US Military and Economic Policies Are Driving Central America's Mass Migration
October 25, 2018
Joseph Nevins / The Conversation & Associated Press & Raymond Bonner / The Nation
Three essays on the long and ugly history of US military, economic and political interventions in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The US presence in the region has triggered bloody civil wars, destroyed communities, disrupted economies, magnified poverty and inequality. US military bases have proliferated through the region as local populations became the victims of repression orchestrated by regimes dedicated to the expansion of US capital and control over the region's land and mineral resources.
How US Policy in Honduras
Set the Stage for Today's Mass Migration
Joseph Nevins / The Conversation
(October 31, 2016) -- Central American migrants -- particularly unaccompanied minors -- are again crossing the US-Mexico boundary in large numbers. In 2014, more than 68,000 unaccompanied Central American children were apprehended at the US-Mexico boundary. This year so far there have been close to 60,000.
The mainstream narrative often reduces the causes of migration to factors unfolding in migrants' home countries. In reality, migration is often a manifestation of a profoundly unequal and exploitative relationship between migrant-sending countries and countries of destination. Understanding this is vital to making immigration policy more effective and ethical.
Through my research on immigration and border policing, I have learned a lot about these dynamics. One example involves relations between Honduras and the United States.
US Roots of Honduran Emigration
I first visited Honduras in 1987 to do research. As I walked around the city of Comayagua, many thought that I, a white male with short hair in his early 20's, was a US soldier. This was because hundreds of US soldiers were stationed at the nearby Palmerola Air Base at the time. Until shortly before my arrival, many of them would frequent Comayagua, particularly its "red zone" of female sex workers.
US military presence in Honduras and the roots of Honduran migration to the United States are closely linked. It began in the late 1890s, when US-based banana companies first became active there. As historian Walter LaFeber writes in Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, American companies "built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace."
As a result, the Caribbean coast "became a foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston."
By 1914, US banana interests owned almost 1 million acres of Honduras' best land. These holdings grew through the 1920s to such an extent that, as LaFeber asserts, Honduran peasants "had no hope of access to their nation's good soil." Over a few decades, US capital also came to dominate the country's banking and mining sectors, a process facilitated by the weak state of Honduras' domestic business sector. This was coupled with direct US political and military interventions to protect US interests in 1907 and 1911.
Such developments made Honduras' ruling class dependent on Washington for support. A central component of this ruling class was and remains the Honduran military. By the mid-1960s it had become, in LaFeber's words, the country's "most developed political institution," -- one that Washington played a key role in shaping.
The Reagan Era
This was especially the case during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. At that time, US political and military policy was so influential that many referred to the Central American country as the "USS. Honduras" and the Pentagon Republic.
As part of its effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua and "roll back" the region's leftist movements, the Reagan administration "temporarily" stationed several hundred US soldiers in Honduras. Moreover, it trained and sustained Nicaragua's "contra" rebels on Honduran soil, while greatly increasing military aid and arm sales to the country.
The Reagan years also saw the construction of numerous joint Honduran-US military bases and installations. Such moves greatly strengthened the militarization of Honduran society. In turn, political repression rose. There was a dramatic increase in the number of political assassinations, "disappearances" and illegal detentions.
The Reagan administration also played a big role in restructuring the Honduran economy. It did so by strongly pushing for internal economic reforms, with a focus on exporting manufactured goods. It also helped deregulate and destabilize the global coffee trade, upon which Honduras heavily depended. These changes made Honduras more amenable to the interests of global capital. They disrupted traditional forms of agriculture and undermined an already weak social safety net.
These decades of US involvement in Honduras set the stage for Honduran emigration to the United States, which began to markedly increase in the 1990s.
In the post-Reagan era, Honduras remained a country scarred by a heavy-handed military, significant human rights abuses and pervasive poverty. Still, liberalizing tendencies of successive governments and grassroots pressure provided openings for democratic forces.
They contributed, for example, to the election of Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformist, as president in 2006. He led on progressive measures such as raising the minimum wage. He also tried to organize a plebiscite to allow for a constituent assembly to replace the country's constitution, which had been written during a military government. However, these efforts incurred the ire of the country's oligarchy, leading to his overthrow by the military in June 2009.
The 2009 coup, more than any other development, explains the increase in Honduran migration across the southern US border in the last few years. The Obama administration has played an important role in these developments. Although it officially decried Zelaya's ouster, it equivocated on whether or not it constituted a coup, which would have required the US to stop sending most aid to the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in particular, sent conflicting messages, and worked to ensure that Zelaya did not return to power. This was contrary to the wishes of the Organization of American States, the leading hemispheric political forum composed of the 35 member-countries of the Americas, including the Caribbean. Several months after the coup, Clinton supported a highly questionable election aimed at legitimating the post-coup government.
Strong military ties between the US and Honduras persist: several hundred US troops are stationed at Soto Cano Air Base (formerly Palmerola) in the name of fighting the drug war and providing humanitarian aid.
Since the coup, writes historian Dana Frank, "a series of corrupt administrations has unleashed open criminal control of Honduras, from top to bottom of the government."
Organized crime, drug traffickers and the country's police heavily overlap. Impunity reigns in a country with frequent politically-motivated killings. It is the world's most dangerous country for environmental activists, according to Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization.
Although its once sky-high murder rate has declined, the continuing exodus of many youth demonstrates that violent gangs still plague urban neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, post-coup governments have intensified an increasingly unregulated, "free market" form of capitalism that makes life unworkablefor many. Government spending on health and education, for example, has declined in Honduras. Meanwhile, the country's poverty rate has risen markedly. These contribute to the growing pressures that push many people to migrate.
While the next US president will deliberate about what to do about unwanted immigration from "south of the border," this history provides lessons as to the roots of migration. It also raises ethical questions as to the responsibility of the United States toward those now fleeing from the ravages US policy has helped to produce.
Joseph Nevins is an Associate Professor of Geography, Vassar College and a member of the editorial committee of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).
In El Salvador, Poverty and Gangs Drive Migration
MEXICO CITY (October 24, 2018) -- Although most of the 7,000 migrants in the caravan wending its way through far-southern Mexico are Hondurans, some Salvadorans have also joined. There is even a Facebook page and a WhatsApp chat encouraging Salvadorans to form a caravan of their own, though it is not yet known whether one will materialize.
It's a small country both geographically and by population, home to 6.5 million inhabitants. The International Organization for Migration estimates that another 1.35 million Salvadorans live in the United States. El Salvador's government puts the figure at as many as 2.5 million -- but either way, Salvadorans make up the biggest community of Central Americans living in the United States.
El Salvador is the only country in the so-called Northern Triangle -- which also includes Guatemala and Honduras -- that experienced a reduction in migration in 2017, something that the government has noted in recent days in response to vows by US President Donald Trump to cut US aid to the region.
Even so, Salvadorans continue to leave their country. Their tales of hardship back home are not dissimilar from those of their Honduran neighbors. Here's a look at what is driving those who migrate.
GANGS AND VIOLENCE
El Salvador's homicide rate was 60 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, down from a grisly record of 102 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 but still among the highest in the world. The two main street gangs, 18th Street and MS-13, are estimated to number around 70,000 and actively try to recruit new members.
The gangs trace their origins to street life in cities such as Los Angeles, where many Salvadorans sought refuge during their country's 1980-1992 civil war. Salvadorans arrested for crimes in the US were deported back home, bringing gang activity with them. The US deported 1,241 Salvadorans for apparent gang activity in 2017, and 524 alleged gang members the previous year. Crime experts say today's gangs have ties to international drug trafficking networks.
Trump frequently seizes on MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, as a reason to tighten immigration controls.
A quarter of young Salvadorans who flee do so because they are threatened with or fear violence. Young women are pressured to be "girlfriends" of gang members and face rape or murder if they refuse, while young men are pressured to join the gangs or risk death if they don't. Two out of three Salvadorans never attend high school.
Young women are particularly vulnerable. Murders of young women peaked at 574 in 2015. Salvadoran law forbids termination of pregnancies, even in the case of rape, and establishes long prison sentences for abortion.
The International Organization for Migration says most Salvadorans migrate for economic reasons. Per capita income is $324 a month and nearly one in three Salvadorans lives in poverty, according to the World Bank, defined as less than $5.50 a day.
Many rely on remittances from family members abroad. Salvadorans in the United States sent $5 billion back home last year, amounting to nearly 16 percent of gross domestic product.
It's tough to make a go as a small business owner in the country and create jobs for others. The gangs extort local businesses with impunity, and corruption is rampant. President Salvador Sanchez Ceren's three predecessors were all prosecuted for alleged graft.
"Migration problems are structural problems of the country," says Cesar Rios, director of the Salvadoran Migrant Institute. "If steady income is not guaranteed here -- work and security -- then people will continue to leave."
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Time for a US Apology to El Salvador
Raymond Bonner / The Nation
Obama expressed regret for US support of Argentina's "dirty war."
It's time Washington did the same regarding our
active backing of right-wing butchery in El Salvador.
(April 15, 2016) -- Over the ages, the United States has routinely intervened in Latin America, overthrowing left-wing governments and propping up right-wing dictators. President Obama pressed a reset button of sorts last month when he traveled to Cuba and Argentina. Now it's time for him to visit a Latin America country that is geographically smallest but where Washington's footprint is large and the stain of intervention perhaps greatest -- El Salvador.
In Argentina, on the 40th anniversary of a military coup that ushered in that country's "dirty war," President Obama said it was time for the United States to reflect on its policies during those "dark days." In the name of fighting communism, the Argentine government hunted down, tortured, and killed suspected leftists -- sometimes throwing their bodies out of helicopters into the sea. "We've been slow to speak out for human rights and that was the case here," Obama said.
That failure to speak out looks benign in contrast to the active role Washington played in the "dirty war" in El Salvador in the 1980s, which pitted a right-wing government against Marxist guerrillas. The United States sent military advisers to help the Salvadoran military fight its dirty war, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid.
In Argentina, the security forces killed some 30,000 civilians. In El Salvador, more than 75,000 lost their lives during the civil war, which lasted from 1980 until the 1992 peace agreement. The guerrillas committed atrocities, but the United Nations Truth Commission, established as part of the accord, found that more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture had been the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.
The Reagan administration often sought
to cover up the brutality, to protect perpetrators
of even the most heinous crimes.
The United States went well beyond remaining largely silent in the face of human-rights abuses in El Salvador. The State Department and White House often sought to cover up the brutality, to protect the perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes.
In March of 1980, the much beloved and respected Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered. A voice for the poor and repressed, Romero, in his final Sunday sermon, had issued a plea to the country's military junta that rings through the ages:
"In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression."
The next day, he was cut down by a single bullet while he was saying a private mass. (In 2015, Pope Francis declared that Romero died a martyr, the final step before sainthood.)
Eight months after the assassination, a military informant gave the US embassy in El Salvador evidence that it had been plotted by Roberto D'Aubuisson, a charismatic and notorious right-wing leader. D'Aubuisson had presided over a meeting in which soldiers drew lots for the right to kill the archbishop, the informant said. While any number of right-wing death squads might have wanted to kill Romero, only a few, like D'Aubuisson's, were "fanatical and daring" enough to actually do it, the CIA concluded in a report for the White House.
Yet, D'Aubuisson continued to be welcomed at the US embassy in El Salvador, and when Elliott Abrams, the State Department's point man on Central America during the Reagan administration, testified before Congress, he said he would not consider D'Aubuisson an extremist. "You would have to be engaged in murder," Abrams said, before he would call him an extremist. But D'Aubuisson was engaged in murder, and Washington knew it.
(He died of throat cancer in 1992, at the age of 48. Abrams was convicted in 1991 of misleading Congress about the shipment of arms to the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, the so-called "Iran/Contra" affair. He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, later served as special adviser to President George W. Bush on democracy and human rights . . . .)
The administration knew the Salvadoran military
murdered four US churchwomen in 1980
-- but denied the evidence
No act of barbarism is more emblematic of the deceit that marked Washington's policy in El Salvador in the 1980s than the sexual assault and murder of four US churchwomen -- three Roman Catholic nuns and a lay missionary -- in December 1980, a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president.
The American ambassador, Robert White, who had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter, knew immediately that the Salvadoran military was responsible -- even if he didn't have the names of the perpetrators -- but that was not what the incoming administration wanted to hear.
One of Reagan's top foreign-policy advisers, Jeane Kirkpatrick, when asked if she thought the government had been involved, said, "The answer is unequivocal. No, I don't think the government was responsible." She then sought to besmirch the women. "The nuns were not just nuns," she told The Tampa Tribune. "The nuns were also political activists," with a leftist political coalition (Kirkpatrick died in 2006).
In Argentina, President Obama praised two American diplomats, Tex Harris and Patt Derian, for their commitment to documenting the human-rights abuses in Argentina.
Two American diplomats in El Salvador deserve similar presidential recognition. Ambassador White, a career diplomat, lost his job and was forced out of the foreign service by Secretary of State Alexander Haig when he refused to participate in a cover-up of the Salvadoran military's involvement in the murder of the American churchwomen. Haig told a congressional committee that the women may have been trying to run a roadblock when they were killed (Haig died in 2010; White died in 2015).
At considerable risk to his career and his life, a junior diplomat in the US embassy, H. Carl Gettinger, wasn't deterred by the chicanery in Washington and carried out his own investigation. It was Gettinger who had learned from the Salvadoran military informant about D'Aubuisson's role in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, and he turned to the man, an army lieutenant, to help him solve the churchwomen's case.
The lieutenant, who had so much blood on his own hands during the dirty war that Gettinger dubbed him "Killer," gave Gettinger, and the United States, the name of the sergeant who led the operation and that of four other soldiers who had participated, a crime that senior Salvadoran military commanders had successfully covered up until then (the men were convicted in 1984).
"Carl is an unsung hero," Carol Doerflein, who was the assistant public affairs officer in the US embassy in El Salvador at the time, told me recently.
One year after the churchwomen were murdered, one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history occurred when soldiers from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion carried out an operation in the mountainous region of northeastern El Salvador. Altogether more than 700 men, women, and children were killed in El Mozote and surrounding villages.
In 1981, the military massacred over 700 civilians at El Mozote
-- and Reagan's officials dismissed it as "propaganda"
The Reagan administration steadfastly denied there had been a massacre by government troops. Reports of the massacre, by myself in The New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto in The Washington Post, were dismissed by administration officials and their right-wing supporters as "guerrilla propaganda."
But cables and documents declassified by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s -- as well as the findings of the UN Truth Commission -- have confirmed the massacre in grisly detail. "As many as several hundred men, women and children were allegedly massacred by the Atlacatl Battalion during the December 10-13, 1981, El Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF) offensive," the State Department wrote in a secret eight-page report to the Truth Commission.
The commission removed the "allegedly." On the morning after arriving in the area, according to the commission, the soldiers had "proceeded to interrogate, torture and execute the men . . . . Around noon, they began taking out the women in groups, separating them from their children and machine-gunning them. Finally, they killed the children."
In 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the civil war's end, El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, went to El Mozote to apologize. "For this massacre, for the abhorrent violations of human rights and the abuses perpetrated in the name of the Salvadoran state, I ask forgiveness of the families of the victims," he said, wiping away tears. He laid flowers on the monument that had been erected.
In Argentina, Obama tossed white roses into the water at a memorial to the victims of that country's dirty war. No US official, not even a mid-level one, has ever visited the monument at El Mozote or apologized or expressed regrets about that massacre or, more broadly, for Washington's active role in funding and encouraging El Salvador's dirty war.
Raymond Bonner, a former New York Times correspondent who covered Central America from 1980 to 1982, is the author of Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador's Dirty War, which has been reissued by OR Books.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, for noncommercial, educational purposes.