To hear its opponents talk, migrant caravans are nothing less than an “invasion.” Thousands of people who don’t talk like we do are invading our country like a conquering army, a swarm of locusts, outer space aliens (illegal ones of course), or some species of foreign weed that’s going to take over your garden. Pick whatever invasion metaphor you like.
As the Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn has pointed out, use of the I-word is an old, old tactic. Since the 19th century, it’s been used to keep out Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Germans, and now of course Latinos and Hispanics. Paint a group as the “other”, and some very primitive instincts kick in, tearing away our thin veneer of post-Enlightenment civilization and revealing our more apelike, tribal selves. Not exactly humanity’s proudest moment.
The condition of the migrants, however, is especially tragic, because of the role America has played in making their lives so miserable. They come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, all places we have treated like pawns in the Great Game. Our intentions were noble, of course. We wanted only the best for our Southern brothers and sisters. But as we know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, it was the hell we helped create.
In one of the earliest examples of the crony capitalism that sadly Americans now simply take for granted, American fruit companies were granted special privileges to operate in Honduras starting in the early 20th century. They wielded tremendous influence in the country, culminating in a U.S. military force permanently established there. In the anticommunist hysteria of the 1980s, we trained Honduran army units that tortured and killed political opponents of the pro-U.S. government.
El Salvador is no better. We supported a military junta there to contain a leftist revolt that eventually led to a devastating civil war and years of economic chaos. And in Guatemala, the United Fruit Company had a field day. Fortunately, the crony president who gave the country away to them eventually quit under pressure. Incredibly, democratic elections followed. Up through the early 1950s, Guatemalans saw steady economic progress and had hopes for a better life.
Those hopes were dashed when their democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, was overthrown by an American-supported invading force (and yes, this time I am using the I-word). Arbenz’s popular reforms apparently were insufficiently anti-communist for presidents Truman and Eisenhower, who in turn were heavily influenced by United Fruit Company’s close ties to Eisenhower’s national security council.
None of this is news. We just don’t bother remembering any more. Nor do we remember the four decades of Guatemalan civil war, guerilla warfare, and brutal killings that followed. Why should we? It was long ago. None of that could be possibly matter now, could it?
All this was done in the name of fighting communism, and it’s not-so-distant-cousin socialism. How ironic is it that socialism is now becoming more and more mainstream within the Democratic party? Maybe we should now consider doing a better job of defending capitalism at home before we try to impose it elsewhere. Crazy talk, I know.
Of course, America can’t be blamed for all of Central America’s problems. Hurricanes and earthquakes haven’t exactly helped. And the noted Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar has written eloquently on the lack of rule of law and an established system of property rights in Latin America. Finally, there’s no doubt Russia and its proxies saw the region as their playground, too.
But our meddling in Central America over the past 50 years makes Russia’s attempts at influencing our elections look childish and pathetic. And did I mention the drug war? Drug prohibition is little more than a subsidy to Central American drug cartels, further undermining the rule of law there and encouraging violence and corruption.
So when convoys of desperate people flee a hellish life for a better one here, what should we do? We could remember our role in making their lives hell in the first place. It will be painful, but it’s a start.
Barry Fagin is senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can write Fagin at email@example.com.