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Thursday, 05 July 2018 07:26

We Are a Country That Tore Families Apart. No, We Are Not Better Than This.

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Kids2 0705wrpCentral American migrant children. (Photo: Peter Haden / Flickr)


It's important that so many people were paying attention to the inhumane and criminal treatment that refugee and asylum-seeking immigrant families faced at the hands of the US government. However, we'll continue to see a humanitarian crisis at our border whether or not the Trump administration stops separating families. Why? Because this crisis is still only a symptom of a much-longer blood-soaked legacy of US intervention in Latin America spanning centuries -- and people will continue to flee their homes in droves unless we make drastic changes.

The attention that family separation received is an opportunity to focus on why entire families are risking life and limb (quite literally) to travel 1,500 miles or more by foot to leave everything they know behind. The quick and dirty answer touted countless times: They're fleeing extreme violence and poverty. Yes, that's true. But that's also a lazy response and the conversation must not end there. Why is there so much violence? Why is there such poverty?

Those questions won't be easy to answer, but we should begin by looking at the history of US intervention in the "northern triangle" countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. If you've heard the recent recordings of children screaming out for their parents, those innocent voices are very likely from one of these northern triangle countries.

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Start by looking at US colonization attempts in the 1800s. Look into how the CIA overthrew only the second-ever democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1954. Read about how the US funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into El Salvador's "dirty war" in the 1980s to help prop up their right-wing government against popular uprisings. More than 75,000 Salvadoran lives were lost. Look at how the US supported the outcome of a 2009 coup in Honduras and its aftermath, of which I wrote about here. Look at the impressive list of alumni from the US Army School of the Americas located near Columbus, Georgia. We boast of having trained some of Latin America's most notorious war criminals and at least 11 Latin American dictators. They've renamed the training center, but its violent legacy lives on.

This is just a smattering of examples, but there are so many more -- in the northern triangle and beyond -- with entire books dedicated to them. The summary is this: For decades, the US's interests have come first at these countries' expense. These interests have been aided with the help of our strong-arm tactics and wads of cash alongside a few corrupt leaders in Central America willing to sell their souls and the lives of their countrymen to get rich. The consequences of our actions have meant that these countries never stood a chance at peace and stability -- and that's to our benefit. Weaker countries are easier to control and extort. We can return to the very present day with a striking example from Honduras. 

Prior to his first election as president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández served as president of the Honduran Congress. The Honduran Constitution clearly prohibits presidential re-election. To get around this, then Congressional President Hernández and the Honduran Congress sacked the Supreme Court justices and replaced them with those friendly to his National Party. Shortly thereafter, Hernández won his first controversial term as president and it was during his presidency that the country's Supreme Court voted to remove the one-term limit on the presidency. This set the stage for Hernández to "unconstitutionally" run for re-election in 2017 and win, stealing the presidency in a campaign dogged by corruption and fraud with international monitors raising all kinds of red flags

Very few US politicians spoke out against these first signs of a budding dictatorship. In fact, the US was quick to temper the situation, acknowledge the re-election of Hernández and pressure the Organization of American States (OAS) to do the same. Why? In part because we have a very important military base there (the same one from where we aided the contras in Nicaragua), and we need a cooperative government and ally in the region. Hernández just so happens to be our closest ally. For hundreds of millions of US dollars that he has put into his own coffers and into the military oppression of his own people, he's willing to look the other way on our military base (whose existence violates the Honduran Constitution -- not that it matters to him). He's also willing to enforce the Mano Dura (or "iron fist") policy to crack down on local crimes and the flow of drugs through the region. That policy, supported and funded in large part by the US, is one that has been proven to leave an increase in violence and oppression in its wake -- and, in Honduras, has resulted in the forced migration of the people exposed to it.

Turning back to the current crisis at hand -- consider that roughly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from their parents in the US in April and May. Shortly thereafter on June 7, 2018, US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen met with Hernández to discuss seemingly everything except how people were fleeing the repression wrought by Hernández himself. On that same trip, Guatemala-born US Democratic Rep. Norma Torres and other members of Congress also met with Hernández. Representative Torres has been outspoken about corruption in the northern triangle region, and yet happily posed for photos with Hernández in the White House on June 7, 2018, and on another critical occasion: just a few months after his tainted presidential election campaign. Even Tim Kaine, the former Jesuit missionary in Honduras and running mate to Hillary Clinton -- famed in the region for her back-channel involvement in the 2009 Honduran coup -- showed up to shake hands with Hernández. Less than six months earlier, Kaine had agreed with OAS recommendations calling for brand new elections after the outright fraud committed by Hernández was too evident to ignore. Kaine exemplifies the hypocrisy that has come to define Washington. These symbolic gestures only further accept and normalize a corrupt, dictatorial regime and give it the US stamp of approval. Why, then, do we act surprised when waves of desperate people arrive to our border fleeing government oppression? We, all the while, shake the oppressor's hand.

It's good to see so many people speaking out about family separation, but we need to keep speaking out. The conversation cannot end with the hopeful reunification of all these families. Before blame is laid at any one party or any one person know that this goes beyond that. It has been perpetrated by some liberals' favorite villains, such as Reagan and Nixon, and some liberals' "heroes," like Carter and Obama. The one common denominator is us -- the US.

Let the false mask of spreading democratic values across the globe fall. Let's stop thinking that as a country we are better than this. We never were better than this. But we can and should be better. We need to demand it. Leave your damned patriotism, immigration laws (laws in and of themselves have never guaranteed justice or morality), and political affiliations aside. Pick up whatever thread of humanity that's left and think beyond our artificial borders. The world is small and deeply interconnected. With our inaction, these families will continue to pay mightily for our sins.


Jennifer Burgos works in media relations with a focus on Latin America. She obtained a Bachelors degree from Boston College in English and Hispanic studies. She has been a coordinator for Friends of Mekele Blind School (FMBS) since 2012. FMBS provides better learning opportunities and living conditions for roughly 100 blind students in Mekele, Ethiopia. She resides in Massachusetts.