At the end of last month, US President Donald Trump directed his administration to suspend the payment of aid to three countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The decision to cancel the foreign assistance programs, which are estimated to be valued at US$500 million — plus the funds that are left over from the previous year — came as a pressure mechanism to push the governments of those nations to do more to tackle the constant flow of immigrants from that region to the US.
Trump made the announcement to reporters saying: “I’ve ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and El Salvador,” adding: “No money goes there anymore... We were giving them US$500 million. We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them anymore because they haven’t done a thing for us.”
After he made the announcement, he also threatened to close down parts of the Mexican border, a move that could have negative repercussions for the US economy by disrupting commerce and tourism between the two countries.
The decision to suspend the aid has already caused a backlash from members of the US Democratic Party and aid advocates who think that reducing violence and stimulating economic development in developing countries is the best way to reduce migration in those regions.
It is still unclear whether the decision will be challenged in court, but many experts, including former US ambassador to Honduras Jim Nealon, have said that the money that the US provides to those countries does not go directly to foreign governments, but “to programs designed and implemented by the US, with the cooperation of governments and civil society,” with much of the aid being administered by nonprofit organizations.
Authorities in the region have said that they are taking what measures they can under their laws to tackle the migration problem. Mexico, for example, has offered thousands of temporary humanitarian visas to migrants, permitting them to stay and work in the country.
The suspension of aid will definitely have consequences for Central America, and as evidence of how much the dynamics could change once the cuts are enabled, Honduran newspaper La Tribuna on March 31 published an article saying that Russian Ambassador to Guatemala Alexander Khokholikov has openly voiced the interest that his country has in strengthening cooperation in the region.
The announcement came at a meeting between Khokholikov, Central American Integration System (SICA) Secretary-General Vinicio Cerezo and Central American Parliament President Irma Amaya.
Khokholikov has said that his country would look to improve cooperation, political dialogue, investment and trade, and develop social programs to improve the quality life of the citizens living in SICA countries.
However, the countries are not the only ones that would be influenced by the decision — this action has the potential to disrupt the diplomatic relationship between Taiwan and its Central American allies by pushing Honduras and Guatemala to fill the void left by the lack of US financial support by turning to China to keep the much-needed foreign aid coming in.
There were rumors circulating last year about which nation might be the next to follow El Salvador and switch ties from Taipei to Beijing, with Honduras and Nicaragua among the top candidates, but after a loan of US$100 million that Taiwan has given the administration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, it seems like the relationship with Managua became more stable.
This brings the attention back to Honduras and Guatemala. Last year, Taiwan News reported on more than one occasion how the Honduran authorities were dissipating rumors about a possible breakup.
The first report came in May last year, when Honduran Ambassador to Taiwan Rafael Sierra denied rumors that the Honduran minister of foreign affairs was in Beijing negotiating a possible deal to cut ties with Taiwan.
He also described the relationship between the two nations as stable.
In September last year, there was another report that talked about the denials by Honduran Ambassador to the US Marlon Tabora Munoz of reports that the Central American nation was looking to make a change in diplomatic ties.
“Honduras values its long-term friendship with Taiwan and hopes for a continuous deepening of the relationship,” Munoz said.
Later that month, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez gave an interview to Reuters in which he said that if there were cuts in US support to Central America, that would probably have a negative effect on the efforts to reduce illegal immigration.
In the interview, he also described China’s growing diplomatic presence in Central America as an “opportunity,” and said there were other countries in the region that might follow El Salvador and Panama in switching ties.
However, when asked about a possible switch to China, he said that “we’re still with Taiwan.”
“Each country follows the principle of self-determination, that it can make its own decisions. For the time being, we’re betting on a commercial relationship with Taiwan, a window to enter the Asian market,” he said.
Guatemala had also faced its own rumors regarding a possible switch, prompting US Senator Marco Rubio to respond to them by urging Guatemala to maintain its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan or risk losing US aid.
Rubio also advised Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales not to listen to his pro-China aides regarding the situation of Taiwan.
The concerns of switches had been fueled after Guatemala failed to release a statement in support of Taiwan after El Salvador severed ties with the nation and after Hernandez did not speak out in behalf of Taiwan at the UN General Assembly.
However, after the unexpected backlash from the US for El Salvador’s decision to switch ties to Beijing, with members of the US Congress issuing threats of retaliation against the country and any others that might think about following their steps, the situation between Taiwan and its Central American allies seemed to normalize.
This was because of the need that the countries have for US aid and the historical relationship between them. These factors made the change of ties seem like an unlikely scenario, as it was not in their best interest to risk the funds coming from Washington by going against its wishes of a strong relationship with Taiwan.
However, the new decision to cut aid might release the pressure on the Central American nations — after all, what would they have to lose if they switch ties when the US is already cutting financial support?
There are already many observers who are discussing the possibility of China filling the void that the US is leaving by stepping back from the region.
Former Mexican ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo said on Twitter: “The U.S. should not be surprised that China is making inroads,” adding: “there are no voids in geopolitics.”
A switch of ties because of the US’ decision to suspend aid is not certain, but Taiwan must start planning a strategy that guarantees that regardless of whether the suspension of aid goes through, its relationship with the Central American countries is not affected.
Juan Fernando Herrera Ramos is a Honduran lawyer residing in Taiwan with a master’s in business administration.
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