Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
First published on ZNet, July 19, 2014
“Not Our Problem/Fault”
Recently I heard a fellow (United States of] American say that his “heart goes out to all those unaccompanied [Central American] children” showing up at the US southern border – 74,000 estimated for Fiscal Year 2014. “But,” the US citizen continued, “it’s not our problem. We’ve got nothing to do with it. It’s not our job to fix it.”
“I do have empathy for these kids,” Iowa’s right-wing governor Terry Branstad said the other day. “But,” he added, “I don’t want to send the signal that (you) send your kids to [the US of] America illegally.” The “first thing we need to do,” Branstad feels, “is secure the border.”
So send the hungry and traumatized minors back to where they came from. Like many, perhaps most US-ofAmericans, Branstad sees no US responsibility for all the child migrants. He doesn’t want to see any of them “dumped in Iowa.”
This dissociative view is encouraged by the dominant corporate US mass media. The “mainstream” news and commentary has mainly blamed migrant families and the supposedly lax immigration policies of the Obama administration for the recent “surge” of children trying to reach the US from Honduras (home to 28% of the unaccompanied minors), Guatemala (24%) and El Salvador (21%) – Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle.
The message is clear: the US has no obligation to take in or otherwise care for the massive influx of child migrants from Central America.
The message is nonsense, but it is unsurprising. As Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program noted last month, US media points the finger at migrant families “because the alternative…is unpalatable to them.” As Carlsen explained:
“The alternative is to accept that the Central American and North American Free Trade Agreements have left thousands of youth with no economic opportunities. It is to accept that US security aid for drug wars has armed and aggravated violence in Mexico and Central America. It is to understand the high cost of supporting the Honduran coup and how the Honduran people and the US population continue to pay that price, as out migration has surged over 500% in the past two years and human rights violations, instability and violence are skyrocketing.”(Americas Program, MexicoBlog, June 9, 2014)
Hell on Earth
There’s nothing mysterious about why tens of thousands of children from the Northern Triangle are willing to make death-defying journeys across the Mexican and (they hope) the US border. Three-fourths of the population lives below the poverty line in Guatemala, where the World Bank reports that 2.5% of the farms own 65% of the farmland and 88% of the farms control just 16%. Two-thirds of the population lives in poverty in Honduras, where just a fourth of all children finish middle school. In El Salvador, half of all children live on less than US $1.25 a day. More than a third of El Salvadoran children have to work for pay. In rural areas, the percentage rises to 65%. Children typically begin work at ages 6 and 7, taking jobs on coffee or sugar plantations or as domestic servants and street vendors.
At the same time, murder and rape are endemic and rising across the region. The Northern Triangle is home to the first (Honduras), second (El Salvador) and fifth (Guatemala) highest homicide rates on Earth. Violence has surged across each of these countries in recent years, especially in Honduras. “Meanwhile,” Mother Jones’ Ian Gordon reports, “the cost of tortillas has doubled as corn prices have skyrocketed due to increased American ethanol production (Guatemala imports half of its corn) and the conversion of farmland to sugarcane and oil palm for biofuel.”
And then there’s climate change. Much of Central America’s economy depends on the cultivation and export of coffee. Anthropogenic global warming has caused the rust fungus (hemileia vastatrix, which can “reduce a coffee tree to a drying husk in two weeks”) to wipe out 40% of Central America’s coffee crop this year. As Mark Robertson explains on the website of the Americas Program:
“The rust fungus (known as ‘roya’ in Spanish) wipes out jobs, and causes extreme desperation…Central American coffee is a high-altitude variety, descended from a few trees brought from the Old World centuries ago. The region had no rust fungus until the 1970s, when climate change began to cause higher temperatures and excess rainfall. Since then, the fungus has appeared in multiple waves, mutating each time. It also mutates from country to country, appearing in different forms. It is thought to have originated in East Africa where — again — climate change is causing devastation.”
Uncle Sam’s “Perfect Storm of Suffering”
What’s it got to do with Uncle Sam? Where to begin? Washington’s North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), has flooded Mexico with cheap, subsidized US agricultural imports, devastating campesino communities and forcing millions of Mexican farmers off the land. The United States’ Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has brought similar misery to the countries immediately south of Mexico. As the venerable U.S. foreign policy critic William Blum notes, reflecting on what he calls the “Yankee blowback” on the southern US border: “These ‘free trade’ agreements – as they do all over the world – also result in government enterprises being privatized, the regulation of corporations being reduced, and cuts to the social budget. Add to this the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and the drastic US-led militarization of the War on Drugs with accompanying violence and you have the perfect storm of suffering followed by the attempt to escape from suffering.” The intense US-led militarization of the dangerous and dysfunctional “war on drugs” in Mexico has intensified the drug trade and heightened gang violence in the Northern Triangle.
Regarding the climate change that is ravaging coffee production, the U.S. remains far and away the world’s largest carbon-emitter on a per-capita basis. No nation has spewed more accumulated carbon into Earth’s atmosphere in the industrial era than the United States—an historical reality that neither China nor India will breach anytime soon. No nation has invested more heavily and powerfully in the political, ideological, and military promotion and defense of the at once carbon- and growth- addicted profits system than the United States. The U.S. is headquarters of the corporate carbon-industrial-complex’s giant lobbying and propaganda war on the dire findings and warnings of climate scientists. And no national government has done more to deep-six international efforts to reduce global carbon emissions than the one in Washington – a record that has continued with depressing vengeance through the supposedly “green” Obama presidency.
Making Central America Safe for United Fruit and Wall Street
Truth fully told, however, Uncle Sam’s central involvement in the impoverishment and torture of Central America more broadly goes back much further in time. In 1903, the US used armed force to carve a new nation out of Columbia: Panama, site of a certain canal Washington wanted built. Seven years later, US Marines under the command of future General J. Smedley Butler were deployed to overthrow the government of Nicaragua’s dynamic nationalist president Jose Santos Selaya because he had refused to play ball with US business interests. In 1911, Washington US approved a private-mercenary overthrow of Honduras’ democratically elected government on behalf of leading US banana planter Sam Zemurray. Zemurray would become the director of the powerful United Fruit Company, which would control a string of Central American presidents – with the help of US military power – through the 1930s.
Over the first three and half decades of the last century, the US undertook regular and recurrent military campaigns and occupations in the Caribbean and Central America. It did so on behalf of US business interests, with the goal of keeping Latin American social and economic development subordinated to the needs of US capital. In his 1935 book War is a Racket, the recently retired and highly decorated Butler reflected on his long career disciplining the United States neighbors to the South.“I spent 33 years, four months,” Butler wrote, “as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers…I helped make Mexico…safe for American oil interests…I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers… I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests… I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies…”
In 1954, the US CIA overthrew Guatemala’s president Jacobo Arbenz and installed a more pliant successor. Arbenz’s crime? He was “trying to implement a New Deal-style economic program to modernize and humanize Guatemala’s brutal plantation economy” (historian and journalist Stephen Kinzer). Along the way, Arbenz committed what Washington saw as the unpardonable sins of expropriating uncultivated land owned by United Fruit. There followed “40 years of [US-sponsored] military-government death squads, torture, disappearances, mass executions, and unimaginable cruelty, totaling more than 200,000 victims – indisputably one of the most inhumane chapters of the 20th century” (William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower,168).
Killing Hope, Again and Again
During the 1980s, Washington turned to Central America to reinvigorate its capacity for exercising “hard [military] power” in the wake of its humiliating debacle in Vietnam. “All told,” historian Greg Grandin notes, “US allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.” This epic bloodshed took place with lavish funding, training, and equipment from Washington, which had learned to “farm out its imperial violence.”
It was violence of the most brutal sort. US-backed death squads butchered whole villages, killing women and children in the most primitive and barbarian ways imaginable. “Over three days” in 1982, Grandin recounts, “soldiers in a small [Guatemalan] village called Dos Erres killed more than 160 people, including 65 children who were swung from their feet so their heads were smashed on rocks” (G. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism ) – a typical “pacification” operation.
US officials from President Reagan on down lauded the direct agents of this genocidal carnage as “freedom fighters.” Washington praised its Third World Fascist killers as heroes in the “democratic” struggle against international communism. Elites in both of the nation’s two imperial political parties did so with knowledge of the atrocities committed, including the “large-scale killing of Indian men, women, and children” (to quote a 1982 CIA memo on the Guatemalan “civil war”). The actual US enemy in Central America was popular and national self-determination in pursuit of basic social and democratic goals like land reform, decent wages, labor rights, adequate nutrition, clean water, education, health care, civil liberties, and a democratic political process. The popular enemy was defeated, for the most part. As Noam Chomsky noted in the early 1990s:
“Returning to Central America, a decade ago there were glimmerings of hope for constructive change. In Guatemala, peasants and workers were organizing to challenge one of the most primitive oligarchies on the face of the earth. In El Salvador, Church-based self-help groups, unions, peasant associations and other popular organizations were offering a war for the general population to escape grinding poverty and repression and to begin to take some control of their lives and fate. In Nicaragua, the [US-imposed and US-backed] tyranny that had served as the base for US power in the region was overthrown in 1979…the [deposed Somoza regime’s] National Guard was driven out and new popular forces were mobilized…there was hope for a better future…The Reagan Administration and its liberal Democratic and media accomplices can take credit for having reduced these hopes to ashes. That is a rare accomplishment, for which history will assign them their proper place, if there is ever is an honest accounting.” (N. Chomsky, Deterring Democracy , 72-73)
The White House claimed that the popular forces (“the insurgency”) were defeated (“contained”) by “political initiatives” of US-sponsored “reform,” but a US expert stationed in El Salvador was more honest. The “horrible lesson of the 1980s,” he reflected, “is that terrorism works.” In a similar vein, a US RAND Corporation analyst who produced a 1991 Defense Department report on US Central American policy later wrote something interesting about the US military advisers and intelligence officers he knew to have been involved in the US war in El Salvador. Those operatives, Benjamin Schwarz observed in the Atlantic Monthly, knew that the US-favored outcome was “not the result of reform but the consequence of the murder of the thousands of people…[of] 40,000 political murders” (“Dirty Hands,” Atlantic Monthly, December 1998, emphasis added).
In 2008 and early 2009, Honduras’ democratically president Manuel Zelaya raised the specter of national self-determination and social justice by doing things like “raising the minimum wage, giving subsidies to small farmers, and instituting free education. The coup [that overthrew him on June 28, 2009] – like so many others in Latin America – was led by a graduate of Washington’s infamous School of the Americas” (Blum) The hope-killing Honduran junta was quietly and deceptively backed by the “change”-promising Obama Administration, which has funded, equipped, and worked with the coup regime ever since. The White House refuses to acknowledge that a coup ever took place so that US sponsorship can continue without legal and humanitarian hassle.
But for this long and ongoing record of US intervention on behalf of savage inequality, mass poverty, violence, environmental degradation and authoritarian rule in Central America, tens of thousands of severely distressed children from the Northern Triangle would hardly be washing up on the Yankee Empire’s southern border. Sadly, however, few of these basic facts of living history are being mentioned in the “mainstream” US discussion of the unaccompanied minor migrant crisis. As a result, only a minority of US-of-Americans get it that, as Blum concludes, “the United States does indeed have a moral obligation [to take in and otherwise assist the young refugees] because so many of the immigrants are escaping a situation in their homeland made hopeless by American intervention and policy.”
Those who most require a public awareness campaign are not the migrant families and Central American communities. They are US citizens, who need to be educated about the impact of “their” government’s economic, military, climate, and drug policies on their neighbors to the South and especially on the children of Central America.
Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810