SEATTLE, Washington – U.S. aid programs to the Northern Triangle have proven to be remarkably effective at addressing economic and social problems in the region. They allow more Central American families to safely thrive in their home countries. Fleeing violence and poverty is one of the foremost driving factors of immigration to the United States from the Northern Triangle, a turbulent region of Central America that includes Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
In Guatemala and Honduras, about half the population, roughly 8,957,784 people in Guatemala and an additional 4,952,303 people in Honduras, lives in poverty. Furthermore, 60% of Guatemala suffers from food insecurity. Meanwhile, only 29% of the population in El Salvador were living in poverty in 2017. The nation struggles with high levels of public debt, which makes up 70.7% of its GDP. All three nations suffer from excessive political corruption, gang violence and illicit trading that create much of the ongoing economic instability.
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Between 2014 and 2017, the United States spent $750 million, less than 0.04% of the U.S. 2019 GDP, in U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle. The U.S. tailored the programs to address the specific needs of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador individually and were immensely successful. The inspiration for these programs came in part from the success story of a 1999 Colombian aid program, Plan Colombia. The program provided $10 billion to the country over 10 years to financially stabilize the region. This resulted in an annual $15 billion return in Colombian imports for the United States. Additionally, Colombia became an important U.S. ally. The Northern Triangle programs proved to be very successful in a short period and received bipartisan support.
The existing U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle is multifaceted, seeking to address everything from gang violence to improving local agricultural yields. Many programs run through the U.S. Agency for International Development while others run through State Department diplomacy programs or through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. agency that focuses exclusively on combating poverty. Together, these programs have improved conditions in the Northern Triangle by addressing key factors like violence, hunger and job insecurity that contribute to persistent poverty in the region.
- Honduras: USAID and State Department programs targeting the reduction of crime and gang violence implemented community policing programs and youth resources. The Honduran murder rate decreased by 73% from 2013 to 2016. USAID program Feed the Future estimated brought 89,000 people out of extreme poverty.
- Guatemala: USAID established agricultural training programs to help farmers get higher crop yields and successfully sell their goods at higher prices. Through the programs, rural farmer sales increased by 51% and created 20,000 agricultural jobs. Addressing the high rates of food insecurity and undernutrition in Guatemala, USAID provided nutritional support to 230,000 children five and younger. As a result of its improving economy, Guatemala has increased its imports from the U.S. by 60% over the last 10 years.
- El Salvador: Between 2015 and 2017, USAID law enforcement programs decreased murder rates by 45%. USAID’s program to reform El Salvador’s inefficient and corrupt tax system, a $5 million investment, increased El Salvador’s annual revenue by $350 million.
Regional instability continues to drive Northern Triangle migration, which makes up 99% of Central American border apprehensions. The majority of these immigrants fleeing local conditions are crossing the U.S. border unauthorized. In a 2015 Pew Research study, 60% of Honduran immigrants were unauthorized along with 56% of Guatemalan and 51% of El Salvadoran immigrants.
The Future of U.S. Aid to the Northern Triangle
U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle has decreased by almost 30% since 2016. The U.S. government has proposed even further cuts. Ongoing MCC economic programs in partnership with Northern Triangle governments are anticipated to benefit hundreds of thousands of individuals and aid stability at the national level. However, they require funding to be successful.
Bill Frist, former Republican Senate Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007, is opposed to the budget cuts. He said, regarding proposed Central American aid reductions, “In my years in the U.S. Senate, and in treating patients in developing countries around the world, I have consistently found that our foreign assistance is not simply an altruistic gift, but a strategic investment that benefits our citizens. It strengthens economies and creates new trading partners, stabilizes governments and diminishes havens for terrorism, reduces the spread of global disease, and shows America at its best.”
– Elizabeth Broderick