U.S. Government Policy the “Root Cause” of Migrant Caravans

June 23, 2021

Rafael Fuentes, 16, fled his native Honduras with his family to escape a local gang that was trying to recruit him. Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with 37.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020.

In April, according to a story in The Guardian, Fuentes said goodbye to his mother and 14-year-old sister in order to cross alone into the U.S. He surrendered to federal authorities after arriving, and applied for asylum. Due to an immigration policy known as Title 42, implemented by the Trump administration and continued by Biden, unaccompanied minors are allowed to apply for asylum while families with children over the age of six are not.

Fuentes and his family are among the thousands of refugees who have arrived at the U.S. border this spring. Most of them are from Central America, a region suffering from levels of violence almost unimaginable to most people in the U.S. It is the most dangerous area of the world to live in that is not currently at war.

Violence, extreme poverty, and, increasingly, the effects of climate change, are pushing tens of thousands of people to abandon their homes to seek refuge elsewhere.

As Michael Chertoff, the former Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, told CBS News in October, “If people feel their lives are in jeopardy, there's nothing that will deter them from fleeing to safety.”

Root Causes

The Biden administration has announced its intention to address the “root causes” of migration from Central America. However, scholars Amelia Frank-Vitale and Lauren Heidbrink, who study Central American migration, wrote recently that the measures announced by Biden in April are the sort that have ‘long failed to achieve the desired aim of reducing migration by reducing poverty. If President Joe Biden hopes to avoid replicating these failures, he must acknowledge that U.S. policy itself is one of those ​”root causes” of migration.’

The U.S. government has a long history of military intervention in the region to protect the interests of U.S. corporations, stretching back to the late 19th century and sponsored by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The CIA sponsored a coup in Guatemala in 1954. During El Salvador’s brutal civil war in the 1980s, the U.S. government provided the military dictatorship with weapons, money and military advisors. In 2009, the Obama administration helped engineer a coup against the democratically elected president of Honduras, who had earned the enmity of his country’s elites by, among other things, raising the minimum wage.

“Free trade” has also had devastating effects in Central America. Frank-Vitale and Heidbrink write that the free trade agreement negotiated with several Central American countries by George W. Bush’s administration “has created a boom of extractive megaprojects that includes multinational mining, hydroelectric plants and African palm oil production. Rather than foster economic development, these projects actually displace communities, contaminate agricultural land and waterways, and exacerbate social inequality.”

Climate change has wreaked further havoc on people’s homes and livelihoods. Unusually intense droughts and floods have caused massive losses in the agricultural sector, which accounts for close to a third of all employment in the region. Last November, two of the most intense hurricanes of the most active hurricane season on record hit Central America within two weeks of each other, killing over 200 people and displacing more than half a million.

Meant to Instill Terror

The U.S. poet Carolyn Forché, who traveled to El Salvador in 1978, describes an encounter with a member of the Salvadoran military in her poem “The Colonel.” Believing that Forché would have influence with then-President Jimmy Carter, who had begun to criticize the human-rights records of U.S. allies, the “Colonel” invited her to a dinner party. To illustrate the kind of violence he believed was necessary to maintain order in his country, after dinner he “spilled many human ears on the table” from a sack. “He took one / of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water / glass. It came alive there.”

The Reagan Administration had no reservations about the Salvadoran military’s human rights record, and provided them with $3.5 billion over the course of the civil war, which broke out in 1979. During the war, people who stood up for the rights of workers and the poor — including, especially, trade unionists — were in danger of being labeled “communists” and being tortured and killed.

In 1989, UE sent a delegation to a sister union conference organized by ATCEL, the Salvadoran electrical workers’ union. On the first night of their visit, a building near the meeting hall was bombed. “The bombing was a real example of the tactics the government uses against the trade unions,” UE Local 271 President Peter Pickett, a member of the delegation, told the UE NEWS.

ATCEL took the UE delegates to one of their worksites, which was surrounded by soldiers carrying assault rifles. “I don't know if I could operate while being afraid for my life every minute the way they do,” commented Pickett.

ATCEL President Rene Rodriguez, in an interview for the UE NEWS during the conference, reported that “Last year during our three-week strike, seven brothers from one of our worksites were picked up by the army and turned over to the national police. They were held for 28 hours, during which they were handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten.” He continued, “I am aware that at any moment I could be the victim of capture and torture, which is the least thing I think that could happen. The worst is that they would kill me.”

Forché, who published a memoir of her time in El Salvador in 2019, described how widespread the violence of the civil war years was in an interview last year:

You didn’t even have to be truly committed to anything to wind up dead. … It was indiscriminate killing. And there was torture before the killing and mutilation following the killing. There was a kind of strange madness, and it did have a method: it was meant to instill terror and it did that.

Salvadoran Gangs: Made in the USA

Faced with this kind of daily violence, more than a million Salvadorans simply fled the country, many ending up in California. As journalist Felipe De La Hoz noted in an essay last summer, “There, they were met with a lack of support and social services, an existing local gang culture, and the tough-on-crime policies of Reagan and then-Governor George Deukmejian.” MS-13, the Salvadoran gang regularly cited by Donald Trump as evidence of the inherent violence of immigrants, originated as a self-defence organization among working-class Salvadoran youth in Los Angeles.

After the civil war ended in 1992, the U.S. began deporting Salvadorans in large numbers, especially after President Clinton’s draconian 1996 immigration law. De La Hoz writes:

The rest is pretty much history: deportees who had learned gang structure in U.S. prisons returned to El Salvador and organized the straggled, shell-shocked crop of young men left prospectless by the unfolding collapse of the coffee crop economy and war into regimented, heavily armed gangs that warred intermittently with one another.

Combining U.S. gang discipline with the brutal legacy of El Salvador’s U.S.-funded civil war (gangs recruited many former combatants) has produced an especially violent gang culture. In 2017, New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Blitzer reported:

Last March, a group of gangsters who were chasing rivals just outside San Salvador came upon eight laborers putting up power lines. They tortured and killed them, just to show off. A former American gang member who now lives in San Salvador told me, “In the States, there’s rules, but right here the rules are out. There are just excuses to do violence.”

Cocaine and Corruption

On March 30, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández was sentenced to life imprisonment by a U.S. federal court, after being found guilty of smuggling 185 tons of cocaine into the U.S. Hernández is no ordinary smuggler — he is the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and a former Honduran congressman from the right-wing National Party.

President Hernández, whose National Party has held power since shortly after the 2009 U.S.-backed coup, has been accused of running a “narco-state” and engaging in “state-sponsored drug trafficking.” Prosecutors have charged that his brother received a $1 million payment from Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, intended as a bribe for the president.

Central America’s geographic location between drug-producing countries such as Colombia and the drug-consuming countries like the U.S., combined with its weak and often corrupt governments, make it a key link in the drug trade — an industry that, it should be noted, is driven primarily by U.S. demand for cocaine (the favored drug on Wall Street).

Equal Times, a publication supported by the International Trade Union Confederation, reported in 2020 that the alliance between drug cartels and the government has deadly implications for union members:

A common pattern is this: unions confront congressmen for blocking union certification processes, or for weakening labor laws. Those politicians are also business owners or allies of business owners, who resist labour rights in the name of profit. And in the post-coup reality, it’s not uncommon that the congressmen or businessmen are allied with drug cartels. So when workers confront the business or political elite, they are often simultaneously confronting narcos.

The last domino can involve street gangs; in Honduras, cartels often contract gang members as hitmen, so the people who pull the triggers that kill union organisers can be gang members, even though the scheme was planned far above them. “All union leaders are vulnerable to possible assassination at any moment,” says [union leader Joel] Almendares.

Throughout Central America, this pattern of collusion between drug cartels, government and street gangs has made life so dangerous that many working people feel they have no choice but to flee.

Bitter Fruit

In the early 1950s, the democratically elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, began to enforce Decree 900. The legislation was passed in 1952 by the Guatemalan Congress and provided for the redistribution of unused land to landless peasants, with compensation to the owners based on the land’s assessed tax value.

This did not sit well with the U.S.-based United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands International). United Fruit owned over 600,000 acres of mostly-unused land in Guatemala. They were used to an endless supply of cheap labor in a country where 80 percent of the population barely eked out a living in the countryside. And they were used to getting their way. One of Arbenz’s predecessors, the dictatorial President Jorge Ubico, who ruled from 1931-44, used vagrancy laws to compel landless people to work for large landowners like United Fruit (when they were not sufficiently compelled by hunger).

As Juan Gonzalez writes in his book Harvest of Empire:

Arbenz shocked UFCO officials even more when he actually confiscated a huge chunk of the company’s land and offered $1.2 million as compensation, a figure that was based on the tax value of the company’s own accountants had declared before Decree 900 was passed. United Fruit and the U.S. State Department countered with a demand for $16 million. When Arbenz refused, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles convinced President Eisenhower that Arbenz had to go. The Dulles brothers, of course, were hardly neutral parties. Both were former partners of United Fruit’s main law firm in Washington. On their advice, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to organize “Operation Success,” a plan for the armed overthrow of Arbenz, which took place in June 1954.

The coup resulted in four decades of what Gonzalez describes as “government terror without equal in the modern history of Latin America.” It also consolidated an economic model in which poor, landless workers are forced to work for large landowners, growing “cash crops” like fruit and coffee for export.

That economic model has made Guatemala, and the rest of Central America, especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change. A February report from the Migration Policy Institute details how “Catastrophic climatic events such as the 2014-16 droughts and the flooding following Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which hit Central America hard within a two-week span in 2020, have had a devastating effect” on the ability of people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to feed their families.

The report points out that “the poor and extreme poor in rural Guatemala buy most of their food,” paying for it by “being hired as unskilled laborers for agricultural activities such as coffee picking. Yet demand for this labor has declined” as “climate extremes and pests associated with climate variability” affect the production of coffee and other agricultural products. Faced with the prospect of starvation, thousands have opted to join the caravans to the U.S.

De La Hoy, in an April 2021 article for The New Republic, notes that “like the political and security instability the U.S. has instigated, it is again primarily responsible for this catastrophe [climate change] and its consequences while being best insulated from its fallout. (The U.S. military alone is reportedly a bigger polluter than over 100 lower-polluting countries combined.)”

Solidarity with All Working People

It is U.S. government policies, pursued by both major parties over decades, that have created the desperation driving today’s caravans of migrants. It is overly simplistic for Vice President Kamala Harris to demand that suffering people in Central America “do not come” to the U.S., given that our government’s decades of intervention in the region has created the conditions that they are fleeing.

Consistently, UE has supported improving wages and social programs for all working people, in all nations of the world, so that families do not have to make extreme choices like sending young children away to fend for themselves. In Central America, unions and community organizations are fighting for the kind of society that would allow working people in those countries to provide for their families and keep them safe. Unfortunately, they have powerful forces arrayed against them: their own governments, U.S.-based corporations, and, too often, direct interference from the U.S. government.

Frank-Vitale and Heidbrink write that:

The Biden administration cannot simply wish away the damage inflicted by decades of U.S. interventionist policy. If it is interested in pursuing holistic solutions, the U.S. has an obligation to listen to local communities and to pursue local strategies. In Honduras, for example, this would mean investing heavily in public education and healthcare rather than privatizing these sectors, as at least one powerful USAID-funded NGO has recommended. 

Working people in Central America deserve our solidarity in their struggles. They also deserve the right, protected by international law, to claim asylum at our borders when they feel they have no choice but to flee the poverty and violence that is a legacy of U.S. foreign and military policy.

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