By Michael Smith
A common response to the humanitarian crisis at our southern border is that it’s not our problem. It’s an ignorant response, ignorant in many ways, ignorant for humanitarian reasons and ignorant of history. To say that it’s not our problem is to be without compassion and to deny that we helped create the problem.
We needn’t go as far back as the Monroe Doctrine to see the terrible effects our government’s policies have had on much of Latin America. We only have to look back to the 1980’s to see what has caused this exodus of children fleeing the Central American Pharaohs we aided and abetted. Most are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, Central American countries where long standing and brutal military dictatorships led, in the first two countries, to long lasting and brutal civil wars, and, in the third, long lasting and savage repression. Nicaragua also had a brutal military dictatorship and a brutal civil war, but, for the most part, Nicaraguan children are staying home. Why is Nicaragua different?
Our government, as is our custom, supported the brutal dictators. Only in Nicaragua was the brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza, defeated and a popular government installed, which our government promptly tried to overthrow by arming and training the brutal Contras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras our government gave the most training and assistance to the worst human rights abusers, the Atlacatl Battalion in El Salvador, the Kabiles in Guatemala, and Battalion 316 in Honduras. The great irony is that any and all ex-members of those infamous units, many of whom received training at the School of the Americas in Georgia, are barred from entry into the United States because they engaged in torture and/or extrajudicial killings. The ex-Kabiles are also inadmissible for the additional reason that they participated in genocide against the indigenous population of Guatemala. Also in denial, then President Reagan routinely signed White Papers stating that the Guatemalan military was improving its human rights policies and activities—this during the height of the genocide—so that Congress would continue funding those torturers and murderers. He even absurdly stated that the Guatemalan military was getting a “bad rap” on human rights. In the 1985 presidential elections in Guatemala Reagan also supported, unofficially, Mario Sandoval Alarcon, the founder of the White Hand death squad. The Reagan administration liked death squads so much that they even cozied up to Roberto D’Aubuisson, also known as Blowtorch Bob because of his predilection for using a blowtorch when torturing victims, particularly women. D’Aubuisson masterminded the assassination of Archbishop Romero and was the founder to the Arena political party that reigned in El Salvador, with U.S. support, for 18 years after the end of the civil war. As there was no civil war in Honduras, Battalion 316 was a death squad organization that kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, and murdered opponents of the dictatorship in order to preempt any popular uprising.
After negotiated peace agreements were signed and civilian governments elected, the military remained the true power in these three countries. In 2009, when the popularly elected President of Honduras, Zelaya, lost favor with the real rulers, the military overthrew him in a coup and installed a new President whom our government immediately recognized. As the militaries of these countries committed terrible, large scale human rights abuses for many years, it should be no surprise that they continue to do so. These histories of violence and corruption have proved to be a fertile soil for breeding more violence and corruption. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have overwhelming problems of uncontrolled violence due to street gangs, drug cartels, and a continuation of political persecution, while their legal justice systems are so corrupt that prosecutions are rare, successful prosecutions rarer. These governments fail miserably in their obligations to protect their citizens because their militaries, complicit in the violence, prevent them from doing so. The situation is so bad that the level of violence in these countries is higher than it was during the truly brutal civil wars.
Only Nicaragua of the four Central American countries that experienced a brutal civil war in the 1980’s is not torn apart by terrifying acts of violence. I believe this is due to the fact that the Sandinistas—the people who led the popular uprising that overthrew Somoza and his brutal National Guard—maintained control of the military and police after they lost the 1990 elections. Only in Nicaragua was there no death squad activity after the civil war ended. Only in Nicaragua today is there no culture of violence that forces children to flee. Only in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are the children so terrified, so desperate that they embark on the long and dangerous exodus to reach the promised land. This is the problem we helped create. This is our problem.