Walls work. They separate and they protect. However, American foreign policy is not built with brick and mortar for a wall plowing through family ranches, chapels, and butterfly sanctuaries. Caravans also work. They provide civilians (and troops) safety and protection on dangerous journeys. Yet, Central American caravans are emblematic of failed domestic policies in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Crafting meaningful, sustainable solutions requires a willingness truly to understand historical root causes of migration, to hold governments accountable, and to move forward based on broadly-shared American values.
A Similar Past
Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Americans share a similar past. We all began as subjects of European monarchs who established colonias by either marginalizing -- or initiating the genocide of -- indigenous peoples. We also were taxed and regulated by our respective kings to the point of revolution, 1776 in English colonies and 1823 in Spanish colonies.
Here is where our paths forked. America's 13 colonies united under the Articles of Confederation, failed, and reunited under our Constitution. Central America's countries too united, failed, united again, but then ultimately failed to unite under one flag.
Also in 1823 the Monroe Doctrine, under the guise of promoting the independence of Western Hemisphere countries, took the nascent steps towards what became the hegemony of Yankee Imperialism. These steps were followed by leaps across the continent under the banner of Manifest Destiny and the invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
Enter doctor/lawyer/journalist/mercenary William Walker, who after failing to carve out the Republic of Sonora then the Republic of Baja California from Mexican lands, turns a Machiavellian gaze toward Central America. In 1856 he manages to: 1) fight his way to become the de facto president of Nicaragua; 2) achieve recognition by President Franklin Pierce; and 3) urge Americans to immigrate to his utopian Nicaragua. Eventually, Walker only succeeded in uniting Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras to defeat his army of mercenaries and his eventual execution in Honduras.
Working for Bananas
As the United State became ascendant on the world stage after the Spanish-American War (1898), America’s interests, political and economic, led to a string of military ops that resulted in unintended consequence now visited on our southern border.
The cynosure of U.S. foreign policy in the region at the beginning of the 20th Century was … the banana. Yes. Central American countries gave U.S.-based fruit companies enormous financial incentives in exchange for foreign investment in infrastructure. The comic absurdity of a nation’s economy revolving on a single commodity even led Texas adoptive son, O. Henry, to coin the moniker “banana republic” while on the lam in Honduras.
The incentives created no appreciable infrastructure, but did result in corrupt governments supporting a monopoly, and the attendant labor and social abuses, followed by discontent, rebellion, and eventually U.S. military involvement (overt and covert).
Working Against Reds
After World War II, bananas were pushed aside for the reds – no not tomatoes, Communists. During the Cold War, Guatemala helped Kennedy train anti-Castro Cubans leading up to the Bay of Pigs. Beginning in 1966, the United States also trained anti-Communist Guatemalan forces, forces that would become Death Squads killing 200,000 of their own (including a bishop) and displacing approximately one million by 1996. Ditto more deaths in Honduras and El Salvador (and another bishop) in differing body counts.
Tom Cruise’s exaggerated portrayal of a renegade pilot in American Made illustrates how traditional American values are lost in a jungle of arms, drugs, and situational ethics. Under Reagan, America wanders from trading arms for hostages in Iran to laundering those monies to pay for a secret and Congressionally-prohibited war in El Salvador.
Despite Carter’s respite of U.S. military aid in 1979 to Guatemala for human right violations; Clinton’s mea culpa for U.S. involvement in the Guatemalan genocide of natives; and Obama’s opposition to a Honduran military coup in 2009, the damage was done.
Picking Up the Pieces
It is broken. All that is left is Uncle Sam under a jungle canopy amidst a pile of -- and the odd smell of -- banana peels, smoking guns, and cannabis. Cue the bulldozers, caravans, and mobilize the military to the Rio Grande.
So what has a century of propping-up dictators, aiding military juntas, and condoning government corruption produced? Yes, Central America is free and democratic. The bananas are still at H.E.B. (now called Chiquita).
The unintended consequences are a legacy of systemic government corruption. Guatemala’s president and vice president resigned in 2015 for operating a crime syndicate. Gang membership is rampant throughout the region and supports drug trafficking supplying Americans with the narcotics they demand. No wonder Central America has the highest murder rates (60/100,000) on Earth. If this was in the Valley, it would translate to 85 murders annually in McAllen. Add another 50 or so bodies for Edinburg, Mission, and Pharr – each.
Central America’s diaspora is not prompted by crime alone, but also by abject poverty and poor economic opportunities, not to mention the recurring hurricanes, earth quakes, and volcanos which regularly wreak havoc with people and property. Dios Mio!
We should be accountable. Central America supported our banana companies and our fight against Communist. We turned a blind eye to American-trained Death Squads and their leaders so long as they were our surrogates against communism. Central Americans stood with us, now we must stand with them.
There is hope. Central America has Mayan ruins, World Heritage Sites, pristine beaches, cloud forests, and incredible biodiversity. There is progress.
First, the Central America Free Trade Agreement will improve market efficiency, increase investment, and create jobs. This common market represents approximately $53 billion in trade and 134,000 jobs.
Second, the Alliance for Prosperity initiative is a real, long-term solution supporting regional development and the reduction of immigration and drug-trafficking. Congress should fund this multinational initiative.
Third, communities in the Valley too can help through programs like Sister Cities International. Developed under Truman to empower citizen-diplomats from different countries to better understand each other and lessen the chance of new conflicts, the program helps bridge gaps of ignorance. Valley cities can provide a stage for Central American mayors who can help Americans better understand their problems.
Walls and caravans are not real solutions. They miss the point. We North Americans need to recognize our role in the development of Central America. Only then can we fix these problems. No deaths, no drugs, no walls, no caravans, bananas are fine.
Leonardo Olivares is a City Manager and non-practicing lawyer.
He can see Mexico (and the wall) from his house.
Original commentary, in part, appeared in The Monitor, February 10, 2019.