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November 22, 2021

Leading Experts on the Northern Triangle Discuss Key Policy Challenges Facing the Region

On November 16, Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI) Founding Director Alejandro Werner moderated a panel discussion among leading experts on the Northern Triangle examining the policy challenges facing the region related to migration, the economy, and human rights, and the potential for improvement moving forward.

Leading experts on the Northern Triangle discuss key policy challenges facing the region.
Leading experts on the Northern Triangle discuss key policy challenges facing the region.

Adapting Migration Policy

Katherine Donato, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, began the discussion by providing the historical backdrop for the migration patterns from the Northern Triangle. What started as conflict-oriented migration due to civil wars in the region has now become an institutionalized outflow of people from these countries to the United States.

“People are on the move now more than 20 years ago,” Donato said. “One of the new aspects in migration is that the motivations to move are mixed, and this is especially true in Central America.”

Although the reasons for migration have changed, migration policies in the United States have not adapted to the new circumstances. According to Donato, many of these policies have not been changed for decades. In the United States, immigration law and policy are developed through Congress, leaving advocates looking for alternatives to the difficult task of trying to pursue comprehensive changes through legislation.

“One possibility is that of global partnerships and involving the private sector," Donato said. "What is clear is that legal pathways that have some provision to become permanent over time is the future.”

Creating Sustainable Economic Recovery

Seynabou Sakho, director of strategy and operations for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, provided a diagnosis of the economic conditions in the Northern Triangle. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated conditions that had not been addressed through structural reform, particularly inequality. For recovery efforts to be sustainable, governments need to invest in the private sector in order to address other issues such as disasters and food insecurity.

It is no surprise that COVID-19 hit the region hard. Everything that led to this moment is now even more poignant, and it is even more urgent to do something now. COVID showed how hard-won gains can be lost so easily.

Alejandro Werner, founding director of the Georgetown Americas Institute, moderates the discussion.
Alejandro Werner, founding director of the Georgetown Americas Institute, moderates the discussion.

Bolstering Human Rights

José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, cited the recent presidential election in Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega arrested seven potential candidates, as well as the lack of strong and independent judiciaries in the Northern Triangle, as examples of Latin America’s spotty record on human rights.

“I’m quite pessimistic about the future of the region,” Vivanco said. “The fact that in the twenty-first century somebody could decide to run for reelection and to arrest the competition on fabricated charges with no due process and continue with the election as normal has never happened. Overall, the status of democracy in the region is not well.”

For Vivanco, Mexico under the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) concerns him the most. In effect, the Biden administration is continuing the Trump administration’s posture towards the country.

“In practical terms, the Biden administration is making sure that Mexico helps the United States on one single issue: preventing migration from coming to the border," Vivanco said. "AMLO is relying on law enforcement and involving the army in migration, rather than trying to build up Mexico so that it can have a capable and sustainable asylum system.”

Strengthening Local Governments

One of the more troubling trends is the weakening of democracy in El Salvador under Nayib Bukele. According to Vivanco, Bukele’s actions are the classic script of a populist leader who controls everything and seeks to attack anyone who opposes him.

“It is a classic model where the name of the game is to accumulate power, asphyxiate the media, control the judiciary, and change the constitution,” Vivanco said. “Within the international community, there are few who are dependable in keeping countries in the region accountable.”

Sakho pointed to subnational governments and municipalities as key partners in addressing corruption. Diaspora communities in the United States also have the potential to invest in productive sectors in the Northern Triangle.

Where are the bright spots, and how do we replicate these positive trends and bring them to scale? How do you chip away at the structures of corruption so that over time they become weaker and fall? Ultimately, this gets into what kind of country you want to have for the future.

This event was the first in GAI’s Central America in Focus series.