For all the talk about immigration, rarely does the conversation veer into why so many Latinos have come to the United States. “Harvest of Empire” attempts to fill in the gaps, and the reasons don’t include some naive notion about streets being paved with gold. The documentary, based on the book by journalist Juan Gonzalez, makes a persuasive argument that immigration from Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba and other nations is the direct result of American maneuvering in Latin America.
The film follows a pattern, looking at each country individually and hearing personal tales from immigrants before taking a deep dive into the history of that nation. The documentary starts slowly, looking at Puerto Rico, which happens to be one of the least powerful examples of American involvement leading to a country’s mass exodus. But the stories grow more eye-opening as filmmakers Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez paint a recurring picture.
In Guatemala, for example, the American government orchestrated the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz’s regime. The president planned to more evenly distribute the nation’s land, which would in turn hurt American companies that owned large swaths of the country. Whether from fear of communism or financial interests, the United States made the decision to intervene. And the result of that coup was a civil war that lasted more than three decades and included a genocide against the country’s Mayans. According to the film, less than two percent of political asylum requests were granted from Guatemala during that period.
This raises a very important moral question, and one that rarely enters the immigration debate: If America is responsible for destabilizing a country, what is our role when the country’s citizens suffer as a result?
Unfortunately, the quandary gets only murkier when the film considers so many other countries with similar stories — torture in El Salvador, terrorists in Nicaragua, a cruel despot leading the Dominican Republic, starvation in Mexico — all with at least a few fingerprints of the U.S. government. And that’s before considering Cuba and the American support of Fulgencio Batista, whose horrifying reign led to a swing of the pendulum in the form of Fidel Castro.
Could there be a correlation to the fact that these nations send the most immigrants to the United States of all the Latin American countries?
To add some personal notes, we hear stories from a wide array of immigrants, from celebrated writer Junot Diaz to television personality Geraldo Rivera, as well as the director of the brain tumor surgery program at Johns Hopkins and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. They offer moving stories of how they didn’t want to leave their homes and their families; America is less a dream destination than a last resort for some. Rounding out the perspectives are Americans — a former CIA operative, a onetime ambassador and various people who worked and lived in Latin American countries, witnessing some unthinkable atrocities.
While the documentary connects some dots more effectively than others, the overall feeling is effective; the film complicates an already complex debate. Both sides agree that there is need for immigration reform, but before figuring out the future, it might help to look back and acknowledge how we got here.
Unrated. At Regal Cinemas Majestic Stadium 20. Contains images of death and war and troubling stories of torture. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. 90 minutes.