Central America isn’t poor.
In Spanish, unlike English, there are two forms of the verb “to be.” One expresses a temporary reality (“it is cold outside”), the other an enduring fact (“this is a cold country”).
The poverty experienced in Central America is not an enduring fact. Countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are rich in beauty and natural resources. Coral reefs, pine forests and grasslands host a diversity of wildlife. People maintain elements of cultural heritage that stretch back for centuries. There is no poverty inherent in the land or people in this region.
It is more accurate to say that Central America has been impoverished.
Christopher Columbus landed in Trujillo, Honduras, in 1502 on his last voyage to the Americas. After this, Spaniards spread out through the region, claiming land and gold that was not theirs, waging war and spreading disease. Three hundred and some odd years later, the Spaniards left, and U.S. banana companies flexed their control in the spaces they left behind.
Chiquita and Dole may not rule Central America with the power they used to, but U.S. interests continue to dominate. Trade policies privilege international corporations. Mining and hydroelectric companies strip natural resources and displace entire communities. Wealthy elites and politicians conspire to make systems work for those with money and guns and power, just as they did in the 1800s and the 1500s.
This history of extraction is lost when U.S. policymakers tout poverty-reduction strategies that ignore structural weaknesses and inequalities. Poverty is one of the root causes that drives migration toward the United States. But money or even jobs won’t be enough to lift communities out of poverty when wealthy countries continue to tip the scales in their favor.
Mennonite Central Committee works in Washington to advocate for policies that see Central American countries not as threats or lost causes but as inheritors of the United States’ militarized war on drugs, coercive trade policies and restrictive immigration policies. We advocate for foreign assistance that addresses the root causes of migration — not just poverty but the deeper roots that drive people into poverty and make it so hard to escape.
At the same time, MCC supports partner organizations in Central America who are sowing the seeds of peace, teaching children, strengthening communities and raising their voices against corruption and abuse in national governments.
Central America isn’t poor. It is rich — in faith, courage, creativity and persistence. Migrants bring these gifts as they travel through Mexico and into the United States. These gifts address poverty at its root and contribute to a future where everyone may choose whether to migrate or remain safe at home.
Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans are already deeply involved in the work of transforming their homes, but they shouldn’t have to do it alone. As U.S. citizens, we have a unique opportunity to influence policies in our country that promote safety and flourishing abroad.
The MCC U.S. Washington Office invites you to join us as we advocate for safe homes for people in Central America and safe refuge when Central American migrants arrive at the border of the United States. Visit washington.mcc.org to sign up for updates and learn about opportunities to advocate.
Katerina Parsons is legislative associate for international affairs in Mennonite Central Committee’s U.S. Washington Office, where she works on advocacy related to North Korea and Latin America. Story originally published on March 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review.