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The U.S. and Central America


U.S. foreign policy has been pretty horrendous for most of the world. While in the 19th century, the nation generally kept to itself, happy having already turned millions of Africans into a slave labor force (although wanting more, always more African slave laborers) and committing genocide against its own indigenous population, if you weren’t Mexico with land the U.S. wanted to expand slavery, the nation was weak enough that it more or less left you alone. That certainly was not the case after 1898. For the last 120 years, the U.S. has engaged in a fairly consistent foreign policy to force open the world’s markets to American capitalism while using a combination of brute military force, political machinations, covert operations, and money to dominate as much of the rest of the world as possible. This has had disastrous consequences for much of the world, from Vietnam to East Timor to the Congo. But nowhere has had it worse for longer than Central America. The little nations connecting Mexico to Colombia have routinely been the target of rampant American exploitation. First, there was the attempt by William Walker and his supporters in Washington to turn Nicaragua into a slave republic adjuncted to the United States. Then, after 1898, there was the Panama Canal and the utter domination of Central America by American sugar and fruit companies, whose interests were routinely backed up with American troops. Invasion after invasion and occupation after occupation followed. In the Cold War, every bit of nationalist resistance to American domination was tainted with communism and so Eisenhower was more than happy to launch a coup against Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz for nationalizing no longer active United Fruit lands. Then of course there was Reagan’s illegal funding of the Contras and his support for murderous right-wing dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador.

In the post-Cold War era, the U.S. has stopped invading Latin America, much to the chagrin of the Venezuelan coup plotters against Chavez in the early 2000s. But that has hardly meant the U.S. has not continued to shape Central American life. The consistent destruction of democratic norms and avenues for protest or to create social change has led to a spiral of violence, funded by Americans’ insatiable desire to get high and by its own internal racism that has arrested Central Americans and turned them into gang members in American prisoners before their deportation, which they took back to their home nations.

U.S. policy toward Central America was pretty bad under Obama. The charges that Hillary Clinton aided and abetted the Honduran coup in 2009 were pretty bloated, but there’s no question that Obama and Clinton could have done more in the aftermath to isolate the coup leaders, such as barring their entry into the United States and confiscating their Miami properties (which is the worst possible thing the U.S. can do to the Central American rich, who fly to Miami at any opportunity and who have invested much of their stolen wealth in that city). Moreover, in the coup’s aftermath, the militarization of Honduras as the front line in the war on drugs only led to more violence in that nation. All of this then led to the massive rush of migrants to the U.S. border, especially children, which has outraged dumb Americans who don’t know why they have to hear Spanish when they go visit their local buffet restaurant, basically the front line in the invasion of all things good and holy about their lives. Reconquista indeed.

But for as terrible as all of this is, it’s only getting worse under Trump.

The Trump administration’s plan centers on intensified border militarization coupled with a retreat from development assistance. On the ground, this will likely look like an expansion of the worst of Obama’s drug-war and neoliberal policies in the region, such as massive privatization, enforced austerity, the evisceration of labor and environmental protections, and a strengthened military force to back it all up.

Trump’s proposed budget makes these priorities crystal clear. The State Department, which attaches transparency and human-rights benchmarks to aid programs it funds, is in for big cuts. Department of Defense initiatives, which are far less amenable to oversight and accountability, will see increases. Consistent with Trump’s approach to foreign policy more broadly, the strategy is to support state security forces, including the police and military, while significantly reducing development aid and the soft power it commands. As economist Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) observes, “With development assistance slashed, US diplomacy in the region will more often appear in uniform.”

As at home, Trump is interested in policies toward Central America that are profitable to private businesses and which remove impediments to their unfettered operation, an outlook CEPR’s Dan Beeton characterizes as Trump’s “grand neoliberal project.” Indeed, one of the stated objects of the conference was to “increase opportunities for U.S. businesses” and “improve conditions for U.S. and other [countries’] companies.” Such strategies, however, will only further immiserate the poor and enrich the prosperous—who in turn will be “protected” by state security forces that have long histories of disregarding the human rights of local populaces. “Aid,” in other words, will look like the security state that is so routinely produced when foreign policy promotes neoliberalism.

The Trump administration has made clear that human rights considerations are inconsequential to its foreign policy. But the human cost of these policies in Central America and Mexico will be incalculable, and will create blowback. Instead of suppressing migration and stabilizing the region, these measures will escalate the rampant violence that has sent desperate refugees fleeing from their communities to the United States in search of sanctuary, perpetuating a cycle of misery for which Washington bears significant responsibility, but from which it offers little relief.

There is much more horrifying detail at the link. Given what the United States owes Central America for more than a center of war and exploitation, at the very least, we should open our borders to any Central American who wants in. It’s the least we can do. But we can do much more and we should. Alas, Central America is always seen as a problem in American foreign policy circles, with at best a shrug about how the U.S. did so much to create these problems.

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  • wjts

    Indeed, one of the stated objects of the conference was to “increase opportunities for U.S. businesses” and “improve conditions for U.S. and other [countries’] companies.” Such strategies, however, will only further immiserate the poor and enrich the prosperous—who in turn will be “protected” by state security forces that have long histories of disregarding the human rights of local populaces.

    Make America Filibuster Again.

    • Make America Filibuster Again.

      This time, with Nuclear Option!

  • HugeEuge

    US policy toward and treatment of Central America has been and is awful and will get worse under Trump. But what’s described in the excerpt is closer to straight out imperialism and/or neo-colonialism and it’s yet another example of making the term “neo-liberal” apply to anything that someone doesn’t like that maybe involves business or market activities. “unfettered operation” of business is not neo-liberal unless you understand that term to include pretty much anything beyond direct government activities or micro-enterprises.

    • In international relations and economics (from a left-wing ) perspective, neo-liberal policies are those that get countries to open themselves up to exploitation by multinational corporations. The fact that these policies are part of a longer tradition doesn’t mean that the term isn’t apt. Old wine ends up in new bottles.

      • Nym w/o Qualities

        Right, and the “-liberal” part comes from the ideological veneer — no doubt sincerely believed by many — that these policies benefit poor people in the developing countries, and not only the U.S. corporations.

        • wjts

          Not necessarily. I’ve always understood the “liberal” in “neoliberal” to refer to refer to laissez-faire economic liberalism and the “neo” to refer to its origins in reaction to the Keynesian thinking that replaced the original flavor. But there are liberal neoliberals and conservative neoliberals. Liberal neoliberals believe that things like privatization and a less strict regulatory regime will ultimately achieve liberal ends, while conservative neoliberals (i.e., Thatcher and Reagan) advance similar economic ideas to advance conservative ends.

          • Nym w/o Qualities

            True, but that’s not what CEPR means by it.

            “A lot of what we’re seeing is rebranding of old initiatives and Obama administration policies that continue under Trump…. The economic components of the approach rely on the Obama-era Plan for Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle and continuing Bush-era plans for massive infrastructure, energy, and communications development …”

          • HugeEuge

            I understood the liberal in neo-liberalism to refer to USA style political liberals: Humphrey, McGovern, Ted Kennedy and their successors. So “neo-liberal” was more a reference to DLC type domestic economic policy

            I actually recall back in the early 1990s (shortly before I forewore ever again watching TV political foodfight shows) hearing Morton Kondracke use it this way. Moore or less as a takeoff on “neo-conservative” referring to a particular strain of hawkish foreign policy conservative Republicans, ones who prioritized hawkish foreign policy, including absolute support for Israel, above free market economic orthodoxy and domestic policy.

            Correction: It might have been someone referring to Morton Kondracke as a neo-liberal rather than Kondracke himself using the term.

            • wjts

              So “neo-liberal” was more a reference to DLC type domestic economic policy

              Yeah, the DLC was neoliberal: a fair amount of Clinton’s domestic/economic policy focused on relaxing regulations and cutting/privatizing government services, in part because he believed that market-based solutions were more effective than government ones. Not all of them, obviously, but you saw the same policies under Reagan and Bush, who were also neoliberal. The difference between liberal neoliberalism and conservative neoliberalism in the U.S. isn’t insignificant, but it’s one of degree, not kind – cf. education reform.

      • HugeEuge

        Dependency theory and neo-liberalism are different things to me. And dependency theory had a lot of shortcomings on its own.

    • JKTH

      The description actually does make sense in this case (though I’m not sure how well Obama’s policies qualify…CAFTA, for example, was under Bush and I’m not that familiar with what Obama did).

  • Helmut Monotreme

    Articles like this make me think that much of US prosperity is “fake”. Not that we aren’t really prosperous, but that all of the reasons for this prosperity that we learn about in econ 101 are deliberately leaving out most of the real causes. Like, if you subtract out the wealth generated by slavery, and the resources stolen from Native Americans, and the trade deals that only work because foreign workers are paid pennies a day to work in smoke belching factories and sweatshops, is there any real competitive advantage to modern capitalism? How prosperous would we be if we had to pay full price for everything for the last 230+ years?

    • TheBrett

      America wouldn’t exist without the land stolen from native Americans, but aside from that, yes it’s real. It’s not just wealth stolen from other societies.

      There’s been a debate about how much slavery contributed to America’s economic development, and the consensus is that it was about 6% of the US’s GDP. Edward Baptiste tried to argue it was more than this, but got criticized pretty harshly for some basic errors in calculating economic output.

    • Given that the actual definition of colonialism is “steal resources from poorer people and send them to the mother country to build up its wealth and power,” yes, this is much, albeit it not all, of what American and European capitalism actually is.

    • rudolf schnaubelt

      Property is theft.

      • so-in-so

        When it starts out as someone else’s property, and you take it without paying them for it; why yes, it is theft!

        • rudolf schnaubelt

          Chicken or egg?

          • NeonTrotsky

            Yeah honestly. When in history has anyone actually followed the “lockean” rules of original acquisition, of like fencing off land that no human has ever touched and using your own labor to work it? Seems like most wealth has been stripped from someone else by force, or has been inherited for long enough that no one remembers that is was stripped from somewhere else by force.

            • TheBrett

              I think peasants were doing that in the Early Middle Ages in northern and western Europe. It wasn’t land that nobody had touched per se, but it was land where the pre-existing societal system had completely collapsed and the land had gone wild and reforested again.

            • so-in-so

              I’m pretty sure at some point the new settlers crossing the land bridge from Asia found land no other human had worked. Most native Americans supposedly had no concept of individual “owning” of land, although clearly they practiced tribal monopoly of hunting/fishing/growing rights to specific areas.

            • Yestobesure

              Most land, maybe, but not most “wealth”… There’s far more wealth out there today than there was 2 centuries ago, which means wealth can be created, not just stolen.

    • econoclast

      The answer to the question “is there any real competitive advantage to modern capitalism” is straightforward: yes. The dominant factor in economic growth is technological advance. Slavery didn’t create the semiconductor.

      • billcinsd

        Semiconductors existed before there were people, so I assume you mean semiconductor devices. But did the proceeds of slavery and colonialism eventually pay for the semiconductor? I don’t know, but probably at least partially, given school funding and the like

        • TheBrett

          Maybe, but there’s a difference between “it helped pay for part of it” and “if we hadn’t done slavery and colonialism, it never would have happened”. The latter seems much less plausible to me.

  • nominal

    What gets me is these “pro-business” policies are incredibly irrational and short-sighted. So Dole and Exxon get slightly higher profits for a few years. We blow that and more on immigration issues, drug interdiction, and lower markets for our other goods after these countries start imploding.

    These supposedly hard-headed, serious proposals are downright frivolous.

    • MikeG

      Corporate America is all about short-term profits. Long-term disaster, or social costs they don’t have to pay like immigration issues and drug interdiction, are of no concern to them.

    • woodrowfan

      the same with “drill now” oil fanatics. It’s a non-renewable resource with uses beyond moving your SUV around town. Why use it all up now? I’ve come to the conclusion that rightwingers are almost all short-term thinkers.

      • so-in-so

        Jesus may be back tomorrow, and he'll be pissed if we haven't used up all the resources his daddy gave us!
        And that logic dates back to the Reagan era!

  • TheBrett

    Best thing we can do in Central American and Latin America is nothing – i.e. just trade and do business with them, and work out some type of humane solution to migration issues. Only thing we’d need to be worried about would be if one of them offered military bases to China, but aside from that why care about their internal politics or back any particular leaders?

    • But even trade is inherently neocolonial given that the nations are by no means equal in these deals. CAFTA is not exactly some policy developed in a vacuum that doesn’t reflect power relationships that continue to be manifested.

  • Oblios_Cap

    And we’ve really been a large part of the problem in Haiti. Most State Dept. (USAID) money ends up enriching beltway firms and never makes it to that country.

    • The U.S. and France are primarily responsible for Haiti being the disaster that it is today.

  • Renfrew Squeevil

    I lived for two years in Honduras, and go back as often as I can and have many friends there and have a small non profit with which I help a bilingual school there in the town where I lived. I think I know about as much about Honduras as any American does who isn’t from Honduras. And we have a truly awful legacy there. We let the United Fruit Company run the country for 70 years as its own private colony. The company had its own private army, and used it to overthrow presidents when it didn’t like them, and put new ones in office instead.

    I learned a lot from hearing people just talk about shit there. I lived in the town that was the headquarters in the country for the fruit company. The U.S. military really never had to do anything there, since the fruit company ran the country for them. There were a lot of amazing things I heard in my time there.

    I think we really owe those countries some kind of Marshall Plan, something to help them advance economically to the point that people don’t have to leave the country or join gangs to make a living. Not that most Americans would ever get on board with giving “free shit” to a bunch of lazy-ass foreigners; but that’s what we should do.

    • Hondo

      We also owe that to our own native population. Building schools, hospitals, paying for college for anyone qualified to attend, and providing incentives for business investment so there are jobs would have been relatively easy things to do. But, no one gives a shit. So, doing these things outside our own borders will never happen.

  • Hondo

    Some years ago, I read a book called “In Our Own Backyard” (It got a good review from H-Net). What I mainly got out of it was that hardliners like Reagan only make things worse and pretty much everyone in that administration were fucking scumbags who were complicit in murder, and drug running. Trump will be so much worse.
    The past couple days I have been unable to concentrate at work. I just read news all day trying to keep up with all the shit in the Senate. And I have gone from merely feeling generic hatred for republicans, to trying to control a burning hatred not just for elected republicans, but also for everyone who voted for them. This is difficult since my normally apolitical father voted for fucking Trump. It’s a good thing no one here in the office talks about politics. I need to step away, but I also feel like I have to try to keep up.
    I really hope that the trans in the military thing doesn’t go anywhere. I can’t imagine how shitty it would be to get a general discharge and be designated mentally unfit for duty and thus losing GI Bill, VA medical, vets mortgages, pensions, and whatever other benefits they earned. All because of this fucking god damned asshole. This is a fucking nightmare and I don’t know how much more the country can take.

    • Captain_Subtext

      You have described my exact mindset in your second paragraph without the relatives who voted for Trump.

      • wjts


      • dcavea

        I have a fair number of relatives, as well as some acquaintances back in Ohio who are die-hard Republicans. Usually we don’t talk politics, so it works out fine. But since the rise of Trump, relations between us have gotten rather… distant.We usually avoid the subject, but it’s become harder and harder for me to reconcile what I know about them with their support for that man.

    • woodrowfan

      I sympathize. I find myself increasingly angry. I defriended a bunch of people, including family, on Facebook, stopped going to a collector’s club meeting because of the trumpeters there, and find myself increasingly willing to tell people I know who did not support Hillary in November to go fuck themselves…

      • Hondo

        I’m too non-confrontational (chicken?) to do that. So far.

        • dcavea

          I haven’t done it out loud, but there are certainly times I’ve thought it.

    • Hondo

      The other thing I got out of the book is that Newt Gingrich was a fucking asshole from his first day in the House.

      • M Lister

        Much earlier than that, I gather, but certainly every day he was there.

        • dcavea

          I think he was probably an asshole from about 5 years old onward. I mean, he wrote his college thesis in defense of Belgian rule in the Congo, so it was certainly well before Congress.

  • Michael Newsham

    Uneducated, non-unionised workforce, compliant local government, non-enforced environmental and labour laws…sounds like the new Foxcomm plant in Wisconsin. Greetings from Taiwan.

    • dcavea


      You know, it struck me recently that over the past few decades as lassiez-faire capitalism has made a comeback in the developed world, we are also seeing the re-emergence in those societies of 19th-century era problems.

      Seems everything old is new again.

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