Barack Obama Has Nothing to Say About Central America
In his recently released memoir A Promised Land, Barack Obama has neatly removed Central America from his narrative of the first years of his presidency. Perhaps he thought no one would notice.
Barack Obama’s seven-hundred-page memoir — nine hundred including photos and notes — is an extraordinarily self-indulgent exercise that oscillates between false modesty, petty recrimination, sputtering justification, and auto-hagiography.
Many have noted how Obama takes the opportunity to rewrite history, asserting new explanations for controversial actions. But the book is also notable for its omissions. Despite the painful absence of an editor’s hand to curb the president’s excesses, significant events, even entire regions, have been deleted from Obama’s account of his rise to power and first term in office.
In 1981, Reagan’s UN Ambassador called Central America “the most important place in the world for the United States.” The site of US bloody counterrevolutionary interventions during the Cold War, a laboratory of neoliberal restructuring in the 1990s and 2000s, and the source of increasingly criminalized and stigmatized mass migration to the United States, Central America and Central Americans have occupied an outsized role in US policy and political discourse over the last fifty years. Yet Central America is among the casualties of Obama’s book, assigned to oblivion together with other unsavory notables like Hugo Chávez or Bernie Sanders.
On June 1, 2009, Obama’s secretary of state Hillary Clinton traveled to El Salvador to attend the inauguration of President Mauricio Funes, a progressive journalist who made history as the first leftist president ever to govern the country, elected on the ticket of the party of the former Marxist-Leninist insurgency that fought the US-backed military dictatorship to a draw in 1992. Just weeks later, Clinton’s State Department rushed to legitimize a military coup against Manuel Zelaya, the democratically-elected, increasingly left-leaning president of Honduras next door.
The coup shocked the hemisphere and was the first brazen attack in a cascade of reaction against the progressive and left governments that had been elected throughout Latin America over the course of the previous decade. In her 2014 memoir, Clinton dedicated two pages to the affair, writing that in the coup’s aftermath, “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.” That line, together with the entire account of the coup, was quietly eliminated from the paperback edition.
Obama learned Clinton’s lesson and then some. Honduras receives no mention in his book, save a single reference with respect to Tim Kaine’s mission work. Indeed, Central America as a whole is mentioned precisely once, in a passing comment on migration. Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, and Belize do not appear at all.
El Salvador surfaces once in the text, in reference to the origins of wounded US servicemen. (The Deporter in Chief does not reflect, unsurprisingly, on how many veterans were forced from the country on his watch.) El Salvador’s omission is particularly striking given that Obama himself traveled to the country in 2011, where he visited the tomb of martyred Archbishop Óscar Romero. Now a saint, Romero was gunned down by US-trained security forces while celebrating mass in 1980. The streets of San Salvador’s chaotic central district were gleaming that day, scrubbed of both dirt and the informal vendors whose stalls typically crowd the sidewalks surrounding the cathedral.
That trip was the culmination of a three-country Latin American tour, preceded by Brazil and Chile. Obama recounts his visit to Brazil in some detail, as the backdrop to the unfolding intervention in Libya (which he terms “essentially a humanitarian mission.”) A description of a tense dinner in Santiago follows, after which the president reappears in Washington. El Salvador vanishes from the account, purged from Obama’s itinerary like the underclass from San Salvador’s streets.
But Obama’s erasure of Central America does not begin with the events from his first term. It comes early in the volume, starting with a hapless, idealistic young Barry graduating from college in 1983 and finding there were “no movements to join.”
Certainly, US social movements had ebbed significantly since their heyday in the late 1960s. But in 1983, left organizations were far from extinct. In fact, the Central America solidarity and sanctuary movements were ascendent, mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers across the country against US intervention and the criminalization of refugees.
Obama frames his turn to community organizing in Chicago at this point as maturation, overcoming grand illusions for the satisfaction of trying his best and winning small victories (like “getting more police patrols”). History had surpassed the revolutionary imagination, and so had he.
But even as Obama was reveling in narrower horizons, Central American revolutionaries were engaged in epic national liberation struggles and forging militant internationalist networks. This inconvenient history would complicate Obama’s narrative, in which he abandons his anonymous “local heroes” to pursue bigger dreams by building a career in politics, starting with Harvard Law. No other paths to effect transformative change exist: there were “no movements to join.”
Indeed, Central American solidarity and sanctuary are not the only movements victim to Obama’s slight-of-hand. Occupy Wall Street disappears entirely from his account of the financial crisis and its aftermath. The pressure from increasingly militant undocumented activists, however, does surface eventually.
While campaigning for the 2010 mid-terms, Obama notes, “Young Hispanics asked why my administration was still deporting undocumented workers and separating families at the border.” It’s a great question, one that he doesn’t answer until page 614:
My team and I had made a strategic choice not to immediately try to reverse the policies we’d inherited in large part because we didn’t want to provide ammunition to critics who claimed that Democrats weren’t willing to enforce existing immigration laws — a perception that we thought could torpedo our chances of passing a future reform bill.
Of course, his efforts to pass the DREAM Act failed, and the Obama administration went on to achieve an historic high of over 430,000 deportations in a single year by 2013.
Obama’s record is particularly grim when it comes to deporting Central Americans. Even as undocumented Mexican migration declined in the wake of the financial crisis, Central American migration grew, increasingly comprised of asylum-seeking women, children, and families. After expelling a record eighty thousand migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in 2014, Obama outsourced the job to Mexico, which has deported more Central American migrants than the United States since 2015.
It is likely that some of these events will be addressed in the second installment of what is now Obama’s third memoir. But the disappearance of Central America from the seven-thousand-page Part I suggests that the former president hopes to dissociate his administration’s active role in destabilizing the region from the subsequent exodus.
Out of cynicism or cowardice, Obama has neatly excised Central America from his carefully crafted legacy. Perhaps he thought no one would notice.