Many LAUSD students are from the Northern Triangle of Central America, and I tell them something most Americans won’t want to hear, but which is a common view in Latin America—"we owe you reparations.” Reparations to the people of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras for the immense suffering caused by misguided US policies. These policies caused deep and long-term damage to the civil society and economies of the Northern Triangle nations, and many of these children are in Los Angeles because of them.
That these countries today are violent and impoverished is hardly news. Nearly a quarter million people were murdered in Mexico between 2007 and 2017, but according to US State Department statistics, Mexico’s murder rate is only 1/5th of El Salvador’s and less than a third of that of Honduras. In the United Nations’ 2015 Human Development Index, among the 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations, Guatemala and Honduras rank above only Haiti, and El Salvador ranks 27th.
What many don’t know is that the roots of this disaster clearly lie with American policies. Guatemala’s nightmare began in 1954, when the US overthrew democratically elected reformist president Jacobo Arbenz, ending Guatemala’s “10 Years of Spring”—its democracy. Retired Marine Corps colonel and former CIA officer Philip Roettinger wrote:
“I now consider my involvement in the overthrow of Arbenz a terrible mistake…CIA Director Allan Dulles…lied to us. Communism was not the threat we were fighting at all; land reform was. Fulfilling his campaign pledge to transform Guatemala into a ‘modern capitalist state,’ Arbenz took over some unused land belonging to United Fruit. This angered the company…So it asked the CIA to overthrow Arbenz…Our ‘success’ led to 31 years of repressive military rule and the deaths of more than 100,000 Guatemalans. Furthermore, the overthrow of the Arbenz government destroyed vital social and economic reforms, including land distribution, social security and trade-union rights.
“The coup that I helped engineer inaugurated an unprecedented era of intransigent military rule in Central America. Generals and colonels acted with impunity to wipe out dissent…”
These American actions set off the Guatemalan Civil War, fought from 1960-1996 by a succession of brutal military regimes against rebel groups supported by the rural poor.
In 1982 president Ronald Reagan met Guatemalan military dictator Rios Montt, praised him as “a man of great integrity,'' and lavished him with military aid. For his monumental crimes against indigenous Guatemalans and others, in 2013 Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification found that government forces and state-sponsored, CIA-trained paramilitaries were responsible for almost 95% of the wartime human rights violations.
The story in El Salvador is similar—from 1980 to 1992, the U.S. gave $6 billion in mostly military aid to a murderous regime fighting leftist rebels seeking land reform and workers’ rights. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, anguished over the bloodshed, wrote to President Carter begging him not to provide the regime more weaponry. He explained:
“The current ruling Junta, and above all the armed forces and security forces…resorted to repressive violence, producing a volume of dead and wounded…political power is in the hands of military men without scruples, who only know how to oppress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.”
Romero was assassinated on the order of extreme-right wing politician and death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson. In a mass given the day before he was killed, Romero said:
"I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"
The United Nations estimates that over 75,000 were killed during the Salvadoran Civil War, many murdered or “disappeared” by the military.
Honduran governments have been somewhat more moderate, but still generally under the thumb of the US. One Honduran leader who wasn’t--Manuel Zelaya, a liberal who raised the minimum wage and promoted other reforms--was overthrown by the Honduran military in 2009. The coup was condemned by the Organization of American States, the UN, and the European Union. Despite this, and despite the Honduran military’s subsequent brutality against pro-Zelaya demonstrators, the Obama administration colluded behind the scenes to prevent Zelaya from returning to office.
UC Santa Cruz history professor Dana Frank says since the coup “a series of corrupt administrations has unleashed open criminal control of Honduras, from top to bottom of the government.”
Civil society in Honduras has unraveled. For example, one of my students’ aunts is a dentist in Tegucigalpa, Honduras--a very high position in such a poor country. But she does not practice dentistry at all, instead peddling flowers on the street. Why? Because as a dentist her office was continually threatened and shaken down by criminal gangs—as a mere street peddler, she’s left alone.
The US has dictated terms in Honduras to varying degrees since at least 1903—when the US launched the first of its seven invasions of Honduras—and that country has little economic development and prosperity to show for over a century of American-backed rule.
One might also add that the immense suffering in the Northern Triangle wrought by narcotraficantes and their murders and corruption is also backhandedly created by the United States. It is true that the US government has fought drug traffickers. However, the endless airstrips and drug routes created there—so prevalent that it is leading to significant deforestation—aren’t there to provide drugs to consumers in Belgium or Hong Kong.
The US government acknowledged it was wrong to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II and offered reparations. Similarly, the US should fully acknowledge its wrongdoing in the Northern Triangle and offer reparations
In 1966 the US sought to help those who had left Castro’s Cuba by passing the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allowed Cuban emigres to become lawful US permanent residents. Our reparations should be to offer today’s Northern Triangle refugees the same. We owe it to them.
- Los Angeles Daily News8/4/18
- Long Beach Press-Telegram8/4/18
- Daily Breeze [Los Angeles]8/4/18
- Pasadena Star-News & Affiliated Papers8/4/18
- Riverside Press-Enterprise8/4/18
- Orange County Register8/4/18