Congress moves forward on funding for controversial Alliance for Prosperity in Central America

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Social movement groups march in El Salvador - photo: CISPES

In July, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve approximately $675 million in funding for US State Department activity in Central America for 2016, which would represent roughly a two-fold increase over current funding levels. The Senate’s budget proposal departs in some significant ways from the proposal approved by House of Representatives in June but the fundamental objectives of the new U.S. Strategy for Central America Engagement reflected in both budget bills remain deeply problematic.

The Senate came closer than the House to fulfilling the White House’s original request of $1 billion to support the controversial Alliance for Prosperity, a regional plan to promote foreign investment in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala crafted with the help of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and US advisers and includes significant boosts for development funding to the region. The IDB’s aggressive support for privatization – from water in El Salvador to education in Honduras – is just one of several reasons that social movement organizations throughout the region have been raising major red flags about the Alliance.

The only aspect of Obama's funding package that the House Appropriations Committee agreed to fund was the expansion the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which would receive a whopping $296 million with funding explicitly directed towards “improv[ing] border security” and “counter[ing] the activities of criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and organized crime,” among others.

The House also imposed a devastating set of anti-migrant conditions upon its aid proposal, including the militarization of regional borders to stop migrants and asylum-seekers from leaving their countries of origin. CISPES and other solidarity, immigrant rights, religious and human rights organizations quickly mobilized pressure on Congress, delivering a letter signed by over 65 organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the National Lawyers Guild and many more. Though the Senate’s proposal did not include these nefarious conditions, the battle to exclude them from the final budget proposal is far from over.

The Senate’s 2016 budget proposal, on the other hand, contains a very different set of conditions for US aid. Several of the measures, such as withholding up to 75% of funding until the Secretary of State certifies that the Central American governments “are taking effective steps to support transparency and combat corruption” and to “prosecute and punish in civilian courts members of security forces who violate human rights” appear to respond to legitimate concerns in Honduras and Guatemala, where recent scandals have prompted diverse mass outcry against corruption and impunity.

In El Salvador, however, it’s easy to imagine the right-wing opposition manipulating such conditions into tools for their destabilization campaign against the country’s embattled leftist government—with full support, of course, from the US State Department.

Other Senate conditions include requirements for community consultation for economic development funding, though if history is any guide, they are unlikely to result in anything close to a participatory democratic model that would allow communities control of their land and resources.

Other conditions are less positive, if not surprising, such as obligations that the State Department report on each country’s “investment climate” and the status of commercial disputes, like mining company Ocean Gold’s $315 million investor-state suit against El Salvador, part of the US’s ongoing effort to wrench local economies open to private foreign investment at the expense of domestic regulations.

Many will herald conditions that require consultation with indigenous communities and protection for trade unionists as a victory – perhaps rightly so. But it’s important to recognize that Congress is giving the State Department – not an independent, international organization - the power to verify whether conditions are being met. One need only look to example of egregious human rights violations committed by “vetted” police and military units that receive US training and support to be concerned.

There’s little new about the White House’s “new” strategy for Central America or the Alliance for Prosperity, which reads a lot like a re-packaged Plan Puebla Panama. Certainly, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails plotting the 2009 coup d’état against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya are a stark reminder of how little has changed since the US was backing brutal regimes in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the end of the day, Congress, the White House and the IDB are talking about the same thing: ramping up funding for the War on Drugs and attempting to transform the entire region into a free trade zone primed for natural resource extraction and labor exploitation. Those of us in the solidarity movement need to be talking about something altogether different. How about starting with reparations?

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