As tens of thousands gather at our southern border, roiling US politics, the question arises: why are so many of the asylum-seekers and migrants crossing the border illegally from three Central American countries in particular: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala?
To begin with, it’s no coincidence that these are the three “most invaded” countries south of the Rio Grande – that is, invaded by the United States and its proxies.
The Reagan years saw the apex of US intervention in the region, with fear of Communist “infiltration” motivating massive US aid to local despots and right-wing death squads throughout Central and South America: the fear of Cuban and Soviet influence drove US policy. In El Salvador, a raging civil war between rightist landowners and a leftist insurgency cost tens of thousands of lives and billions in lost income. In Guatemala, with a long history of US support to a callous and violent elite, a 36-year civil war between conservative landowners and Communist-led guerrillas devastated the country. Honduras is the scene of a recent US-backed coup, and also of a short story by O. Henry wherein the phrase “banana republic” was coined. A more appropriate phrase describing this Central American country could hardly be imagined, what with bananas looming large as the national product and source of wealth, and lots of political intrigue – periodic coups, assassinations, incredible corruption, all of it presided over by the warlords of Washington and their corporate favorites.
So what are these “refugees” fleeing? Is it so bad that parents are justified in paying smugglers to guide their underage children – traveling alone! – across the US-Mexican border?
Unlike the rest of the media, which has routinely ignored most of what goes on in Latin America since the end of the cold war, I’ve been covering the region regularly. On Honduras alone, see here, here, here, and here (since 2006). As I wrote last year:
“Honduras has always been an American plaything, to be toyed with for the benefit of United Fruit (rebranded Chiquita) and the native landowning aristocracy, and disciplined when necessary: Washington sent in the Marines a total of seven times between 1903 and 1925. The Honduran peasants didn’t like their lands being confiscated by the government and turned over to foreign-owned producers, who were granted monopolistic franchises by corrupt public officials. Periodic rural revolts started spreading to the cities, despite harsh repression, and the country – ruled directly by the military since 1955 – returned to a civilian regime in 1981.”
That column was about the Hillary Clinton-endorsed coup against the democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya. The popular conservative-turned-reformer had pushed through a number of measures designed to alleviate the peasantry’s hopeless poverty and shift power from the military to the presidency, which angered the Honduran elite. They were triggered, however, when Zelaya joined the ALBA alliance of Latin American countries allied with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. While ALBA never really amounted to much, either economically or militarily, the symbolism of this move was too much for the Honduran military, which was trained in the US and generously subsidized by Washington. The generals soon had Zelaya on a plane out of the country – while still in his pajamas. Washington issued a perfunctory scolding, but Hillary’s State Department had approved the coup in advance. It’s always been done that way, and this time was no exception.
The history of Honduras is the story of a decades-long struggle against militarism: the generals, backed by the US over the decades, created a socio-economic system centered around the supremacy of the army, which controlled not only the political scene but also dominated the economy. As liberal reformers of Zelaya’s ilk began to investigate the abuses carried out by the former military regime, the culprits didn’t wait for the prosecutor to call on them: they launched a terrorist campaign of bombings and assassinations. As I put it in 2009:
“A whole sector of the military descended into outright criminality: as the 1990s rolled around, your typical bank robber, drug dealer, and/or kidnapper-for-ransom was, all too often, a Honduran army officer. Colombian drug cartels extended their tentacles into the Honduran high command, and violence and repression increased.”
The cartels have clearly reestablished their influence in Honduras: what we are seeing is a repeat of the nihilistic 1990s. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in the period immediately after the Clinton-endorsed coup the murder rate “increased from 60.8 per 100,000 in 2008 to 81.8 in 2010, 91.4 in 2011 and 90.4 in 2012” – among the highest in the world. The US government has issued a semi-permanent travel advisory that basically tells tourists to stay away.
So is the Honduran hegira to the Rio Grande a direct result of US foreign policy: is it “blowback,” to utilize CIA parlance for the unpleasant consequences of US actions abroad? It would be easy to say this is yet another example of how our foreign policy of global intervention comes back to haunt us, because that is partially true. Yet the old familiar story of the Ugly Americans backing the even uglier Local Despot doesn’t quite fit the most current facts: there has been an amazing drop in US military aid to Honduras. In 2017 it was over $19 million. This year it’s a mere $750,000!
The history of Honduras before the rise of American hegemony has done more to shape the country than any other single factor: the vital question of land ownership is the central issue here and in the entire South. Feudalism was never really abolished, and the feudalist remnants that persist to this day in the region delayed economic and technological development and kept the vast majority in penury. US foreign policy helped to sustain the life of this systemic repression: it didn’t create it. Whatever the “root causes,” the blowback from all this history has created something very close to a failed state.
This is why tens of thousands are making the long trek to the US-Mexican border: the social and institutional basis of human civilization is breaking down, not only in Honduras but throughout Latin America. Yet this is neither new nor is it primarily attributable to the actions of the US. Yes, our “war on drugs” has created a criminal class that is rivaling the power of the local governments to keep order, but hard drugs are illegal everywhere, not just in North America.
Honduras may be a failing state, and our foreign policy surely hasn’t helped matters – far from it! – and yet that failure is as much a consequence of a political culture that predates American influence as it is of more recent events. As to whether this entitles Hondurans to walk across the border and claim asylum in the US is a matter that I’ll leave to the judgment of my readers: my own views are well-known.
Suffice to say that the answer to the question of why so many Hondurans are reenacting the plot of The Camp of the Saints on our southern border is to be found in the complex history of that unfortunate land, which the virtue-signalers and phony “experts” who dominate the national discourse would do well to bone up on. Which they won’t because it’s not a story conducive to the usual dogmatic drivel.
So what, if anything, can we do to alleviate the problem, caused in part by the history of our relations with Honduras?
It looks to me like the Trumpistas are on the right track with their radical decimation of US military aid to the corrupt Honduran government. And while we shouldn’t pursue a policy of regime change, even if only to undo our previous regime change, our usually loudmouth democracy-promoters at the State Department would do well to draw attention to the depredations of the current regime. After all, this is something they can blame on Hillary Clinton.
The Trump administration should avoid the sort of “underlying causes” malarkey that precedes the infusion of large amounts of economic aid. This is invariably money that goes straight into the pockets of local officials.
The growing presence in Honduras of gangs like MS-13 is a problem for our law enforcement, one that is not going to be solved until and unless governmental complicity with these gangs is uncovered and eradicated. This is a new phenomenon pandemic in the region: a form of crony capitalism that I call criminal cronyism — the direct result of a failed “war on drugs,” the booming market for addictive and often deadly opiods, and the intrinsic corruption generated by State intervention in the drug trade.
The criminal cronyism that is destroying civilized society south of our border isn’t something that can be stopped if only Washington will “do something.” It is up to the people who live in these countries to liberate themselves from their oppressors: America isn’t going to solve their problems, which go back to the legacy of Spanish colonialism. What is needed is an “America first” regional policy that abjures the mistakes of the more recent past, while returning to the wisdom of the farther past – that of John Quincy Adams, our best Secretary of State, who, when pressured by hotheads to endorse the cause of Greek independence, answered that America “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
So that’s it for Honduras: stay tuned, gentle reader, for the back story on El Salvador and Guatemala, in future columns.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.