Escaping the Governance Trap: Economic Reform in the Northern Triangle
By Neil Shenai
Palgrave Pivot, 2022, 175 pp.
Security and Illegality in Cuba’s Transition to Democracy
By Vidal Romero
Tamesis, 2021, 174 pp.
Two books seek ways to ward off chaos in Central America and the Caribbean. Shenai, a former U.S. Treasury Department official responsible for Central America, has written a thoughtful study of the vexing problems plaguing the countries of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Loyal to his Treasury training, Shenai makes the case for structural economic reforms such as improving tax collection, reducing barriers to legitimate commerce, and expanding the access of citizens to financial instruments. If combined with enhanced public-sector accountability and financial integrity, these economic reforms could lead to virtuous cycles of more rapid economic growth, renewed trust in government institutions, and stronger, more efficacious development. Recognizing that reform-minded forces in Central America confront entrenched vested interests, Shenai calls on the United States—along with Canada, Mexico, and international financial institutions—to actively engage when domestic constituencies eager for reform gain sway. Shenai’s hopeful policy recommendations are broadly in line with those of the Biden administration’s “root causes” strategy for reducing immigration from the Northern Triangle. Fixing Central America is a complex generational project, and Shenai urges patience even as he recognizes that many politicians, in the region and in Washington, inevitably search for quick fixes.
Romero, a Mexican political scientist, fears that Cuba, a decaying socialist state, could descend into the gang-infested criminality and corruption that haunt the nearby Northern Triangle. Currently, the Cuban government guarantees public security while tolerating a culture of illegality characterized by petty corruption in the public sector and widespread black markets. Romero imagines a disturbing future wherein an inefficient bureaucratic state allows a degree of economic liberalization only to open the floodgates to international criminal organizations; the consequent turmoil prompts popular demands for an even more authoritarian government. To escape this nightmare scenario, Romero proposes preemptive measures remarkably similar to those the Biden administration and the international community are now urging for the Northern Triangle: enhancing public-sector transparency, combating money laundering, incorporating informal entrepreneurs into the legal economy, and constructing positive, independent civic organizations. He adds that Cuba should be admitted to international financial institutions to receive assistance in building competitive markets and pursuing progressive governance reform.