The CAFTA Template: Understanding Central American Migration in a Time of Dispossession, Repression, and Environmental Crisis
Expert Jorge Cuellar discusses how countries remain exploited "tributary societies to the US," while that "sacred policy—the Central American Free Trade Agreement—has remained untouched."
Given the quantity of media discussion there is around Central American migration to the United States, it is striking how little the Central American Free Trade Agreement has been discussed. Luckily today we have the expertise of Jorge Cuellar, Assistant Professor of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College, who explains just how important it is that we understand CAFTA and how this “sacred policy” has become a template for fomenting displacement and creating a structural “sandbox” for national and transnational impunity and corruption in the region. As Cuellar discusses, the United States far from addressing the “root causes” to migration, as has been the stated goal of the Biden/Harris administration, is much more implicated as a fundamental reason behind them.
Cuellar is at work on a book project titled Everyday Life and Everyday Death in El Salvador.
Before NAFTA was implemented in 1994, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner said the trade agreement would displace people and that the United States would have to harden its borders. She was right about the migration. The result was a series of operations that define the U.S. border strategy to this day. CAFTA received much less fanfare than NAFTA, but it had similar results. What is CAFTA, and how is it a border issue?
CAFTA is one of many causes of today’s Central American debacle, and a significant one that often gets forgotten because of the seemingly more visible effects of displacement: insecurity, repression, “violence” in all its forms. But, really, CAFTA, which stands for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, set this whole thing up. It is a foundational moment for Central American neoliberalism. It was put into effect in 2004 and signed by George W. Bush in early 2005. What CAFTA meant, for Central America—though this later included the Dominican Republic—exactly resembled what big brother NAFTA did to Mexico: it transformed Central American countries into captive markets for buying and peddling U.S.-made goods. It almost immediately snuffed out local production and subsistence lifestyles. It created the conditions for displacement and out-migration.
As Central America opened up to transnational capital, CAFTA accelerated El Salvador’s move toward paying starvation wages, alongside increasing costs of living. CAFTA helped landed elites, large planters, to monopolize the best land and resources, helped them capture the bulk of development aid, and gain easy access to credit—this is clear in Honduras, specifically in the palm oil sector. In cities, CAFTA swooped in and turned much of Central American labor into maquila labor, leading to industrial “free trade” parks for textile production, for making plastic goods, to intensive corporate monoculture, as we see in Honduras, in Guatemala, in parts of Nicaragua too. These neoliberal free trade production zones, while offering some employment to Central Americans, were insufficient to absorb the high levels of unemployment produced by what was then called the “crisis of the countryside,” in other words, rural displacement.
After CAFTA, Central American nations went from being net agricultural exporters to the U.S. to net agricultural importers from the U.S. CAFTA created a labor surplus of displaced workers, farmers, and small agriculturalists, of people in search for jobs in the cities after being expelled from the countryside. CAFTA had, as expected, a built-in response: it promised competitive factory jobs, in the infamous maquilas and “free trade” zones that largely produced textiles and small electronics—the maquilas symbolize neoliberalism throughout Mexico and Central America. These maquilas, as we all know, forced people to work under terrible, sweatshop-like conditions. Workers had few protections, and the new maquilas arrived in the region bundled with political concessions and supranational rights to transnational corporations, which were supposedly helping spur development. A disastrous move toward the flexibilization of labor, awful wages, within strict anti-union workplaces.
Urbanization increases during the years after CAFTA, leading to housing crises. Countries could not keep up with growing informal settlements around capital cities. These are but some of the effects that CAFTA has on Central American societies. It effectively kills subsistence production across Central America and creates multitudes of landless poor, people with agricultural skills, who, newly displaced, migrate to cities like Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Guatemala City, San José, and others, to look for employment. These cities boom in the period after CAFTA. Further, CAFTA immediately cements new ways of making a living in Central America—export and global market-oriented ways of living—and, by way of its intensive exploitation of land, also pries open countries to transnational agribusiness and multinational corporations: Monsanto, Procter and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Nestlé. The Central American capital cityscape is remade with food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, etc., that become representative of neoliberalism, of free trade, symptoms of a CAFTA-impacted society.
So Central American people, many now urbanized, cannot make a living in the growing cities and begin to opt for El Norte. People leave Central America because they cannot sustain a family there, find dignified work, or make ends meet. People refuse to be exploited in maquilas for terrible wages. In the Salvadoran case, this first decade of the 21st century is marked by out-migration, compounded by the deportation phenomenon of gang members from Los Angeles into the slums of Central America. By the time we get to CAFTA in 2004, there is already a so-called transnational gang crisis in the region. Militarization and police intensification is in full swing, and the criminalization of youth is fully developed as a policing strategy, all accelerated by U.S. funding. You have a kind of double-whammy moment in the early 2000s. CAFTA is really the structuring force—a type of structural adjustment—behind the destruction of the safety net, the reduction of social services, the state’s movement toward social abandonment as a matter of government routine, and the mounting of the repressive and punitive apparatus. This is the recipe for mass out-migration.
When the U.S. media cover Central America, they discuss violence, but often without much analysis. The coverage pits refugees fleeing persecution against people coming for economic reasons, as if one side is deserving and the other isn’t. What do you make of this?
The refugee category is a contested terrain that differentiates people as worthy and unworthy—it’s all, in the end, just racist, cruel, and arbitrary. At some level, one can say that there are economic determinants for most migration. In my view, it’s a disservice and a violent reduction to pretend that people are single-issue migrants. There is no such thing as single-issue migration. Those fleeing persecution, discrimination, and other forms of targeted violence cannot stay in their countries of origin because animosity, hatred, and discomfort rise to unsustainable levels. What created the preconditions and the ongoing realities that yield routine violence, lack of dignified employment, and that contributes to the disintegration of communities? Policies like CAFTA.
Hostility toward marginalized groups increases when groups are made into scapegoats and representatives of social problems. It increases when there is no food, no water, when there is repression and violence from state personnel—the police and military—and when insecurity is inescapable. Hostility intensifies and combines with a system in which people’s human rights aren’t respected or protected, in which states have effectively turned their backs on their people. Here, I’m thinking specifically of people subject to sexual violence, domestic abuse, women who are castigated for asserting their reproductive rights. These dystopian realities are possible only in countries saturated by neoliberal logics that free trade introduced into the region. It’s one thing to be harassed and discriminated against by a heteropatriarchal, hypermisogynist society—generally a worldwide phenomenon—but add to this the fact that you’re less likely to be employed, to be taken seriously and respected by society, more likely to live in poverty, to live in insecure neighborhoods, where you have little access to social services, healthcare, and education—well, these are all the structural consequences of neoliberalism as they amalgamate with racism, sexism, queerphobia.
This diabolical system, as Monseñor Romero called it, then expects people to adjust accordingly, when society has been totally reconfigured and their livelihoods eradicated, to adapt to a reality that is hostile to their very being.
The Joe Biden administration has talked quite a bit about solving the root causes of immigration. What has it accomplished?
So far, Biden’s administration has done little to address the root causes of immigration. Beyond Kamala Harris’s trip to Central America to make yet another appeal to Central American people to “not come to the U.S.,” there has been nothing more than deterrence discourse at this point, with some funding to NGOs and civil society groups. The economic relations of Central America to the U.S., in which Central American countries remain tributary societies to the U.S., that sacred policy—CAFTA—has remained untouched. In fact, the U.S. has been unable to meaningfully change the culture of corruption and impunity in the region, a culture that CAFTA created the sandbox for. Take, for instance, economic aid—especially for countries doing anti-corruption work. It just hasn’t panned out.
There is no solving them beyond a broader conversation about investing in social and community development integrally, in building up social movements and the labor sector, in curbing the predatory nature of U.S. corporations in the region, in divesting from police and militarization, which have led us to the increase of authoritarianism in the region alongside the weakening of democratic institutions, and so on. It is about investing and supporting human rights work, in supporting communities directly without the mediation of capitalist actors and the traditional business sector, it is moving beyond these well-worn pathways of aid capture and divesting from projects that are already fraught and ineffective. The U.S. needs to invest in remaking its policies from the ground up and to examine its own hypocrisy, where it has often sought to stamp out “corruption” by working with local leaders to do so. How is this even possible when those same local leaders they are working with are cartel associates, employ mercenaries, and intimidate, kill, disappear political opponents?
Just think about the Juan Orlando Hernández [JOH] situation in Honduras. This was a character whom the U.S. openly supported, called its friend, someone it “worked together” with to improve conditions in Central America so that people don’t leave, etc. This didn’t work—instead, the U.S. invested in the Honduran security apparatus, a putrid and corrupt institution, which helped Hernández consolidate his grip on the country. The U.S. then, unable to recognize its errors, as usual, accepted his lip service about curbing migration while, in fact, he was instrumental in fomenting it. The U.S. also supported the disastrous coup in Honduras against the democratically elected Manuel Zelaya in 2009, a coup that gave way to the Hernández period. This is the United States that Central Americans know. So, now that JOH is out of power, and rightly so—even after that fraudulent election that kept him there until 2022, which included a blessing from the U.S. government—now, when the damage is done, the U.S. legal system wants to make an example out of him. This has always been the way that the U.S. has operated in Central America: propping up heavy-handed right-wing figures, looking the other way when they engage in corruption and criminality, biding its time until their political utility runs out.
Today, Kamala Harris’s Root Causes Strategy has become another misguided package of policies and financing to generate new commitments, foment inclusive growth, create jobs, and opportunities. It really is more of the same, almost recycling language from CAFTA itself. Harris’s approach aims to partner up with private corporations like Nestlé and its subsidiary Nespresso to stimulate the coffee economies of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It has also partnered with MasterCard to bring people into the global economy—more banking the unbanked stuff, for people to access credit and enter into the global debt economy. Their plan also includes expanding textile production in Honduras with a new, state-of-the-art yarn-spinning facility. Struggling PepsiCo will now have more access to Central American markets to move its products and use up water, while somehow helping replenish watersheds—how? I could go on, but as you can see, it’s the CAFTA template again and again.
What are the connections between CAFTA and climate change?
The environmental crisis in Central America is expressed in enduring drought, turbocharged hurricanes, malnourishment, food scarcity, and land struggles. The right to food and water is one of the many roots of migratory stress today. These afflictions acutely express the ecological crisis as it impacts everyday life, making the environment determinant in the making of climate refugees and in pushing people out of an increasingly uninhabitable Central America. CAFTA is a key part of eroding environmental resilience in the region, in contributing to pollution and illness, in creating toxic landscapes where people simply cannot live.
Let’s take CAFTA-supported agriculture. Deadly pesticides, for instance, that were long banned in the U.S. were exported to Central America for local use, where they did and continue to poison thousands of laborers each year. Much of the land, the water table, and the food chains that are linked to these, are now contaminated by use of toxic inputs to maintain high yields. All the rivers in El Salvador, most in Guatemala and Honduras too, are polluted beyond repair. Corporations’ unchecked practices have continued for decades. Instead of creating mechanisms for community redress, CAFTA instead offered special protections to enable industries to freely dump toxic chemicals into the environment, suck up water from underneath communities, with little to no consequences. These special protections also allowed corporations to sue communities and groups who stood in the way of their profiteering. It helped lobby Central American governments to create a lax regulatory atmosphere for this plunder to continue unimpeded. This is capital-induced environmental destruction that affects water use and accessibility, criminalizes those who stand in the way of corporate extraction, it has helped to accelerate the desertification of the region, has deforested acres upon acres of Central America, and created highly volatile environments that are recurrently at risk to floods, to washing away. These are now climate-vulnerable places.
How can we understand border issues beyond the border?
Borders and border fortifications should be thought of as vehicles for ensuring access to markets and to cheap labor. CAFTA was key in creating and ensuring that Central America would continue to be an exploitable zone for decades to come. Nothing about this has fundamentally changed, now getting close to almost 20 years after CAFTA’s signing. The U.S. still invests in the region for specific, self-serving purposes: right now, it’s about climate resilience and rebuilding small-scale farming—to supposedly create the conditions for people to stay in their countries and build decent lives. This is impossible from what I see, however, since we’re already so close to the point of environmental collapse. In many places, especially after progressively harsher hurricane seasons, the towns that are meant to be supported or made climate resilient may no longer even be there. These remedies are just, while perhaps more well-intentioned than previous iterations, too little, too late. These policies have such a skewed timeframe, linked to electoral calendars, that they are incompatible with how people live drought, heat stress, and insecurity as everyday phenomena.
In a similar way that in Europe you have Frontex externalizing its borders and enlisting countries to do their dirty work for them across Africa and the Near East, you have Central America serving a parallel function to the United States. Now Central American nations are being fortified with U.S.-style equipment and techniques to do border enforcement in the style of DHS and CBP. We need to remain attentive of the doublespeak of the United Sates, which always aims to have it both ways while disavowing its historical role in creating the “root causes of migration.” The U.S. exploits and reaps the benefits of unregulated markets. Free trade has benefited U.S. corporations and served their economic interests. And they think it’s a remedy to contain people in countries where their best job prospect is to work a shitty dead-end job? This triangle of security, prosperity, and governance—represented by this USAID Northern Triangle Task Force—is one of the many projects and initiatives that the U.S. peddles today for addressing the Central American problem. It betrays the historical and material realities of how Central America became so disastered.
While Biden-Harris’s policies may have some positive short-term effects, they won’t ever rectify the entrenched economic issues and damages wrought by CAFTA, exacerbated by U.S. support for corrupt actors, as well as funding repression past and present. Before the 2020 election, I wrote a piece about why the U.S. election should matter to Central Americans. I recently looked back on this piece, and while indeed, Central American life does hinge on the actions of the U.S., since dependencies run deep, the most important matter that Biden can move on right now is on harm reduction at the U.S.-Mexico border, in the expansion of asylum qualifications and eligibility for climate migrants and economic migrants, in ending Temporary Protected Status for real permanence for those families in perpetual limbo, among others. The rest of it—wherein U.S. policy continues to wreak havoc on Central American societies under the guise of “deepening investment”—appears to be exempt and moves forward unaffected, unexamined, and unencumbered.
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