by Arturo J. Viscarra and Michael Prentice
“[I]n the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States . . . to the exercise of an international police power.” –Theodore Roosevelt, 1904.
It’s impossible to understand the root causes of the current wave of Central Americans arriving in 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 not considered altering our foreign policy as it focuses on whether or not the U.S. has new obligations under international law or a moral duty to treat non-citizen children with compassion.
Vice President Biden recently referred to them as “our kids”, stressing the importance of due process for the children’s asylum claims, but he simultaneously called for a reiteration of the failed, militarized “Plan Colombia” in Central America. Before rushing into more Drug War militarization, the U.S. needs to accept its share of the responsibility in creating the current political, social, and economic conditions refugees are fleeing.
The 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which declared the U.S. the sole power in the Western Hemisphere, set the stage for continuing U.S. control in Central America through military interventions or the financing, arming, and training of pro-U.S. local elites and their armed forces. 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 in twelve years. The 1954 CIA-orchestrated Guatemalan coup sparked a civil war that lasted until 1996. In the 1980s, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were inundated with U.S. military aid and advisers, resulting in mass carnage and mass migration to the U.S. The “Banana Republic” of Honduras became a staging ground for U.S.-trained armed forces fighting leftists in the three countries it borders, earning the nickname “U.S.S. Honduras.”
The School of the Americas (SOA), established in 1946, embodies the U.S.’ traditional policy towards Central America: applying military solutions to social and economic problems. 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, four U.S. churchwomen, and over 900 civilians in El Salvador; and former and current Presidents of Guatemala connected to genocidal military campaigns. Despite the Pentagon’s claims of change and transparency, it has refused to release the names of SOA graduates for the last 10 years. Be it Cold War or Drug War, the SOA continues to enable U.S. allies to commit human rights violations in the name of democracy.
June 28, 2019 marked the tenth anniversary of the SOA graduate-led military coup that ousted democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. Thousands of coup opponents have been threatened, beaten, tortured, disappeared, or killed. Meanwhile, the U.S. worked diligently to guarantee that the coup regime remained in power, and quickly recognized the results of the two tainted elections that put Porfirio Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernandez in power. Post-coup Honduran security forces have received increased U.S. military aid and training despite their well-known record of human rights violations and infiltration by the drug cartels they ostensibly combat. The Pentagon has built at least three new U.S. military installations in Honduras since the coup, revealing a U.S. motive in its illogical actions: its attachment to the “U.S.S. Honduras.”
It should be no surprise that Honduras, accounting for 29% of unaccompanied minors who surrendered to Border Patrol in 2014, has for the first time become the number one source of Central American migration when the U.S.-backed Honduran regimes have exacerbated lawlessness, violence, and economic alienation over the last five years. In all of its dealings in Central America, the U.S. collaborates militarily with local oligarchies to enforce unequal political and economic status quo. The current wave of children and adults fleeing Central America is at least partly due to the continuation of the supremacy of Pentagon whim over the basic needs of the poor majority of Central America.
It is imperative to consider why Nicaraguans are not migrating en masse despite facing similar historical, economic, and imperialist obstacles as other Central American countries. After decades of brutal U.S.-backed governments, the current Nicaraguan government has been able to escape a large degree of U.S. control and form its own security policies. The results are Nicaragua’s far lower levels of violence and forced migration than its neighbors, despite similar levels of poverty.
The U.S. can learn from Nicaragua’s success in areas such as policing, to help solve the child migrant crisis, but only with a fundamental change from the U.S.-promoted culture of the security forces in neighboring countries.
Since 2008, the U.S. has spent over $800 million in security aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador through the “Central American Regional Security Initiative” (CARSI) as well as millions more in bilateral military and police aid to each country where it fights the Drug War. But when that money goes to the likes of Honduras’s cartel-infiltrated politicians and brutal state security forces, is it surprising that the rule of law further deteriorates? Central American adults are risking their lives and those of their children to escape the historical and current system of violence that the U.S. refuses to recognize its role in creating. Who is more irresponsible, the parents or the Pentagon? Who is more rational, the parents or the U.S. Congress?
In 2013, after nearly 200 years, Secretary of State John Kerry declared the era of the Monroe Doctrine over. Still, it appears that business as usual continues for the Pentagon and its corrupt allies in Honduras and Guatemala. As record numbers of Central American refugees are detained at the border, the media and policy-makers need to admit that these children are the progeny of armed conflicts funded by U.S. taxpayers. Honest, bold, and research-based reevaluations of foreign policy towards the region must be conducted and implemented for conditions in Central America to improve any time soon.
Arturo J. Viscarra migrated to the U.S. from El Salvador during the civil war. He is an immigration attorney and the Advocacy Coordinator for School of the Americas Watch.
Michael Prentice is a student at Vassar College interning for SOA Watch.