Desperation on the Doorstep - Failed US Central American Policy and the Current Immigration Crisis
Ancient Border Problems
When I was younger I used to read a lot of very heavy historical books. Some of these books were so thick they not only served as effective paperweights, but could also function as reentry tiles on the Space Shuttle because they could never burn all the way through. During my naval service I would spend hours poring through these ponderous tomes, reading away the hours as the warship rocked cradle-like around me and one international crisis after another passed me blissfully by.
One of the books I read was The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, an account of a conflict that took place in Greece between 431 and 404 BC. The opposing sides were mainly divided up into Pro Athens and Pro Sparta camps, and they battled back and forth indecisively for about three decades. In keeping with the theme of this article, you could say that Athens had some real border problems with its neighboring city states.
I don't remember much about this book except that one side would invade the other, burn the corn and march off. What they called corn was not what we call corn, but with all the cooking corn Greece must have smelled like living downwind from the Kellogg's factory, except that nobody put bananas on their corn flakes back then, like they do now.
The important lesson I did take away from Thucydides was how Athen's behavior preceding and during that war applies to us. Athens was the top dog among the Greek city states of that era, economically and intellectually, but somewhere along the line they lost their democratic values and decided that what was good for Athens was good for everyone. As a result, Greece increasingly fell in line behind oligarchical, authoritarian Sparta until Athens had her walls razed to the ground and was completely subjugated, never again to regain her position as a world power.
Very Modern Border Problems
Besides impressing you that I can muddle through a thousand page book with no pictures, what does my digression into the ancient Peloponnesian War have to do with the modern immigration problem we in the United States of America are having with Central American nations?
Depending on what source is consulted and what that source's particular political slant may be, an estimated 60,000 to 90,000 illegal immigrant children from Central America are estimated to enter the US this year. This unexpected inundation has overwhelmed the immigration and legal systems and created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. While the 2012 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program enacted by the Obama administration may be the immediate catalyst for the flood of desperate children braving the unforgiving deserts of the southern US border, in reality the roots of the problem extend far deeper into the past, and Americans need look no further than the nearest available mirror to find the true source of the blame.
For decades the relationship of the United States toward Central America has been one of exploitation. Central America is viewed by US Corporations as a source of cheap agricultural products, particularly bananas, and cheap sweatshop-manufactured underwear. Like mighty Athens of the past, the United States has used its economic, political, and military muscle to maintain the exploitation balance in its own favor. We the American public, interested mostly in maintaining the supply of cheap undergarments and cheap bananas, have cheerily ignored the abysmal economic situation that exists in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, where the average textile worker's wages are 200 to 300 dollars a month and falling! But when the desperately disadvantaged come begging at our back door, we ignore cause and effect and cast all of the blame for a century and a half of heavy handed, corrupt, often criminal economic policy on President Obama.
The Era of the Filibusters - The Start of the Problem
Nowadays when we hear the word filibuster we attach it to long-winded Congressmen attempting to prevent legislation from being passed by talking it to death. But there was a time in US history when this particular term had a darker, more sinister meaning associated with the freewheeling businessmen who raised private armies to advance their own personal ambitions by fomenting unrest and revolution in Latin American countries.
The word comes from the Spanish filibustero, meaning pirate or robber. Long before cheap underwear tags were manufactured in Central American, the filibuster tag was instead affixed to adventurers like American William Walker, who actually ruled Nicaragua briefly with a private mercenary army and was eventually executed for trying to take power in Honduras.
Perhaps direct American participation in Central American filibustering operations may have ceased, but it certainly lives on in spirit through the financing of groups like the contras in Nicaragua and the 1980s death squads that committed murder and other atrocities in El Salvador. The following sections will take a look at some of these modern Central American "filbustering" campaigns undertaken by the United States.
Nicaragua - "I'm a Contra too!"
The United States Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933 and trained the Guardia Nacional that assassinated all the opposition leaders required to keep the obscenely corrupt but US-friendly Anastasio Somoza Garcia and his family in power for 43 years.
In 1972 a catastrophic earthquake struck the country and the US-backed Somozas became billionaires by siphoning off the lion's share of the relief money that flowed in. By 1979 a wave of disaffection with the Somozas brought the Sandanista Liberation Front into power. At first the United States supported and provided aid to the new regime, but suspended assistance when it was discovered that the Nicaraguan government was assissting rebels in El Salvador.
Although certain factions of the Sandanista front were avowed Marxists, the Sandanistas as a whole were a coalition of different political flavors that initiated several much needed social reforms. All the same, the Regan administration found that the Sandanistas were not the eager puppets the Somozas had been, and the US covertly created the contra movement of the 1980s that terrorized the countryside and disrupted the legally elected government's social reforms. To a degree the contra movement was financed by allowing Columbian cocaine to use contra bases to smuggle drugs to the US. In addition to supporting the contras, the US government also blockaded and mined the struggling nation's harbors, causing severe economic disruption.
Ronald Regan may have been fond of chanting "I'm a contra too" at his press briefings, but the clever slogan was not quite enough cologne disguise the ugly smell of these brutes; who were not so much freedom fighters as thuggish, corrupt drug dealers.
Honduras - Your Underwear Courtesy of Battalion 316
In the late 19th century US based fruit companies created a semi-autonomous enclave in northern Honduras after being granted substantial land and tax exemptions by the Honduran government. Throughout the early 1900s United States troops were introduced into Honduras to protect American economic interests in this "Banana Republic," a term that American writer O Henry originally coined to describe Honduras while he was hiding there from criminal prosecution at home.
To enforce these interests, the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created Battalion 316, a Honduran army unit that met its objectives using assassination and torture. Although the notoriety of Battalion 316 caused it to go underground and change its name from time to time, it continues to operate in different disguises at the direction of top Honduran officials.
Today, the economic production of Honduras still flows mostly into the coffers of US corporations. Dole Foods and Chiquita have a virtual stranglehold on agricultural exports, and although I and the lion's share of my countrymen have T-shirts and underwear woven in Honduras, the roughly $1.50 an hour earned by Honduran textile workers doesn't do much to improve the country's 20% unemployment. Meanwhile, the murderous heirs of Battalion 316 ruthlessly reinforce the status quo for the benefit of a handful of Honduran elite who eagerly receive the leftovers of US underwear and banana output.
El Salvador - Murdered Nuns and More
The "Fourteen Families" oligarchy that has traditionally controlled El Salvador enriched itself by stealing land from peasants and converting it into indigo and coffee plantations. Because the US backs the ruling oligarchy is it surprising that the struggling poor have fallen into the hands of leftist ideologies? During the La Matanza (The Massacre) of the 1930s the resulting resistance to corrupt, oligarchical government was brutally suppressed through the massacre of tens of thousands of peasants.
In the 1980s, when ominous murmurings of land redistribution to peasants began to be heard again in El Salvador, the United States government took strong action to reassure its corporate cronies. The resulting Civil War between 1979 to 1992 saw massacres by the country's notorious death squads, the recruitment of child soldiers, and other violations of human rights by the Salvadoran military, all quietly sanctioned by the US. Among the most famous of these atrocities was the 1980 rape and murder of three American nuns by government soldiers. A year earlier the Archbishop of El Salvador was assassinated after urging Salvadoran soldiers not to follow orders to execute civilians. American bullets were used to carry out these horrors, and even after the 1992 peace accord US politicians continue to issue ominous warnings to Salvadoran leaders who murmur dangerously about giving land back to the farmers from whom it was stolen.
The Chiquita Banana Jingle - Sing While you Steal
Guatemala and United Fruit - "I'm the Chiquita Banana and I've come to say..."
Remember this catchy commercial jingle? The United Fruit Company (UFCO) changed its name to Chiquita and adopted a friendly image that including happy dancing bananas in order to clean the ugly stain of the corrupt, illegal, and murderous dealings it engaged in to undermine Guatemalan democracy in the 1950s. Dancing bananas are fun, after all, and help to ease the moral indigestion caused by consuming stolen merchandise. In 2014 most Americans, myself included, continue to scarf Chiquita bananas by the Harry Belafonte boatload despite these foul corporate deeds.
The United States based United Fruit Company maintained its dominance in the banana business by ensuring that vast enclaves of banana growing land remained in its greedy corporate hands instead of being redistributed to the Central American people who have a more legitimate claim to them. By way of comparison, Imagine being an American farmer booted off of the old homestead by avaricious Chinese business interests. I guarantee you would raise a loud squeal of outrage and probably remind those marauding land thieves about your right to bear arms.
In Guatemala the United Fruit Company became a nation unto itself. UFCO built highways and railroads and discouraged the Guatemalan government from improving a rickety transportation system that would compete with its own. Basically, UFCO set Guatemalan government policy, and dire indeed were the consequences for those who did not submissively fall into line.
When the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was elected Guatemalan President in 1954 he was denounced as a communist after proposing agrarian reform and a new labor code. Unfortunately for Arbenz and the poor farmers of Guatemala, UFCO had powerful bought and paid for friends in the US Government to back its claims to Guatemalan supremacy. One of these was US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, whose law firm represented United Fruit. Not surprisingly, the Eisenhower administration used the American CIA to engineer a coup d'etat that deposed Arbenz and put a UFCO-friendly regime in power.
Playing the "Commie" Card
To muster up support for dark deeds in Central America, from about the end of WWII Republican and Democrat Presidential administrations alike have employed the strategy of affixing the "Communist" label to any political movement that threatens to take power away from corrupt, narrow, exploitative US corporate giants and give it back to the Central American people.
The word "communist" gives most Americans the chills. Over here the "commie" tag is almost as bad as baby killer or child molester. Certainly the communist ideology has fomented its own set of evils across the planet, but is it fair to say that all of the Central American leaders deposed by the United States were really communists, or did they simply have that label applied to them in order to justify the atrocities that were carried out by militias, juntas and death squads backed by American dollars?
Conclusion - Why Should I Care?
Okay, I get it. Maybe you don't really care if Central America goes to hell on a Harry Belafonte banana boat. You don't speak Spanish, and as far as underwear go you subscribe more to the "free swinging" philosophy. Besides, you've got a lot more on your plate than bananas to worry about. .
So if I haven't touched your humanitarian heartstrings, look at it from a practical perspective. If the United States allows the Central American nations to set their own policies on wages and working conditions, then perhaps many of the US companies now manufacturing in Central America might find it less profitable to continue operating there and will instead decide to stay home and provide jobs for Americans. Then it could be John in Worcester weaving those undies in a textile mill, rather than Juan in Tegucigalpa.
Don't think for a moment that this article is written from an anti-American bias. On the contrary I love America, I am proud to be an American, and I want the United States to revert to its pre 20th century form, when we supported the aspirations of Latin American people to break free from the burdensome European economic yoke.
Equally burdensome for the American taxpayer are these massive waves of illegal Central American immigration . But is it right and proper for the people of Murietta, California, just an hour and a half up the road from me, to wave signs and throw rocks at immigrant buses, when they along with all other Americans have helped to create the climate of silent, shameful acquiescence responsible for chronic Central American economic stagnation and the devastating immigration crisis that has resulted?
So do we clean up our marauding, filbustering ways or share the fate of once proud, mighty, democratic Athens? Already our walls are being torn down and overrun by the hordes of desperate refugees we have unleashed, and it remains to be seen whether we will allow our mighty republic to follow Athens into the oblivion of history.