Editors’ note: “If it happened yesterday, we’ve already forgotten.” – an anonymous Nation editor.
What we see and react to in the media conditions us to view the present as a series of immediate crises, and to ignore their roots in the past. For social justice movements, this can be deadly, cutting us off from an ability to weigh and learn from our own history, and to understand how that history shapes the ways we fight for justice today.
In this photo essay, David Bacon reaches into his photographic archive of 30 years, which are now part of the Special Collections of Stanford University’s Green Library. A Nation contributor and former union organizer, Bacon’s photographs and journalism have documented the courage of people struggling for social and economic justice in countries around the world.
In 1971, Pat Nixon, wife of Republican President Richard Nixon, inaugurated Border Field State Park, where the border meets the Pacific Ocean just south of San Diego. The day she visited, she asked the Border Patrol to cut the barbed wire so she could greet the Mexicans who’d come to see her. She told them, “I hope there won’t be a fence here too much longer.”
Instead, a real fence was built in the early 1990s, made of metal sheets taken from decommissioned aircraft carrier landing platforms. The sheets had holes, so anyone could peek through to the other side. But for the first time, people coming from each side could no longer physically mix together or hug each other. This is how the wall looked when I began photographing it, over 30 years ago.
That old wall still exists in a few places on the Mexican side in Tijuana and elsewhere. But Operation Gatekeeper, the Clinton Administration border enforcement program, sought to push border crossers out of urban areas like San Ysidro, into remote desert regions where crossing was much more difficult and dangerous. To do that, the government had contractors build a series of walls that were harder to cross.
That’s partly how the US-Mexico border became more than mere geography-how it became instead a passage of fire, an ordeal that must be survived in order to send money from work in the US back to a hungry family, to find children and relatives from whom they have been separated by earlier journeys, or to flee an environment that has become too dangerous to bear.
Some do not survive, dying as they try to cross the desert or swim the Rio Bravo. To them the border region has become a land of death. Every year at least 3-400 people die trying to cross, and are buried, often without names, in places like the graveyard in Holtville, in the Imperial Valley.
But the photographs I’ve taken over 30 years also show that the US/Mexico border is a land of the living. Millions of people live and work on Mexico’s side of the border: There are the child laborers who pick the tomatoes and strawberries in Mexicali Valley that line the shelves of grocery stores in the US; there are the workers from across Mexico who staff the massive maquiladoras in Tijuana; And there are thousands who have been deported to Mexico, and who must now somehow survive this passage of fire as well.
Statement by the Peace and Solidarity Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism – December 2018
The Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism condemns the November 27th vote in the U.S. Senate to impose economic sanctions on Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA) mandates that the U.S. vote against loans and aid to Nicaragua from international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. The NICA Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017, and after passage by unanimous consent in the Senate, it now awaits the signature of President Donald Trump. The NICA will impose significant cuts to infrastructure and social programs compounding the crisis caused by widespread destruction by U.S. funded oppositionists this spring and fall.
CCDS stands with organizations, faith leaders, solidarity groups and individuals who have denounced the U.S. government’s economic warfare. As with Venezuela and Cuba, the intent is to create a humanitarian crisis to undermine, destabilize and overthrow the democratically elected, socialist governments of Latin America in pursuit of an imperialist agenda – the so-called policy of “regime change.”Once again we see the U.S. government pursuing policies throughout the hemisphere and in the U.S. of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described 50 years ago – the “three pillars of evil” – white supremacy, militarism, and exploitation.
Troika of Tyranny
Trump administration National Security Advisor John Bolton boldly announced U.S. aims in a speech in Miami November 1st:
“This Troika of Tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering, the impetus of enormous regional instability, and the genesis of a sordid cradle of communism in the Western Hemisphere. The United States looks forward to watching each corner of the triangle fall…the Troika will crumble.” (11/1/18)
What is driving this “regime change” policy? The countries targeted have pursued policies aimed at the betterment of their citizens – free education and health care, eliminating extreme poverty, creating an inclusive society where women, minority and indigenous populations are equal, protecting the environment, and combatting the violent drug trade that has engulfed other countries of the region.
The people-oriented policies of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba are a direct challenge to the “neo-liberal” world order of free markets for capital, deregulation, austerity budgets, and elimination of worker and environmental protections in the pursuit of maximum profit and plunder of natural resources. Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela stand as examples to the world that there is an alternative to policies dictated by Wall Street and free market capitalism.
In Nicaragua, the violence that began in April 2018 was sparked by IMF demands to gut social security pensions in repayment of loans. When the FSLN government countered with a plan to make employers shoulder the burden, the business council refused and walked out of negotiations.
Oppositionist groups funded by the U.S. “aid” organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy seized on the moment of confusion and waged a social media-driven disinformation campaign that accused the government of making workers, not businesses, pay. The ensuing violence resulted in nearly 200 deaths, including several police, kidnappings, torture and destruction of public and private property.
In Venezuela, sanctions have been used against working people and the very poor who are most supportive of the Maduro government. Using the excuse that Venezuelans who have left the country pose a humanitarian crisis, the U.S. openly talks about plans for military intervention. Right wing governments of Colombia and Brazil are being urged to cooperate with the U.S.
The U.S. announced more sanctions on Cuba following an overwhelming UN vote of 189-2 on November 2nd to end the longest running economic embargo of any country in history. Only Israel sided with the U.S. Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called the embargo “a flagrant, massive and systematic violation of the human rights of Cuban men and women.” Estimates are over $1 trillion in lost economic activity since 1962.
The Larger Framework: Aims of U.S. Empire in the Western Hemisphere
With the collapse of Socialist Bloc countries and the dramatic shift from manufacturing to finance at the apex of the capitalist world, we have seen the coming of age of neo-liberal globalization. U.S. global hegemony has been increasingly challenged by China, India, and various formations of the Global South such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). In Latin America there has been a shift from U.S. domination of the region in trade, investments, and economic assistance to greater competition with China, Russia, and European countries.
The new government of Mexico headed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) aims to divest itself of the neo-liberal economic model in favor of building its domestic economy, raising wages and living conditions that will end the forced migration of its citizens. In an inaugural address to the nation on December 1st, the new president announced that “starting from now, we will carry out a peaceful, steady political transformation.” Promising a “change of our political system, he fiercely attacked free market, pro-trade policies have been “a disaster” for Mexico, resulting in low growth, rising income inequality and the migration of citizens out of the country.
Neo-liberal policies are coming under increasing pressure elsewhere in Latin America. Huge mass movements and labor-led strikes have protested IMF-imposed austerity measures in Argentina and Costa Rica. With rising challenges to its regional hegemony, the U.S. has countered its weakening economic position with an expansion of its military presence through dozens of military bases in Colombia and Argentina, and funding rightwing sectors of the capitalist class in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The people of Puerto Rico are challenging the Wall Street imposed regime of austerity and privatization following a debt crisis that led to bankruptcy.
Cuba is still celebrated as a model for progressive economic and political change, and, while suffering setbacks, the spirit of the 21st Century Bolivarian Revolution persists throughout the Western Hemisphere. President Barack Obama recognized the futility of regime change in Cuba and moved toward normalization of relations. Today, President Trump is returning to the use of military threats, supporting violent protests such as in Nicaragua, and imposing crippling economic sanctions to stimulate instability. In the case of Cuba, Trump seeks to reverse the economic and people-to-people ties that have been expanded in recent years. All of these policies constitute desperate efforts to reverse history to overcome the contradictions of neo-liberal capitalism and challenging China’s growing influence in the region. In sum, the Trump Administration is trying to overcome the United States’ loss of regional hegemony.
CCDS stands with people the world over in condemning U.S. government policies of aggression in pursuit of economic and political domination of the hemisphere. We reject interference in the internal affairs of other countries and work to redirect our tax dollars from militarism to living wage jobs for all, a Green New Deal, health care and education.
A national spotlight now shines on the border between the United States and Mexico, where heartbreaking images of Central American children being separated from their parents and held in cages demonstrate the consequences of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance policy” on unauthorized entry into the country, announced in May 2018. Under intense international scrutiny, Trump has now signed an executive order that will keep families detained at the border together, though it is unclear when the more than 2,300 children already separated from their guardians will be returned.
Trump has promised that keeping families together will not prevent his administration from maintaining “strong — very strong — borders,” making it abundantly clear that the crisis of mass detention and deportation at the border and throughout the U.S. is far from over. Meanwhile, Democratic rhetoric of inclusion, integration, and opportunity has failed to fundamentally question the logic of Republican calls for a strong border and the nation’s right to protect its sovereignty.
At the margins of the mainstream discursive stalemate over immigration lies over a century of historical U.S. intervention that politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle seem determined to silence. Since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 declared the U.S.’s right to exercise an “international police power” in Latin America, the U.S. has cut deep wounds throughout the region, leaving scars that will last for generations to come. This history of intervention is inextricable from the contemporary Central American crisis of internal and international displacement and migration.
The liberal rhetoric of inclusion and common humanity is insufficient: we must also acknowledge the role that a century of U.S.-backed military coups, corporate plundering, and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability, and violence that now drives people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras toward Mexico and the United States. For decades, U.S. policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region, creating vacuums of power in which drug cartels and paramilitary alliances have risen. In the past fifteen years alone, CAFTA-DR — a free trade agreement between the U.S. and five Central American countries as well as the Dominican Republic — has restructured the region’s economy and guaranteed economic dependence on the United States through massive trade imbalances and the influx of American agricultural and industrial goods that weaken domestic industries. Yet there are few connections being drawn between the weakening of Central American rural agricultural economies at the hands of CAFTA and the rise in migration from the region in the years since. In general, the U.S. takes no responsibility for the conditions that drive Central American migrants to the border.
U.S. empire thrives on amnesia. The Trump administration cannot remember what it said last week, let alone the actions of presidential administrations long gone that sowed the seeds of today’s immigration crisis. There can be no common-sense immigration “debate” that conveniently ignores the history of U.S. intervention in Central America. Insisting on American values of inclusion and integration only bolsters the very myth of American exceptionalism, a narrative that has erased this nation’s imperial pursuits for over a century.
As the British immigrant rights refrain goes, “We are here because you were there.” The adage holds no less true here and now. It’s time to insist that accepting Central American refugees is not just a matter of morality or American benevolence. Indeed, it might be better described as a matter of reparations.
The following timeline compiles numerous sources to lay out an incomplete history of U.S. military and economic intervention in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala over the past century.
1932: A peasant rebellion, led by Communist leader Farabundo Martí, challenges the authority of the government. 10,000 to 40,000 communist rebels, many indigenous, are systematically murdered by the regime of military leader Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the nation’s acting president. The United States and Great Britain, having bankrolled the nation’s economy and owning the majority of its export-oriented coffee plantations and railways, send naval support to quell the rebellion.
1944: Martínez is ousted by a bloodless popular revolution led by students. Within months, his party is reinstalled by a reactionary coup led by his former chief of police, Osmín Aguirre y Salinas, whose regime is legitimized by immediate recognition from the United States.
1960: A military-civilian junta promises free elections. President Eisenhower withholds recognition, fearing a leftist turn. The promise of democracy is broken when a right-wing countercoup seizes power months later. Dr. Fabio Castillo, a former president of the national university, would tell Congress that this coup was openly facilitated by the United States and that the U.S. had opposed the holding of free elections.
1980–1992: A civil war rages between the military-led government and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The Reagan administration, under its Cold War containment policy, offers significant military assistance to the authoritarian government, essentially running the war by 1983. The U.S. military trains key components of the Salvadoran forces, including the Atlacatl Battalion, the “pride of the United States military team in San Salvador.” The Atlacatl Battalion would go on to commit a civilian massacre in the village of El Mozote in 1981, killing at least 733 and as many as 1,000 unarmed civilians, including women and children. An estimated 80,000 are killed during the war, with the U.N. estimating that 85 percent of civilian deaths were committed by the Salvadoran military and death squads.
1984: Despite the raging civil war funded by the Reagan administration, a mere three percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases in the U.S. are approved, as Reagan officials deny allegations of human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala and designate asylum seekers as “economic migrants.” A religious sanctuary movement in the United States defies the government by publicly sponsoring and sheltering asylum seekers. Meanwhile, the U.S. funnels $1.4 million to its favored political parties in El Salvador’s 1984 election.
1990: Congress passes legislation designating Salvadorans for Temporary Protected Status. In 2018, President Trump would end TPS status for the 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States.
2006: El Salvador enters the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), a neoliberal export-economy model that gives global multinationals increased influence over domestic trade and regulatory protections. Thousands of unionists, farmers, and informal economy workers protest the free trade deal’s implementation.
2014: The U.S. threatens to withhold almost $300 million worth of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) development aid unless El Salvador ends any preferences for locally sourced corn and bean seeds under its Family Agriculture Plan.
2015: Under the tariff reduction model of CAFTA-DR,all U.S. industrial and commercial goods enter El Salvador duty free, creating impossible conditions for domestic industry to compete. As of 2016, the country had a negative trade balance of $4.18 billion.
1911: American entrepreneur Samuel Zemurray partners with the deposed Honduran President Manuel Bonilla and U.S. General Lee Christmas to launch a coup against President Miguel Dávila. After seizing several northern Honduran ports, Bonilla wins the Honduran 1911 presidential election.
1912: Bonilla rewards his corporate U.S. backers with concessions that grant natural resources and tax incentives to American companies, including Vaccaro Bros. and Co. (now Dole Food Company) and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International). By 1914, U.S. banana interests would come to own one million acres of the nation’s best land — an ownership frequently insured through the deployment of U.S. military forces.
1975: The United Fruit Company ( rebranded as the United Brands Company) pays $1.25 million to a Honduran official, and is accused of bribing the government to support a reduction in banana export taxes.
1980s: In an attempt to curtail the influence of left-wing movements in Central America, the Reagan administration stations thousands of troops in Honduras to train Contra right-wing rebels in their guerrilla war against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. U.S. military aid reaches $77.5 million in 1984. Meanwhile, trade liberalization policies open Honduras to the interests of global capital and disrupt traditional forms of agriculture.
2005: Honduras becomes the second country to enter CAFTA, the free trade agreement with the U.S., leading to protests from unions and local farmers who fear being outcompeted by large-scale American producers. Rapidly, Honduras goes from being a net agricultural exporter to a net importer, leading to loss of jobs for small-scale farmers and increased rural migration.
2009: Left-leaning and democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, who pursued progressive policies such as raising the minimum wage and subsidizing public transportation, is exiled in a military coup. The coup is staged after Zelaya announces intentions to hold a referendum on the replacement of the 1982 constitution, which had been written during the end of the reign of U.S.-backed military dictator Policarpo Paz García. Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, a graduate of the U.S. Army training program known as the School of the Americas (nicknamed “School of Assassins”), leads the coup. The United States, under Hillary Clinton’s Department of State, refuses to join international calls for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya.
2017: Honduras enters an electoral crisis as thousands of protesters contestthe results of the recent presidential election, which many allege was rigged by the ruling party.
1920: President Manuel Estrada Cabrera, an ally to U.S. corporate interests who had granted several concessions to the United Fruit Company, is overthrown in a coup. The United States sends an armed force to ensure the new president remains amenable to U.S. corporate interests.
1947: President Juan José Arévalo’s self-proclaimed “worker’s government” enacts labor codes that give Guatemalan workers the right to unionize and demand pay raises for the first time. The United Fruit Company, as the largest employer and landowner in the country, lobbies the U.S. government for intervention.
1952: Newly-elected President Jacobo Árbenz issues the Agrarian Reform Law, which redistributes land to 500,000 landless — and largely indigenous — peasants.
1954: Fearing the Guatemalan government’s steps toward agrarian reform and under the influence of United Fruit propagandist Edward Bernays, President Eisenhower authorizes the CIA to overthrow democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz, ending an unprecedented ten years of democratic rule in the country, colloquially known as the “ten years of spring.” In Árbenz’s place, the U.S. installs Carlos Castillo Armas, whose authoritarian government rolls back land reforms and cracks down on peasant and workers’ movements.
1965: The CIA issues Green Berets and other counterinsurgency advisors to aid the authoritarian government in its repression of left-wing movements recruiting peasants in the name of “struggle against the government and the landowners.” State Department counterinsurgency advisor Charles Maechling Jr. would later describe the U.S.’s “direct complicity” in Guatemalan war crimes, which he compared to the “methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads.”
1971: Amnesty International finds that 7,000 civilian dissidents have been “disappeared” under the government of U.S.-backed Carlos Arana, nicknamed “the butcher of Zacapa” for his brutality.
1981: The Guatemalan Army launches “Operation Ceniza” in response to a growing Marxist guerrilla movement. In the name of “counterattacks” and “retaliations” against guerrilla activities, entire villages are bombed and looted, and their residents executed, using high-grade military equipment received from the United States. The Reagan administration approves a $2 billion covert CIA program in Guatemala on top of the shipment of $19.5 million worth of military helicopters and $3.2 million worth of military jeeps and trucks to the Guatemalan army. By the mid-1980s, 150,000 civilians are killed in the war, with 250,000 refugees fleeing to Mexico. Military leaders and government officials would later be tried for the genocide of the Maya victims of military massacres.
1982: A second U.S.-backed military coup installs Efraín Ríos Montt as president. Montt is convicted of genocide in 2013 for trying to exterminate the indigenous Maya Ixil.
2006: Ten years after a U.N.-brokered peace deal and the resumption of democratic elections, Guatemala enters the CAFTA-DR free trade deal with the United States. Ninety-five percent of U.S. agricultural exports enterGuatemala duty free.