Nearshore Americas

STEM Development and IT-Literacy is Sorely Lacking in Obama’s Central America Gameplan

The immigration system in the United States is broken: a sentence said so many times that it sounds like a broken record. Obama’s new set of executive actions announced recently comes after Congress’ inability to pass legislation and the lousy midterms outcome for Democrats. But this will benefit DREAMers and other undocumented migrants.

A couple of days before, the in-country refugee parole program for minors from Central America with parents lawfully living in the United States had been announced. Today it seems distant the time when politicians, news media and the whole society was shocked by the images of little children sleeping in cells, crossing borders led by smugglers in the middle of the night, and the tales of hazardous journeys in the roof of trains. Tens of thousands were arriving from Central America, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. It was when Congress failed to approve the White House request for an emergency supplemental assistance of US$300 million. In real terms, the Administration “retargeted $76 million in security funding to address urgent needs in the justice and law enforcement sectors.” So much for the needed leadership.

Mixed Signals

The question is whether this new policy is consistent with the reaction back in the summer when the kids were deported while a media campaign was trying to convince parents that they were sending their children to a worthless yet risky adventure. The question is if this isn’t sending mixed signals to all the desperate people that look at the United States as their only hope, further supporting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s argument when responding to why so many children were sent by their parents on a dangerous journey, “it is a matter that arises, we believe, from the lack of clarity, or ambiguity, that has become the hallmark of the policies and the debates on immigration reform in the United States.”

At a critical point back in July, arguments and policies were divided – as they are today – between securing the border to prevent arrivals of more aliens and deporting those who had entered, or helping through a more comprehensive approach that tackled the problem in its core. That is when Nearshore Americas published an analysis noticing the “sudden interest in Central American affairs”. The argument was that a “quick fix” of tightening security “to send a message” to the parents wouldn’t solve the problem; instead the role of the U.S. government should be taking leadership in longer-term solutions to the dire situation in these countries.

That seems to be the choice made by the White House. A week ago Friday, on November 14, Vice President Joe Biden attended in Washington the conference “Investing in Central America: Unlocking Opportunities for Growth” hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Gathered with President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, besides representatives from the business community, the vice president welcomed the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, which was officially presented as a proposal for long-term solutions resulting from the collaborative efforts of the three Central American governments.

In his remarks, Biden acknowledged the “urgency” of the problem, which “will grow even bigger if we don’t act now.” He also admitted that United States can’t afford to be an idle bystander because it has a lot a stake in the issue: “what happens in Central America matters to us, to Americans.”

What’s the Plan?

Note that this is the same plan that Reuters reported to have acquired since September, or at least an earlier draft. It must have been the same draft Secretary of State John Kerry received from the Foreign Minister of Honduras, also in September, as it was informed by a senior State Department official during a special briefing. Back then the plan was assessed as “fairly comprehensive,” focusing “on economic opportunity and development and employment opportunities, public safety and access to judiciaries, and strengthening institutions, which looks very much like the priorities that we, ourself, have identified.” Although the document still required a full reading, because “it’s quite long,” the secretary would get back to them “as soon as we could.”

Finally, in mid November, the White House was ready to officially support the project.

The plan defines four – very broad – strategic lines: 1. Stimulate the productive sector to create economic opportunities; 2. Develop opportunities for our people; 3. Improve public safety and enhancing access to the legal system; 4. Strengthen institutions to increase people’s trust in the state.

In terms of lines of actions aimed to implement concrete efforts on the ground, there’s in fact a lot of focus on improving infrastructure and logistics corridors such as highways, seaports, airports and railways; reducing energy costs and improving reliability of electricity supply by doubling the capacity of SIEPAC, upgrading transmission networks, completing a natural gas pipeline connecting the southern Mexican port of Salina Cruz with the city of Escuintla in southern Guatemala; fostering coordinated border management; and facilitating international trade by strengthening quality control systems and consolidating trade-promotion agencies.

However, the plan does not determine any action to improve access and quality of Internet connectivity, even though it is admittedly a logistics and infrastructure problem.

It isn’t anymore clear on whether offering “technical and vocational training for employment and integration in the labor force” and “broadening coverage and quality of secondary education by improving school infrastructure, teacher quality, access to education, school curricula” implies any focus on STEM disciplines and IT literacy.

Creating a Business-Friendly Climate

Thus far, the U.S. government has not provided any more concrete details about how it will direct its support to the plan, other than what is stated in this Fact Sheet. The IADB, which will be a major partner in the effort, has declared only that “Plan details are being developed”, according to a spokesperson.

However, there are some intentions which have been made crystal clear.

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At the conference, Biden confirmed that the United States would be partner in the initiative that was born from the three Central American governments. Nevertheless, the presidents from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador heard from the VP something that minutes earlier US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker could not have stressed enough: the importance of “creating a sound business climate to attract additional foreign investment in Central America”. In her words, “it is time for you to take tough, but necessary, steps to increase transparency, eliminate rampant corruption, and reform your tax codes – critical steps to attract more business investment and spur long-term economic growth.”

The draft of the plan available right now on the IADB website does not state a total budget. This is understandable, considering not only its massive objectives and the enormous obstacles, but also the fact that success depends a lot on changing culture and behavior. That’s probably what Vice President Biden and Secretary of Commerce Pritzker had in mind when repeating the idea that corruption has to be ended, transparency is a requirement and accountability a must. Money won’t flow without trust in the system. Meanwhile, changing culture is the hardest of the tasks.

Our question is why not to pursue as well a boost to technology, technological education and training? There’s enough evidence that today’s technological tools foster transparency and enable an environment where entrepreneurs can create, connect with each other, start businesses. Big companies can also come, employ local talent and take the communities along in a path to progress.

Jennifer Roig

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