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Latin America: A year of movement

Benjamin Alvarez Gruber
December 31, 2018

Few issues have affected Latin America more this year than migration. But host countries are reaching their limits, despite a general willingness to take people in.

People taking part in the "migrant caravan" trying to the reach the US border
Image: Reuters/E. Garrido

There is a long history of migration in Latin America. Fear of dictatorships, bloody civil wars, armed conflict and also great poverty have repeatedly led to emigration to other countries.

Venezuela is particularly affected at the moment: Crippled with hyperinflation, banknotes there are used by weight and people dig in the garbage for food. According to the United Nations, more than three million Venezuelans have left the country, the vast majority (2.4 million) remaining in the region. The largest receiving country is Colombia, with over one million immigrants who have arrived from the crisis-stricken country.

Paper sculptures made out of worthless Venezuelan banknotes
Venezuela's crippling hyperinflation: Trinkets made out of its banknotes are worth more than the money itselfImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/D. Garzon Herazo

In spite of civil society's support, tensions flare up time and time again — for example in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima, where local residents set refugees' tents and huts on fire. But other countries are also finding it increasingly difficult to accommodate migrants and provide them with adequate medical care.

Read more: Mexico, Latin neighbors sign deal to stop emigration rush

In search of the American Dream

In addition, there is a general migration movement from Central America to the United States. Thousands of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador are prepared to walk up to 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles), to flee criminal violence in their home countries and seek a better life in the US.

The lives they leave behind are often desperate and under constant threat of violence. In Honduras, 3,300 people were murdered this year; in Guatemala the figure averages 16 people per day. From the beginning of 2018 to the end of October, more than 2,740 people died violently in El Salvador. For many migrants, the journey ends in Tijuana, the Mexican city directly on the border with California.

Read more: 'Migrant caravan was my only chance' for a better life

The desperate escape to Brazil

Resentment rising at the border

Despite the disregard for human suffering from the highest levels in Caracas and the populist rhetoric coming from Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, what is happening in the rest of Latin America cannot be separated from the politics of Washington. The harsh tone of US President Donald Trump — the man who wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and send in soldiers to prevent single mothers and their children from applying legally for asylum — is also being adopted by people in the southern neighboring country. In Mexico, historically a transit country for those heading north, criticism is being voiced against migrants, despite an initial willingness to help.

Protests were held in the Mexican city of Tijuana after thousands of people became stuck on the border to California. Demonstrators held up signs saying "No more caravans" and "No to the invasion." Now, the issue has effectively forced a US government shutdown, with Trump alleging that Democrats are at fault for not submitting to his blackmail over the proposed wall funding.

Read more: Will AMLO bring a new era of US-Mexico relations?

US plays tit for tat

On the one hand, Trump has threatened to withdraw development aid to Central American countries if they do not get migration under control. On the other hand, the US and Mexico have recently put forward a development plan for Central America, with Washington agreeing to invest about $5.8 billion dollars (about €5.1 billion) in economic growth and institutional reforms in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But whether it will stop the human exodus — and most importantly, help improve living conditions for millions of people across the region — remains to be seen.