When Debating the Border’s Future, Americans Should Remember the Past

Earlier this month, President Trump announced on Twitter that Mexico “agreed to take strong measures to … stem the tide of migration through Mexico, and to our southern border.” Trump’s deal with Mexico – which generally reflects harsh policies toward migrants – also contains a section highlighting the importance of bolstering “a more prosperous and secure Central America to address the underlying causes of migration.” However, that provision contrasts sharply with Trump’s rhetoric in late March, when he announced a plan to cut foreign aid to three Central American countries.

That the recent deal underlines the importance of providing meaningful support for Central America is encouraging. Yet what it fails to acknowledge — and what has been largely overlooked in discussions concerning immigration and aid for Central America — is that the U.S. government has historically played a significant role in creating the context in which violence has surged in Central America. 

Ultimately, U.S. aid to Central American countries is critical not only to securing their futures and addressing the root causes of our border crisis, but it is also a crucial step in helping to address the consequences of past interventions. Given this painful history and the related challenges facing Central America today, Americans have an obligation to ensure that the abstract commitment to bolstering “a more prosperous and secure Central America” translates into concrete and meaningful support for the region.

A Troubling History of Intervention

In 1954, the U.S. government contributed to turbulence in Guatemala by pursuing a coup against its democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, after he attempted to seize certain areas of land from the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company for distribution to Guatemalan farmers. The coup, led by the CIA, was almost certainly motivated by American economic interests. Arbenz’s overthrow greatly augmented instability in Guatemala, promoting violence and the rise of new military dictatorships.

Three decades later, the U.S. government allocated roughly $4 billion of funding to support the Salvadoran military in fighting left-wing revolutionaries during a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Roughly 1200 civilians were killed by the Salvadoran military in the El Mozote Massacre of 1981, including 100 children. Shortly before the massacre, members of the battalion responsible for the violence had undergone “counterinsurgency training” in the United States. Those civilians were some of more than 75,000 who died during the war, most of them at the hands of the Salvadoran military.

Honduras, meanwhile, was initially one of the most peaceful countries in Central America, but the country suffered after being used as a “staging area” for American intervention in neighboring Nicaragua during the 1980s. Scholar Philip Shepard wrote in the World Policy Journal at the time that “the lowest priority for current U.S. policy toward Honduras is Honduras.”

These snapshots provide only a small glimpse into the role that the United States has played in shaping the trajectories of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Today, violence in Central America continues — not typically at the hands of governments but at the hands of gangs, which often rival the governments in both wealth and power. Gang violence is the principal reason why so many people have left their homes and endured unspeakable traumas on the journey north.

Looking Ahead

If the United States is to begin to fulfill its responsibilities to Central America, it must help support programs working to reduce violence and improve opportunities in the region. Though the recent deal with Mexico acknowledges the importance of supporting the region, Trump has not announced plans to reverse his drastic cuts in foreign aid for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The question of what new measures will be taken to promote “prosperity, good governance, and security” thus remains largely ambiguous.

One of the few specific steps listed is that the two countries “welcome the Comprehensive Development Plan launched by the Government of Mexico in concert with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.” The plan focuses on reducing violence and increasing employment and educational opportunities. As part of the plan, the United States had pledged $4.5 billion in loans to Central American countries. However, they will be required to pay back those loans, and the recent agreement apparently did not require the United States to allocate new funds to the region.

Rather than implying that existing loans and other forms of aid are sufficient or shifting the burden of responsibility to Mexico, the United States should look toward reinstating funds for organizations that have been making strides in the region over extended periods of time.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario has highlighted the work of organizations such as the Association for a More Just Society, which strives to reduce violence in urban areas of Honduras by leveraging the legal system. Shockingly, only 4 percent of murders in Honduras typically result in a conviction because fear of gang retaliation deters witnesses from testifying. AJS, however, has established a system for ensuring anonymity during testimonials by clothing witnesses in black burqas. In one of Honduras’s most dangerous neighborhoods, murder rates fell by 62 percent following the implementation of AJS’s approach.

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof similarly published an op-ed highlighting the value of an aid organization called Mercy Corps. The group runs a program meant to support the economic prospects of farmers in Guatemala, including by educating young people in agricultural methods. He argued that humanitarian aid appears to be the most effective means of allowing people to remain safely in their Central American home countries. Kristof’s and Nazario’s arguments regarding the positive, tangible impacts of aid to Central American countries align with U.S. government statistics regarding its efforts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

In her op-ed, Nazario summarized the potential of programs that help deal with the ongoing consequences of U.S. intervention in Central America: “We are the source of much of the mayhem there. But now some of what we are doing is actually working. Shouldn’t we do much more of it?”

Concrete Action Plans 

The statement of support for Central America included in the deal with Mexico is a constructive step forward after Trump’s cruel and arbitrary cuts to foreign aid last spring; however, when they fail to acknowledge the history of U.S. intervention in Central America, proponents of the recent deal minimize the depth and urgency of the United States’ responsibility to provide support for Central America. Discussions about aid for the region are incomplete unless we recognize the United States’ painful history in Central America, and the fact that the United States has an obligation to help deal with the consequences of ongoing instability there.

Furthermore, the recent deal with Mexico contains few specifics regarding plans to implement aid, and it is unclear whether Trump’s cuts to foreign aid in March will continue. That is unacceptable. Declarations about promoting prosperity and security for the region will prove meaningful only if these goals are accompanied by concrete plans for implementing aid and bolstering successful organizations in the region.

If Americans are to take a morally responsible path forward, especially given the history of intervention, we need to make sure abstract statements about supporting Central America translate into action.

Image Source: Flickr/mark6mauno