Promoting Economic Growth in the Northern Triangle: A Practical Approach

The Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center partnered with the George W. Bush Institute for a day of events around the topic “Promoting Growth in the Northern Triangle.” The Arsht Center’s Central America Portfolio and the Bush Center’s Central America Prosperity Project (CAPP) share the common goal of contributing towards propelling the region forward to generate better living conditions in order to prevent forced migration. On this occasion, the organizations joined efforts to discuss how the countries in the Northern Triangle –Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala— can advance their economic development and strengthen relationships with key partners such as the United States.

The program kicked off with welcoming remarks from Jason Marczak, Director of the Arsht Center, who stated that the incoming leadership in El Salvador and the upcoming elections in Guatemala represent a critical moment to create prosperity. Marczak mentioned that change will not come easily, and thus, the work of the Bush Center and the Atlantic Council are relevant in fostering collaborations to enlighten the future of Americans and Central Americans alike. He then yielded the floor to Pia Orrenius, Vice President and Senior Economist of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in her role as member of the Bush Institute’s Economic Growth Initiative Advisory Council. Dr.Orrenius gave opening remarks and underscored the importance of the efforts and policy recommendations of both think tanks in building a better region.

Subsequently, Marczak moderated a keynote fireside chat featuring Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The conversation revolved around the importance of US engagement in the region, the strategy, and how the current political landscape in the US shapes that discussion. Senator Cornyn stressed how the challenges that the Northern Triangle faces are represented in mass migration and security challenges for the US but that the US approach must be aligned with each country’s needs and with constituents’ expectations. Senator Carper recalled the success of the US strategy in helping Colombia fight guerrillas and paramilitary groups by taking a “You Can Do It, We Can Help Approach.” Both Senators agreed that a defined plan and committed leadership in the Northern Triangle are critical to achieve success as in the Colombian case and that Mexico should become a mutual ally to Central American countries and the US in preventing unauthorized migration.

The event continued with the panel: “Central America at a Crossroads” introducing CAPP members who are young experts from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Maria Fernanda Perez Arguello, Associate Director at the Arsht Center, served as moderator and prompted the panelists to speak about the current political scenario in their countries. Marielos Chang, co-founder of Red Ciudadana from Guatemala, noted that there is a question mark regarding what will happen in next month’s presidential elections. With uncertainty about who will appear on the ballots, conversations revolve around electoral processes and institutions rather than about proposals, party coalitions or candidates’ position towards CICIG. Alfredo Atanacio, Co-founder of Uassist.ME from El Salvador, mentioned that the unexpected election of Nayib Bukele represents hope but also uncertainty. A five-year presidential period is a short time span to ameliorate the serious security and economic situation of the country, which can disappoint the people who -out of mistrust for the political system- got him elected in the first place. With regards to Honduras, Guillermo Peña, president of the Board of Directors of Fundacion Eleutera, emphasized the lack of trust and high polarization of the country. He mentioned that Honduras faces additional challenges due to the severe crisis in neighboring Nicaragua that hampers Honduras’ trade and brings migration into the country.

Next, was the panel called “The Imperative of Financial Inclusion in the Northern Triangle,” moderated by Matt Rooney, Managing Director of the George W. Bush Institute. This panel included remarks from Claudia Umaña, Vicepresident of Fundación Salvadorena para el Desarrollo Económico y Social (FUSADES) in El Salvador, Kathia Yacaman, Executive Vice President of Grupo Karim, from Honduras, and Juan Carlos Zapata, Executive Director of the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (FUNDESA). To kick off the conversation, Rooney presented an optimistic picture with the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and then invited panelists to speak about their countries in a context of technological changes and the fight against corruption. Umaña stressed that the fourth industrial revolution represents an opportunity for El Salvador to leapfrog even in an adverse situation, and that they have taken a positive approach by securing 90 percent of internet coverage. With regards to Guatemala, Zapata stated that the highly rural set-up of the country generates problems such as infant malnutrition and weak telecommunications. He proposed the development of intermediate-sized cities to advance wellbeing for the rural population. Finally, Yacaman mentioned that while Honduras is still far behind in digitalization, steps forward such as online banking and birth certificates’ digitalization must be recognized. The panelists and moderator concluded that a change of mindset and regional collaboration are instrumental to leverage innovation and foster prosperity.

Following the panel, a video message from Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) was screened. Senator Cassidy described the deleterious effects of illegally-obtained money from drug trafficking and faulty trade transactions and presented a proposal for its solution: a public distributive ledger that uses blockchain to track illicit commercial activities. He then stated that Central America can benefit from a strong relationship with the US because China’s current investments in the region pose risks and yield uneven benefits for them and for the countries where they invest. Lastly, he highlighted the friendly relationship between the region and the State of Louisiana and encouraged cooperation for mutually beneficial policies.

To close the event, Jon E. Piechowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs of the US Department of State offered keynote remarks. Secretary Piechowski detailed how the current administration’s goals of safeguarding security, governance, and sovereignty build towards the benefit of the countries of the region. He reaffirmed the U.S.’ commitment to be a free and fair-trade market partner adhering to international standards and an ally to fight “transnational crime and illegal immigration [that] rob these countries of critical sources of economic growth.” Mr. Piechowski underscored the US’ interest in restoring governance in Nicaragua and appealed to the public, private, and social sectors to work together in preserving democracy and prosperity in the hemisphere.

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