While the United Nations focuses fitfully on its own long string of refugee problems, President Joe Biden has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to resolve the problems of migration at the United States-Mexico border. There are legitimate reasons for Americans to be concerned about the flood of migrants, mostly coming from Central America. But those concerns mainly center on our public policy, not the legitimacy of immigration itself. As a nation, we have failed to revise and update our immigration statutes to appropriately answer the question of whom among the men, women and children fleeing crime, oppression and violence deserve entry into our land and citizenship in our nation. Our border challenges are largely due to our old, inadequate immigration laws.
But another factor is at play — an issue that lies in the darker recesses of our past. That is America’s indiscriminate and criminal meddling in Central America over seven-plus decades, long justified under the rubric that the US was simply trying to help Latin regimes thwart “Communist subversion” (and, later on, drug trafficking and terrorism). Such interventions have been enormously destabilizing to the region, upending politics throughout Central America and rendering countless people poor and disenfranchised.
The truth is in the historical record. Take, for example, one of the most egregious interventions in the region: the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala. There, the US overthrew the democratically elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz on spurious Cold War grounds. Árbenz had implemented an agrarian reform program that attempted to provide acreage to the landless peasants who constituted roughly 80 percent of the country’s population. By expanding the country’s agricultural production, he aimed to create a new class of farmers and foster a broader middle class.
But his plan threatened to take control of some of the unused banana land that was owned by the United Fruit Company, an American corporation and the largest landowner in the country. That prospect infuriated the company, and, alleging that Soviet-sponsored Communists were about to seize the country, United Fruit convinced their allies in the Eisenhower administration to depose the regime.
Thus, a CIA-led coup was secretly mounted, leading to the downfall of Árbenz and the takeover of the country by a succession of thuggish military dictators — and, more grimly, a brutal civil war that lasted some 36 years and claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. Today, the country remains a fragile democracy, having never fully recovered from the US attack. The Guatemalan example served as a warning to the rest of Central America: stay at one with the US or else.
Things could have turned out much differently. Had America refrained from ousting the government, Árbenz would likely have served out his five-year term, allowing for subsequent free elections. Democracy might then have firmly implanted itself in Guatemala, as it had done in nearby Costa Rica, an exemplar of democracy since 1948. Had a democratic Guatemala had the opportunity to sit at the top end of the isthmus, with a thriving democratic Costa Rica at the bottom, the majority of the other Central American countries — Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua — might have been convinced to move toward democracy.
Instead, from the 1940s onward, the US broadly supported authoritarian regimes in Central America, including providing military and security assistance — as long as they opposed Communism. In Nicaragua, the US firmly backed the Somoza dictatorship until it was overthrown by the Sandinista insurgents, only later to promote the Contra invasion to overthrow the Sandinistas. We also propped up corrupt, right-wing governments in El Salvador, assisting in their bloody wars against reformers. In Honduras, Washington supported a series of reactionary regimes, which sided with the nation’s wealthiest one percent at the expense of the majority poverty-stricken population.
For decades, American officials have been more interested in eradicating supposed “security threats” in Central America than they have been in supporting freedom and prosperity. As long as leaders in the region embraced US interests on Communism, drug trafficking or terrorism, the US turned a blind eye to human-rights abuses or antidemocratic measures. Our approach has destroyed any chance for a destitute citizenry to achieve political liberty, push for economic reforms and solidify democracy within their societies.
We cannot be surprised, then, that today thousands of Central Americans are trying to escape their homelands for better lives and safety in the US. The Biden administration is proposing $4 billion in aid for the Northern Triangle countries to ward off further migration. This is a good first step. But the tragedy remains that ideological-driven and fear-based US foreign policy decisions in the past are among the core causes of today’s Central American disorder. America is now reaping the whirlwind that it helped to sow.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.