In a tweet last Monday, President Trump threatened to “substantially cut aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala” because of a caravan of refugees making its way to the U.S.-Mexico border. His tweet once again transformed the flight of people in Central America into a political game that falsely argues for a strict separation between North American countries, reinforced with rigid borders and insulting rhetoric.
In doing so, the Trump administration is defying history. Since the promotion of the Monroe Doctrine over 200 years ago, the United States has pursued a policy of undermining the borders and sovereignty of countries to bolster American corporate interests. As a result, U.S. policymakers created the situations now causing people to flee.
In his seventh annual address before Congress on Dec. 2, 1823, President James Monroe asserted, “As a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved . . . the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Monroe and then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams saw political and economic events in South and Central America as intricately tied with American commercial and military interests.
In 1854, the United States made clear what the doctrine would mean for Central America. Samuel Borland, secretary of state and minster to Nicaragua, was visiting the nation to obtain rights for U.S. citizens to purchase real estate when a skirmish broke out and Borland sustained nonlethal injuries. In response, President Franklin Pierce sent the warship Cyane, which fired more than 200 rounds on the port town San Juan Del Norte, bombing that established U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere for the next half-century.
In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt expanded these efforts with his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, dubbed “Big Stick Diplomacy” based on the West African proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick: You will go far.” In other words, negotiations with America’s southern neighbors should be calmly articulated and underscored by the silent threat of military force.
That international police power took the form of what became known as “dollar diplomacy,” a loan collection scheme implemented by Roosevelt and his successor, William Taft, to stabilize Central America. If anything, though, they had the opposite effect. Dollar diplomacy, as codified by Philander Knox, secretary of state under Taft, negotiated loan repayments with European nations, fearing they might otherwise intervene by sending in gunboats to collect their debts. Although Knox stipulated that Wall Street should not profit from dollar diplomacy, the arrangement between the financial district and the State Department filled the coffers of corporate America.
For example, the building of the Panama Canal gave the United States dominance over Central America’s heretofore untapped resources. There were some Central Americans who welcomed the United States’ newfound ability to intervene in their region. But those were officials from the elite class whose power and property the United States protected. By contrast, poorer Central American countries that owed insurmountable debt to Americans now became subject to U.S. military intervention to secure repayment, which they deeply resented.
And so, the U.S. interest in Central America soon became about protecting the financial interest of American companies by any means necessary.
This included ousting democratically elected leaders who threatened American investments, like President Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. On Nov. 15, 1954, Árbenz was elected to the chagrin of the United Fruit Co. While all evidence indicates that Árbenz was a democratic socialist, the United Fruit Co. saw him as a communist and used his agrarian reform law and his support for a strike against the UFC to encourage Washington Cold War warriors to remove him from office.
In a covert mission authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower and known as Operation PB Success, the country was invaded on June 18, 1954. Nine days later, a defeated Árbenz resigned via a taped broadcast heard throughout the country. For Guatemalans, it is a date that lives in infamy.
Operation PB Success undid a decade of revolutionary efforts to bring democracy to Guatemala. It restored an undemocratic Guatemalan government that protected the interests of the elite there and in the United States.
Four decades later, President Bill Clinton released the findings from a commission that investigated the coup and apologized for the United States’ participation. “For the United States, it is important that I clearly state that support for [Guatemalan] military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong. The United States must not repeat that mistake.”
Yet the trend of supporting corporate interests rather than human ones has continued unabated.
The 2005 Central America Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA, aimed to eliminate most trade restrictions between the United States and six Latin American countries: Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. But CAFTA has exacerbated labor abuse, unemployment, hunger and pollution throughout Central America. One provision, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement Mechanism, “allows private corporations to sue governments over alleged violations of a long list of ‘investor protections.’ ” This has widened the wealth gap, because it promotes corporate profit over the welfare of its citizens.
The pernicious effects of two centuries of U.S. policy have been felt in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where countless people are fleeing exploitation, poverty and violence. The 2009 military coup in Honduras, clandestinely supported by the Obama administration, exacerbated the problem, resulting in a wave of repressive economic policies, intensified corruption, political instability and violence.
Those fleeing toward the U.S.-Mexican border are looking for escape from a situation imposed on them by the United States and a centuries-long effort to promote corporations over individual rights. Denying them entry to the United States would simply compound past American misdeeds. As Clelia O. Rodriguez of the University of Toronto puts it, thanks to these policies, “Every single person that arrives to our borders seeking for asylum has the right to do so.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Guatemala as an island.