What with all the Republican bloviation about the crisis on our Mexican border, about the hordes of brown children coming across and threatening our National Security, it is easy to lose sight of our own responsibility for this situation.
The three countries from which the vast majority of these kids come are just the three (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) on which Ronald Reagan spent billions in military aid during the 1980s, allegedly to block the Sandinistas of Nicaragua from imposing “Cuban-style communism” on Central America. What we got for our money was three countries with sham democracies dominated by the military establishments that we fostered.
Guatemala’s military had a partnership with the US that dated back to the CIA coup against elected president Arbenz in 1954. Reagan just reinforced that alliance, doubling down just as the troops were carrying out genocidal attacks on Mayan villages in the early 1980s. Under the first Bush and Clinton, Guatemala moved haltingly toward formal democracy, but the army is still beyond true civilian control, is highly corrupt, and unable or unwilling to confront the drug violence and common crime that make the poorer areas of the country dangerous places to be. It is from those areas that these children are coming.
El Salvador was picked by Reagan to be the centerpiece of his anti-Sandinista strategy. A leftist insurgency (the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN) was trying to duplicate the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, and Reagan determined to do whatever was necessary to stop them. That meant reinforcing the Salvadoran army (which had dominated the country since the 1930s) and backing their draconian counterinsurgency strategy that entailed multiple massacres of unarmed civilians.
After Reagan, El Salvador also had a negotiated peace settlement that led to a fragile democracy, and even elected two straight FMLN presidents in recent years. But the military and its oligarchical allies continue to be strong, particularly in the countryside. In the poorer urban areas, an additional problem is posed by gangs of youths who were once illegal residents of the United States, where they survived by joining gangs. When they were repatriated in the 1990s (under Clinton), they formed gangs in their hometowns. This is the environment that Salvadoran children seek to escape.
Honduras is the original banana republic: its governments a century ago were bought and sold by United Fruit. It remains among the very poorest Latin American countries. Reagan chose it to play the role of aircraft carrier in the covert struggle against the Sandinistas: the US built and occupied a major airbase from which operations of the US client Contras sent supplies and raiders into Nicaragua. The Honduran military was of course reinforced. When elected president Zelaya seemed to be flirting with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (a flamboyant critic of US policy), the Honduran military staged a coup in 2009 which was tacitly encouraged by Barack Obama. Since then, poverty, corruption and violence have surged, making for the kind of instability and insecurity from which Honduran children are fleeing.
Meanwhile, Nicaragua, the country against which Reagan railed, has been under a Sandinista government again, since the turn of the century. It’s still a poor country, but the government is systematically working to improve the lot of the poor. Corruption is not as bad as it was under US-backed governments in the 1990s, and violence is much less common than in its neighbors to the north. Thus, Nicaraguan children are not fleeing in large numbers.
In the guise of helping and defending Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the United States, and Ronald Reagan most particularly, created the disastrous conditions that impel the emigration of children. We did the Nicaraguans a great favor by not helping them.