Monday, July 21, 2014


As we fight for "freedom" in far the reaching corners of the world it's clear that most Americans have no real idea why other countries "hate us."  Similarly, most Americans have no clue why we are dealing with child refugees from Central America today. Let's not kid ourselves. What's happening on the border is not a "sudden" problem, and has little to do with President Obama or his immigration policies.

What's happening is that our foreign policy chickens are coming home to roost.

The reasons why are many, and tied to historical developments the U.S. press won't address, and most Americans don't care to learn about.


What's left out of the U.S. border-child refugee discussion is just as important as what the media's Talking Heads are telling us. We know that Central American families believe that even though the journey to the United States is a dangerous one they are willing to send their children on the trip because of the hope that they will make it and find a better life. This is considered a better option than the life prospects their children face at home. The prospect of being drawn into gangs, terrorized, or murdered has become an everyday reality for the Central American kids now arriving at the U.S. border.

What we're not told is how this reality can be attributed to American foreign policy in the region during and after the cold war. It's what political scientists and policy insiders call blowback.

In his book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2004) Professor and former CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson writes about the results of foreign policy decisions that were done in the dark, or not properly thought through in the United States. In the documentary "Why We fight" Johnson added:

"Blowback, it's a CIA term. Blowback does not mean simply the unintended consequences of foreign operations, but the unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public ... so that when the retaliation comes the American public is not able to put it in context, to put cause and effect together ... 

From South East Asia to central Africa and the Middle East the United States responded to a series of foreign policy challenges in a way that created challenges today that may be worse than the original problem - long after the cold war ended.

Here's what Central America is dealing with after generations of being the cold war playground of the superpowers.

Ever since 1954, when the CIA led a coup against Guatemala's democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, the U.S. supported one military dictatorship after another in Guatemala.

Similar policy lines were followed in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The goal was to rid the region of communists and pesky nationalists while supporting U.S. commercial interests in the region.

After the CIA overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 the United States installed military officer Carlos Castillo Armas as president. Castillo Armas became the first in a series of U.S. puppet presidents, and was assassinated in 1957. The driver here, seated next to Castillo Armas during his "triumphant" entrance into Guatemala City, was a CIA operative.

The end result was the establishment of militarized authoritarian regimes that ignored the needs of the regions poor, and their subsistence farmers. Worse, they terrorized local groups as they began to rise up and fight for their rights, labeling every movement and progressive group as communists. The impact was predictable.

It was during this time that people from Central America's most terrorized states began to migrate to the United States.

(In fact - and as an aside - I have had numerous students from Central America who never fully understood why their families were in the United States. They tell me that they only knew that their parents told them that "it was bad" back home. After taking my class on Politics in Latin America they tell me of the conversations they now have with their parents, and how much better they understand the things that their parents did because of these conversations.)

The 1970s and 1980s were especially difficult years for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Costa Rica's former President, and Nobel laureate, Oscar Arias writes:

The root cause of [the U.S. border] crisis is not U.S. immigration law or the policies of one U.S. president. The root cause is the violence and poverty that make these children’s lives at home intolerable. The root cause dates to the parents and grandparents of the young people fleeing their countries today ... two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — chose our region as a place to work out their disputes. They were eager to help Central America transform students into soldiers. They were eager to provide the weapons while we provided the dead.

One unfortunate development is that while the U.S. supported corrupt military dictatorships in Central America - by providing money, military training, weapons, and the excuses that allowed the region's militarized regimes to brutalize their populations - little to nothing has been to "de-militarize" or transition each society after the cold war.

This is why the case of Nicaragua is so instructive.

Nicaragua was effectively run as a private state by the Somoza family for well over 40 years. After the patriarch Anastasio Somoza came to power in the 1930s the Somozas used their U.S.-trained National Guard to terrorize both non-supporters and Nicaragua's rural poor alike. Among those who would meet their death at the hands of the Somozas in 1934 was the nationalist guerrilla leader Augusto Cesar Sandino.

Dictator Anastasio Somoza was assassinated in 1956, which paved the way for his two kids - Anastasio, Jr. and Luis - to come to power. It was at this time that the looting of the Nicaraguan economy by the Somoza family hit new heights.

The Somoza children, Anastasio Somoza (Left, 1925-1980) and Luis Somoza (Right, 1922-1967), ruled Nicaragua after their father was assassinated in 1956.

After the oldest brother, Luis, died of an early heart attack in 1967 Anastasio assumed the mantle of leadership. The youngest brother, who was much more corrupt and brutal, was eventually forced out in 1979 when the Sandinistas - who originally led a broad coalition of progressives and moderate industrialists - came to power.

At the time of Anastasios ouster, it's estimated that the Somozas and their inner family circle owned or ran about 50% of the Nicaraguan economy.

The Sandinistas oust Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

After expelling the Somozas and their dreaded National Guard the Sandinista also ridded Nicaragua of the Somoza's militarized police force, which did little beyond assist the National Guard in terrorizing the Nicaraguan people.

In an effort to change the security and police culture of Nicaragua the Sandinistas installed a citizens militia to help police Nicaragua. In spite of the fact that many wealthy Somoza supporters fled Nicaragua for Miami and other safe havens few Nicaraguans left after the revolution. With no National Guard to fear Nicaraguans embarked on a development path that was distinct from its neighbors.

A reading campaign reduced illiteracy from 50% to about 12%, while national programs in health care, education, and land reform (among others) received international recognition. All of this has helped to reduce crime and violence in Nicaragua.

Today Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are ranked among the top 5 countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Specifically, Guatemala is ranked #5, with 39.9 murders per 100,000 people. El Salvador is #4 with 41.2 murders per 100,000 people. Honduras is #1, with 90.4 murders per 100,000.

By contrast, Nicaragua's homicide rate is about 11 per 100,000. This is about the same rate as Costa Rica's (which is often referred to as the Switzerland of Latin America).

According to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are ranked among the top 5 homicide states in the world. 

The reasons for this homicide gap can be traced to distinct development patterns, both before and after the cold war. Children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are living a bleak existence caused by years of military dictatorships, propped up by the U.S. When the cold war ended the billions of dollars dedicated to weapons and training were not turned into aid for rebuilding or educating the people (If we're looking for parallels, think about putting an addict through a 12 step program without the steps, or the program).

Conversely, when the Somoza's were removed and the National Guard fled, Nicaragua took another path that did not include U.S. military advisers or weapon support. The Nicaraguan people did not need to escape north like those who lived through the instability caused by the regions corrupt military dictatorships during the 1980s.

To be sure, Nicaragua is still marked by inequality and few opportunities (in part because the U.S. did what it could to sabotage the Sandinista economy). The big difference is that Nicaragua took another path, and now lacks the violence and the military ties to the United States that it once had.

Unfortunately, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador can't say the same.

- Mark

UPDATE (8-6-14): After editing this blogpost (cutting out one-half) I submitted it to our local paper, the Bakersfield Californian, which you can access here

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