U.S. military interventions and “free trade” are behind migration in the Northern Triangle

Due to its strategic position, the region attracted the interest of Washington and private companies since the U.S. began its expansion to the west and the Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed in 1823

U.S. military interventions and “free trade” are behind migration in the Northern Triangle
Migrants from Honduras, part of a new caravan from Central America trying to reach the United States, walk along a highway as they continue their trip to the border with Mexico - Photo: Luis Echeverría/REUTERS
English 05/04/2019 15:39 Gabriel Moyssen Mexico City Actualizada 16:08

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The history of the United States military interventions in the western hemisphere is well known—take for instance the Cuban case—, yet few are aware of its responsibility, combined with “free trade” policies, as a major cause of mass migration in the Northern Triangle of Central America composed by Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the three countries left without economic aid by the White House this week.

Due to its strategic position as a narrow stretch of land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as a natural bridge linking North America and South America, the region attracted the interest of Washington and private companies since the U.S. began its expansion to the west and the Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed in 1823.

After the Mexican War of 1846-1848, Nicaragua and Panama (then part of Colombia) were the first targets of U.S. interference in Central America, in order to expand its slave-based economy and to protect the Atlantic-Pacific railroad, a crucial link between the eastern and western U.S. coasts replaced in 1914 with the Panama Canal.

In 1903, U.S. troops landed in Honduras for the first of five times in the next 20 years, helping to maintain order in Puerto Cortés amid the civil war confronting Liberals and Conservatives.

A Liberal president, Miguel Dávila, was overthrown in 1911 by his predecessor, Manuel Bonilla, aided by U.S. banana tycoon Sam Zemurray and mercenary Lee Christmas, who becomes commander-in-chief of the Honduran army.

In the late nineteenth century, Tegucigalpa granted land in its north coast to U.S.-based fruit and infrastructure companies, that attracted thousands to work in banana plantations and other businesses that grew up around the export industry.

By 1930, firms such as Cuyamel Fruit Company (founded by Zemurray) and United Fruit Company (UFC, now Chiquita Brands International) controlled a virtual enclave in the northern region, self-sufficient and tax-exempt that contributed little to development, enjoyed vast political influence in the Honduran capital, and encouraged immigration of workers from the English-speaking and Protestant Caribbean, mainly Jamaica, as well as British Honduras (now Belize).

During this period the American writer O. Henry, who lived in Honduras, coined the term “Banana Republic” to describe small and poor agrarian countries dominated by the growing U.S. global power.

The situation was similar in Guatemala, where President Juan José Arévalo enacted labor codes that gave workers the right to unionize and demand pay rises for the first time in 1947, prompting UFC to lobby Washington for intervention.

Psychological warfare

In 1954, the government of President Jacobo Árbenz, progressing in its plans toward agrarian reform, resulted overthrown by the CIA, which resorted to psychological warfare spreading fake news in a radio station about “thousandsof rebel troops led by exiled lieutenant colonel Carlos Castillo Armas converging on Guatemala City.

After a demoralized Árbenz resigned, his family remained for 73 days at the Mexican embassy in Guatemala City, which granted it asylum honoring our country’s diplomatic tradition.

The end of the Guatemalan ten years of spring” began widespread repression to the extent that State Department counterinsurgency advisor Charles Maechling Jr. would later describe the U.S.’s “direct complicity” in Guatemalan war crimes, which he compared to the “methods of Himmler’s extermination squads.”

However, human rights abuses increased during the 80s, when the Reagan administration launched a major offensive against leftist movements in Central America in the context of the Cold War and the regional setbacks suffered by Washington with the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaty transferring control of the Canal Zone to Panama (1979).

Under the direction of U.S. Ambassador to Honduras John D. Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliot Abrams—now Special Representative for Venezuela—, Honduras was transformed in a general headquarters for subversion and counterinsurgency efforts.

For Guatemala, this meant the genocide of the Maya-Ixil population (more than 150,000 civilians killed) by the dictatorships of Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt, who used special forces trained in the U.S. Army-run School of the Americas.

Alarmed by the influx of 250,000 refugees to its southern border and the regional instability, Mexico promoted political reforms and peace negotiations with Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama through the Contadora Group, reducing the risk of a U.S. direct military intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The Salvadoran civil war, nevertheless, claimed the lives of more than 75,000 people.

In the tiny and overpopulated country, the history of U.S. intervention dates back to the 1930s when Washington and Great Britain, owning the majority of its export-oriented coffee plantations and railways, supported dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez to quell a Communist rebellion, killing 40,000 peasants.

The last coup backed by the U.S. in the Northern Triangle took place in 2009.

President Manuel Zelaya, who established progressive policies such as raising the minimum wage, was exiled by the military after he announced plans to hold a referendum on the replacement of the 1982 Constitution approved by Abrams.

The U.S., under Hillary Clinton’s Department of State, refused to join international calls—supported by Mexico—for the “immediate and unconditional return” of Zelaya to power.

In recent years, the political and social instability that generates poverty and migration cannot be disassociated from the creation of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the former Caribbean nation.

Despite the opposition from unions and local farmers who feared being outcompeted by large-scale U.S. producers, Honduras was the second country to enter CAFTA-DR in 2005, transforming from a net agricultural exporter to a net importer, leading to loss of jobs and increased rural migration.

Under the tariff reduction model of the agreement, all U.S. industrial and commercial goods enter El Salvador duty-free, creating impossible conditions for the domestic industry to compete.

As of 2016, the country had a negative trade balance of USD $4.18 billion, yet the Trump administration, concentrated in the United States electoral campaign next year, has taken steps to cut off an estimated USD $700 million in aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen