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and so Eisenhower was more than happy to launch a coup against Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz for nationalizing no longer active United Fruit lands.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.