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Policy Expert Outlines Why Central American Aid Cuts Could Create More Migrant Caravans


While President Trump has threatened to send the U.S. military to close the border, he's also threatened to cut U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for not stopping their citizens from leaving. The U.S. currently sends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to Central America.

Shannon O'Neil is senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And, Shannon O'Neil, you argue that cutting aid to the region as Trump is threatening to do will result in more caravans, which of course is precisely the thing he says he wants to stop. Why? What's your argument?

SHANNON O'NEIL: So actually, the United States over the last couple of years has been sending $750 million to primarily these three Northern Triangle nations. This goes into all sorts of dozens and dozens of different types of violence prevention programs, helping youth at-risk programs, helping people start small businesses, anti-corruption measures, trying to strengthen the rule of law, police training, trying to make life better, particularly in violent or difficult neighborhoods.

KELLY: So if I hear you right, your basic argument boils down to, if the U.S. cuts foreign aid to these countries, life there conceivably gets worse, and therefore people will be more inclined to want to leave.

O'NEIL: Yes. So if we cut aid, if these programs and/or diminish, life will get worse on the ground in many of these places, and so people will search for an alternative. And one of those alternatives is to head north.

KELLY: What about the problems at home here in the U.S.? I mean, I'm hearing - I can imagine people yelling at their radios right now...

O'NEIL: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...In response to some of the programs you just mentioned - police training programs in Central America, violence prevention programs in Central America - saying, hey, we have those needs here in the U.S. Why should the U.S. be responsible for fixing those problems in other countries when we need those resources here?

O'NEIL: You know, each country in the end should be responsible for their problems. And Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador - their governments are responsible in the end. But if we want things to get better there and if we want people to stay in those countries so that they don't end up on our borders, so that we don't end up dealing with the larger problems of violence or drug trafficking or organized crime or terrorism or other things that do affect Americans at home day to day, then we need to be active around the world.

And these are places in our hemisphere nearby and with lots of ties between people and commerce. We spend billions of dollars in other places around the world to try to stabilize those places to make them safer, and so we should be looking here, near to home, for places that do affect us day to day because of these linkages. And here we're talking several hundred million dollars, not billion dollars.

KELLY: That speaks to another point we should acknowledge, I guess, which is that the U.S. has some responsibility for the problems in these countries. I'm thinking of gang violence. A lot of these gangs started in the U.S., and gang members were deported back to Central America.

O'NEIL: United States has a long history of involvement in Central America. It's not just this aid. The United States was a big player in the 1980s in Central American wars that were happening. The contras were there, and we were big supporters of those groups. And then we also have been a big part of the rise of gangs that are now transnational in nature. They're in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala but also the United States. And they started here in our prisons and in our communities. And so those linkages are not just coming from these countries. They actually started here in the United States and came from here to these quite troubled nations.

KELLY: So if you could wave a magic wand and tell the president how much to spend and what exactly to spend it on that would be most productive, what would you tell him to do?

O'NEIL: I would tell this president to double down on these kinds of policies that we have in place, things that are trying to reduce violence, improve governance, improve the way things work in these countries, provide economic opportunity. But I would also ask him to hold these governments accountable in Central America, make those governments actually work for their people and invest alongside the United States because in the end, it is the responsibility of the Central American governments to protect their people.

KELLY: Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks so much.

O'NEIL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.