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We Have Met the Enemy and he is us

What’s missing from the debate about our borders? The reason why.

People don’t just pick up and leave their ancestral homes and extended families without a good reason. In so doing, they face a dangerous and expensive journey in search of a new home. Yet despite the risks and hardship, these folks feel they have no choice.

What we hear is news about brown-skinned folks mobbing our borders, crossing rivers and sneaking into the promised land. We see them standing in lines, tear-stained kids’ faces, our media swamped with shouting heads about illegal immigration. Build a wall! Trump yells.

What does any of that do to solve the problem?

Nothing.

The problem is ours. It is we who have caused this, maybe not us individually, but us as part of a Western culture’s willingness to overrun and exploit anyone weaker than us in order to enrich ourselves.

As reported on the PBS Newshour last night,[1] most of the current surge of immigration comes from three nations: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. These are collectively among the most violent, poverty-stricken areas of the Americas. To fully understand the terrible state of affairs in these countries, one must go back several centuries to the Spanish conquest when everything of value was stolen from the people. Since then, land ownership by rich plantation owners and all-powerful foreign corporations has removed people from their traditional way of life and left them with nothing but poorly paid jobs, if that.

The role of the United States intensified during the 20th century as socialist ideals filtered into Latin America. People embraced the idea of taking back the land from foreign interests and the wealthy power brokers in their country. The U.S. took an active albeit secretive role in destroying such efforts, as described in an article in the May 2016 issue of The Nation:[2]

…the active role Washington played in the “dirty war” in El Salvador in the 1980s, which pitted a right-wing government against Marxist guerrillas. The United States sent military advisers to help the Salvadoran military fight its dirty war, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid.

The United States went well beyond remaining largely silent in the face of human-rights abuses in El Salvador. The State Department and White House often sought to cover up the brutality, to protect the perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes.

In March of 1980, the much beloved and respected Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered. A voice for the poor and repressed, Romero, in his final Sunday sermon, had issued a plea to the country’s military junta that rings through the ages: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”  The next day, he was cut down by a single bullet while he was saying a private mass…

Eight months after the assassination, a military informant gave the US embassy in El Salvador evidence that it had been plotted by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a charismatic and notorious right-wing leader. D’Aubuisson had presided over a meeting in which soldiers drew lots for the right to kill the archbishop, the informant said. While any number of right-wing death squads might have wanted to kill Romero, only a few, like D’Aubuisson’s, were “fanatical and daring” enough to actually do it, the CIA concluded in a report for the White House.

Yet, D’Aubuisson continued to be welcomed at the US embassy in El Salvador, and when Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s point man on Central America during the Reagan administration, testified before Congress, he said he would not consider D’Aubuisson an extremist. “You would have to be engaged in murder,” Abrams said, before he would call him an extremist.

But D’Aubuisson was engaged in murder, and Washington knew it. (He died of throat cancer in 1992, at the age of 48. Abrams was convicted in 1991 of misleading Congress about the shipment of arms to the anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, the so-called “Iran/Contra” affair. He was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, later served as special adviser to President George W. Bush on democracy and human rights, and is now a foreign-policy adviser to GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz.)

Then there was the murder of three nuns. The Nation’s article continues:

No act of barbarism is more emblematic of the deceit that marked Washington’s policy in El Salvador in the 1980s than the sexual assault and murder of four US churchwomen—three Roman Catholic nuns and a lay missionary—in December 1980, a month after Ronald Reagan was elected president.

The American ambassador, Robert White, who had been appointed by President Jimmy Carter, knew immediately that the Salvadoran military was responsible—even if he didn’t have the names of the perpetrators—but that was not what the incoming administration wanted to hear.

One of Reagan’s top foreign-policy advisers, Jeane Kirkpatrick, when asked if she thought the government had been involved, said, “The answer is unequivocal. No, I don’t think the government was responsible.” She then sought to besmirch the women. “The nuns were not just nuns,” she told The Tampa Tribune. “The nuns were also political activists,” with a leftist political coalition (Kirkpatrick died in 2006).

This history and the criminality of U.S. behavior in El Salvador is but one of many similar circumstances across Latin America. Our violent suppression of activists like Che Guevara and other native leaders occurs time and again. We’ve been unwilling to allow local people to reclaim their lands, now largely functioning as an extended plantation for multinational agri-business.

El Salvador has always been a largely agricultural country and despite recent shifts agriculture has continued to be a mainstay of the economy. Conflicts and peasant uprisings over the land date back more than four centuries, to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Since the last 19th century, the most fertile lands have been concentrated in few hands, “An oligarchy known as las catorce (the original fourteen aristocratic families, which has later expanded in number) and used to grow coffee for export, forcing small-scale farmers onto marginal quality lands and making their subsistence increasingly precarious. In the second half of the twentieth century, an alliance of conservative civilians (dominated by las catorce) and military officers ruled the country until the late 1970s.

“A vicious circle was created whereby concentration of land by the wealthy furthered inequality, which led to land degradation and caused conflict that finally escalated into full scale civil war in 1980.” The long civil war decimated the environment, a result of the government’s “’scorched earth’ strategy designed to decimate the insurgency’s base of support in the countryside.” [3]

This destruction resulted in large-scale migration to urban areas which has placed further stress on the country’s delicate ecosystem. A long term result of the war and the ensuing shift in demography has been continuing conflicts over land and the ecological impact of its use near urban areas.

“… the real cause of the civil war in El Salvador is the issue of agrarian reform. The oligarchy tries to prevent it at all cost. The party of the landholding elite has close ties with the death squads…[4],[5]

Its topsoil depleted, its forests all but gone, its water and air polluted by chemicals, livestock, and human waste, El Salvador is a picture of where we’re headed. It’s the canary in the coal mine, a predictor of Western hemisphere futures where overpopulation, lack of environmental protections, and concentration of land ownership are allowed free rein.

Trump’s eager rallying cry against evil gangs—in particular MS-13—barely skims the surface of the real problems facing El Salvador and, by default, the rest of us.

The Mara Salvatrucha gang originated in Los Angeles, set up in the 1980s by Salvadoran immigrants in the city’s Pico-Union neighborhood who immigrated to the United States after the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.

Originally, the gang’s main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans.[6]

With over 30,000 members internationally and its power concentrated in the so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, MS-13 is a cautionary tale for us all. But that’s not the full picture for El Salvadorans:

The defense ministry has estimated that more than 500,000 Salvadorans are involved with gangs. (This number includes gang members’ relatives and children who have been coerced into crimes.) Turf wars between MS-13, the country’s largest gang, and its chief rivals, two factions of Barrio 18, have exacerbated what is the world’s highest homicide rate for people under the age of 19. In 2016, 540 Salvadoran minors were murdered—an average of 1.5 every day.

While a majority of El Salvador’s homicide victims are young men from poor urban areas, the gangs’ practice of explicitly targeting girls for sexual violence or coerced relationships is well known. Since 2000, the homicide rate for young women in El Salvador has also increased sharply, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. To refuse the gangs’ demands can mean death for girls and their families.[7]

This explains why increasingly the people surging north to U. S. borders in search of safety are single young people and especially young women. It also exposes the ignorance and immorality of the Trump Administration’s recent decision to no longer accept gang violence as an adequate reason to offer sanctuary to immigrants and of its plans to reduce foreign aid to El Salvador. As further evidence of the administration’s deaf ear to the very real crisis of the region, it has reduced the immigration quota for people from the Caribbean and Latin America from 5,000 to 1,500.[8]

As you sow, so shall you reap.

~~~

 

[1] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/migrants-risk-the-dangerous-trip-to-the-u-s-because-its-safer-than-staying-home

[2] https://www.thenation.com/article/time-for-a-us-apology-to-el-salvador/

[3] A. Weinberg, ICE Case Studies, Case Number: 22, Case Mnemonic: ELSALV Case Name: El Salvador Civil War. May 1997. http://www1.american.edu/ted/ice/elsalv.htm

[4] M. Dufumier, “Reforme Agraire Au Salvador,” in Civilisations, Vol. 35, No. 2, Pour Une Conscience Lation-Americaine, Prealable A Des Rapports Sud-Sud: Centra d’Etude d l’Amerique Latine (Institute de Sociologie de l’Universite de Burxelles: 1985. 190. http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/41229331.

[5] https://www.trustingpeace.org/blog/english-version/land-use-in-el-salvador-who-owns-the-land-and-how-do-they-use-it-a-basic-human-rights-issue#_ftn8

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS-13

[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/el-salvador-women-gangs-ms-13-trump-violence/554804/

[8] Ibid

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