WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House members has formed a new caucus highlighting Central American issues. While the group does not have a central focus yet, longtime experts on the region say the lawmakers have a nearly endless list of problems that need addressing.
The 33-member bipartisan caucus was formed in response to the Obama administration’s efforts to improve economic and security conditions in the region. The new group aims to “maintain a continuous, productive engagement between Congress and governments and civil society in the region,” said Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., co-chair of the caucus.
The caucus’s first order of business was meeting Guatemala’s new president, Jimmy Morales during his visit to Washington in February. The lawmakers and Morales discussed how U.S. assistance can help Guatemala improve education, infrastructure and food production.
The presence of more senior members and Republicans in the caucus “increases its chances of successfully pushing for legislative initiatives,” said Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based progressive think tank.
In January, the White House detailed how $750 million in aid would be distributed to the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as part of its Central America strategy.
However, critics questioned the conditions and effectiveness of the aid, especially because of previous U.S. military involvement in the three countries.
Between 1980 and 1992, left- and right-wing political factions in El Salvador ravaged the country in a civil war. The United States provided military equipment and advisers to the Salvadoran government. About 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the course of the war.
In comparison to the destruction caused by U.S. support in El Salvador, the “$299 million [in aid] is nothing,” said Lindolfo Carballo, senior director of CASA de Maryland’s Adult Education and Workforce Development, a Maryland-based Latino and immigration advocacy-and-assistance organization.
The United States also helped Guatemala’s military in that nation’s decades-long civil war as well, said Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA, a Washington-based non-profit solidarity organization.
The National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library at George Washington University, compiled data on declassified CIA documents describing the agency’s involvement in the 1954 coup of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. After the CIA put Castillo Armas in power, hundreds of Guatemalans were killed. Successive military regimes killed an estimated 100,000 Guatemalan civilians between 1954 and 1990, according to the institute.
In the 1980s, Honduras was used as a staging base for U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting the socialist government of neighboring Nicaragua.
Because of the past support the United States provided to the military in these countries, Carballo said, there is an obligation to help them develop economically.
“Surely one of the most important things that the Central America Caucus could accomplish would be examining the U .S. role in the tragic Guatemalan genocide, for the sake of the families of the victims and to ensure that lessons are learned from the U.S. involvement in these terrible crimes,” Main said.
The Obama administration laid out conditions to receive aid, such as that 50 percent may be withheld until the secretary of state certifies that each country’s government is taking effective steps to combat corruption, organized crime and human rights violations.
But Main charged that some of those conditions threaten the human rights of Central Americans who are fleeing dangerous situations, even as other conditions will help promote those rights.
“For this conditioning language to have a truly positive effect, it’s essential that the State Department and Congress remain focused on ensuring that the basic rights of Central Americans come first,” Main said.
Central American immigrants in Maryland have been working with CASA de Maryland, discussing how to get organized to push for assistance. Goals include enhancing temporary protected status, or temporary legal immigration status, for those fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Carballo said.
The secretary of homeland security may designate residents from a country as having temporary protected status for a limited time period, if conditions in that country do not allow nationals to return safely. Immigrants eligible for such status cannot be deported from the United States and can obtain legal permits to work.
While border enforcement and deportation proceedings against undocumented Central American immigrants will continue, Secretary of State John Kerry announced in a speech earlier this year that there are “plans to expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.”
Through the program, refugees can be resettled in the United States after applying and then passing various tests, including a health screening for contagious diseases. Applicants are also screened for security, which entails collecting background data and conducting interviews.
Currently, the program mainly takes in Cuban and Colombian refugees.