Central America is officially a campaign issue again. Now it's time to get smart about it

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Central America is suddenly a campaign issue again—at least among the Democrats.

During Tuesday night's Democratic debate in Miami, Central America was mentioned 10 times, and always in the context of violence, dysfunctional politics and immigration problems. It marks Central America's dramatic return to the U.S. electoral stage, and in a bad way. It's a role the region hasn't played in a U.S. election since the days of civil wars, U.S. invasions and CIA-funded counterrevolutions in the 1980s and early '90s.

For the past 20 years, Central America—if remembered at all by candidates—was mentioned only in the context of an emerging trade partner. During the 2008 presidential campaign, this umbilical strip of volcanoes connecting the two larger halves of the hemisphere was talked about in the context of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA for those in a rush.


But now the script has changed. More accurately, it has reverted back to a time when Central America played a nefarious role as an ominously violent and unstable troublemaker just a few clicks south of the U.S. border.

"One of the great tragedies, human tragedies of recent years, is children came from Honduras, where there's probably more violence than almost any place in this country (U.S.)," Bernie Sanders said during Tuesday night's debate.


Sanders also talked about the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, giving Daniel Ortega his first shout out in a U.S. campaign since 1988, and denounced the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala, which probably hasn't been mentioned by a U.S. presidential candidate in the past 50 years.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, addressed the "culture of criminality and violence in Central America" and called on Congress to support the Obama Administration's request to fund programs in Central America aimed at helping people in the northern triangle "to stay safely in their homes and countries."

Republican candidates, on the other hand, failed to mention Central America at all during their Miami debate in front of a Latino audience Thursday night. Instead, they showcased their lack of knowledge of the greater world with Trump's love song to Vladimir Putin ("Putin is a strong leader, absolutely. I could name many strong leaders. I could name very many very weak leaders. But he is a strong leader.") and John Kasich's unforgettable call on China to do more about North Korea ("We should have the heat on them to work in North Korea to get rid of that guy and the things that he's doing.")

While the Republican candidates' learning curve on Central America (and the greater universe) is too steep to give anymore thought to in this article, the Democrats also failed to go deeper on the issues or address the region's most troubled country: El Salvador.


Granted they were not asked any direct questions about El Salvador, but talking about problems of violence and instability in Central America while omitting El Salvador is a bit like talking about The Beatles and forgetting to mention John Lennon (Let's see, there was Ringo, George, Paul and…uh…I think Pete Best actually played drums for a while, too).

While Sanders was right to lament the awful levels of violence in Honduras, neighboring El Salvador is even more problematic and is most likely the Central American country that will cause the biggest headache for the next U.S. president.


El Salvador, which has the highest murder rate in the world, has been in a downward spiral for several years, and is now contemplating the idea of implementing martial law— a move that would be a tragic and irreversible step towards becoming a failed state.

If that happens, the wave of Salvadorans emigrating north—a number that already appears to be spiking, based the number of U.S. border patrol apprehensions—would mostly likely turn into a torrent the likes of which the United States has never seen.


Former FMLN guerrilla leader and Salvadoran political analyst Ana Guadalupe Martinez says martial law would do nothing to loosen the gangs' stranglehold on the country, but would serve as a "a form of double punishment" for average citizens who are just trying to get by.


Under martial law, an extreme measure used in times of war or other catastrophes, Salvadorans would lose the following constitutional guarantees:

  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of privacy (the government could intervene any phone line)
  • Freedom of movement
  • Freedom to a timely trial (citizens could be held by police for up 30 days without charges)

The militarization of the country could also mean a curfew that prohibits people from leaving their homes after nightfall.

"It would make it even harder for people to make a living, which is already a hard thing in El Salvador because of the extortion people are charged by gangs," Martinez told me today in a phone interview from San Salvador. "People already have a really hard time starting a small business or family business because of the extortion, and so for the government to implement another mechanism that limits citizens' rights, including their ability to move freely, people would feel they can't survive here economically."


And that's when everyone packs their bags and heads to the U.S.

The possibility of martial law, which was floated this week by the Salvadoran government but has not yet been presented to Congress for vote, came in response to last week's brutal massacre of 11 people in San Juan Opico, in the western part of the country. Eight of the victims were employees of the electrical company who were installing electrical posts. The other three were witnesses who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


The massacre was the latest horrific headline in a region that produces some of the most gruesome news in the hemisphere.

There was also last week's tragic and senseless murder of renowned Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres, whose death shook the entire region and served as a painful reminder about the violence and lawlessness tearing about neighboring Honduras.


But instead of being asked about current events— the ones that are shaping Central America's problems today and becoming serious issues for the next president of the U.S. to deal with— Bernie Sanders keeps getting asked about whether he was too sympathetic to the socialist leanings of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in 1985. Sanders gets questioned more about his sympathy for the Sandinistas in the '80s than Clinton gets questioned about her support for the coup in Honduras in 2009—something that is much more relevant to the current state of affairs in Central America.

And even if Sanders visited Nicaragua in the '80s (along with tons of other U.S. politicians), who gives a rat's ass? to put it gently. It's good that U.S. journalists are starting to ask questions about Central America, but now they need to ask relevant questions from this decade.


"It’s encouraging that Central America is beginning to get some attention in the presidential campaign. The next administration will have little choice but to deal with it," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

But now it's time to really knuckle down on the issues.

"Hopefully there will be some emphasis on the root causes of the profound problems that El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are suffering—not just on U.S. immigration policy and how to balance reducing migration flows with protecting refugees and extending humanitarian assistance," Shifter says.


As for the Republican candidates, we can start by showing them a map of Latin America that includes countries other than Cuba and Mexico.