The Debt We Owe Central America
The migrant caravan is full of people fleeing a world of inequality and violence that US elites helped create. We can't turn our backs on them.
A caravan of migrants is slowly making its way to the US’s southern border, and the anti-immigrant right thinks Americans should be afraid.
The migrants are traveling primarily on foot, fleeing a region wracked by poverty, corruption, and violence. Many are seeking asylum. Numbering somewhere between about four and ten thousand and likely to dwindle before they reach the United States, the group — which is largely comprised of Hondurans — has nonetheless been likened to a flood, an invasion, or even an army. President Trump is considering blocking their entry and has already deployed thousands of troops to the border. Paranoid right-wingers, imaginations running wild, are denouncing what they see as a plot financed by the billionaire George Soros, the Democratic Party writ large, or perhaps even Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela.
For other observers, however, Trump’s reaction only underlines his administration’s appalling immigration record — family separations at the border, heinous treatment of young people in immigration detention centers (including the rape of young women and girls by ICE agents), and other acts of gratuitous cruelty that spur a never-ending stream of headlines — and adds to the urgency of resisting his policies. Civil disobedience acts are proliferating, and a handful of Democratic politicians with national influence are now sympathetic to activists’ calls to abolish ICE.
Such outrage is healthy, and must continue if the nightmarish treatment of migrants is ever going to come to an end. But the Trump administration’s moral failures do not represent as dramatic a break with American traditions as some might think. Central America has long been at the heart of US empire. And the dire circumstances that have driven so many to leave are tied to violent historical processes that the United States helped set in motion.
The US Footprint
The history of US involvement in Central America reaches back at least as far as 1855, when soldier of fortune William Walker, born and raised in the American South, seized the Nicaraguan presidency by force. In his short time in power, Walker legalized slavery, declared English the official language, and launched an ultimately unsuccessful military campaign to conquer the Isthmus and transform it into a slave plantation economy modeled on the Antebellum South. After facing military defeat and deportation in 1857, Walker repeatedly returned until he was finally captured in 1860, handed over to Honduran authorities, and executed by a firing squad.
A few decades later, the United Fruit Company, a corporation formed in Boston, came to exert monopoly power over fruit exports and rail transportation throughout much of Central America. United Fruit dominated the production and export of bananas and other tropical fruits grown in Central America, squeezing smaller domestic producers out of the market and exerting poisonous political influence within these small, weak republics. The company kept prices low for American consumers by exploiting racial tensions between Central American and black West Indian workers to discourage unionization. And when strikes did occur, the company responded by enlisting the state to crush workers’ movements.
For good measure, US corporate executives bribed the local political elite, offering cash in exchange for lax regulations, minuscule tax obligations, and generous land concessions from the Central American public. While the region languished in poverty and economic underdevelopment, United Fruit grew in size and influence. Such blatantly corrupt practices continued at least as late as the 1970s, when reporters discovered that Eli Black, CEO of the company (by then renamed United Brands), had paid out at least half of a proposed $2.5 million bribe to Honduras’s president in return for reduced export taxes.
United Fruit did more than just buy off local officials. It worked methodically to destroy its political enemies. One such nemesis was Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala. In 1952, Arbenz issued a land reform program that called for the redistribution of United Fruit’s fallow lands in order to cut poverty rates among the country’s landless rural majority. Out of respect for the company’s property rights, Arbenz’s plan would have awarded United Fruit financial compensation for its holdings (though this compensation would be based on the notoriously low valuations the company reported on its corporate tax returns).
Executives were outraged. Stoking McCarthyist fears of international communism, they lobbied the Eisenhower administration to overthrow Arbenz’s government. The Eisenhower administration invoked “rollback” of communist government, but also drew on an older foreign policy tradition — the Monroe Doctrine — to insist that the United States had a particular right to determine political outcomes in its “backyard,” particularly in the face of European intervention.
The argument that the Soviets backed Arbenz was ludicrous. The Marxist presence in the government was both homegrown and small, limited to just four members of the legislature, all elected in free and fair elections, as well as a handful of informal advisors to the president. But fevered anticommunist dreams won the day. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles — both of whom had worked as lawyers on retainer for United Fruit and still owned company stock — organized a military coup in 1954. The next three decades were marked by military rule, culminating in a genocidal counterinsurgency campaign against indigenous groups in the early 1980s.
And it wasn’t just in Guatemala. Throughout the Cold War, American policymakers’ fears of communism in Central America helped unleash violence across the region. Dismissing even center-left reformers as dangerous radicals, both Democratic and Republican administrations threw their support behind right-wing militaries in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Once empowered, these militaries repressed labor unions and social movements, and routinely resorted to electoral fraud, coups, and dirty bargains with corrupt civilian governments to maintain their grip on power. The violence they meted out — all with the imprimatur of the US government — helped ensure that Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador would remain among the poorest and most unequal nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Ironically, the repression of reformers helped fuel the formation of the radical guerrilla movements that American policymakers had feared. In 1962, in a major speech about Latin America, John F. Kennedy proclaimed, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” His Alliance for Progress program aimed to support moderate reform movements that would blunt the appeal of radicalism.
Yet the year after his speech, Kennedy’s administration approved a right-wing coup in Guatemala to prevent the election of the anticommunist liberal reformer Juan José Arévalo. Officials in Washington feared Arévalo was too far left. Reasonably concluding that peaceful change was no longer possible, the Guatemalan left turned to armed revolution. A small insurgency metastasized into a long and bloody civil war.
The dark story of US intervention in Cold War–era Central America reached its climax in the 1980s. The Reagan administration showered the far-right military in El Salvador with economic and political support, and battled with a reluctant post-Vietnam Congress to do the same in Guatemala. Reagan also staunchly backed the right-wing contras at war with the new socialist government in Nicaragua, infamously breaking the law to do so. American policymakers sugar-coated such brutality with the language of democracy and nation-building. Reagan went so far as to call the contras — denounced by human rights groups for their torture and indiscriminate violence against civilians — the “moral equal of our founding fathers.”
In a 1983 press conference in Honduras held after Reagan met with Efrain Ríos Montt, Reagan assured reporters that the Guatemalan dictator had received a “bum rap” from biased left-wing reporters and human rights activists. A truth and reconciliation commission later found that roughly eighty-six thousand people died during Ríos Montt’s seventeen months in office, the bulk of them civilians of indigenous descent at the hands of the military. Today, scholars now hold Ríos Montt responsible for acts of genocide. So did a court of law in 2013.
And while US supporters of intervention justified their actions in the name of nation-building, when the wars ended and the region was in dire need of financial assistance, the flow of funds reduced to a trickle. In 1990, two years before the country’s civil war ended, El Salvador received over $300 million in aid (about $600 million in 2018 dollars) from the US. In 2014, the year that unaccompanied minors fleeing the Northern Triangle first grabbed headlines, El Salvador only got $21.6 million.
Foreign aid has since risen, but because much of it’s focused on facilitating foreign investment through tax incentives, free trade zones, and further militarization of internal security forces, it is unlikely to benefit the impoverished majority.
After the Cold War
More than two decades after the Cold War, American empire still looms large in Central America — and it isn’t just because of Trump.
When Honduras’s center-left president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in 2009, Barack Obama’s State Department extended diplomatic recognition to the coup government, long before most European or Latin American nations. That decision lent much-needed legitimacy to the new regime, which proceeded to persecute progressive social movements and severely damage the country’s democratic institutions. The exodus of migrants from Honduras is a direct product of the violent environment the US-backed regime created.
Obama’s second great failure in Central America occurred in 2014, when the arrival of unaccompanied minors into the US spiked. The Obama administration ought to have dealt with asylum applications fairly. Instead, it deported migrants by the thousands. Many ended up dead.
As troubling as Obama’s Central America record is, the Trump administration’s may well end up being worse. While the modest economic development assistance provided by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the 2014 unaccompanied minors crisis was unlikely to alter the structural forces driving migration, Trump’s decision to dramatically reduce such funding (and perhaps outright end it) in exchange for even greater emphasis on counter-narcotics operations could exacerbate the violence.
In Guatemala, the Trump administration has supported moves by Jimmy Morales’s administration to weaken anti-corruption measures, after it was discovered that Morales had failed to disclose millions of dollars in donations to his 2015 campaign. Social movements in Guatemala have responded to Morales’s corruption with mass demonstrations in support of the imperiled International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The Trump administration, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit in Morales, has signaled support for attacks on CICIG and its mission to reduce corruption in Guatemala’s political class. Congress, egged on by Florida senator Marco Rubio, has suspended American aid to CICIG.
Then there’s Trump’s nativist rhetoric. The president has famously painted Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals,” and routinely conflates Latinos in the US with the MS-13 gang, even calling Salvadoran immigrants “animals.” This odious language is more than just immoral — it’s dangerous. It whips up the ugliest elements of American politics and fuels racist nativism. In abandoning the dog whistle of past Republican politicians in exchange for blatant appeals to bigotry and hatred, Trump has poisoned the public discourse and endangered a wide swath of American society.
Trump’s rhetoric also downplays the extent to which Central America’s problems are tied to the United States. A hyper-militarized drug war, backed to the hilt by the United States, fuels violence. Propping up right-wing leaders that squelch democratic rule does the same.
Central America’s problems are not exotic issues beyond American influence, and refugees are not strangers from a distant, alien land. Central Americans live in the orbit of US power — they have for centuries. The world of inequality, corruption, and violence they’re fleeing is a world that American elites have helped build. To shrug off the struggles the region confronts today is to deny responsibility for decade after decade of neocolonial meddling.
A Different Kind of Foreign Policy
Central America has long functioned as a testing ground for American imperial violence, a region where policymakers and military officials learn brutal tactics and strategies that they then apply elsewhere in the world.
But there’s no reason Central America can’t instead be the point of origin for a more humane, democratic foreign policy. The ballooning defense budgets that accompany American imperial projects weaken our ability to build a decent society at home. The violence engendered by these same projects weakens the ability of our sibling republics to the south and around the world to do the same.
The starting point for an anti-imperialist foreign policy is a simple principle: do no harm. When Central American reform movements emerge to create more egalitarian and democratic societies, Washington needs to get out of their way. When refugees arrive seeking asylum, the US should let them in. And if political violence erupts again, as it did in the 1980s, the US mustn’t side with the military and right-wing elites.
To create a better world, in which families need not flee their homes in a bid for basic personal security, American policymakers cannot close the United States off from the outside world. Nor should they continue to try to remold the world beyond our borders, like so much loose clay, in order to serve selfish political interests at home.
The moral imperative is instead to fashion a foreign policy based on the noble ideals of democracy, self-determination, and human rights that have inspired men and women across the Americas for generations.