A new Mar­shall Plan to ease Cen­tral Amer­ica’s agony — and ben­e­fit the U.S.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - EDITORIALS -

At the end of World War II, much of Europe lay in lit­eral ru­ins. As many as 20 mil­lion peo­ple were dead. Mil­lions of sur­vivors were dis­placed from their home coun­tries. Fac­to­ries, of­fice build­ings, roads and bridges were wrecked. Famine loomed.

The U.S. govern­ment, hav­ing played a large role in de­feat­ing Ger­many, could have cho­sen to de­clare its job done and leave Euro­peans to re­build Europe. In­stead, this coun­try opted to re­store eco­nomic health and pre­vent po­lit­i­cal up­heaval. Amer­i­cans had learned the hard way that our se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity were in­sep­a­ra­ble from events in Europe.

In 1948, Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man launched the Mar­shall Plan, named af­ter Sec­re­tary of State Ge­orge Mar­shall. Over more than a decade, it pro­vided 16 coun­tries a huge amount of aid — equal to 5 per­cent of U.S. gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, which would be nearly $1 tril­lion to­day. The ef­fort did much to bring pros­per­ity and democ­racy to a blood­ied con­ti­nent. It also helped stem the tide of com­mu­nism in early years of the Cold War.

For years, Cen­tral Amer­ica has en­dured a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. It was easy for Amer­i­cans to ig­nore, but now we re­al­ize how civil strife, poverty and or­ga­nized crime in our back­yard en­dan­ger us. Con­di­tions have be­come so des­per­ate that peo­ple are leav­ing El Sal­vador, Gu­atemala and Hon­duras as never be­fore.

From 2014 through 2017, re­ports The Wall Street Jour­nal, im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties in the U.S. and Mex­ico ap­pre­hended more than 335,000 mi­grants from El Sal­vador alone. Since 2014, the num­ber of U.S. asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions from those coun­tries has quadru­pled. Thou­sands are mak­ing their way through Mex­ico to­ward our south­ern bor­der, hop­ing to be ad­mit­ted.

Many are run­ning for their lives. El Sal­vador has the high­est homi­cide rate on the planet. “Mi­grants from all three coun­tries cite vi­o­lence, forced gang re­cruit­ment, and ex­tor­tion, as well as poverty and lack of op­por­tu­nity,” re­ports the New York-based Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. Vi­cious crim­i­nal gangs live off drug traf­fick­ing, kid­nap­ping and ex­tor­tion, and gov­ern­ments hob­bled by cor­rup­tion can’t stop them. About 60 per­cent of Hon­durans and half of Gu­atemalans live in poverty.

Given the dire cir­cum­stances in Cen­tral Amer­ica, strict bor­der se­cu­rity is a nev­erend­ing chal­lenge for Wash­ing­ton — and a par­tial so­lu­tion at best. “You have asy­lum seek­ers say­ing I’d rather be in jail in the U.S. than killed in my own coun­try,” Mau­reen Meyer of the Wash­ing­ton Of­fice on Latin Amer­ica, a hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, told the Jour­nal.

The U.S. should ad­dress the mi­grant cri­sis at its source. These coun­tries need im­proved gov­er­nance, eco­nomic growth and pub­lic safety. In the early 2000s, Wash­ing­ton largely suc­ceeded with Plan Colom­bia, which helped end a leftist in­sur­gency and over­come the power of crim­i­nal drug car­tels in a coun­try once hope­lessly out of con­trol. A sim­i­lar ef­fort would help Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in­stead has threat­ened to slash U.S. aid to coun­tries that fail to stop out­mi­gra­tion. That would be self-de­feat­ing. The U.S. should build on the Al­liance for Pros­per­ity, which was un­der­taken with sup­port from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and a Re­pub­li­can-con­trolled Con­gress. The pro­gram ini­tially al­lo­cated $750 mil­lion a year in eco­nomic and se­cu­rity aid, con­di­tioned on re­cip­i­ent gov­ern­ments mak­ing progress on cor­rup­tion con­trol, policing and hu­man rights. It’s a good start, but more may be needed.

Daniel Runde, a scholar at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton, says much of the vi­o­lence comes from gangs that metas­ta­sized af­ter the U.S. de­ported tens of thou­sands of hard­ened gang mem­bers to the re­gion. It would make more sense go­ing for­ward to put such crim­i­nals in U.S. pris­ons, where they would present no threat to their own coun­tries or ours. “I’d rather have them here and throw away the key,” he says.

The U.S. can also pro­vide as­sis­tance and coun­sel on how to im­prove po­lice agen­cies and courts, com­bat cor­rup­tion, strengthen in­sti­tu­tions of civil so­ci­ety, pro­tect prop­erty rights and col­lect taxes. That would re­quire a sus­tained bi­par­ti­san com­mit­ment over years if not decades. If it suc­ceeds, it would not only stem the flood of mi­grants north­ward; it would pay last­ing div­i­dends to the peace and se­cu­rity of the Western Hemi­sphere.

The al­ter­na­tive? More chaos, more crime and more car­a­vans. Ig­nor­ing Cen­tral Amer­ica, it turns out, isn’t an op­tion.

MARVIN RECINOS/GETTY-AFP

A group of Sal­vado­rans joins a car­a­van head­ing to­ward the U.S. from San Sal­vador last week. Con­di­tions have be­come so des­per­ate peo­ple are leav­ing as never be­fore.

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