The Caravan of Central Americans making its way toward the U.S. border has led to the amassing of some 5000 U.S. troops along that border. This mass migration is driven by a confluence of factors that have a long-standing history in the region: most notably widespread poverty and violence. Central American countries, more than any other countries of the region, are, in the words of the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, “at war with the past.” They have a history of repressive dictatorships, extreme concentrations of wealth, and poverty. Part of that history, however, has involved the involvement of the United States in ways that have exacerbated the very problems that are causing the current massive out-migration.
Desperate Social Conditions are the Drivers of Migration
The worst poverty is found in those countries from which people are fleeing. Honduras, where the Caravan began, is the poorest country of the region, with 75 percent of the rural population living in poverty and 63 percent in extreme poverty. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua follow closely behind in their high levels of deprivation. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries that constitute the infamous Northern Triangle, are marked by corruption, gang wars, violence and drug trafficking; out-migration from this region has increased five-fold since 2012. Ordinary citizens pay millions in extortion fees to organized crime. Young men are forced, against their will, into criminal gangs. San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the most violent city in the world, in the most violent country in the world, was the starting point for the current Caravan. El Salvador held this honor in 2015.
The U.S. Role in Supporting Repression and Social Exclusion
U.S. involvement in the region has been uniformly counterproductive to peace and prosperity. In 1954, America organized and financed the overthrow of the democratically elected reformist regime of Guatemalan president Jacabo Arbenz, whose government sought to improve the lives of poor farmers by redistributing the unproductive lands held by United Fruit. This event ushered in a series of brutal authoritarian regimes that consigned most Guatemalans to both repression and high levels of deprivation for decades to come.
By the early 1970s, the extreme land concentration and poverty in the region gave rise to peaceful mobilizations demanding reform. When demands for social justice were met with fierce repression, guerrilla insurgencies, with mass followings, ensued. The U.S. insisted that these insurgencies were Soviet and Cuban inspired and supported the brutally repressive regimes in the region with massive military aid. The 1984 Kissinger Report refused any negotiation with the guerrilla movements and insisted upon their military defeat. Arms sent by the U.S. to defeat guerrillas flowed into insurgent hands, a development that kept the conflicts going, particularly as governments lost legitimacy. Operating from bases in Honduras from 1979, the U.S. worked to destabilize the revolutionary Sandinista government through supporting the “Contras,” most of whom were former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard. In Honduras, the U.S. supported the country’s most reactionary and repressive forces.
Peace eventually came to the region in 1987 when the Central American countries signed their own peace agreements, without U.S. involvement. However, these agreements failed to address the social root causes of the conflict, particularly land redistribution. While political violence declined, criminal violence quickly replaced it. Prolonged civil war had entrenched violence into everyday life. At the same time, the failure of this liberal peace to address widespread poverty and the high levels of inequality fueled recourse to criminal activities in the absence of alternative economic opportunities, particularly among young men. The massive quantities of small arms that had entered the region during their civil wars provided the means for this upsurge while the militarization of policing further exacerbated the level of violence. At the same time, Central Americans, mostly El Salvadorians fleeing their war-torn countries in the 1980s, formed and joined criminal gangs in Los Angeles. In the 1990s, many of these gang members were deported back to their Central American countries of origin, producing a sharp increase in criminal violence.
The Neoliberal Imperative and the Honduran Coup
Moreover, peacebuilding was accompanied by neoliberal (market) reforms that not only failed to produce sustained economic growth but arguably contributed to social deprivation given the insistence on trade liberalization and privatization—policies that increased unemployment. Most recently, the U.S. funded “Alliance for Prosperity Plan” to curb migration from Central America, like past initiatives, combines military aid (which ratchets up the level of violence) with measures to attract foreign investment. This latter provides only problematic economic opportunities in the form of insecure and low paid employment in such activities as export processing firms or community disruption and environmental degradation in the case of mining investment.
The 2009 Honduran military coup reflects the ongoing counterproductive impact of U.S. involvement in the region. The leader of that coup was a graduate of the U.S. Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as School of the Americas and nicknamed the “School of Assassins,” in recognition of the number of graduates who engaged in military coups in Latin America. The coup was supported by the Honduran business and landed elites. While the U.S. was not involved in the coup itself, the Obama administration failed to support the return to power of the democratically elected government. It then quickly recognized the new administration, and supported it in the face of massive protests. Subsequent years have witnessed the murders of trade unionists, environmentalists, opposition political leaders, and human rights activists. Both the government security forces and criminal gangs account for the sharp rise in violence. Notably, ousted elected president Manuel Zelaya had been moving to address deprivation by raising the minimum wage, expanding social programs, and improving infrastructure. Since his ouster, neoliberal restructuring has produced mass layoffs in the public sector, increased taxes, reduced subsidies on energy and transportation, and a decline in government spending on social programs.
Central American countries have had difficult histories. Arguably, however, these histories have not been allowed to unfold in ways that might have produced better prospects for peace and prosperity—and the United States has been an instrumental actor in this unhappy outcome.