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Central American refugee children: Victims of U.S. intervention in Central America

Commentary by Chrisley Carpio |
August 7, 2014
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Jacksonville, FL - In the past year, over 50,000 refugee children have fled from Central American countries and crossed the U.S. border. While many have been released to their families and other caregivers, thousands remain locked up in mass detention centers. Much of the media coverage carries the familiar anti-immigrant slant, blaming the parents and even the children for imagining the U.S. to have pro-immigration policies. This tendency to blame immigrants parallels the longstanding trend of blaming formerly colonized countries for internal violence, and it omits the role of U.S. and European colonialism and imperialism in originating it. It erases the history of Central America and it distorts the nature of mass migration.

For over a century, the U.S. has exerted dominance over the region, both military and economic. The land for growing raw goods is often owned by U.S. transnational corporations, which ship the goods out of the country and keep the profits for themselves. In Honduras in the early 1900s, the private army owned by the United Fruit Company (UFC), today known as the U.S.-owned Chiquita banana company, led a coup and established General Manuel Bonilla as president. The U.S. also supported a right-wing dictatorship in Guatemala, one that secured land for the UFC rather than Guatemalan farmers. When Guatemalan Presidents Juan Jose Arévalo and Jacobo Árbenz began challenging the UFC’s control of the nation’s land, the CIA led a coup in 1954 to reassert U.S. control over the country’s resources. In 2001, El Salvador, which has a coffee export-based economy, and its then-right-wing government changed their national currency to the U.S. dollar, leading skyrocketing costs for basic goods and greatly aiding U.S. businesses, while leaving Salvadorans impoverished.

After decades under these violent U.S.-backed dictatorships, and then the successful example of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Central American struggles for liberation gained unprecedented momentum. However, so did U.S. repression. One example is El Salvador, where new mass movements and revolutionary organizations such as the FMLN sprouted up in the 1970s and 80s. To repress such groups, the U.S. funded and trained a vicious right-wing junta in El Salvador, which forced boys the age of 12 and above into the army. Death squads were formed at the U.S. School of the Americas. They massacred and even extinguished small towns like El Mozote. The U.S.-backed right-wing government of Guatemala also repressed their people, with a brutal emphasis on mass killings of the Mayan people. Even today, Guatemalan military officials are being charged with war crimes and genocide of indigenous peoples. There were over 200,000 known deaths in Guatemala and over 70,000 known deaths in El Salvador in the late 20th century, the vast majority killed by U.S.-backed forces, with countless more listed as “disappeared.”

A repressive right-wing government also existed in Honduras, and U.S. army presence was especially heavy there, as Honduras was the base for U.S. in operations in Central America in the 1950s. For instance, when the Sandinistas of Nicaragua succeeded in overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, the exiled members of that ruling class fled and trained with the U.S. military in Honduras in order to form the Contras, a group intent on counterrevolution. The U.S.-backed Contras caused misery, assassinations and disappearances in attempts to sabotage the leftist Nicaraguan government. As recently as 2009, the U.S. backed a right-wing coup in Honduras when its government began to move leftward, setting the country back. Now Honduras has become the nation with the world’s highest murder rate, leaving no question as to why children would flee in the thousands.

With the repression of the popular movements of Central America came immense migration and deportations. Many Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans fled during this time across the border into the U.S. Many poor, undocumented immigrants settled in urban centers, such as in Los Angeles, in order to find work. Many undocumented youth joined gangs due to poverty and racist conditions in the inner cities, made particularly hostile by the anti-immigrant sentiment in American media. Then in the early to mid-1990s, with the end of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the U.S. government carried out mass deportations that included many of these youth. U.S.-based gangs then spread to Central America where they hadn’t existed before. Economic livelihoods were shattered, families were separated and communities were destabilized by poverty and a broken legal system in the aftermath of brutal civil wars. The emergence of global drug trafficking, spurred on by the Reagan administration (as exposed with the Iran-Contra scandal), also gave strength to drug trafficking syndicates in Central America, which now are working with the large Mexican cartels and fomenting a high level of violence, to feed the appetite for drugs in the U.S.

A good question is why children have not been immigrating from Nicaragua in large numbers. Nicaragua, unlike 1980s’ El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, had undergone a revolution that replaced its U.S.-backed government with one that put in policies to combat inequality, illiteracy and poverty. Coming out of the years of U.S.-backed Contra counterinsurgency of the 1980s, and then subject to austerity measures in the 1990s after the Sandinistas lost power, Nicaragua has not been able to avoid poverty or harmful U.S.-imposed measures like the Central American Free Trade Agreement - same as the rest of the region. However, the absence of the gang life cultivated by U.S.-backed repression, coupled with the legacy of the 1980s Sandinistas and new anti-poverty policies instituted by the Sandinistas since they returned to electoral office in 2006, have made Nicaragua one of the most peaceful countries in Central America. Its homicide rate is only 8.7 per 100,000 people in 2014, as compared to Honduras’ 92 per 100,000 people.

Often, anti-immigrant organizations and racist U.S. media cite the association between crime, drugs, poverty and Central Americans as reasons undocumented immigrants should not receive drivers licenses, legal rights, equal pay, or protection from deportations. However, they obscure the fact that U.S. imperialism in Central America is the source of the repression of popular movements, mass poverty, deportation and then, gang violence. Without U.S. imperialism, there would be no children fleeing across the border, running for their lives. These voices do a foul injustice to the Central Americans who were massacred by the U.S.-backed juntas and whose lives fell into shambles because of U.S. foreign policy. This narrative turns history on its head, and now countless Americans regard children as criminals without ever understanding why.

It is time to call for protection, not deportation, of the border children who have fled from Central America. President Obama has requested $3.7 billion more from Congress to build more detention centers instead of placing children with their families or other custodial care. We should say no.

President Obama, #StoptheDeportations! Protection, not deportation, is what the children of the border deserve!