Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The problems in Central America are "our" problem

There has been more controversy on the southern border of the United States, this time involving “unaccompanied children” from Central America, who by law must be given an opportunity to “prove” refugee status—as other undocumented entrants into the country like the Chinese and Southeast Asians are usually granted without question—unlike Mexicans, who can be deported immediately, even if fleeing from drug violence being exacerbated by the U.S.-financed and armed “war.”  Pres. Obama, who has yet to fulfill a single promise to the Latino community that help elect him twice, is now succumbing to pressure from the right by calling for abrogation of stated law and seeks to deport immigrants from violence-prone Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with no due process. 

These countries have issues that go well beyond mere drug violence, and where political ideological definitions like “conservative” and “liberal” have little to do with “right” and “left.” Part of the problem is that these countries are mostly highlands with little arable land for farming, while China and other Asian countries have decimated their manufacturing base by imposing their will on markets that formerly served export products from Central America. Despite claiming to be the “leader” of the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. seems more interested in merely exerting political influence in those countries that maintain the status quo rather than actually find ways to solve the underlying economic problems. 

Most Americans seem to have a blind spot about what is going on in the countries of Central America. They don’t remember that the Reagan administration for a time actively supported and armed a murder regime in El Salvador that carried out killings of even peaceful advocates of the impoverished, like Archbishop Oscar Romero. Most don’t know anything about these countries, only that they hate the people there (or at least when they come here). There are those who say the problems in those countries are not the U.S.’ “problem,” when the presence of these people on the border clearly makes it so. And the U.S. has plenty of blood on its hands.

Throughout its history, the United States has taken on a patronizing, “big brother” attitude toward its neighbors to the south. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was fairly benign in principle; the U.S. would “protect” newly independent Latin American countries from interference from European powers, and proclaimed that the U.S. had an interest in maintaining the “separateness” of the New World against the taint of Old World political and social philosophies; it didn’t mention the “taint” of American interference, of course. Until the invention of ships using faster steam engines, the isolationist internationalism of the doctrine was more a matter of practicality than an actual “pacifist” stance.  

But with the Spanish-American War, the U.S. developed a “taste” for foreign adventurism. The U.S. actually had some prior practice, as Southerners sought new territories that were “compatible” with the slave economy in order to “balance” representation in Congress, and this was the unspoken and underlying motivation of Texas’ fight for independence and the Mexican-American War. Abraham Lincoln saw the war for it was, and opposed it as one of a stronger nation bullying a weaker nation. After the easy victory, Pres. James K. Polk was angered that U.S. envoy Nicholas Trist appeared to be negotiating a treaty in which Polk’s sudden interest in annexing virtually all of Mexico (and eventually Central America) was not taken seriously, and sent a letter recalling him. Trist, however, ignored the summons and concluded the Treaty Guadalupe Hidalgo, which a Northern majority in Congress approved and Polk was forced to sign. 

Not that Southerners didn’t give-up the idea of creating new slave states south of the border. During the 1850s, “filibustering”—then the word coined to describe independently-financed schemes by private citizens to take over countries—reached its apex in the person of Southerner William Walker. Walker first attempted to “conquer” Baja California without success, and then traveled to Nicaragua with a small force, aided by some local insurgents and backed by money from a couple of Cornelius Vanderbilt stooges with  a gripe against their boss, and somehow “conquered” the country and ruled as a virtual dictator for a few years. The two businessmen wanted something in return, of course; they wanted him to take over Vanderbilt’s company assets in the country and give it to them, which Walker did. In retaliation, Vanderbilt funded an alliance of other Central American countries to oust Walker from power, which was successful. After two more aborted attempts to set himself up as a Central American dictator, the British Navy handed Walker over to Honduran authorities, who executed him.

The Monroe Doctrine was first “modified” by the Platt Amendment in 1901, in which the U.S. permitted itself to occupy and intervene in Cuba for any reason it saw fit. The so-called “Roosevelt Corollary” soon followed. Theodore Roosevelt—who was a “closet” racist who in the closing months of his presidency conducted a bizarre personal campaign (influenced by the then popular theory of eugenics) against “race suicide” by declining birthrate in white Americans—decided like a playground bully that the “little kid” Latin American countries were most vulnerable to beat on with his “Big Stick.” Roosevelt claimed that the purpose of the corollary was to “police” the region and force these countries to “meet their international obligations”—which effectively not only denied the sovereignty of these countries, but rationalized bald-faced intervention to forward U.S business interests in the region.

During Roosevelt’s presidency and his immediate successors, the “corollary” was frequently put to use. Roosevelt supported Panama’s quest for independence from Colombia. Why? Because the Panamanians promised to cede the Isthmus in order for the U.S. to build and control a canal it wished to build. At the same time Roosevelt effectively installed a U.S. business puppet as leader in the Dominican Republican. Nicaragua was ruled by a nationalist “president” who opposed U.S. influence in the region, prompting frequent unfriendly visits by the U.S. Navy and Marines—until the Marines arrived to permanently occupy the country for two decades, lasting until 1933. At that time FDR instituted his “Good Neighbor” policy, which after World War II would predictably be abandoned during the Cold War. 

The U.S. frequently conspired to topple regimes all over the globe which threatened its “interests”—including Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and would continue even if it meant breaking the law in supporting so-called “freedom fighters” against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government during the Reagan’s presidency. 

During the years in which the Roosevelt Corollary was most actively practiced, the U.S.’ principle muscleman and go-to guy in Central America and the Caribbean was Marine officer Smedley Butler. Butler was awarded the Medal of Honor twice during these actions—the second in Haiti, after a “battle” which lasted all of 20 minutes, and required such “conspicuous bravery” that the only U.S. casualty was a Marine who lost two teeth after he was hit by a rock. In 1935, Butler wrote in his pamphlet War is a Racket that

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents." 

Honduras held a “special place” in the quest to maintain such U.S. “interests.” The writer O. Henry coined the phrase “Banana Republic” to describe the country under U.S. “patronage.” The country’s frequent bouts of political and economic instability was in part due to the frequent interventions by U.S. business interests hoping to take advantage of the instability by making “deals” with local powerbrokers who were most pliable. If opposition was encountered, these business interests would finance local insurgents to destabilize and topple the current government in favor of those more amenable to American demands. 

Between 1903 and 1925 there were at least seven “interventions” by U.S. forces in Honduras to enforce the interests of the Standard Fruit Company, the Cuyamel Fruit Company, and United Fruit Company. These companies controlled much of the country’s land as a de facto autonomous territory, and provided just enough infrastructure (mainly railroads) to satisfy the needs of its business (unlike, say, China, which in exchange for access to resources in Africa and Latin American builds schools and hospitals for local workers). When these companies left Honduras after diseases had decimated fruit crops and made continued operations unprofitable, they pettily dismantled the railroads and other infrastructures and left the country even poorer than before. They only “export” they seem interested in now is drugs, further fueling the country’s many problems.

Most Americans are simply too purposefully ignorant of this country’s role in how Central America (and Mexico, for that matter) was shaped by the greed and arrogance of U.S. “interests.” These things do have “consequences,” regardless if people are ignorant of them or not.

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