Part 1: The kids from Central America
By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
Once again immigration policy is a daily news item, this time prompted by 30,000 Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran children who have arrived here since January. Hoping to save them from the indiscriminate violence that permeates daily life, their parents are paying coyotes to bring them to our border.
Once again the lies of U.S. Congressional leaders are also daily news items. Those who have hijacked the banner of conservatism lie to the electorate, while their liberal counterparts lie to themselves.
“Compassion” is the word one hears most commonly in the liberals’ pronouncements. True compassion would be to persuade Central American Parents not to spend their life savings plus what they can borrow to send their kids on a thousand-mile journey where rape, injury and death are too-frequent stops, only to see those kids returned to them.
The “conservatives” are predictably blaming the President. They tell the electorate that the problem is lax border enforcement, knowing full well that the kids aren’t sneaking across the border. They’re presenting themselves to U.S. border authorities with the expectation that a law proposed by a Republican President and passed by a Republican Congress will keep them here.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who proved in a Republican presidential debate that he can’t count past two, wants in on the act. Ever eager to grandstand, he has dispatched 1,000 National Guard troops to protect Texans from children who are voluntarily turning themselves in.
He joins a long line of Texas governors who publicly flaunt their intelligence deficits. One is reminded of “Ma” Ferguson, elected in 1932 after her husband was impeached, convicted, and removed from office. In a discussion about bilingual education, she is reported to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”
Neither liberals nor “conservatives” are willing to publicly acknowledge that the horrific violence fueling Central Americans’ desperation is a historical result of U.S. government actions, largely beyond the control, and often the knowledge, of the American people.
Over the last century, the U.S. government supported coups, dictatorial military governments and death squads to repress Central Americans’ democratic efforts. When these covert actions became public, activists were tarred as “communists.”
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the U.S. withdrew financial and military aid to the region’s state-sponsored terrorists. In possession of weapons arsenals and extensive experience in murder, kidnapping, coercion and theft, the death-squad thugs continued their criminal careers in the private sector.
In El Salvador the U.S. supported and financed the 1980 creation of a junta to repress workers, students and church leaders struggling for union rights, free speech, agrarian reform, living wages and health care. Death squads began killing about ten people per day. One of them was Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered while he said mass on March 24th of that year.
As much as anything, that event marked the beginning of El Salvador’s Civil War, during which 6-8,000 fulltime guerillas, supported by hundreds of thousands of militia, fought a right-wing military that was financed and trained by the U.S.
Ultimately the U.S. abandoned its client thugs. El Salvadoran government officials and the Liberation Front negotiated the Chapultepec Peace Accord in 1992, mandating a reduction in the army and dissolution of the government’s four paramilitary groups. The next year the Salvadoran legislature passed an amnesty for criminal activities committed during the war, and those criminals’ future activities became more laissez faire.
In 1954 the democratically elected government of Guatemala needed land on which starving peasants could conduct subsistence farming. It proposed to pay the property value stated by United Fruit Company for lands that United Fruit was keeping out of production to drive up the cost of bananas.
CIA Director Allen Dulles sat on United Fruit’s board of directors. The CIA overthrew the Guatemalan government. There followed decades of political instability, repression and freedom struggles, punctuated by coups.
A Kennedy-administration-backed coup prevented an election in 1963, but in 1966, Guatemala elected a center-left government. U.S. Army Special Forces military advisers trained right-wing paramilitary organizations like the “White Hand” and the “Secret Army,” who formed death squads, assassinating political opponents, activists, and community leaders. The activists began to form guerilla organizations.
After the army and death squads had killed tens of thousands of civilians, President Jimmy Carter publicly withdrew military support. In fact, support continued through clandestine channels. It increased when Ronald Reagan came to power.
During the anti-insurgency campaign’s first ten years, the army’s and death squads’ victims were anyone with leadership potential—teachers, students, labor leaders, professionals, and political activists. After that, the army conducted a genocidal campaign against Mayan peasants, destroying over 450 villages and killing 200,000 people.
Ronald Reagan visited Guatemala in December 1982 and described junta chief Efraín Ríos Mont as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.” Reagan added, “I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”
The United Nations, Norway and Spain neogtiated the end of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1996. Millions of documents abandoned by the Guatemalan Police have since been discovered. They confirm the findings of the U.N.’s Commission for Historical Clarification: Government forces and CIA-trained paramilitaries conducted over 93% of the War’s human rights violations.
The Honduras story is similar. The U.S. intevened militarily in 1903, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925. In his book, War is a Racket, USMC General Smedley Butler writes, “I helped make Honduras ‘right’ for American fruit companies.”
The Honduran government’s repression during the 1980s did not reach the level of civil war suffered by Guatemala and El Savador. But its army conducted a campaign of repression, featuring CIA-supported extrajuicial murders by government-backed paramilitary units like “Battalion 316.”
The long-term consequences—daily life dominated by thugs with guns, and kids at the U.S. border—are the same for Hondurans as for Gratemalans and Salvadorans.
Costa Rica, Belize and Nicaragua
So why aren’t immigrant waves from other Central Americn countries arriving at our border? An important part of the answer is that the U.S. never intervened militarily in Belize or Costa Rica.
In Costa Rica, a successful leftist rebellion in 1948 abolished the military, oversaw the creation of a constitution, and relinquished power the following year. That country has enjoyed peaceful, democratic and honest government ever since.
The answer in Nicaragua is that efforts of Oliver “I’m-a-patriot” North and Ronald “I-don’t-remember” Reagan failed to defeat the Sandanista revolution. You may remember this pair from the Iran-Contra affair in which the Reagan Administration defied law by secretly selling arms to Iran and channeled the proceeds to Nicaraguan terrorists, who were collectively called “Contras.”
The Sandanistas took power in 1979 and subsequently subsequently won free and fair elections in 1984. Despite a campaign that killed 30,000 Nicaraguans, the Contras failed, and the Sandanistas carried out reforms. Nicaragua has remained a democracy ever since.
It is important to understand that the conditions that Central American kids are presently fleeing are the direct outcome of past U.S. govertment actions. Forgetting history ensures that we will repeat it.
But acknowledging our government’s culpability does not mean that we should admit any undocumented Central American who arrives here. No developed nation can simply throw open its borders.
All political factions acknowledge that our immigration policies are broken. In the next column, I’ll suggest solutions that will probably make liberals indignant and conservatives resentful.