By Allison Fedirka
Media coverage of Central America has tended to focus on drug cartels, organized crime and migrants fleeing violence in their home countries. But this focus reflects as much the political climate in the United States as it does the actual threats emanating from the region. Since the end of the Cold War, Central America has been a region the U.S. could largely ignore, but as it comes into its own – establishing more stable, if still at times shaky, political institutions and trade partnerships – its ability to affect more formidable countries to its north is increasing. This situation, combined with the political climate in the U.S., could result in growing interest in Central America from outside players.
Cold War Battlefield
Central America’s importance to the global system has ebbed and flowed over time. Central American countries made their geopolitical debut at the turn of the 20th century. By this point the U.S. – having survived a civil war and won wars against Mexico and Spain – had secured its status as North America’s uncontested power. In practice, this meant the United States had the capability not only to keep foreign powers out of the Western Hemisphere but also to expand the perimeter of its influence. In Central America, the U.S. employed a variety of methods to do so, including military interventions, supporting independence movements, buying up major infrastructure and monopolizing national economies through private businesses. But the onset of World War I brought a decisive end to major U.S. intervention in the region (at least for the moment). The U.S. had more pressing threats elsewhere, and the dominance it had already established in Central America meant that it could take a more hands-off role. It left behind economies dominated by monopolies, largely uneducated labor forces and unreliable political institutions.
But with the beginning of the Cold War, Central America once again became a region the U.S. wanted to control. Central America’s proximity to the U.S. makes it an area of potential vulnerability for the United States. The Soviet Union realized this and tried to spread its political ideology there, turning the United States’ own backyard into a Cold War battlefield. The U.S. response ranged from direct intervention to indirect support for political coups. When the Cold War ended, Central America no longer posed a threat to the U.S., and thus Washington’s interest waned.
Today, Central American countries continue to struggle to integrate into the global system, much the same as the countries of Eastern Europe, another Cold War battleground. U.S. intervention in Central America during that era led to hostilities, including civil wars, that resulted in political and economic instability across the region. But like Eastern Europe, these countries entered into a period of reconstruction. This process has garnered less attention than the turmoil of the Cold War era because there was no competition between outside powers and the stakes therefore were much lower.
The region is still trying to recover from this strife and establish its own political systems, but progress is slow. As recently as 2009, Honduras experienced a coup, and notably not one that was engineered by the United States. More recently, a wave of protests following President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s second electoral win last November resulted in calls for a national dialogue to try to restore peace mediated by a third party. (The leading three candidates to act as moderators are former presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Chile.) There has also been an increase in the production of coca, the plant from which cocaine is manufactured.
Costa Rica has seen an increase in drug trafficking, and there have been calls for the government to develop a national security agenda, which critics say is lacking. The newly elected Costa Rican government will likely struggle to govern once it takes office in May, having already had to reach across party lines for help. In El Salvador, security remains the primary challenge. The country never fully achieved peace and security after the end of its civil war, which the U.S. contributed to through its military support of the government. In the first quarter of 2018, homicides in El Salvador totaled 939, an increase of 14 percent compared to last year.
Hard to Ignore
But free from Cold War ideological divisions, the countries of the region are now able to re-evaluate their allegiances with external powers and form partnerships of their own accord. Honduras has started talks to join the Pacific Alliance, a Mexico-led Latin American trade bloc. Panama and Costa Rica are on their way to full membership in the group. Panama also recently signed a free trade agreement with China, and China’s overall share of Central American trade has been steadily rising in recent years. Guatemala and Mexico have increased border cooperation to deal with security threats.
Nicaragua is potentially the most dynamic country of the region. The government of Daniel Ortega, who has been president since 2007, has pushed populist policies roughly resembling those in Venezuela, Russia and China. Nicaragua has managed to pursue a leftist agenda despite being so close to the U.S. geographically because it has received strong political backing and, to a lesser degree, economic and security support from all three countries, which have in turn used their support for Nicaragua as an indirect way to defy the U.S. With Venezuela’s economy in free fall and Russia’s and China’s economies slowing down, Nicaragua will be forced to reconsider its allegiances.
These changes are compounded by two new trends in North America: growing violence from Mexican drug trafficking organizations and the rise of nationalism in the United States. These developments have led the U.S. to pay increasing attention to events in Central America. Washington recently deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border in response to a caravan of Central American migrants in Mexico headed for the border. The U.S. has also tried to stem the production and trade of drugs in the region. This response was the United States’ way of trying to limit the effects of rising violence from reaching its doorstep, using the least amount of effort possible while leaving the burden of having to actually manage the problem to Mexico.
But the most important threat facing the United States from this region is not immigration or drug trafficking but the fact that Central America is trying to shape its destiny on its own terms – not on U.S. terms. Central American countries are in the process of building political institutions, trade relationships and international partnerships that will shape their future for decades to come, and they’re doing so without the United States, for the first time in a long time. In some cases, this will lead to stronger ties with countries like Mexico. In others, it may give China or Russia a boost in the region. Washington’s interest in Central America is still far from what it was at its peak, but the U.S. will in the future see it as a region increasingly difficult to ignore.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that Costa Rica was experiencing an increase in coca cultivation. It should have stated that the country has seen a rise in drug trafficking.