How U.S. involvement in Central America pushes children and families to migrate.
There is no doubt that violence and extreme insecurity are significant and immediate driving factors in the migration of children and families from Central America today. Since the early 1990s, when the United States began deporting gang members to the region, gangs have proliferated in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the three countries with the highest numbers of child migrants in recent months. But gangs are not the root cause of migration; they are merely a symptom of a long and continued history of U.S. intervention.
Any time Central American leaders sought to reduce poverty, redistribute unused lands, or tax foreign companies, the CIA removed those officials.
For over a century, the United States has looked to the Central American region, with its arable land and geopolitical significance, as its backyard and a source for cheap labor. In a January 1927 Memorandum, Undersecretary of State, Robert Olds declared that the United States controls “the destinies of Central America and we do so for the reason that the [U.S.] national interest absolutely dictates such a course… Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall.”
Indeed, U.S. intervention has been evident throughout the region: From orchestrating Panama’s independence from Colombia to building the Panama Canal for shorter transoceanic trade routes, to ousting presidents whose policies threatened U.S. companies’ local profits. Any time Central American leaders sought to reduce poverty, redistribute unused lands, or tax foreign companies, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and sometimes also its military, removed those officials and installed new U.S.-amenable presidents. This happened as early as 1909 to remove José Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua and again in 1954 to remove Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. As recently as 2009, the United States tacitly supported the coup against democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. In each of these cases, the region was politically, socially, and economically destabilized with dire consequences for vulnerable populations.
Over the last three decades, one notable outcome of such destabilization has been mass migration to the United States. The case of El Salvador is telling. While the small country has always suffered from deep inequalities, mass migration of Salvadorans to the United States did not begin until the 1980s, when tens of thousands fled the horrors of a civil war funded largely by the United States. Guided by the ideology of the Cold War, the United States trained, armed, and funded the military for over a decade to keep what was perceived as communism out of the Americas. The country became unlivable for many; individuals set out in what were often step-migration processes in which one member of the family fled first to avoid being murdered, with the hope that others would soon follow. In too many cases, however, spouses and children would be separated for years, and even indefinitely. Although the Salvadoran civil war ended in 1992, migration and family separation persist due to continued inequality and increased insecurity.
As the largest member of the International Monetary Fund, the United States has great influence in determining the conditions upon which Central American countries receive loans. For over two decades, these conditions amount to neoliberal policies aimed at allowing the “market” to rule through privatization, deregulation, and the reduction of social welfare programs. El Salvador has been required to create free trade zones where they agree to reduce or fully eliminate trade barriers in exchange for manufacturing jobs. Corporations that receive extensive tax breaks and rent subsidies, however, are not required to pay workers livable wages.
Implemented in 2006, the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) with the United States has only exacerbated these problems. CAFTA-DR has created a context in which independent farmers who once lived off of their earnings can no longer compete with low-priced food commodities from agribusiness corporations subsidized by the U.S. government. And even U.S. foreign aid comes with strings attached that worsen conditions locally. Farmers and all other low-wage workers must rely on poorly paid, exploitative manufacturing jobs established through free trade.
Limited jobs, increasing food prices, and diminished social welfare programs—all following the devastating civil war—have left large sectors of the population with few options for survival. Amidst worsening social and economic inequalities, poor youth who are especially vulnerable found power and survival in gangs. In response, the United States is now providing funding against the Drug War through a highly ineffective program, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The combined implementation of CARSI and CAFTA have ultimately shepherded more young people toward gangs as their only option for survival, the consequence of which—the unabated violence in a context of impossible economic survival—now makes migration even more likely for parents and, increasingly, for children.
For all the myriad ways we've integrated in the United States, we are only complete as transnational beings - https://t.co/jqZ0yfkwja— Stanford Press (@stanfordpress) July 11, 2014
As images of small Central American children and families being detained at the border fill our news feeds this summer, the prevailing media interpretations point to gang violence and insecurity as the main causes of migration. Such sensationalistic and decontextualized accounts of Central American society erase the historical and continued role of U.S. interventions in the region. Importantly, a sole focus on gang violence profoundly misguides conversations about solutions. Military repression and free trade—because they exacerbate inequalities and make the region unlivable for many—are the true root causes of continued Central American migration to the United States since the 1980s. We should not be supporting a continuation of such interventions. Instead, effective solutions need to include a retraction of neoliberal policies, including CARSI and CAFTA-DR. Development projects should focus on funding for education and social welfare programs, as well as ensuring livable wages and labor protections. With such conditions in place, more Central Americans will be able to practice their right to stay home.