Despite living on one another’s doorsteps, we inhabit different worlds
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For many Americans, Central America is easier to get to than much of our own country. But still, for a huge proportion of our population, it remains a little-understood otherworld of evocative landscapes and economic desperation. At SA Expeditions, we believe that at least part of the solution to this problem of misunderstanding lies in travel – both armchair and bona fide.
Different sides of the same coin
If you live in Atlanta, it’s quicker and easier to fly to Guatemala City than it is to get to Los Angeles – let alone Seattle. No surprise, then, that places like the perfectly preserved colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala and the fascinating Mayan Ruins at Copán in Honduras are becoming increasingly popular off-the-beaten-path alternatives to better-known destinations in the Americas and elsewhere.
On the other side of the coin, most of the Central Americans (especially those from the so-called Northern Triangle comprising Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) who travel to North America do so out of economic necessity. And far from making the journey in the air-conditioned confines of a jet airplane, they do so crammed into buses, huddled on the backs of trucks or, in many cases, on their own two weary feet.
Upon realizing the harsh contrasts between our very different motivations for making the same journey, it’s tempting to throw one’s arms into the air in despair. But there’s far more to be gained from grappling with the reasons for the discrepancy.
Why are so many people visiting the Northern Triangle?
Where shall we begin? Folks are drawn to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for their pristine beaches, their towering volcanoes, their unspoiled rainforests, their ever-so-quaint colonial towns, their vast array of still-thriving indigenous cultures, and their fascinating ancient ruins. The fact that the region is accessible via quick and affordable direct flights only adds to the appeal. Check out this recent travel journal on captivating Guatemala and the wonders of Tikal and Lake Atitlán for a taste of what to expect.
Why are so many people leaving the Northern Triangle?
As Jeff Abbott writes for The Daily Beast, "migration is not the first decision for many, but as crises mount, it becomes the only option.” As Abbott continues, there are a number of push factors which cause the region to remain in a constant state of crisis, brought about by endemic corruption, environmental degradation caused by extractive industries and agribusiness, and extreme poverty. These factors, along with climate change, are pushing hundreds of thousands from Central America to migrate to the United States.
The ravages wrought by COVID-19 and the most violent cyclone season in history further exacerbated the problem. By way of example, there were an unprecedented 30 named storms in 2020, of which six developed into major hurricanes. Two of these – Hurricanes Iota and Eta – cut swaths of destruction across Central America.
As Juan José Hurtado, the coordinator for the Guatemalan migrant advocacy group Pop No’j told The Daily Beast, “All this leaves bare the structural problems in Guatemala. The people that are most affected are those who are in poverty and the people most marginalized. Migration is going to increase.”
By the numbers
Figures from Pew Research Center, show that immigration from Northern Triangle countries overtook immigration from Mexico for the first time in 2014. Since then, the number of apprehensions of Central Americans has surpassed the number of apprehensions of Mexican citizens in every year except one. In 2019, “for the first time on record, Mexicans did not account for the largest single country of origin… There were more apprehensions of Guatemalans (264,168) and Hondurans (253,795) than Mexicans (166,458), while El Salvador was fourth on the list with 89,811 apprehensions.” Quite something when you consider that Honduras, for example, has less than 10 million citizens, while Mexico has 128 million!
And these are only the people who made it as far as the Mexico-US border. For many years, the US government tried to effectively move its border to Mexico’s southern frontier. It did this via its ‘Remain in Mexico policy’ which kept would-be asylum seekers in Mexico until their applications had been approved. And via 'safe third country' agreements with Northern Triangle countries, whereby governments in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador were paid to prevent their citizens from even attempting to leave.
The situation is further compounded by the fact that, as a US Congressional Research Service paper states, “such flows can become self-reinforcing over time, as families seek reunification and those who leave their communities serve as examples for, and share their experiences and resources with, those who remain behind.” This is borne out by the fact that, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, remittances from the US to Guatemala hit record highs in 2020. In October of that year, Guatemalans sent $1,132 billion back to their families – a staggering number when you consider that the entire nation’s monthly GDP is a little over $6 billion.
(Note: Since January 2021, and the post-COVID-19 opening-up, the demographic of apprehensions has changed yet again, with citizens of the Northern Triangle making up 46% of apprehensions and Mexican citizens 42%. This change is almost certainly due to COVID-19, however, and people on the ground expect a “flood” of Central Americans to head north soon.)
Regionalism: A potential solution
President Joe Biden has canceled both the Remain in Mexico policy and the safe third country agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. He has also “promised to invest $4 billion over his first term to address the root causes of migration, including through programs in Central American countries to reduce and prevent violence, help farmers set up irrigation systems or change crops, and create economic opportunities.” (Encouragingly, VP Kamala Harris’ first international state visit was to Guatemala.)
While these are all steps in the right direction, this fascinating Americas Quarterly article by Richard E. Feinberg argues that Biden should be doing more. As the article explains, there is a resurgence in regionalism around the globe. The European Union has plowed resources into Eastern Europe and the Balkans (with great success), China is “strengthening its regional ties through its well-funded Belt and Road Initiative” and, whatever your opinion of him, Vladimir Putin is attempting to recreate the Russian Empire of old. All this focus on regionalism is in stark contrast with “the United States, which has too often viewed its neighbors – Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean islands – as problems to be managed rather than as diplomatic and economic opportunities to embrace.”
Instead of spending $4 billion on Central America and the Caribbean over the next four years, Feinberg argues, Biden should incorporate the region into his “Build Back Better” agenda and introduce, for example, a “Made in All of America” initiative to promote regionally manufactured products. Seeing Central America as part of the solution, rather than cause of the rot, can only be good for all concerned, Feinberg concludes:
Investing in new forms of economic integration in the Greater Caribbean Basin would require a leap in the national imagination and political ambition. It is worth it. Such an initiative would reduce the burdens from violence and underdevelopment so close to the US border and strengthen the US economy, transforming local liabilities into geopolitical assets. It would also deliver a productive counterpunch to Chinese encroachment in our “near abroad.”
Tourism: The most practical solution of all
Unfortunately, bar exercising our right to vote, regular folks like you and me don’t have that much influence over the policies our governments adopt. We do, however, have the power to effect small, ground-up change through our daily actions.
At SA Expeditions, we firmly believe that travel (even armchair travel) has the power to make a positive difference to Central America. Simply learning more about our near neighbors is the first step towards a brighter and more inclusive future. Actually, traveling to the region can only take this learning further and it will have the added bonus of contributing to local economies. Especially if you travel with a B Corp certified company such as ours which ensures that a significant portion of its revenue goes to sustainably-minded local suppliers.
Take our carbon-neutral, 8-day Guatemala adventure from Antigua to Tikal as an example. While you’re immersing yourself in a new culture and unearthing Guatemala’s incredible biodiversity, you’ll also provide an income to coffee producers, craftsmen, guides, drivers and the staff of the hotels, restaurants, and bars you frequent. Tourism is one of the top five economic drivers in Central America, and your trip could very well convince a family to stay at home and make a go of things. While also providing you with out-of-this world memories, experiences, and stories to tell your friends and family.
The bottom line? Once you’ve spent some time exploring Central America, you’ll realize that hardly anyone is leaving this earthly paradise out of choice! In fact, you might even contemplate moving there yourself…