It is increasingly fashionable in both political parties to imagine that the United States can retreat or retire from global responsibilities, with few consequences for itself. Nothing demonstrates the folly of such thinking better than the desperate crowd of Central American kids at the southern U.S. border. This migratory chaos is the consequence of a decade of mounting social and political disorder in their home region, to which the U.S. response has been mostly benign neglect.
The kids come from Guatemala, El Salvador and, most of all, Honduras, a perennially impoverished country to which Washington last paid attention when it needed a base for anti-communist operations during the Cold War. Honduras has emerged as the murder capital of the Western Hemisphere, with a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 population in 2012. This violence, many of whose victims are children, is not the only reason kids are fleeing to the United States, but it is an important one.
Beset by gangsters, drug traffickers and corruption, Honduras is dangerously close to a failed state. There can be no permanent solution to the migration issue that does not include a serious effort to salvage Honduras. The nation’s newly elected president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, said as much in Washington last week. He called for a new joint security and development effort for Central America similar to the U.S.-backed, multiyear campaign that stabilized a Latin country once thought to be hopelessly mired in crime and political violence: Colombia.
Plan Colombia, as it was known, is indeed a model — one of the great bipartisan success stories of recent U.S. foreign policy. Started under President Bill Clinton and sustained by President George W. Bush with the support of Democrats in Congress, the effort cost the United States $8 billion but enabled the government in Bogota to slash the murder rate from 66.5 per 100,000 in 2000 to 30.8 per 100,000 in 2012, a drop of 53.7 percent. In addition to saving lives, the restoration of order enabled Colombia to resume brisk economic growth, and it is now a free-trade partner of the United States.
Plan Colombia’s results are the best answer to those who would say “nation-building” is always doomed to fail. To be sure, success requires help from other developed countries (Europe also pitched in to aid Colombia), as well as solid leadership and a crackdown on corruption in partner nations themselves — of the kind President Alvaro Uribe supplied in Colombia.
If Central American governments can muster the necessary political will, however, it would be tragic indeed if Washington failed to make a corresponding bipartisan commitment. As Hernandez noted, reasonably enough, drug consumption in the United States creates a certain responsibility here for violence related to drug trafficking in Honduras. Yes, it will be expensive to do for Central America what we did for Colombia, if it works at all. But the status quo is not exactly cheap either.