The recently inaugurated president of El Salvador said something this week that really needed to be said. For all the well-justified finger-pointing at the Trump administration for its mishandlng of the current immigration crisis, Central American leaders have yet to answer for their failure to address the root causes of the migratory surge.
“People don’t flee their homes because they want to. They flee their homes because they feel they have to,” Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, 37, told reporters Sunday. “They fled El Salvador, they fled our country. It is our fault.”
His words were prompted by the widespread publication last week of a gruesome photo showing a dead Salvadoran man and his toddler daughter floating face-down on the banks of the Rio Grande.
While their deaths refocused world attention on the stringent border-security policies imposed by President Donald Trump, Bukele took a healthy and skeptical look at the way his country has mishandled the problems that have prompted thousands of Salvadorans to flee northward. The same conditions that plague El Salvador also afflict Honduras and Guatemala.
Gangs are out of control. Jobs are scarce. Police and judges are corrupt. And the political leadership is inept.
“We can send all the blame to any government we like,” said Bukele, who took office on June 1. Speaking in English, he added: “We can say President Trump’s policies are wrong. We can say Mexico’s policies are wrong. But what about our blame?”
Famines and civil wars have largely been to blame for the migration crisis into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. Although Central America suffered its share of wars in the 1970s and ’80s, those days have long passed. Democratically elected governments have been in control for decades. Free-trade agreements were supposed to have opened the door to economic development.
But U.S. attention turned elsewhere. Billions of dollars in aid was supposed to have been channeled into programs to improve police training and reform Central American court systems to better equip those countries to combat their growing drug and gang violence. In 2015, El Salvador was the world’s murder capital. But those aid programs largely fizzled.
Corrupt leaders siphoned national wealth and squandered every opportunity to save their people. According to United Nations figures, one-tenth of Salvadorans have no access to potable water or sanitation. A third of the nation lives below the poverty line.
Fix these problems, Bukele says, and the migration crisis will dissipate quickly. He pledges at least to try, starting with a nationwide plan to retake control of areas where gangs dominate. Although he is young and his programs untested, Bukele’s straight talk marks a refreshing departure from the kind of finger-pointing that too often prevails — in Central America as well as in our own nation’s capital.