Vice President Joe Biden has announced that he will lead a new initiative to reverse the downward spiral that three Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have fallen into.
In the vice president’s words, these countries are being held back by “inadequate education, institutional corruption, rampant crime and lack of investment.” He went on to tag “the climate of endemic violence and poverty” as being at the heart of the problem.
Biden openly acknowledged that the driving force behind this initiative was the flood of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States last summer. He also pointed out that United States support is contingent on the need for the three country’s leaders to take “ownership of the problem.”
He conveniently, but understandably, omitted both the historic and recent U.S. complicity in creating these conditions: coup in Guatemala leading to 50 years or murderous civil war (Eisenhower,) support for death squads masquerading as freedom fighters in El Salvador (Reagan,) and support for the recent disastrous coup in Honduras (Obama.) The downward spiral has been further fueled by the deportation of gang-bangers after they have completed their prison terms in the U.S., a twisted kind of Yankee “re-entry” initiative.
In outlining the initiative the vice president lay down some important and useful guideposts. The first was that “security makes everything else possible,” the second that “good governance begets the jobs and investment that Central America needs.”
At this point, let’s shift gears or, more accurately, geographies. In closing his remarks, Biden said, “The cost of investing now in a secure and prosperous Central America is modest compared with the costs of letting violence and poverty fester.”
Here is the question: is this statement any less accurate if you substitute “Virgin Islands” for “Central America”?
What are the differences between the two situations and the challenges connected with addressing them?
First, there is the “ownership” issue. There is no doubt that the United States “owns” the Virgin Islands. In that sense, it has far more direct responsibility for action in the territory than it does in Central America. It also “owns” the issues of poverty, violence, lack of transparency and corruption in the territory because it has allowed them to fester and not taken substantive action to fix them. To paraphrase Colin Powell, you owned it, and you broke it.
Second, the small size of the territory’s population makes it easy to ignore. Fifty thousand impoverished and traumatized Virgin Islands youngsters are not going to show up in Texas any time soon. In some respects, it is difficult to imagine anything short of some kind of tourist-related calamity getting the territory on any meaningful radar screen. Or getting a vice-presidential initiative launched to fix it.
Finally, there is the stage in the path of decline. Although small in population, the levels of violence in the Virgin Islands are far closer to those in Central America than they are to almost anyplace in the mainland United States. And, while the public safety and social services infrastructure is far better than that in Central America, it is also far from adequate to meet the challenges that the Virgin Islands faces.
“We’re better than El Salvador” is not exactly a winning promotional slogan. It would be very difficult to dispute the assertion that violence and poverty are festering in the Virgin Islands.
In discussing Central America, Vice President Biden said “there is not enough government money … to address the scale of the economic need.” That may be true in Central America. It is certainly not true in the Virgin Islands. The investment needed to make the Virgin Islands a showcase of economic and social success is, to use the his phrase “modest compared with the costs of letting violence and poverty fester.”
It is also modest in actual terms.
But – a huge “but” relating to the point about good governance – the standard Virgin Islands postures of “just give us the money” and “no outsiders need apply” won’t wash anymore. As there is in Central America, there would be a basic need to exercise outside oversight as groups of local elites begin to drool over pots of new money. Success is a result of human endeavor and integrity linked to resources. The two can’t be separated.