Editor’s Note: Daniel V. Speckhard, a former US ambassador to Greece and Belarus, served as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Iraq and is a former senior official at NATO. He is also the president and CEO of Corus International, a family of faith-based organizations, including Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In better times, the verdant hills of Jinotega, Nicaragua, are carpeted with coffee cherries that yield a superior brew and provide a decent living for the region’s farming families.
In the wake of hurricanes Eta and Iota – both of which struck Nicaragua as Category 4 storms earlier last month – many of these coffee farms now lie in ruins, with uprooted trees, flooded fields and imperiled livelihoods.
As I hear from our Lutheran World relief staff in Central America, the situation is dire. The agricultural damage is catastrophic, and the Red Cross estimates 3 million people have been affected by Eta and Iota, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Meanwhile, Covid-19 infections are on the rise. As the extent of the devastation becomes clearer, the US government needs to urgently approve and facilitate the rapid delivery of assistance to both the emergency response and recovery effort on the ground.
Before the hurricanes, Central America was already suffering from a series of crises: widespread corruption, insecurity and violence from gangs and other criminal activity, drought and the sudden impact of Covid-19. Now, the region will face even greater challenges. The United Nations forecasts that hunger in Central America will rise dramatically due to the double hit of Covid-19 and hurricane damage, with the number of people suffering from severe food insecurity expected to nearly double to 3 million.
With the incoming Biden administration, the US has an opportunity to reset its relationship with its neighbors in Central America and resume a more constructive economic and political engagement that the Trump administration’s transactional approach interrupted over the last four years. These policies included threatening Mexico with tariffs to force cooperation and punitively cutting development aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to force these countries to restrict migration through the region.
A failure to respond to the situation in Central America would likely result in deteriorating conditions that will only create more pressure on desperate families to migrate north.
The double onslaught of Eta and Iota had been foreshadowed by recent history. For years, we have seen concrete evidence of the effects of climate change in Central America, including higher temperatures fueling crop diseases and erratic weather patterns. The region has also been plagued by prolonged drought in recent years, which exacerbated the damage caused by the hurricanes as hardened soil was unable to absorb the driving rain, which increased flooding.
Scientists believe the warming climate is also a factor in the increased number and severity of storms. The Atlantic has seen 30 named storms this year, making it the most active season on record. In addition, unusually warm surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean are fueling storms that are more powerful and destructive.
The effects of the hurricanes are also expected to cause a surge in Covid-19 cases. The countries of Central America already reflect the rampant spread of Covid-19 across Latin America, which accounts for more than a third of global deaths from the pandemic despite only representing 8% of the world’s population.
Now with displaced families crowded into makeshift shelters, where personal protective equipment is scarce and social distancing is next to impossible, a spike in Covid-19 infections presents another danger to those who are already extremely vulnerable.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to engage with Central American countries in a way that will yield sustainable and long-term impacts. Seizing this opportunity means paying more attention to the region in the form of focused and coherent diplomacy and assistance. But it also means changing our approach to the region.
A starter list for the incoming administration and the 117th Congress might include upholding humane and values-based displacement and migration policies towards the region, such as ending draconian policies like the severe restrictions on the ability to apply for asylum at the US-Mexico border, the “remain in Mexico” policy that requires asylum seekers to who arrive in the US to stay in Mexico throughout their asylum process, and the practice of child separation.
Second, the US should use aid in a way that holds governments accountable for corruption, while increasing support for proven humanitarian, health and development programs at the local level, especially those targeting young people. And finally, the US should include the impact of the climate crisis in our planning with Central American partners, including investments in disaster preparedness and risk reduction, as well as assistance that will help farmers adapt to climate changes that are decimating their harvests and forcing them to leave their farms. There are ways to grow jobs and stem climate migrants while also being prepared for the next storm or drought.
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US ties to Central America are already apparent. Millions of citizens and resident immigrants who trace their heritage there are integral and valued members of our communities. Their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit have fueled decades of economic growth. With our increased and sustained engagement with our Central American neighbors, our futures can only be brighter.