We need a Marshall Plan for Central America

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FILE – In this Jan. 20, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Thousands of people are waiting to claim asylum and more come each day, falsely believing they will be able to enter the U.S. now that former President Donald Trump is out of office. Biden has made major changes to his predecessor’s hardline immigration policies; but he hasn’t lifted the major restrictions to people seeking asylum as he faces pressures from all sides. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

presidential election is unfolding in the small Central American nation of Honduras as one of the largest migrant caravans makes its way to the United States. For Hondurans, however, the only presidential election that matters is the U.S. presidential election. In fact, the recent victory of President Biden has reawakened prospects for immigration relief and more U.S. investment in Central America as millions of people suffer the consequences of an economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are growing concerns that economic devastation will lead to the erosion of democracy in Central America and exacerbate illegal migration in coming years. However, the U.S. has the economic and political tools to turn this crisis into an opportunity to rebuild Central America through a Marshall Plan approach and break the cycle of anemic growth and political corruption in the region. A Marshall Plan for Central America should not be an aspiration for the future but rather a policy goal for the Biden administration.  

Central America needed a Marshall Plan decades ago, but a lack of vision and political willingness in Washington led lawmakers to adopt smaller and more reactive policies. The current crisis in Central America is far too large for an ad hoc policy approach. Fortunately, there is historical precedent to favor large foreign policy projects over smaller and disconnected policies. For example, in the aftermath of World War II, American policymakers decided to use the economic and political power of the United States to rebuild Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. The project successfully contributed to the economic and political stability that Western Europeans enjoy today. The benefits were not limited to the region since a stable Western Europe meant that the United States had access to markets to sell American goods and services. Moreover, Western Europe became a key political partner for the U.S. 

A Marshall Plan for Central America has the potential to transform Central America into a stable economic and political partner for the U.S. in the twenty-first century. This is important given the relative decline of American hegemony due to the rise of China and other world powers. For instance, China is strengthening its relations with Central America through projects such as the Nicaragua Canal. However, China does not have the geographic proximity and trade volume that the U.S. has with Central America. The fate of Central America is inextricably linked with the U.S. as a result of history and proximity while China is a detached actor that looks more like a new source of investment than a partner. This is because millions of Central Americans living in the U.S. directly contribute to the economy of the region through remittances and the U.S. has exported its culture to the region through Hollywood and social media. Contemporary Central Americans now have a direct view into American life right from their smartphones and thousands of them make the trek north each year for their chance at the American dream. 

The international stage and the history of the Marshall Plan are not the only considerations for implementing a Marshall Plan for Central America. The Trump administration’s foreign policy in Central America focused on keeping people there without offering them economic opportunities, but Biden has pledged to focus on giving them a chance at an American life in their countries by investing there. This approach will address the fundamental incentive to migrate north in search of economic opportunities. More importantly, now that there is an administration in power willing to rebuild Central America, it is time for Congress to seriously consider a Marshall Plan for the current moment. 

The U.S. will need to rebuild international order after spending four years implementing protectionist policies and withdrawing from key international treaties and organizations. That process must start locally with our neighbors in Central America.  

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