Unleashing Central America’s Potential

Central America is in trouble.

Correction: Central America has been in trouble.

The region—south of Mexico, north of Colombia—has withstood blood-thirsty conquistadores bearing rifles and disease, rapacious business interests which ruled over banana republics, and the occasional invasion, civil war or golpe.

In the past few years alone, at least 50,000 people were killed in the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Consumer demand in the United States mixed with floundering economies and corrupt governments have made Central America the epicenter of a violent criminal landscape stretching from the coca farms of the South American Andes to the streets of L.A., Chicago and New York.

Last year U.S. border agents intercepted close to 70,000 migrants, the majority of whom were unaccompanied children fleeing carnage and despair. Officials expect another wave of refugees this year.

Hoping to keep Central America’s historical crises from becoming America’s current problem, the Obama Administration has asked Congress for $1 billion to put toward securing the region and lifting its economies. In an op-ed published by The Hill earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden, the Administration’s go-to guy on Central America, outlined how the U.S. government intends to spend its way out of danger (and into greater authority) in the area—namely by strengthening military and police forces, improving tax collecting and lowering corruption.

Such steps are merely bandages, of course. Some, like increasing military-police funding, will almost certainly make matters in the region much worse, as Dana Frank recently argued (yet again).

But rather than trying to end government corruption or human rights abuses—or simply rethinking the War on Drugs like retired U.S. admiral James Stavridis suggested in his op-ed for Foreign Policy—the United States needs to think deeper. Ultimately no society will keep itself safe from corruption, poverty, crime and violence if it fails to give due attention to one fundamental area of human life—education.

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Some people might scoff at my suggesting that teaching Central America to read and write would go a long way toward improving safety and prosperity in the region, but I don’t see how any one community, no matter how small or large, can even hope for safety and prosperity without first being empowered through literacy.

A belief in the power of literacy is also shared by ConTextos, a Chicago-based nonprofit teaching kids in El Salvador not only to read books, but to engage with ideas contained within them.

“My feeling was always that the books alone weren’t the powerful tool,” founder and executive director Debra Gittler told me during a recent conversation with her. “It’s an issue of what do books mean, what does reading mean.”

It might be easier to list the things ConTextos doesn’t do instead of listing what it does do—which includes everything from shipping books to Central America to establish libraries, to teaching parents and even teachers how to read.

“We work with parents so they learn how to touch books, because most of our parents have never held a book before,” Gittler explained. “When they come in, they’re afraid to touch them.”

In a region of the world where nearly 25 percent of kids drop out before 3rd grade and most adults have never read a single book, to expect an entire nation to pull itself up and address 21st-century issues is empezar la casa por el tejado.

Or as Gittler put it, “There’s no research in the world that shows you can skip teaching kids to read and write.”

Despite ConTextos’ success, the group still struggles to find donors to fund its work. Notwithstanding the bit of media attention the region received last summer on account of the refugees that flooded the U.S.-Mexico border, countries like El Salvador continue to be widely ignored by philanthropists and investors alike who focus their attention on more traditional regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Southeast Asia.

“It’s way more attractive,” Gittler told me. “Guatemala raises a lot of money because indigenous people are way more attractive in a photo. Poor kids in Africa, flies on the eyes—donors like that stuff.”

As for Gittler’s kids and others who don’t fit the stereotype…

“We’ve been told our kids should look poorer.”

While Central America’s close proximity perhaps has kept its countries from slipping into further scarcity, the Northern Triangle remains the most violent region in the entire world—outside a battlefield or the summit of an active volcano.

El Salvador recorded 4,000 murders last year—or 69 deaths for every 100,000 salvadoreños. The murder rate in neighboring Honduras has surpassed 90 in recent years. By comparison the murder rate in Afghanistan murder rate is no higher than 20 per 100,000.

Rampant violence is only one factor compelling so many Central Americans to brave the perilous trek northward.

“We have to make sure they have a reason to stay [in their home countries],” Gittler explained. “And they stay by having safe places to be where they feel loved and cared for, that they have to be engaged in meaningful things, which means education and sports and the arts.”

“The problem is not that they’re arriving at the border. The problem is that they feel the need to flee. And while education certainly isn’t going to fix everything, it’s not going to get fixed if there’s not a major investment in education.”

Indeed, the obstacles in front of Central America are varied and complex, and overcoming them will require active participation by the Central American people themselves, from the remotest mountain pueblitos to the modern and urban capitales.

But the people of Central America will never be able to write their future if they cannot read (and understand) their history.

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Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.

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