On Saturday, the U.S. State Department announced its plans to cease foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. President Trump had previously threatened to cut off aid to the same countries, claiming the countries organized migrant caravans to the United States and that the U.S. receives nothing in exchange for the aid. Since 2016, aid to the three countries has declined by more than a third.
Cutting foreign aid remains popular with President Trump’s base, although the American public consistently overestimates how much the U.S. gives in international assistance. But it is both erroneous and dangerous to view international aid purely as charity for which the U.S. receives nothing in return. International aid advances U.S. interests in a myriad of ways and builds goodwill through humanitarian assistance to reduce poverty and stem violence and corruption.
More concretely, U.S. aid enhances trade, immigration and security efforts. For example, international aid remains crucial to identifying and combating the root causes of mass migration from Central America, where nearly nine percent of the local population has left. In contrast, the U.S. ballooning expenditures on border security do nothing to address the push factors of migration. The roughly $627 million previously allocated to the Northern Triangle by the Obama administration was dedicated to increase security measures and foster economic growth within the region. The funding also supported training of law enforcement officers and judges to improve security and the rule of law. In addition to these initiatives, international aid provides a level of U.S. geopolitical influence in the Central American region that would otherwise be absent.
As part of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity (A4P) Initiative, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras committed $8.6 billion for institutional improvements including public safety, factors that would likely impact emigration from the region to match U.S. funding. However, U.S. contributions have remained below initial expectations. This new cut will likely lead to the unraveling of these collaborative responses—not just over the immediate issue of immigration but generally—and as a result inflict damage on the image of the U.S. in the region.
If the U.S. is concerned about Chinese influence in the Americas and increased pressure on Taiwan’s diplomatic partnerships, ending aid to the Northern Triangle countries promises the exact opposite effect of reducing regional engagement with its growing geopolitical rival. Beijing has aggressively sought to reduce the countries that have recognize Taiwan over the PRC, in part by offering large international aid packages to Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners and by including partners in broad global agreements such as the China-CELAC Forum and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Taiwan now maintains formal diplomatic recognition with only seventeen countries, four of which are in Central America—including both Guatemala and Honduras. Historically, Central America has provided Taiwan with some of its most stable diplomatic partnerships. Taiwan and the region are tied not only by anti-communist sentiment and a history of democratization but also through free trade agreements (FTAs) and mutual U.S. interests.
Our research highlights the ways that Taiwan has combined aid efforts with the creation and strengthening of Central American political and economic institutions to stave off diplomatic losses. However, such efforts rely both on implicit U.S. backing and unwillingness on the part of Beijing to outspend Taiwan to poach additional diplomatic partners. Costa Rica broke relations with Taiwan in 2007 and Panama left a decade later in pursuit of China’s offers of aid and investment incentives. El Salvador switched diplomatic recognition to China in 2018, an act that led to threats of U.S. retaliatory efforts, including proposed legislation to “restrict U.S. funding to El Salvador” and legislation to penalize countries who break relations with Taiwan. More recently, in the wake of last month’s Salvadoran election, president-elect Nayib Bukele has suggested switching recognition back to Taiwan, although such claims may be an attempt to reignite a bidding war between Taiwan and China.
The Trump administration’s ending of U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle countries, one of the main carrots available to the Washington, gives Central American countries more reason to look elsewhere for aid. With aid reductions last year, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez acknowledged the growing role of China in the region and suggested others would follow Panama and El Salvador in switching recognition to Beijing for the economic benefits. These additional cuts may make switching even easier for Taiwan’s remaining Central American diplomatic partners and provide China a greater presence in what Washington once viewed as its backyard. With its announcement this weekend, the State Department may have just given the Chinese a housewarming present to the neighborhood.
Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asian democracies.
Andi Dahmer is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University majoring in Economics, International Affairs, Spanish and Asian Religions and Cultures.