During U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s recent visit to Guatemala, where she urged Central Americans “not to come” to her country, she also emphasized that the migration problem must be attacked at its “root causes,” which have become a central theme of the Biden administration’s approach to the region.
While it is key to address the structural causes that lead thousands of people to flee their countries of origin, the concept has been co-opted to conceal U.S. responsibility for the economic and social crisis faced by the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).
For decades, the United States has empowered those countries’ governments and plutocracies, overthrowing democratically elected governments. Additionally, it has imposed a “free trade” model that mostly benefits U.S. corporations whose activities bring about dispossession and provoke forced migration.
In recent months, several U.S. initiatives have been announced to support Central America. In April, Vice President Harris reported that the United States was providing $310 million in humanitarian support for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Biden administration’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year is requesting $861 million to support Central America, as part of its $4 billion plan for the region over four years, in line with its strategy to address migration.
This is a significant amount of money. But trade deals pushed on these governments by the United States allow private investors to file lawsuits that could cost these countries much more. One Nevada mining company alone — Kappes Cassidy & Associates (KCA) — is using provisions of the Central America-DR trade deal with the United States to sue Guatemala at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, demanding $400 million. That’s more than the $310 million in aid Harris reported on recently for all three countries.
My colleague Jen Moore has co-authored a detailed article about the KCA v Guatemala case. Basically, KCA argues that the Guatemalan government failed to protect its mine from a peaceful protest outside their site by frontline communities. Activists are protesting the contamination of their scarce water resources as a result of mining activities. Central American countries are facing many similar multimillion-dollar lawsuits and face a constant threat of more under the Central America-DR trade agreement with the United States.
In past articles, I have documented how three mining companies have sued Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement for a staggering $4.54 billion, all while destroying livelihoods across Mesoamerica and causing the violent expulsion of rural and indigenous communities.
The Investor-State Dispute Settlement System (ISDS) enshrined in international trade and investment treaties enables corporations to sue governments over policies to protect the environment in response to social struggles, often over water rights. ISDS is a neocolonial instrument used to discipline and punish governments that safeguards the transnational corporations’ interests and their expected profits. Latin American countries have been the main targets of suits by extractive companies.
But governments are not the sole victims of supranational lawsuits. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has documented how environmental and natural resource defenders face powerful vested interests which seek to silence them. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are a tactic used by companies to stop those who oppose their business activities. SLAPPs can take the form of criminal or civil lawsuits brought to intimidate, deter, bankrupt, and silence critics.
Of the 3,100 SLAPPs recorded between January 2015 and May 2021, 39 percent occurred in Latin America, making it the region with the highest number of such attacks. Honduras, with 46 cases, has the second-highest number of SLAPPs among countries worldwide. A key case in that country involves four Garífuna women leaders of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH). These women were accused of libel and slander by a hotel company and have been facing criminal charges since 2017 for defending Garífuna ancestral land from transnational companies’ tourism projects.
Another example from Honduras is that of the eight community leaders from Guapinol arbitrarily imprisoned for almost two years for defending their water resources against the Los Pinares mining project, which is associated with U.S. investors. In February 2021, The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged the Honduran Government to immediately release the defenders from prison.
To seriously address the roots and causes of migration, it is urgent to dismantle the neoliberal rules that grant excessive privileges to transnational corporations and champion business activities that destroy livelihoods and generate violence.
This was originally published in Spanish by La Jornada.