Reaping What We’ve Sown

On one side of the current migrant crisis we have rabid haters eager to see blood spilled on the border as desperate people try to storm our boundary fences in illegal entry. On the other side we have kind-hearted sympathizers wanting to bring them in, feed them, and let them apply for asylum.

Some news reports say it could take two to four years of processing to verify whether any of these folks deserve asylum. What happens in the meantime, no one knows. Trump wants this to be a warning shot to all of Central Americans — don’t come to the U.S.

What Trump could have done is to send a team to work with these folks when the caravan first crossed into Mexico, giving the U.S .government time to process their claims before they ever neared our southern border. He could have made provisions but instead preferred to incite fear in order to portray himself as some kind of hero.

He could have expanded what other U.S. presidents have done, which is to work within those countries to help those governments get control over violent gangs, build better infrastructure, and enhance job opportunities. Instead, he has threatened to cut programs offering that kind of support, virtually guaranteeing that more people will flee their homelands in search of safety and economic opportunity.

Now we have a situation where all these people can’t possibly be processed fast enough to keep them from starving or spreading disease in ramshackle encampments. As they become more desperate, some will attempt entry. Trump’s solution is to shoot them, which might please his cult of hate, but will remain a blood stain on our nation for the rest of time.

And it won’t solve the problem.

I’m reminded of something my dear friend Virginia said to me back in the early ‘70s. We’d been talking about U.S. foreign policy in Africa and the problem of hunger. Somehow the conversation came around to how many people were starving as Ethiopia and the west African Sahel suffered drought.

“They’re going to come after us someday,” she said.

“What?” I said, thinking there was no way starving people of sub-Saharan Africa were going to swarm our shores.

I couldn’t imagine it. But I’ve remembered her words.

Her premise acknowledged the colonial and imperial mindset of the U.S., the centuries-old tradition of Western European nations who as early as 1500 began raiding less advanced places and looting their wealth. It didn’t matter if the wealth was gold and other precious metals and gems, slaves that could be exploited or sold, or mostly unspoiled land where the Europeans/Americans could commandeer the natives into producing crops of sugar, coffee, tea, bananas, cotton, tobacco, and much more.

In the process of capitalizing on virgin landscapes for timber and crops, Europeans destroyed local traditions, religions, and social structures.  What we’re experiencing now is the fallout. In our rush to grow rich on the wealth of undiscovered lands and defenseless natives, we assumed that the people would either remain subordinate to us and/or that they would assume the traditions, religions, and social structures of the West. Because we were, after all, the ‘most advanced’ societies of the world. Who wouldn’t want to be like us?

Well, it’s now obvious they do want to be like us, but they don’t have 2,000 years of Western Civilization to back up their desires. There is no tradition of capitalism in El Salvador or Ethiopia or anywhere else in these so-called Third World countries. No tradition of schools and literacy, central authority, or democratic institutions predates the invasion of European conquerors. Generally speaking, the conquerors did not see any reason to instill those traditions among those considered useful only to the extent they could work the plantations we built for our benefit, not theirs.

Oh, we might have appeased our consciences with the idea that instilling our values and traditions among these ‘savages’ constituted a beneficent act. We might have believed, as some still do, that without us, they’d still be living in dirt floored huts without any of the advances we enjoy. We ignore the fact that for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, these natives had gone about the business of life in well-ordered societies with their own spiritual beliefs, hierarchies of governance, and social traditions that served them very well. It was our arrogance to believe that we could impose our culture onto them and expect it to work out.

Here’s just one example of where it’s ended up.

When Donald Trump said [in January 2018] he would end temporary protected status for almost 200,000 Salvadorans, the number of immigrants standing to lose protections under this president approached the 1 million mark. This includes people, like those from El Salvador, that now stand to be deported to countries where their lives could be in danger. El Salvador has one of the world’s highest homicide rates—due in no small part to the policies of the country now trying to expel them.

In the early ‘80s, El Salvador was receiving more such aid than any country except for Egypt and Israel, and the embassy staff was nearly as large as that in New Delhi. For Reagan, El Salvador was the place to draw the line in the sand against communism.

Many Americans would prefer to forget that chapter in American history; those under the age of 40 may not even be aware of it. Salvadorans haven’t forgotten, however. In El Mozote and the surrounding villages of subsistence peasants, forensic experts are still digging up bodies—of women, children, and old men who were murdered by the Salvadoran army during an operation in December 1981. It was one of the worst massacres in Latin American history. But while Trump might smear the country’s image with crude language, today El Salvador has a functioning legal system—more than three decades after the event, 18 former military commanders, including a former minister of defense, are finally on trial for the El Mozote massacre.

The U.S.-fueled war drove tens of thousands of Salvadorans to flee the violence for safety in the United States. In the mid-90s, Clinton allowed their “temporary protected status” to expire. This decision contributed to the gang violence that marks El Salvador today—not long ago, when a day passed without a murder, it was banner news. Thousands of the refugees sent back were young men, who had either deserted from the army or the guerrillas during the war. And when they got back to El Salvador, with little beyond their fighting skills, they formed the nucleus of the gangs. (Citation)

These gangs were shaped by the decade-long civil war that began in 1980. Leftist groups battling the government materialized as gangs when hundreds of thousands of young Salvadorians fled to Los Angeles, California. They formed gangs to protect themselves from other marginalized minority groups in the city. Many members were deported from the U.S. years later and brought the gangs with them back to their home country. (Citation)

An informed and thoughtful president thinking in terms of our nation’s future would have acknowledged our history of exploitation in Latin American. A president determined to “make America great” would have brought in the best and brightest advisors to develop and implement foreign policy that would address the problems forcing people to flee their homelands. Instead, Trump has done nothing to work toward solutions. He evidently can’t be bothered to become informed on the root cause of these migrant caravans.

At the margins of the mainstream discursive stalemate over immigration lies over a century of historical U.S. intervention that politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle seem determined to silence. Since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 declared the U.S.’s right to exercise an “international police power” in Latin America, the U.S. has cut deep wounds throughout the region, leaving scars that will last for generations to come. This history of intervention is inextricable from the contemporary Central American crisis of internal and international displacement and migration.

The liberal rhetoric of inclusion and common humanity is insufficient: we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen. In the past fifteen years alone, CAFTA-DR — a free trade agreement between the U.S. and five Central American countries as well as the Dominican Republic — has restructured the region’s economy and guaranteed economic dependence on the United States through massive trade imbalances and the influx of American agricultural and industrial goods that weaken domestic industries. Yet there are few connections being drawn between the weakening of Central American rural agricultural economies at the hands of CAFTA and the rise in migration from the region in the years since. In general, the U.S. takes no responsibility for the conditions that drive Central American migrants to the border. (Citation)

So yes, Virginia, you were right. They’re coming after us.

Widely circulated image off tear-gassed migrants trying to gain entry to the U.S., Nov 25, 2018. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1050269/migrant-caravan-border-US-news-mexico-tijuana-update-trump-live-2018-pictures-video

 

 

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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