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Analysis – Has US meddling in Central America come home to roost?

5 February 20190 comments

As tens of thousands of Central American migrants gather in northern Mexico looking for a way into the United States and President Trump continues to wrangle with his Democratic Party opponents over a border wall, the history of the US’ role in meddling in the region has almost been forgotten.

Many of the desperate border-crossers have come from Central America’s so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ – El Salvador, Guatemala, and – fleeing crime and a culture of murder by violent gangs.

But historians and Latin America observers now argue this situation did not arise in a vacuum.

They say that much of the instability in Central America was created or at least helped along by US foreign policy.

So, it is arguable that US intervention in Central America has helped to bring about the unstable and, in some cases, lawless circumstances that have driven so many people from their homes.

Here’s a brief history lesson.

In 1954 the US helped to overthrow Guatemala’s second popularly elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, when he pushed for social reforms that angered wealthy land interests.

Arbenz was a Guatemalan military officer and a major figure in the ten-year Guatemalan Revolution, which represented some of the few years of representative democracy in Guatemalan history.

His plans to reform land ownership, which would see families whose land was seized by the Spanish conquistadors get it back, became a benchmark across Latin America

Other reforms included an expanded right to vote, the ability of workers to organise, legitimising political parties and allowing public debate.

But his agenda caused Arbenz to fall foul of the US-owned United Fruit Company.

The US was also concerned by the presence of communists in the Guatemalan government, and Arbenz was ousted in a coup d’etat engineered by the US State Department and the CIA.

In the 1970s the US was heavily involved in the conflict between the military-led government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of left wing-groups.

Salvadoran military officers were taught terror tactics to use against their own people by the US military and by May 1983, US officers had taken over positions in the top levels of the Salvadoran military and were making critical decisions and running the war.

The civil war lasted for more than 12 years and included the deliberate terrorising and targeting of civilians by death squads, the recruitment of child soldiers and other human rights violations, mostly by the military.

An unknown number of people disappeared while the UN reported that the war killed more than 75,000 people between 1980 and 1992.

The United States contributed to the conflict by providing military aid of up to $2 million a day to the government of El Salvador during the Carter and Reagan administrations.

The United Nations has estimated that the FMLN guerrillas were responsible for 5 per cent of the murders of civilians during the civil war, while 85 per cent were committed by the Salvadoran armed forces and death squads.

In February 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero published an open letter to President Carter in which he pleaded with him to suspend the United States’ ongoing program of military aid to the Salvadoran regime.

On 24 March, the Archbishop was assassinated while celebrating Mass, the day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers and security force members to not follow their orders to kill Salvadoran civilians.

President Carter said the killing was a “shocking and unconscionable act” but at Romero’s funeral a week later, government-liked gunmen in the National Palace and on the periphery of the Gerardo Barrios Plaza were responsible for shooting 42 of the mourners.

In the 1970s the Nicaraguan resistance group known as the Sandinistas overthrew the country’s dictatorship that had been in power for more than 40 years.

The US opposed the revolution, backed the dictatorship, and later supported the rebel group known as the Contras.

The Contras were US-backed mercenaries attempting to subvert the Sandinista government.

During the decade long conflict, the Contras committed a large number of human rights violations and used terror tactics, carrying out more than 1300 terrorist attacks.

From an early stage, the rebels received financial and military support from the US and their political relevance depended on it.

After US support was banned by Congress, the Reagan administration covertly continued it in an illegal operation that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

Between 1984 and 1986, $34 million from third countries and $2.7 million from private sources were raised this way.

The secret contra assistance was run by the National Security Council, with US Marine Lt Colonel Oliver North in charge.

In 1984 the Sandinista government filed a suit in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the United States, which saw a 1986 judgment against the United States.

The ICJ found the US had violated international law by supporting the contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors.

The US blocked enforcement of the ICJ judgment through the UN Security Council preventing Nicaragua from gaining any compensation.

In Honduras, where many of the would-be border-crossers have come from, the US has had a strong military and economic presence for decades.

Since the 1980s Honduras has been blighted by a heavy-handed military, significant human rights abuses and widespread poverty.

This contributed to the election of Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformist, as president in 2006.

He set out a progressive agenda such as raising the minimum wage. He also tried to organize a referendum on creating a constituent assembly to replace the country’s constitution, which had been written during a military government.

This incurred the ire of the country’s oligarchy, leading to a coup and his overthrow by the military in June 2009.

The US response to the coup was ambivalent and since then a series of corrupt administrations has unleashed open criminal control of Honduras.

President Juan Orlando Hernández was re-elected in 2017 after a process marked by irregularities, fraud and violence.

But Washington continues to overlook official corruption in Honduras as long as the country’s ruling elites serve what the Trump administration sees as US economic and geopolitical interests.

Organised crime, drug traffickers and the country’s police are said to overlap and the frequent political killings almost never punished.

In 2017, a report by international NGO Global Witness, found that Honduras was the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists.

All of this leads us to the obvious question: will the US’ sanctions and censure of Venezuela create a new source of caravans of migrants?


Laurie Nowell

AMES Australia Senior Journalist