US Intervention helped Destabilize Central America — Now, We Have a Moral Obligation to Help.
America has a moral obligation to help those who flee the conditions created by our own foreign policy decisions.
Too often, our debate on immigration in this country takes place in a vacuum, removed from the violence and poverty which too often have been exacerbated by America’s own history of intervention and destabilization in Central America.
This weekend I am once again traveling to Central America to see and hear firsthand the daily realities that drive families north. I want to shine a bright light on the on-going need for us to help rebuild and reinvest in these nations.
I believe that given our history in the region, America has a moral obligation to help those who flee the conditions created by many of our own foreign policy decisions.
This isn’t an idea I’ve just developed recently. My first visit to El Salvador was in the early 1980s. While there, I saw firsthand how the United States government supported the brutality of the Salvadoran government and military toward its own people.
I discovered we were an apologist for a military that massacred a thousand people, including scores of children, at and around a village called El Mozote.
I learned that during the 12-year civil war, over 75,000 civilians were killed and an unknown number, likely in the thousands, were forcibly disappeared, mainly at the hands of state actors.
And towards the end of the war, I watched as some of the highest officials of my country conferred medals on Salvadoran military officers even after we knew they had given the orders to murder six Jesuit priests and two women, including the rector and faculty members of the University of Central America.
Over the past 35 years, I have returned to El Salvador many times, and traveled throughout the region, including in Honduras and Guatemala. I have learned that to make the best policy decisions and investments in U.S. aid, we need to confront and learn from our own history and mistakes.
Under Republican and Democratic Administrations alike, the U.S. has made bad judgments and miscalculations that have had real and adverse consequences in the lives of real people.
As former Senator Frank Church correctly wrote in 1984, in Central America too often we supported a “selfish property-owning minority” and an “indifferent middle class intransigently protecting their privileges” and ignored the “limitless misery” of a majority that often “lives on the margin of subsistence.”
I have learned that we are more generous with our purse strings in times of war than in times of peace. We have contributed to wars, even been a major actor. In backing governments that we saw as ideologically friendly, we have helped crush legitimate dissent and the need for radical change, supporting economic interests and institutions hostile to the rule of law and indifferent to the suffering of their own people.
We have ousted democratically-elected governments and accepted the results of politically convenient but illegitimate elections. As long ago as 1954, the CIA helped organize a coup in Guatemala, overthrowing the democratically elected government, an action that scarred democracy and development for decades and led to civil war.
In the 1980s, a Guatemalan military that received U.S. support carried out scorched earth campaigns that massacred upwards of 200,000 mostly indigenous people.
As recently as 2017, when the Organization of American States (OAS) argued that polling place irregularities required Honduras to carry out a new election, the U.S. accepted the result and recognized as the winner incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez, sparking a spiral of state violence against protestors and dissent that is still on-going.
We decry corruption and human rights abuses, yet partner closely with the political, military and economic actors who commit such crimes with impunity — and directly undermine efforts to combat impunity, as the Trump Administration has done with its attacks on and withdrawal of support for the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
I have seen how past and current U.S. immigration and deportation policies directly contributed to the establishment of violent gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Beginning in the 1990s, we deported tens of thousands of gang members, many for minor infractions, back to the region, seeding the ground for today’s gang violence.
We supported and encouraged the most hardline military and police crackdowns on gang members inside these countries — the result was an explosion in prison populations where local gang cliques met and formed powerful and coordinated national networks. We failed to make sustained, timely investments in each of these countries when internal conflicts ended in the early 1990s. In El Salvador alone, where a peace accord ending a 12-year civil war was signed in 1992, U.S. aid was cut from nearly $200 million annually to $30 million in 1994. Those two decades of neglect are now coming home to roost, literally.
For many years, the Northern Triangle countries have been cited among the most violent and dangerous in the world, and U.S. guns help fuel that lethal violence.
While many factors contribute to the violence in each country, guns have played an outsized role in escalating the levels of lethality. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), many of these guns originate in the United States. From 2014 to 2016 — the only years for which ATF has made data publicly available — 49 percent of crime guns recovered in El Salvador were originally purchased in the United States. Similarly, 45 percent of crime guns recovered in Honduras and 29 percent of those recovered in Guatemala have U.S. origins.
Yet if you turned on the TV on any given night in America, you would never hear a single word about how many of our own economic and foreign policies helped contribute to the violence and poverty driving today’s migrants out of their homes.
The bottom line is that no one decides to leave their home overnight or on a whim. People escaping threats or seeking opportunities move from one marginal neighborhood to another, or from one part of the country to another, or sometimes to neighboring countries before violence, hunger and the lack of any sense of safety or future exact their final toll.
Climate change has contributed to droughts, coffee rust, and other agricultural problems that have plagued the region, hurt small producers, and increased hunger, child malnutrition and food insecurity. Economic policies, many supported by the U.S., have led to small farmers, especially indigenous people, being forced off their land.
Multinational companies have taken over land for industrial farming, mining and tourism; wealthy landholders expand their holdings to produce sugar, palm oil, soybeans, corn and other biofuels; none are reluctant to use violence when families and communities resist. In Guatemala and Honduras, environmentalists and land rights activists have been threatened and targeted for violence and assassination, often with the support of state police and security forces.
If America truly wants to get serious about dealing with the crisis on our border, then we must study the past so that history does not repeat itself. We must acknowledge our share of the blame for the conditions these families face.
To be sure, the problems confronting Central America and the flow of migrants to our southern border are not all due to U.S. foreign policy.
Poverty, injustice, violence, murder, corruption, inequality and impunity in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are homegrown. But history shows, with too few exceptions, that when local officials and activists have stood up for basic human rights and dignity, the U.S. too often failed to help them, sometimes standing by when they were threatened and harassed, and at worst, intervening on behalf of those who would bury dissent.
We don’t have to imagine what might happen if we looked to solve these problems instead of demonizing immigrants and asylum seekers once they arrive at our border. I have seen what U.S. aid and our diplomatic missions can accomplish, even with modest resources.
I have seen the many positive results when the U.S. collaborates with local communities, addresses the causes of youth violence, invests in community-designed development, helps professionalize security forces, facilitates safe and orderly migration for those most at risk, and supports institutions that strengthen judicial independence and an end to corruption and impunity. Policies that prioritize a better quality of life and respect the dignity of ordinary people and the poor give people a sense of control over their own lives, hope for a better future for their children, and a reason to remain in their own countries.
Last year, on Sunday, October 14th, Oscar Romero was canonized in Rome. As archbishop of San Salvador, he was an advocate for the poor and worked for peace amid an escalating civil war.
I have visited his humble home, attended Mass at the chapel where he last spoke, and prayed at his tomb.
When he was assassinated on March 24, 1980, he was celebrating Mass. Moments before an assassin’s bullet stole his life, as he was concluding his homily, he said:
“I beg you all, dear brothers and sisters, let us look at these matters at this moment in our history with this hope, with this spirit of giving, of sacrifice, and let us do what we can. We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding.”
I believe the United States has the capacity to do great good in Central America. We have a moral responsibility to rebuild and reinvest in these nations. We have a moral responsibility to be compassionate to those who flee. And, as a nation of immigrants, with a population of 320 million people, we have the capacity not only to welcome but to benefit from the presence of our Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran brothers and sisters. We can make a difference for good in these countries, in this region, and yes, here in America, too.
We are a special country not because of any one race or religion or political party — we are special because of our people. We are a kind, generous, compassionate country. We are a country with a conscience.
We need only look to our own hemisphere to see what happens when our policies and the leaders who design them don’t live up to our highest ideals. And now, it is incumbent upon all of us to right these wrongs, show compassion to those who are fleeing, and help create a better quality of life for all.