I know this is a bit of a divergence from my regular types of posts, but having spent quite a bit of time in Central America recently, this is an issue that is close to my heart and close to the hearts of many people I love. Additionally, it’s getting a lot of political airtime and there is history and information lacking in the reports about the crisis. Most significantly: The US has a responsibility in Central America to make up for some of the harm it has caused.
But before we get there, let’s talk about the crisis at hand. There has been a 90% increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the US without documentation in the past year, and estimates say that 90,000 children will do so in the year 2014, with continued growth into 2015 and beyond. If we give amnesty to the children because they are minors, the numbers will increase even faster. If we treat them like criminals, well, most people would agree that’s immoral. It’s a complicated situation and it’s become part of political agendas and finger pointing.
Parents in Central America love their children just as you love yours. This is not an issue of child abandonment or neglect or stupidity. Parents are sending their children here for a better life, a safer life. The countries they are coming from (largely Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) are politically corrupt and riddled with violence and drugs. The risks that they are taking to smuggle their children into the US actually outweigh the risks of staying where they are. But because of the sheer volume of people desiring to enter the country, we can’t afford to treat them as refugees and welcome them with open arms.
So why are these countries so messed up? Perhaps because of some US meddling where it shouldn’t have. Let’s look at Guatemala’s history as an example.
Obviously, Guatemala had a history involving the Spanish and even the Belgians before the 1940s, but for the sake of word count we’re going to skip that part. It was messy too, but not as messy as what happens next.
In 1944, Jorge Ubico, a dictator who had ruled for 13 years, was overthrown and replaced by a democratic government that happily ruled Guatemala until 1952, starting labor unions and free elections and all sorts of reforms. At the same time, the United Fruit Company (also known as Chiquita Bananas) bought tons of farmland in Guatemala in order to sell cheap bananas to the US. But in 1953, the Guatemalan government decided it wanted to appropriate the UFC’s land in order to give it back to Guatemalan farmers and start growing their GNP. Unfortunately, the UFC didn’t feel that they were being adequately compensated for their land and wanted to continue to be able to provide cheap bananas to potassium-starved Americans.
The UFC decided to lobby the US government for help with their cause in Guatemala. The US government, under the guise of fear of the spread of communism, began to supply weapons and aid to a military-based coup to overthrow the democratic government. The problem with this story is that the government that was overthrown wasn’t communist and in fact the communist party had very little hold in Guatemala at all during this time. The US government got involved in order to help the holdings and profits of a major US corporation- the United Fruit Company.
The coup was successful and a military regime was established which revoked voting rights and took back land from Guatemalans to give it to the UFC. Just a few years later, in 1960, civilian unrest led to a Civil War which would last for the next thirty-six years. Nearly 200,000 people would die, most of them indigenous Mayans, in what was essentially a drawn out and covered up genocide.
So What’s This Got To Do With Now?
If you’re any good at math, you’ll realize that this means that the Guatemalan civil war ended in 1996. That’s not that long ago, and the repercussions are still evident in Guatemala today. When I was in Guatemala they were in the middle of a presidential election for which there were 11 candidates, all from different parties. One of the candidates was the wife of the incumbent president (which wasn’t allowed) so she divorced him in order to be able to run. Guatemala still imports more than it exports and has an incredible economic deficiency. In addition, produce companies including UFC have been known to support drug cartels in Guatemala if it is in the interest of their profit.
In other words, the drugs, history of violence, racism, and economic instability of Guatemala can all be traced back to the US government supporting its own access to cheap bananas, whatever the cost.
The US has never formally acknowledged its motives behind the 1954 coup, though it has admitted involvement. But imagine how Guatemala’s history might have been different if the democratic government installed in the 1940s were still in place today, if America had not intervened. More than likely, Guatemala wouldn’t have tens of thousands of citizens who are so desperate for safety and provision that they would send their children on dangerous journey to a foreign land they will never return from.
And Guatemala is not the exception. The US backed several military coups in Central American countries during that time, coincidentally in many of the countries we see high numbers of illegal immigrants coming from today.
Now, before we turn illegal immigration into an election year litmus test, let’s talk about apologies and accepting blame. Let’s talk about making amends and sustainable solutions and backing human interests instead of corporate ones.
Let’s stop buying Chiquita bananas (and Dole and Del Monte) and let’s have some grace for complications of problems we helped cause and let’s look beyond the surface level here.
And more than anything else, let’s pay attention to what’s happening in the world. This shit is bananas because of bananas, but also because no one told the government to stop… no one even knew what was happening until it was too late. One of our first amendment rights is the right to petition the government and it’s one that the average citizen never invokes.
Let’s use our right to petition to support policies that help immigration reform by investing in those countries we have harmed and supporting their governments and economies.
So next time you find yourself wanting to tweet about deporting children, think about doing some foreign policy research instead. Or at the very least, consider switching banana companies.
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