The Push and Pull Factors of an American Refugee Crisis

The United States has to be willing to take responsibility for the harm that it has done to these children!

The appalling behavior of many Americans in the face of our current refugee crisis betrays a profound ignorance of our role in creating the very conditions from which children are desperate to escape, as well as a shameful and disgusting lack of empathy and humanity. Perhaps ignorance is the progenitor of this lack of empathy. Hopefully the inhuman, hateful rapture that so many of our American neighbors have revealed to the world is not an innate failing on our part. If so, then we must address this ignorance. It’s important to develop a sense of social and historical perspective, because apparently, the fact that so many of these refugees are children simply does not matter to the heartless and camera ready elements of our society.

As is true for any problem, the first order of business is to correctly define its nature. First and foremost we must refer to these children for what they are—refugees. This is not a bureaucratic bungle of illegal immigrants for which we are not prepared. These are people trying to escape political and economic tyranny. They are running for their lives. According to Human Rights Watch, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the point of origin for many of these children, are failed states. Citizens in these countries face inhuman levels of violence, exploitation, poverty and desperation. Between the gangs and drug cartels and the oppressive, corrupt governments, and crushing poverty these three nations are among the world’s most violent, most impoverished and least viable.

So what does this have to do with us? As many of my friends on the right say, “it is not our responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. If they want a decent country to live in, they should make one for themselves.” Of course, implicit in these statements is, “we don’t want their kind in our country messing things up for us.” Regardless, the history of these societies is clear to anyone willing to look. Most of the problems facing Central Americans are our doing. The United States has a long history of interfering with the development of our weaker neighbors. Yet, for the most part, Americans are oblivious to the historical context.

The mid-nineteenth century is identified by American History textbooks as a period of “Westward Expansion.” For Americans living during this time, however, the goal was not so specific. Americans weren’t interested in merely going west. They wanted to expand…everywhere! Canada? Got to have it! Mexico? Take it all! Cuba? You know it! Even Central America? Oh yeah! Around the time that the US acquisition of half of Mexico infused adrenalin into American notions of Manifest Destiny, the United States was competing with Britain for access to the valuable crossing zones in Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama. California Gold made these transit routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific even more valuable, prompting Cornelius Vanderbilt to contract with the Nicaraguan government what became known as the Accessory Transit Company carrying hopeful gold prospectors on their way to being busted in California across a treacherous stretch of winding river and jungle trails. Once on the Pacific Coast, passenger ships would carry them the rest of the way. That’s where the real money was during the gold rush.

The fertile lands closer to the equator were also a temptation to southern plantation owners desperate to expand from their increasingly less productive fields. The famous filibuster William Walker met his tragic fate when he and a mercenary army of American southerners briefly seized control of Nicaragua and legalized slavery. To protect his valuable transit routes, Vanderbilt funded a counter strike resulting in Walker’s execution. Though this epic drama was the last for the Accessory Transit Company, it was not the last corporate sponsored tragedy for Nicaragua. Vanderbilt soon abandoned his routes in exchange for hefty stipends from competing transit companies in Panama, but American companies never lost their lustful eye for Central American resources.

Vanderbilt’s wasn’t the only American footprint in the region. American businesses remained interested in the vast possibilities of Central America. The door to the region was thrust open after the Spanish American War made it clear that the United States was an empire, an empire founded on the principles of global business. In 1899 United Fruit Company started to organize in Guatemala. In 1903, President Roosevelt used a shaky interpretation of the United States’ neutrality agreement on the Isthmus of Panama to acquire the Canal Zone. In 1909 the United States sent troops into Nicaragua, where they remained for most of the next twenty-four years. In 1924, the United States sent troops into Honduras. This period of US military and financial interventions in Central America were part of what is known as the Banana Wars and were initiated solely to protect US business interests. US corporations thrived on weak, corrupt governments installed by the US military. In 1935, General Smedley Butler, the most decorated soldier in US history up to that time, described his real mission in the invaluable book War is a Racket:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. 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 in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903.

US interventions in Central American affairs stepped up to a new level during the Cold War. Anything that smacked of socialism, by which was meant attempts to empower the poor, would not be allowed in the Western Hemisphere. In 1954, when Guatemalan President Jacabo Arbenz Guzman dared attempt to redistribute unused, foreign owned lands to Guatemalans he raised the ire of those foreign owners. Namely, his rather reasonable policies infuriated the United Fruit Company. Turns out that one of United Fruit’s board members, Allan Dulles, was also the director of the CIA. His brother, John Foster, was the US Secretary of State. Bad news for Arbenz. He was overthrown by a CIA sponsored coup. Imagine that!

When the US military pulled out of Nicaragua in 1933 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “Good Neighbor” Policy, this Central American country came under the rule Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Like a good neighbor, the United States supported Somoza as he executed the popular Augusto Sandino and consolidated his brutal power while allowing US corporations to strip Nicaragua’s resources. When the left wing Sandinista movement overthrew the Somoza Dynasty over forty years later the United States continued to support the right wing Contras. The Contras were the remnants of Somoza’s criminal National Guard and had taken refuge in Honduras. The Reagan Administration illegally funneled millions of dollars in military aid to the Contras, feeding a lengthy, blood and unnecessary civil war. Because this funding was illegal under the Boland Amendment, the Reagan Administration had to find innovative ways to find and launder the money. Their most famous scheme was selling arms to Iran, a known terrorist state, and then funneling the money to the Contras. Another money making strategy was selling drugs. Colonel Oliver North was not only a leading architect of the Iran-Contra Scandal in the late eighties, but was also one of the world’s foremost drug dealers. His network stretched from Colombia, through Panamanian General Noriega into the back-alleys of Crip and Blood turf in Los Angeles and other American cities. This CIA run drug cartel played a significant role in the crack epidemic that ravaged urban communities in the eighties.

In fact, there wasn’t a right wing, despotic dictator in Central America whom the United States did not like so long as he was dedicated to exterminating left leaning political movements. When it became clear that the Sandinista movement was spreading into El Salvador, President’s Carter and Reagan stepped up military support for the brutal, right wing military Junta. This support included training death squads. Many of the officers in these deaths squads received their training the notorious School of the Americas. The School of the Americas, now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, trained counter-insurgents in the most heinous tactics and sent them off to conduct war crimes against civilians in the interests of the United States and its corporations. In El Salvador, graduates of this house of horrors were responsible for the massacre of over 900 people in El Mozote, the assassination of the heroic Archbishop Óscar Romero and four nuns among others, all for the sake of preventing another Sandinista movement such as had come to power in Nicaragua. Among the School of Americas alumni is Otto Pérez Molina, the current president of Guatemala.

A full description of US atrocities in the Central America would much too extensive and macabre for the purposes of this post. There’s a great deal of in depth historical research for those who want to know more. Such does not have to be reproduced here. The point is that Central America does not exist in isolation from US influence, and hasn’t for a very long time. For about a century, American “diplomacy” in that region has been traumatic and socially destabilizing. In fact, it has been criminal; again, that case can be effectively made elsewhere. This history is an effective retort to conservative whining about taking responsible for refugees when their condition is not our fault. Indeed, by any measure of fairness, the plight of these children is our fault.

Nor is it a valid claim that we are not responsible for the trespasses of our forebears. Unfortunately, the military and economic exploitation continues. Corporate dominance remains the underlying factor in US bullying and butchery. This time, instead of the communist scapegoat, we justify massive corporate militarization under the premise of a war on drugs. Scratch the surface just a little bit and the corporate influence is clear. As with the influence of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the nineteenth century and United Fruit in the mid twentieth, corporate theft of the region’s resources continues.

In the early eighties, President Reagan announced a program called the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). The CBI was set up to provide financial aid and favorable trade status to those nations on the Caribbean that initiated free market reforms and resisted “communist” elements within their borders. Communist elements were, by definition, social programs and movements to benefit the poor including, but not limited to, labor unions.

The success of CBI, which means the increase of corporate access and profits, and the example of NAFTA as a boon to multinationals, has inspired an expansion of so-called “free market” reforms in Central America called CAFTA. Again, attention must be paid to the discourse. Free markets are those in which corporations are free, but not people. For one example, subsidized US agricultural products are dumped freely into Central American, which is not allowed to subsidize its own agriculture because that would be a violation of free market principles. Small farmers in Central America are thus driven from their land, forced to sell, often at gun point, to US agro-businesses. These lands are then dedicated to mono-cultural crops that fetch high profits on the global market without regard to the needs of starving people right next door. The fastest growing agricultural market in most Central American countries is Palm Oil. Meanwhile, the cost of food rises.

Displaced farmers must then migrate into the open arms of other corporate actors, most notably in the garment industry. The consequent glut of poor, desperate labor, in the face of state sanctioned violence against labor unions, means corporations have access to a virtual slave market. “According to an AFL-CIO report in 2008 that investigated maquiladoras in Guatemala, there is widespread sexual violence against women workers, common use of child labor, various forms of anti-union intimidation and violence, blacklists and mass firings, and a general failure to comply with basic labor codes established by the International Labor Organization. Other organizations have pointed to similar trends in maquildoras in other participating Central American nations.”

According to Global Exchange a garment worker, usually a young woman enduring unsafe conditions and every form of exploitation, earns about sixty cents an hour making NBA jerseys. That amounts to about twenty-five cents per jersey. Sixty cents an hour places her income at about thirty percent of the poverty line. NBA jerseys can sell in the US for as much as $140. In the meantime, any effort to alleviate poverty through social means is a violation of global banking and trade agreements. The argument that this is about market forces is bogus. A wage that would lift these workers out of poverty would add no more than $1.50 to the cost of each shirt. Would someone be less inclined to purchase a $140 jersey if the price went up to $141.50? This is about power and exploitation.

The global corporate structure existing in Central America can only be described as economic warfare. That in itself should constitute a valid push factor justifying refugee status for the thousands of children crossing the border. However, this economic warfare exists in conjunction with very real warfare. In the US, we call this the War on Drugs. Central Americans, understand it for what it is—an extension of the economic warfare and corporate imperialism that it is.

Americans are simply unwilling to “say no to drugs” and constitute almost two thirds of the global drug trade. Regardless, American policy, ostensibly to curb the availability of drugs, is military interdiction. Military solutions are the policy of choice in the United States largely because of the size and influence of our military industrial complex. Death and destruction is good business. For instance, the $1.3 billion spent by the Pentagon to provide only electronic equipment to US soldiers in Honduras was more than seven times the Honduran military budget. Now this might prove an economic benefit to Central America if over three quarters of that money wasn’t actually going to American owned firms.

It also helps that the war on drugs is an effective pretext for attacking those who were previously defined as “communist.” In other words, the war on drugs is the excuse for assassinating advocates for labor, land and social reform. In 2010, President Obama created the Central America Regional Security Initiative, perpetuating the war on drugs with money, equipment and training. Unfortunately, most of the police being trained and supplied actually work for the cartels. Indeed, one is left to wonder just how many of those involved in the Central American drug cartels are erstwhile buddies of Oliver North. Meanwhile, corporations often hire their own private armies to defend and serve their interests and investments. Ultimately, the combined forces of corrupt police, US trained military and private security forces are directed at activists and farmers and often collude with the drug cartels for the sake of multi-national business interests.

“Corporations employ large private-security forces that work in close collaboration with the military and the police. In Guatemala’s Polochic Valley, Mayan communities report that the Chabil Utzaj sugarcane corporation—owned by the Pellas Development Group of Nicaragua—enlists armed gangs linked to drug trafficking to attack them. These are the same armed groups that threatened and assaulted communities in the 1980s, also over land rights disputes; this represents the resurgence of the business- and government-backed death squads of the 1980s, which killed and disappeared thousands.”

The “free market” imposed on Central America for the last hundred years has crippled farmers and workers. Citizens destroyed by the legitimate market are understandably and ironically drawn to the illicit market, working for the cartels as the only chance for an economic stake. What difference does it make to the displaced farmer or the victim of the maquila? He was already the target of a corrupt state. Perhaps the growing power of the cartels can provide some security.

This perfect storm of variables, a militarized interdiction against drugs for which demand remains constant, results in increased value for this illicit commodity. As any economist will point out, increased value justifies increased investment and increased risk, bringing greater profits and encouraging more aggressive, violent practices among the competing cartels. It also brings many and varied opportunities to the corporate class. After all, where there’s money, there’s an investment opportunity. The war on drugs has created in Central America a very real war zone. What’s worse is that this is a war zone in which the civilian population isn’t just collateral damage, but often the target in a US/corporate agenda. Every war creates refugees. This multifaceted, multi-layered, impossibly complex economic war is no exception.

When desperate children risk their lives to cross a ridiculously militarized border, they should be embraced by any civilized people on the other side of that line. When those on the other side of that line are in fact the cause and benefactors of their desperation the responsibility to do right by them is nothing short of a moral imperative. Ignorance of the US role in Central American instability is a normal aspect of US culture. This ignorance, however, does not justify the moral failings of willfully turning our backs on children, let alone heaping abuse and insult upon them as they are transported through town. We should be ashamed of our ignorance, yes. We should be ashamed of the crimes being perpetrated in our name, of course. However, the shame that is our historical legacy should we deny universally understood empathy and charity toward children in pain is a disgrace beyond humanity. Such a sour legacy should consign our culture to historical ignominy.

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