SAN ANTONIO HUISTA — An American contractor went to a small town in the Guatemalan mountains with an ambitious goal: to ignite the local economy, and hopefully even persuade people not to migrate north to the United States.
Half an hour into his meeting with coffee growers, the contractor excitedly revealed the tool he had brought to change their lives: a pamphlet inviting the farmers to download an app to check coffee prices and “be a part of modern agriculture.”
Pedro Aguilar, a coffee farmer who hadn’t asked for the training and didn’t see how it would keep anyone from heading for the border, looked confused. Eyeing the U.S. government logo on the pamphlet, he began waving it around, asking if anyone had a phone number to call the Americans “and tell them what our needs really are.”
“They’ve never helped me,” Mr. Aguilar said after the training a few weeks ago, referring to American aid programs intended to spur the economy and prevent migration. “Where does all the money go? Where’s the aid? Who knows?”
As vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr. led an enormous push to deter people from crossing into the United States by devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to Central America, hoping to make the region more tolerable for the poor — so that fewer would abandon it.
Now, as President Biden, he is doubling down on that strategy once again and assigning his own vice president, Kamala Harris, the prickly challenge of carrying out his plan to commit $4 billion in a remarkably similar approach as she travels to the region Sunday.
“When I was vice president, I focused on providing the help needed to address these root causes of migration,” Mr. Biden said in a recent speech to Congress. “It helped keep people in their own countries instead of being forced to leave. Our plan worked.”
But the numbers tell a different story. After years of the United States flooding Central America with aid, migration from the region soared in 2019 and is on the upswing once more.
Here in Guatemala, which has received more than $1.6 billion in American aid over the last decade, poverty rates have risen, malnutrition has become a national crisis, corruption is unbridled and the country is sending more unaccompanied children to the United States than anywhere else in the world.
That is the stark reality facing Ms. Harris as she assumes responsibility for expanding the same kind of aid programs that have struggled to stem migration in the past. It is a challenge that initially frustrated her top political aides, some of whom viewed the assignment from Mr. Biden as one that would inevitably set her up for failure in the first months of her tenure.
Her allies worried that she would be expected to solve the entire immigration crisis, irked that the early reports of her new duties appeared to hold her responsible for juggling the recent surge of children crossing the border without adults.
Ms. Harris, who has little foreign policy experience and no history in the region, has already been criticized for not visiting the border. At a recent news conference, a group of Republicans displayed a milk carton that had been mocked up to show a picture of Ms. Harris with the headline: “MISSING AT THE BORDER,” even as she held a news conference with reporters detailing her plans to visit the region.
The political risks are evident, including the obvious pitfalls of investing billions in a region where the president of Honduras has been linked to drug traffickers and accused of embezzling American aid money, the leader of El Salvador has been denounced for trampling democratic norms and the government of Guatemala has been criticized for persecuting officials fighting corruption.
Even so, Ms. Harris and her advisers have warmed to the task, according to several people familiar with her thinking in the White House. They say it will give her a chance to dive squarely into foreign policy and prove that she can pass the commander-in-chief test, negotiating with world leaders on a global stage to confront one of America’s most intractable issues.
That test begins Sunday, when Ms. Harris embarks on her first international trip, to Guatemala and Mexico, where she is expected to detail efforts to reduce migration to the United States by seeking to improve conditions in those countries.
“Injustice is a root cause of migration,” Ms. Harris said during White House meeting on May 19 with four women who fought corruption in Guatemala. “It is causing the people of the region to leave their homes involuntarily — meaning they don’t want to leave but they are fleeing.”
While White House officials say their push to help Central America can do a tremendous amount of good, there is growing recognition inside the Biden administration that all the money spent in the region has not made enough of a difference to keep people from migrating, according to several administration officials and others with knowledge of the discussions.
“We’ve looked extensively at different programs that have been approached,” said Nancy McEldowney, a longtime diplomat who serves as Ms. Harris’s national security adviser. “She obviously has learned a lot from what then-Vice President Biden did. And so we are very mindful of the need to learn of both positive and negative, what has happened in the past.”
Foreign aid is often a difficult, and at times flawed, tool for achieving American interests abroad, but it’s unclear whether there are any simple alternatives for the Biden administration. President Donald J. Trump’s solution to migration centered on draconian policies that critics denounced as unlawful and inhumane. Moreover, members of the current administration contend that Mr. Trump’s decision to freeze a portion of the aid to the region in 2019 ended up blunting the impact of the work being done to improve conditions there.
But experts say the reasons that years of aid have not curbed migration run far deeper than that. In particular, they note that much of the money is handed over to American companies, which swallow a lot of it for salaries, expenses and profits, often before any services are delivered.
From 2016 to 2020, 80 percent of the American-financed development projects in Central America were entrusted to American contractors, according to data provided by U.S.A.I.D. The upside is that these companies have big offices capable of meeting the strict oversight requirements involved in handling millions of taxpayer dollars. The downside, critics say, is that a lot of the money disappears into those bureaucracies instead of reaching the people they’re trying to help.
Half a dozen development experts who have worked with or for the contractors said the companies could easily take about 50 percent of the aid money they receive and direct it toward overhead — including generous salaries for executives — and company profits. When asked about that figure, U.S.A.I.D. did not contest it.
“It’s a business,” said Carlos Ponce, a professor of nonprofit management at Columbia University who has worked for several U.S.-funded programs in the region. “And the same implementers win the contracts again and again, despite having implemented badly in the past, not showing any level of impact and not changing anything.”
U.S.A.I.D. would not provide an estimate of how much taxpayer money spent on specific projects in Central America gets eaten up by administrative costs, noting that the agency is “legally restricted” from sharing its partners’ “proprietary information.”
“It’s an incredibly not-transparent situation,” said Eric Olson, an expert on foreign aid to Central America at the Seattle International Foundation. “It’s like this is a national secret.”
Ms. Harris’s aides say she wants to make absolutely sure that as much assistance as possible heads directly to the communities it’s intended for.
“She is concerned to make sure that we’re getting maximum benefit for every single dollar that we spend,” Ms. McEldowney said. Asked whether that included scrutinizing the money flowing to U.S. contractors, she said, “We are looking at that issue.”
Even when aid money reached Guatemala in recent years, it often brought little change, according to interviews with dozens who worked with or received assistance from U.S.-financed projects in the country’s western highlands.
One, called the Rural Value Chains Project, spent part of its $20 million in American aid building outhouses for potato farmers — many of which were quickly abandoned or torn apart for scrap metal.
“This brings no value to people,” said Arturo Cabrera, a local government official, peeking into an unused outhouse. “It doesn’t generate income,” which is what people ultimately need, he added.
One achievement touted by Nexos Locales, a $31 million project administered by Development Alternatives Incorporated, a company based in Bethesda, Md., was creating an app to enable residents to see how their local government spent money. Aid workers said that many residents didn’t have smartphones, and that they couldn’t afford to pay for the data to use the app even if they did.
The company did not comment, directing questions to U.S.A.I.D. But several people who worked for or advised Nexos said they had grown frustrated at what they saw as wasted funding on dubious accomplishments. They described being pushed to count results like how many meetings they held and how many people attended, but had no idea whether those activities had any lasting impact.
“You felt impotent, knowing what young people or women needed, and we couldn’t do it,” said Alma López Mejía, a K’iche’ Maya Indigenous leader and a former manager at Nexos.
When aid workers started showing up one after another in the town of San Antonio Huista about six years ago, Elvia Monzón was relieved.
Then, it seemed that everyone Ms. Monzón knew had left the area, spread across a mountain range where coffee fields bask in a perfect mix of sun and rain. On clear days, you can see Mexico from the dirt road that snakes through town.
Ms. Monzón’s husband was already in the United States, and her son, then 14, begged her to take him there. When she wouldn’t, he left on his own and, his mother said, made it safely across the border.
For decades, migration to the United States followed a pattern: Aside from some spikes in migration from Central America after civil wars or natural disasters, it was mostly single Mexicans who headed north in search of better jobs and pay.
Then, in 2014, officials noticed the makings of a major shift: Record numbers of Central American children and families were crossing, fleeing gang violence and widespread hunger.
The Obama administration tackled the dicey politics of immigration in part by removing undocumented workers, earning the president the nickname “deporter in chief” from critics. But he also oversaw an infusion of new aid money that would, in theory, make countries like Guatemala more bearable for the poor. Mr. Biden was tapped to help disburse $750 million to the region.
Since then, at least three programs that won more than $100 million in U.S. funding in all have come to San Antonio Huista, hoping to make life better. Yet, in interviews, Ms. Monzón and more than a dozen other coffee farmers here could not point to many long-term benefits, despite the attention.
Aid workers kept coming to deliver lots of seminars on topics in which the farmers were already well versed, they said, such as planting new varieties of coffee beans, and then left.
“So many trainings, but at the end of the day where is the money?” asked Ms. Monzón. “The aid isn’t reaching the poor.”
U.S.A.I.D. said its programs in Central America “have had demonstrable success,” creating tens of thousands of jobs in the region in recent years, helping increase sales for small businesses and contributing to “declining migration intentions” from some Hondurans who received services.
The agency noted that American companies administering aid in the region subcontract part of their work to local groups, that no formal complaint had been filed against Nexos Locales, and that building outhouses or smartphone apps represented a small part of the efforts in Guatemala.
Some programs, like efforts to reduce violence in Honduras and El Salvador, have worked well, independent studies have found.
“All activities funded with U.S.A.I.D.’s foreign assistance benefit countries and people overseas, even if managed through agreements with U.S.-based organizations,” said Mileydi Guilarte, a deputy assistant administrator at U.S.A.I.D. working on Latin America funding.
But the government’s own assessments don’t always agree. After evaluating five years of aid spending in Central America, the Government Accountability Office rendered a blunt assessment in 2019: “Limited information is available about how U.S. assistance improved prosperity, governance, and security.”
One U.S.A.I.D. evaluation of programs intended to help Guatemalan farmers found that from 2006 to 2011, incomes rose less in the places that benefited from U.S. aid than in similar areas where there was no intervention.
Mexico has pushed for a more radical approach, urging the United States to give cash directly to Central Americans affected by two brutal hurricanes last year. But there’s also a clear possibility — that some may simply use the money to pay a smuggler for the trip across the border.
The farmers of San Antonio Huista say they know quite well what will keep their children from migrating. Right now, the vast majority of people here make their money by selling green, unprocessed coffee beans to a few giant Guatemalan companies. This is a fine way to put food on the table — assuming the weather cooperates — but it doesn’t offer much more than subsistence living.
Farmers here have long dreamed of escaping that cycle by roasting their own coffee and selling brown beans in bags to American businesses and consumers, which brings in more money.
“Instead of sending my brother, my father, my son to the United States, why not send my coffee there, and get paid in dollars?” said Esteban Lara, the leader of a local coffee cooperative.
But when they begged a U.S. government program for funding to help develop such a business, Ms. Monzón said, they were told “the money is not designed to be invested in projects like that.”
These days, groups of her neighbors are leaving for the United States every month or two. So many workers have abandoned this town that farmers are scrambling to find laborers to harvest their coffee.
One of Ms. Monzón’s oldest employees, Javier López Pérez, left with his 14-year-old son in 2019, during the last big wave of Central American migration to the United States. Mr. López said he was scaling the border wall with his son when he fell and broke his ankle.
“My son screamed ‘Papi, no!’ and I said to him, ‘Keep going, my son,’” Mr. López said. He said his son made it to the United States, while he returned to San Antonio Huista alone.
His family was then kicked out of their home, which Mr. López had given as collateral to the person who smuggled him to the border. Then house they moved into was destroyed by the two hurricanes that hit Guatemala late last year.
Ms. Monzón put Mr. López in one of her relatives’ houses, then got the community to cobble together enough money to pay for enough cinder blocks to build the family a place to live.
While mixing cement to bind the blocks together, one of Mr. López’s sons, Vidal, 19, confessed that he had been talking to a smuggler about making the same journey that felled his father, who was realistic at the prospect.
“I told him, ‘Son, we suffered hunger and thirst along the way, and then look at what happened to me, look at what I lost,’” Mr. López said, touching his still-mangled ankle. “But I can’t tell him what to do with his life — he’s a man now.”