SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — “We used to play here,” Gadi Hernández says with a touch of melancholy that belies her young age.
“We played kitchen, we played tag, we played hide-and-seek. There were pretty trees here.” Hernández who is 12, makes a wistful sweeping gesture across the trash-filled river below. “But the river ate our backyard. Now we have nowhere to play.”
That’s not the only thing the river ate. When Hurricane Iota slammed into Honduras last November, the Category Four storm turned the neighborhood creek into a raging sea. The water rose so fast it swept away Hernández’s tin-roof home and all her family’s belongings. Hernández, her mom, and two younger siblings were lucky to escape with their lives, wading to higher ground through the darkness of the storm-filled night. The smallest children were held aloft above the whitecaps.
“The water was up to here,” Hernández says, drawing a line across her neck. “It looked like an ocean.”
What Harris won't see
When U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits Central America for the first time on Sunday, she will be entering a region full of kids like Gadi Hernández. Harris most likely won’t meet any of them, or see the neighborhoods where they live. She’ll likely be confined to motorcades, shuffled into air-conditioned meeting rooms, and whisked through the colonial opulence of the presidential palace to suffer the limp handshakes of Guatemalan politicians. But she’ll get close enough to poverty to reinforce her notion that all is not well in Central America.
“The citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are leaving their homes at alarming rates,” Harris said during her address at last month’s Washington Conference on the Americas. “They leave only when they feel they must. People who have lost hope. We want to help people find hope at home.”
Today, Hernández and her family live in a windowless shack that was cobbled together with recycled nails and scrap wood salvaged from destroyed homes. Everything they own was donated by neighbors who lost slightly less than they did. It’s the poor helping the poor.
Hernández’s mother, Cindi Perdomo, says she dreams of emigrating to the United States with her three kids, but they don't have enough money to leave their neighborhood. They barely have enough money to stay.
“We don’t have money to buy anything,” Hernández explains. “Sometimes we don’t even have money for food.”
Asked by a reporter how she thinks the United States can help, Hernández looks with a kindly patience reserved for fools. “I have no idea,” she says. Her family’s needs, she explains slowly, are very basic: a house, a bed, clothes, plates, and food to put on them.
Hernández’s story is tragically familiar in Central America’s Northern Triangle. She’s a climate change refugee living in a wooden shack in a marginalized, gang-disputed neighborhood. Everything she owns is thanks to charity, including the Covid-19 surgical mask she wears.
But Hernández is also full of promise. She’s as resourceful as she is vulnerable. Every day she borrows her aunt’s cellphone so she can download her school assignments onto the tiny cracked screen and meticulously copy her homework into a notepad. She says she wants to become a teacher, a beautician, or a doctor. “Maybe one or two of those things, but I’m not sure which,” she confides.
At night, Hernández puts her notebooks away and lies in bed with her younger siblings, listening to the tropical rain pound the rusty tin roof and splash the dirt into mud on the road outside. On bad nights, she has nightmares about the flooded river coming in over her roof. On good nights, Gady says, she has “pretty dreams” about meeting God.
Restoring hope to Central America’s Northern Triangle is a noble, albeit quixotic goal, many experts warn. After all, where do you start to help a region plagued by corruption, poverty, impunity, organized drug-trafficking, gang violence, inequality, joblessness, worsening natural disasters, broken infrastructure, pandemic, and chronic misgovernance? And how do you start to really help a region after so many years of contributing to and enabling its tragic history of death, damage, and destruction?
The Biden administration is prioritizing the fight against corruption, but experts warn that is a wild beast that will be hard to tame. Will the $861 million the U.S. wants to invest in the Northern Triangle in the next fiscal year - a down payment on the $4 billion that Biden has promised over the next four years - make a dent in corruption? Or will that money only be more food for the beast? Will the Biden administration be able to work effectively with Central American civil society? Or will they unintentionally drive an even larger wedge between civil society and government, creating more friction for everyone?
The U.S. is also backing efforts to bringing together for the first time a coalition of civil society groups (CCINOC) in the Northern Triangle countries to pressure governments to tackle corruption and show greater respect for the rule of law.
Each country in Central America presents unique challenges. But Honduras is a particularly tricky case. Battered by twin hurricanes, a pandemic that’s hamstrung the economy, and narco-corruption that has allegedly reached the highest levels of government, Honduras now has the dubious distinction of being the poorest country in Latin America— with a poverty rate of 57.8%, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
The numbers relating to the welfare of children are even more alarming. Children’s rights group Casa Alianza reports a whopping two million children are outside of the education system in a country where only 75,000 kids are enrolled in public school.
Some 75% of school infrastructure is in a state of disrepair, including 500 classrooms that were damaged by hurricanes Eta and Iota last November. The country’s public health system is also on the brink of collapse. With resources overburdened by the coronavirus pandemic, other public health campaigns have fallen by the wayside, resulting in a worrisome uptick in dengue and diarrhea.
All those troubling data points are symptoms of much deeper problems, says Ricardo Coello, Casa Alianza’s program director. “In Honduras, the cancer is called corruption. In Honduras, the cancer is called violence, it’s called drug trafficking, it’s called inequality. As long as we don’t attack those situations, we will never get out of the hole we are in and our children will continue to emigrate, looking for hope in any other place but their own country,” he said.
Restoring hope in Honduras and the rest of the Northern Triangle requires an approach that’s both curative and punitive, Coello says. If the Biden administration focuses only on one aspect and not the other, it’ll leave the job half unfinished.
“Those who are involved in drug trafficking and are part of this so-called narco-state need to pay for the damage they have done to Honduran society,” Coello says. “They have to pay for the damage they have done to the children of this country,” he added.
If not, Coello warns, Central America’s vicious cycle will continue. And the Biden administration’s unfulfilled promises to help the northern triangle could extinguish any last embers of hope in the region.