Slowing America's migrant and drug crises starts with helping Guatemala

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If the United States really wants to cut the record flow of illegal drugs and migrants entering our country, we should start by sharply increasing foreign aid for Guatemala’s new democratically elected president, Bernardo Arevalo. By supporting him, we also promote democracy and freedom, two critical American values. 

As Central America’s largest nation, a free Guatemala can serve as a beacon of liberty in a region ruled by authoritarian governments. 

Today, Guatemala is the second-largest source of undocumented migrants crossing our southern border and a large source of cocaine and fentanyl precursors.  But Arevalo is trying to change that. Tragically, Guatemala was led for decades by brutal generals and corrupt political hacks. Finally, Guatemala has a leader dedicated to combatting the narco-trade, protecting democracy, and expanding economic opportunity for all Guatemalans. 

As part of a high-level delegation that recently traveled to Guatemala and met with Arevalo, I saw a leader struggling to create a new Guatemala despite many odds. His success in meeting these promises, which will also help our country, could depend on how much aid we give this fledgling democracy.

Guatemala is economically impoverished with almost 20 percent of the economy dependent on remittances from Guatemalan expatriates. It has one of Latin America’s highest poverty rates with more than half the people living below the poverty line. Almost half of all Guatemalan children are malnourished and, in some regions, the percentage of households with stunted children is close to 90 percent. 

Crippled with massive poverty and little opportunity for economic advancement, it’s no surprise thousands of Guatemalans annually leave for the U.S.

It’s also been a playground for international drug cartels. That’s why the U.S. government labeled Guatemala a “major illicit drug-producing or drug-transit” country. One popular mayor even bragged, “They call me a narco, and I am.”

But now there’s a new sheriff in town and reason for hope.  A diplomat and son of a former president, Guatemala’s crooked power structure did everything possible to block Arevalo’s presidency. They recognize he’s a threat to the corrupt system that made them rich. After his surprise win in the first round of elections, they tried to remove his party from the ballot and called for another election. They even tried to stop his inauguration, delaying it until early the next morning.

The good news is that Arevalo has proposed a broad platform, including economic reform and a crackdown on corruption,  to address his nation’s problems. He understands the most effective way to reduce illegal migration is to address its root causes, including unemployment and food insecurity.

The bad news is that implementing many of these changes is difficult because the old guard, led by corrupt judges and prosecutors, is doing everything it can to guarantee he fails. 

Compounding his challenges, his government holds a narrow majority in the parliament, making it harder to pass his plans. While he enjoyed a landslide victory at the polls, public support is fickle and that backing could quickly dissipate if he fails to deliver demonstrable results soon. 

Such an outcome would make it easier for the corrupt old guard to remove him from power illegally. That means time is of the essence to help this critical ally.

The United States should dramatically increase assistance and our government should encourage the U.S. business community to increase its investments in Guatemala. This aid can help him succeed and deliver some badly needed early wins. 

To its credit, the Biden administration just provided an additional $170 million for development and security assistance. But we can and should do more. The U.S. should also urge allies like Canada and Europe to increase aid to Guatemala and encourage multi-lateral banks, like the World Bank, to increase their investments.

Backing Arevalo is not just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity. If he succeeds, it’s a win for America too. But if he fails, both Guatemala and America will pay a heavy long-term price. 

Thomas Kahn is a distinguished faculty fellow at American University and a Trustee of Freedom House. He served as the Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee from 1997-2016, the longest in history.

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