“The past is a foreign country,” author L.P. Hartley famously wrote in his book The Go-Between. Perhaps that’s why we hold on to the postcards…
In Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence. And the Roots of Migration (2021), Latin America historian Aviva Chomsky makes the clear case that immigration problems on the United States’ southern border are a direct consequence of an aggressive foreign policy that, for almost two centuries, favored American economic, political, and military interests over human rights.
At the center of her argument is the manner in which we, as a society, have collectively chosen to forget/ignore that the chaos in Central America today is a product of American power, greed, and amnesia.
In the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, the US declared its hegemony over the freshly independent nations of Latin America, while informing the powers of Europe that their imperial adventures in the Americas were over.
As much of Mexico was ceded to the US in the 1840s, the white supremacist attitude toward native inhabitants extended well-beyond the borders of our growing nation. Nicaragua was all but invaded by American railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt to facilitate Americans heading West during the 1850s and beyond.
By the end of the nineteenth century, American corporations in Central America were extracting resources, managing large plantations, and building and controlling the infrastructure to support these efforts. Much of the economies of Central America were dedicated to exports with profits flowing to corporate interests and banks in the US.
So confident were US officials as to their dominant role in Central America, the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, as Chomsky writes, “claimed a US right to intervene if it simply disapproved of the way a Latin American country was handling its internal affairs. If Central American governments failed to protect US investors and bankers, the US military would intervene to protect them.” In the early part of the twentieth century, the United States intervened repeatedly.
In order to carry out these policies, the US capitalized on long-standing racial and class differences throughout Central America; favoring elites who did much of the dirty work with American backing. As to the people at the business end of the American imperial stick, as Chomsky writes, their “land and autonomy [was] eliminated in the interests of capitalist development.”
Sadly, many of the internal threats in these countries arose from those abused under the lash of American foreign policy. Attempts to organize workers to improve wages and working conditions were met forcefully and violently; not by the United States, per se, but by a series of dictatorial rulers whose power was propped up and protected by American policies, arms, and dollars. Capturing the pernicious spirit of generations of America’s malfeasance in Central America, FDR is reported to have said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, “[H]e may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Nationalist movements throughout the Third World—including Central America—were inspired by World War II victories over fascism and carried the hope of establishing free and independent nations. Unfortunately, these “revolutions” were viewed by the US Government in the context of the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. In large part, Central American uprisings were efforts to establish basic human rights. Unfortunately, American officials saw the slightest attempt at social reform as a communist plot. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the United States government—much as was done in Vietnam—sent arms, advisers, and trainers to support dictatorial governments.
Amidst the chaos during these decades, extremely complex layers of racial and class hierarchy led to violent civil wars that decimated the population and prompted the migration of millions. Subsistence farmers who had been stripped of their land and coerced into laboring on American plantations and in American mines were treated as a disposable commodity and in many cases, entire villages were destroyed. “Death squads” roamed the countryside in search of the slightest association with reform efforts; men, women and children were massacred by the thousands.
In a few instances, the US government intervened directly. A brutally repressed revolution in Guatemala led to a democratically elected government in 1951. In 1954, the CIA ousted this government as part of America’s global anti-communism crusade. For the next four decades, Guatemalans struggled against US-backed authoritarian leaders in a long series of civil wars.
American companies operating in Central America realized that, as Chomsky bluntly states, “[too] much democracy had allowed workers, peasants, and the government to challenge their dominance.” Companies such as United Fruit had vast power throughout Central America and learned early “that it was much more profitable to do business with a dictator than a democratic president.”
Chomsky cites historian Greg Grandin, who wrote that, by the end of the Cold War, “Latin American security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited by Washington had executed a reign of bloody terror—hundreds of thousands killed, an equal number tortured, millions driven into exile—from which the region has yet to recover.”
The role of the United States in these atrocities cannot be overstated.
As a final insult to Central America, in recent years, tens of thousands of children from Guatemala and El Salvador have been rescued through international adoption. “In precisely the countries where US policies oversaw massacre, displacement, and the destruction of family and community ties,” Chomsky writes disdainfully, “US civilians were then invited to demonstrate US generosity by saving some of the children left behind.”
“First we take their land,” she adds, “then we take their resources, then we take their workers, and then we take their children.”
In one exception, post-World War II turmoil in Costa Rica resulted in the emergence of a democratic government which is still in place today. It is no coincidence, then, that those fleeing terror in Central America today hail largely from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, to a lesser extent, Nicaragua; all areas where American interventions favored economic gain and political expediency over human rights and, indeed, over human life. Costa Rica, on the other hand, is a thriving democracy with an educated population and a diversified economy.
Any modern debates over immigration policies at the southern border should begin with this sordid history. Anything less means that we are simply not the type of country we claim and strive to be.