It is impossible to understand the root causes of the current wave of Central Americans arriving to the United States, and therefore the appropriate U.S. response, without acknowledging the historical relationship between the U.S. and Central America. Unfortunately, the debate in Congress and in the mainstream media has largely focused on whether or not the U.S. has new obligations under international humanitarian and refugee law or a moral duty to treat non-citizen children with compassion. Vice President Biden recently referred to them as “our kids”, but he was stressing the importance of due process for the children’s asylum claims while simultaneously calling for a “Plan Colombia” in Central America. Policy-makers often tout Plan Colombia as a great success, ignoring the over 6000 extrajudicial assassinations by Colombia’s military since its implementation in 2000. Before pushing for even more Drug War militarization, the U.S. needs to respond to this long-running crisis by first coming to terms with its history in Central America and accepting its share of the responsibility in creating the current political, social, and economic conditions refugees are fleeing.
The U.S. has long exercised control of Central America through military interventions or the financing, arming, and training of pro-U.S. local elites and their armed forces. In 1823, President Monroe declared the U.S. the sole commercial and political power throughout the Western Hemisphere. By the 1880s, many Central American and Caribbean republics were reduced to “protectorates or in effect client states” of the U.S., according to historian John Coatsworth. During the Banana Wars, the U.S. military intervened in Honduras seven times between 1903 and 1925. The 1954 CIA-orchestrated Guatemalan coup effectively sparked their civil war. It would cruelly last until 1996. In the 1980s, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were inundated with U.S. military aid and advisers. The “Banana Republic” of Honduras became a staging ground for U.S. trained armed forces fighting leftists in the three countries it borders and so earned a new nickname – the “U.S.S. Honduras”.
The School of the Americas (SOA) is the embodiment of the U.S.’s traditional policy towards Central America – pretending to apply military solutions to social and economic problems. Established in 1946, the SOA remains the only U.S. military institute dedicated to training the security forces of one specific region of the world. During the Cold War, its curriculum was designed to “thwart armed communist insurgencies.” It continues to equate democracy with “free markets.” Graduates of the SOA include the most notorious Central American human rights violators: members of the Battalion 316 in Honduras; the murderers of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four U.S. churchwomen, and over 900 civilians at El Mozote in El Salvador; and the former and current Presidents of Guatemala (Efrain Rios Montt and Otto Perez Molina) connected to genocidal military campaigns in that country. Despite the Pentagon’s claims of change and transparency, they have refused to release the names of SOA graduates for the last 10 years. Be it Cold War or Drug War, the SOA continues to be part of the apparatus that enables U.S. allies to commit human rights violations in the name of democracy.
The role of the U.S. in the Central American civil conflicts of the 20th Century was not as much an aberration, but an escalation of long-established relations. Local oligarchies and the U.S. collaborate militarily to assure that the unequal political and economic status quos prevail. What was unprecedented in the 1980s was the scale of the civilian carnage left behind by U.S. trained and financed armed forces, and the resulting large-scale arrival of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and, to a lesser degree, Honduran refugees to the U.S. From 1980 to 1990 the number of Central American-born people in the U.S. roughly tripled from 353,900 to 1,134,000. By 2000, the number surpassed 2 million. Although systemic violence and its accompanying destruction of economic activity is at the root of the current wave of Central American migration, the choice to flee to the U.S. instead of another country is also linked to the desire to reunite with family members that arrived during prior migration waves.