The Immigration Crisis Isn’t Ideological, It’s Situational
Christopher Benítez Cuartas
The U.S.-Mexico border is notorious for frequent, numerous arrests, smuggling incidents, deportations, and overall mayhem, caused by an uncontrolled influx of migrants attempting to gain entrance into the United States. An overwhelming majority of people stranded at the border trying to enter the U.S. illegally are from Central America, most notably the Northern Triangle, comprising Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The story of U.S.-Latin American relations is a complex one, historically revolving around either influence or cooperation between Washington and the region’s ruling elite. However, ideology has always played a role in part of the story, especially regarding relations during and after the Cold War. Guatemala and Nicaragua represent opposite sides of the spectrum in how this played out, as their most politically formative years were spent under the influence of opposing sides during the period: Guatemala being influenced by the United States and Nicaragua being influenced by the Soviet Union and Cuba. However, ideology impacts migration patterns less than people often expect, as the corruption and ineffective governance that drive emigration can occur in any type of government.
Many people in the Northern Triangle states heavily depend on documented and undocumented migration to the U.S. to survive. Over two million individuals have left the region since 2014, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. A 2014 report to Congress cites the region’s violence record and links to illicit drug trade coming in from South America and extensive gang violence as significant reasons for this increase.
During the Cold War, Guatemala was ruled as a military dictatorship backed by the United States government. Since the transition to democracy at the beginning of this century, Guatemalan politics have consistently been right of center. The initial dominant party was headed by the former dictator, whose nomination to run in 2003 elections was technically illegal and did not sit well with the public. The rest of the decade was languishing, seeing mostly right-wing parties staying in power with left-wing parties’ opposition. The two most recent administrations were particularly scrutinized for corruption.
In April 2015, President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti were indicted by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for establishing a corruption ring within the country’s customs system. Massive protests broke out in Guatemala City that day, mostly organized by student groups. Soon after, CICIG and state prosecutors released more evidence of corruption by the administration, prompting in Baldetti’s arrest and Pérez Molina’s resignation in September.
Former comedian Jimmy Morales was elected to the presidency in October 2015. Largely seen as an outsider in politics, Morales campaigned on a strict anti-corruption platform with the motto of “neither corrupt nor a thief.” However, his administration resulted in the same corruption they sought to eliminate. In January 2019, after serving a term plagued with corruption controversies surrounding illicit use of state resources, Morales tried to disband the CICIG by threatening to not renew the mandate that legally allows their investigations and by ordering the diplomats and foreign investigators running the CICIG to leave the country. The decree was blocked by the Guatemalan judiciary, but the mandate was never renewed and the CICIG ceased operations in 2019.
Morales also made unpopular foreign policy moves. In the summer of 2019, the Trump administration attempted to reach an agreement with the Morales government which would make Guatemala a “safe third country” for refugees and asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador. A U.S. congressional delegation, made up mostly of Democrats who opposed the agreement, visited Guatemala shortly after to dissuade their Guatemalan counterparts from approving the deal. Morales had intended on signing the agreement, but the Supreme Court of Guatemala ruled that the U.S. Congress should first approve of it, leading Trump to threaten tariffs on Guatemalan imports and the taxing on remittances. The agreements and actions were later undone by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken under the Biden administration.
In 2019, staunch right-winger Alejandro Giammattei won the presidency after running a campaign advocating for controversial ideas, namely the death penalty. Giammattei proposed replacing CICIG, supported by donations from foreign governments, with a state institution that experts claimed would be susceptible to political influence. This commission was eventually created with the backing of the U.S. government, with which Giammattei pleaded for funding on his first visit to Washington in August 2019. In June 2021, two independent prosecutors from the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity were arrested, drawing domestic and international criticism. The U.S. Department of State accused Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras as responsible, later sanctioning him. The administration fell into further unpopularity when Congress and the president approved a new budget that decreased funding for education and health, which did not sit well in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 and Hurricanes Eta and Iota. Protests broke out again, reaching the legislature building. The protests were met with tear gas.
In terms of foreign relations, Guatemala is a traditional holdout in terms of retaining relations with the Republic of China in Taiwan. The Taiwanese delegation recently met with the Guatemalan Chancery to reiterate their commitments to Guatemalan industry, mostly in manufacturing industries. However, according to the Bank of Guatemala, over $9 billion were sent home by Guatemalans abroad in 2018, showing the depths to which emigration, rather than foreign direct investment, supports the Guatemalan economy. The UN Development Program reports Guatemala has a poverty rate of 66.7 percent, despite the National Statistics Institute reporting that 2.8 percent of Guatemalans are unemployed. Crime is also very high, with the Guatemalan police reporting over 3,000 homicides in 2018. Life is difficult for many in Guatemala, particularly in urban areas where gang violence and organized crime is rife, leading to these high levels of emigration among individuals searching for a better life. Guatemala’s unpopular, corrupt government, which makes it nearly impossible for individuals to gain economic prosperity, only exacerbates these levels.
The story of modern Nicaragua is one of a failed experiment. In 1979, the Nicaraguan Revolution overthrew the autocratic U.S.-backed regime of the Somoza family. The revolutionaries set up a temporary five-person military junta made up of three representatives of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) led by Daniel Ortega and two right-wing former opposition activists. As the FSLN grew more powerful within the junta and aligned Nicaragua in the Eastern Bloc of the Cold War, the two right-wingers, Moisés Hassan and Violeta Chamorro, withdrew and started their own opposition to the FSLN and Ortega, who was elected president in 1984. Chamorro was then elected president in 1990, followed by a string of right-wing governments until Ortega was reelected in 2006.
The growth of frustrated FSLN supporters known as Sandinistas represented initial wane of the FSLN in the early 1990s in the wake of the Cold War. With various reform and movements toward peace, the FSLN was no longer the attractive, populist choice Nicaraguans had yearned for during the Somoza dictatorship. Instead, the power bounced between the Constitutionalist Liberals and the Liberal Alliance, the result of a split from the former a year before. Ortega, taking advantage of the split, consolidated power for himself in an era of Latin American leftist dominance known as the Pink Tide, and cemented Nicaraguan fears of a return to the former battle days. Ortega pushed for Nicaraguan nationalism as part of his ideological strategy. He commended the strength of the nation for its ability to push off American domination, and his attitude starkly contrasted that of leaders in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador regarding violence and emigration to the United States. Ortega initially sounded convincing, flanked by fellow leftists in power in nations across the continent. However, this mirage was not eternal.
By the late 2010s, the new Sandinista government in Nicaragua was struggling, ranked 145th out of 176 in the 2016 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. This struggle was exacerbated by three incidents that triggered mass demonstrations of public discontent. One was the Nicaragua Canal. Proposed for over two centuries, it would provide a deeper and wider alternative to the Panama Canal, speeding up transoceanic shipping voyages. The Ortega administration planned to bring the idea to fruition through the Chinese corporation HKND. However, the proposal would have resulted in mass expropriations from mostly rural and indigenous small landowners, as well as massive contamination of the already polluted Lake Nicaragua. When protests erupted, HKND lost investment capital and closed in 2018.
Additionally, the Nicaraguan Social Security system was starting to run out of money for welfare. The International Monetary Fund advised in 2017 that to extend the country’s reserves, the government would need to enact reforms, including raising of the retirement age from 60 to 65. Ortega refused to do this, citing the incapability of older people to find work. Another recommendation was that the private sector start supporting the pension system, something the sector was not consulted about when the meager reforms were implemented. The solution the Ortega administration devised was to simply raise taxes, causing outrage.
Lastly, the Indio Maíz Nature reserve near the border with Costa Rica was declared a nature reserve by the first Sandinista government, and to this day is the home of indigenous groups who have a degree of autonomy. The area has also been subject to colonization and exploitation of natural resources, leading to pollution and massive forest fires in 2018 that were sluggishly put out by the state. Protests over these conditions broke out in mid-April 2018 and were responded to with intense brutality by the Nicaraguan police. Ortega eventually cancelled the tax and pension reforms, but with the added issue of police brutality, many sectors of society, including the Catholic Church and progressive organizations, called for state accountability and the resignation of Ortega.
These three events disillusioned many Nicaraguans. These incidents, and the significant public backlash that they drew, show that an incompetent, unpopular government that does nothing to alleviate poverty, hands over parts of the country to foreign corporations, or fails to address dangerous fires causes a major outflow of people. Many people had already been leaving the country, mostly for the U.S., neighboring Costa Rica, and Spain, and these events only increased the emigration rates. However, Nicaraguan immigrants, particularly women immigrating to Spain, often suffer poor treatment at the hands of locals, causing a difficult situation for many Nicaraguans.
Despite their differences, ideology has played little to no role in determining events in these two countries. Ultimately, their difficulties resulted from circumstance. Nicaragua’s more stable, yet authoritarian, government has harbored nationalism, but failed to deliver tangible results. Guatemala’s recent history has shown what an unhealthy democratization process can do to a nation. Both Guatemala and Nicaragua rank low on the 2022 Transparency Index (150 and 164 out of 180, respectively) and the Human Development Index (0.663 for Guatemala and 0.660 for Nicaragua). Poverty, insecurity, and distrust of the government are rampant. Guatemala and Nicaragua, both largely agriculture-based economies, receive 14.6 percent and 17 percent respectively of their GDP through remittances. Trying to get their states to improve the situation has proven futile in recent years, with China being either abusive or unwilling to help and the domestic private sector incapable to reach foreign markets without massive investment.
In short, kleptocracies and unpopular states result in border crises, no matter the ideology that drives this circumstance.