see no hope in their future.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what can the leaders of these three countries do when they go back home to try to create either a disincentive from going through this process of getting to the United States or an incentive to stay?

ANITA ISAACS: Well, what’s really incumbent upon these leaders is to show political leadership and compassion at home, to really push forward an agenda that fosters sustainable economic development among — in rural areas and in urban areas that are afflicted by gang violence.

They have the resources. These aren’t poor countries. So, there is the capacity to introduce the reforms that attenuate poverty and create the kinds of opportunities that will want to make people stay. But so far, we haven’t seen much in the way of political leadership, political willingness on the part of both the leaders and wealthy sectors of society to enact those kinds of changes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how much of the problem comes back to perhaps the political parties that are in power or the leadership that’s already there?

ANITA ISAACS: Well, it does come back to that.

It also comes — to a certain extent. I mean, El Salvador is different, where — in El Salvador, there is much more of a commitment to compassionate — to real compassion that is being expressed by the leader at the moment.

Honduras and Guatemala are different. In the case of Guatemala, which is the country that I know best, what we’re seeing is a legacy really of 36 years of armed conflict, and in which those who basically won the war are those that retain power today, which are traditional, wealthy sectors of society and sectors of the military.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The other question I wanted to ask is also about, when it comes to civil society, how much a role does corruption play in the effectiveness of institutions?

ANITA ISAACS: Yes.

The institutions are riddled with corruption. And, so, there’s a lot of talk about the challenges of security. And, for example, in the case of these countries, there’s more private security than there are policemen, for example.

You know, that’s a real problem, but if you’re going to address those problems, you also need to address the corruption, the institutional corruption that pervades the security forces, so that the security forces can actually guarantee citizens’ security.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is there anything this group of countries can agree on to work together on regarding this immigration or migration problem?

ANITA ISAACS: I think there is a lot they can do.

I think it’s really a question of political will. I think that they can crack down on the organized criminal gangs that control really the migration, what’s become a migration trade of the smuggling roots.

So I think that there’s a real capacity to crack down. And there’s a real capacity to enact reforms that are both economic and social and political reforms that would create more transparent, more accountable institutions, and that would enable — would provide genuine economic opportunities for their citizens.

I don’t think that the challenges are enormous. I think that what is lacking is will.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Anita Isaacs from Haverford College, thanks so much.

ANITA ISAACS: Thank you for having me.