The Root Cause of Central American Migration Is US Imperialism

It would be nice if the US government acknowledged that its imperialist meddling in Central America drove millions to flee to the United States. Instead, Kamala Harris went to Guatemala this week and had the gall to tell would-be migrants, “Do not come.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a joint press conference with Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura in Guatemala City on Monday, June 7, 2021. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When we first heard about Vice President Kamala Harris’s plan to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America and Mexico, we thought she might actually engage with the history of US empire in the region. Rather than use her trip to Central America as a simple photo op, perhaps she would acknowledge the United States’ role in its troubled past and its reverberations into the present.   

But, while we applaud efforts at ending human trafficking and stemming corruption, does anybody believe this addresses the root causes of immigration? Does anyone believe that promoting “economic development” by expanding the presence of foreign companies in Central America will slow immigration? Does anyone believe that callously declaring “Do not come” will improve the lot of would-be migrants?

Rather than grappling with the root causes, the US government continues to view Central America as a source of cheap labor, an exporter of raw commodities, and an investment opportunity for companies like Nestlé. Yet the record of Nestlé in South Asia is just as deplorable as that of the United Fruit Company in Central America. Both formed neocolonial relationships that enslaved local populations, generated racial and gender hierarchies, fomented coups, and subverted democracy and sovereignty. Instead of deviating from the past, Harris’s approach repeats it — buttressing the power of ruling elites and corporations to do what they wish.

Migration networks from Mexico and Central America to the United States emerged alongside the opening of US corporate operations in the region. These companies — the Rosario Mining Company in the 1850s, the United Fruit and Standard Fruit Company in the 1890s, the Cananea Mining Company in the 1900s — built “American Zones,” introduced racially stratified labor systems, and created second-class citizens. Extractive industries snatched up natural resources on Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous land. Repression, disappearances, torture, and the murder of civilians and campesinos followed.

Harris did not travel to Honduras or El Salvador, two countries from which thousands have fled in recent years. But, to this day, the United States pours money into “security” and economic initiatives that militarize the country and only benefit the rich. The corrupt, narcotrafficking-tied reign of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández that devastated the country was made possible by a 2009 coup which the United States supported. El Salvador — ruled by Nayib Bukele, a neoliberal contemptuous of democracy — has yet to recover from US intervention in the 1970s through the ’80s, which spawned the murder of eighty thousand civilians and forced thousands more to flee. 

The notion that forced migration can now be slowed by opening a Nestlé factory or allowing investors to build so-called free-trade zones or promoting yet another extractive industry assumes this was ever a good model for Central America. No matter how much it’s dressed up in the do-gooder politics of the Democrats, it is still not the answer. 

Harris is right that “most people do not want to leave home.” But recycling the policies of the past without addressing the root causes of the crisis in Central America and Mexico assures that people will continue to come to the United States in desperation. 

We don’t need more covert action and coups. We don’t need more intervention in elections or support for narco-dictators or militarized drug wars. We need, as Ella Baker once encouraged us, to get down to and understand the root cause. And that begins with US empire.