Earlier this year, Elliott Abrams, who was convicted for his role in the Iran-contra scandal and later pardoned, joined the Trump administration to shape what officials foresee as inevitable regime change in Venezuela.
Abrams’s presence in the administration perfectly embodies America’s imperialistic and paternalistic meddling in Latin America over the past two centuries. American policy in Latin America has historically benefited the U.S. at the cost of impoverished communities that have struggled and continue to struggle for stability, survival and dignity. This has forced millions of Latin Americans to leave their homeland in search of new opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Abrams’s appointment reveals a fundamental incoherence in President Trump’s agenda: The president and his team claim to be focused on ridding the United States of illegal immigration, yet they continue to perpetuate the very policies that are driving immigrants to the U.S. If the administration actually wishes to solve this problem, the United States must abandon its self-conception as the world’s most advanced country — one entitled to selfishly meddle in other nation’s affairs.
With the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which forbade further European colonization in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. positioned itself for influence, power and control in the Americas, while opposing further European colonization of Latin America. By 1826, the nations of Latin America, with the exception of Cuba and Puerto Rico, had achieved independence from their European overseers. Yet weakened and ravaged by warfare and stunted by political infighting and other growing pains that debilitate young nations, Latin American countries became subject to U.S. influence and control.
U.S. actions toward its Latin American neighbors ranged from humanitarian efforts to economic exploitation to outright occupation. In 1848, Mexico lost over half of its territory to its northern neighbor. This allowed the U.S. to partially fulfill its quest to control land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hailed as the “manifest destiny” of the United States, the project to rule the Western Hemisphere was unmistakably imperialist.
That destiny extended beyond the continental borders of the United States when Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony, a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. This conflict also left Cuba subjugated politically, militarily and economically by the U.S., thanks to the Platt Amendment, which ensured U.S. dominance over the island. Both islands, along with other new acquisitions, Guam, the Philippines and Hawaii, became home to important military installations and symbols of U.S. imperialism in Latin America and beyond.
But imperialism was not just a military project — it was also an economic one.
In 1901, William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, coined the term “banana republics” after living in Honduras and witnessing the exploitation perpetrated by the United Fruit Co. and the Standard Fruit Co. These businesses were free to act because American foreign policy, especially the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine articulated in 1904, ensured that the U.S. would intercede if necessary to guarantee that other countries in the Americas responded to creditors. These U.S. fruit corporations exploited natural resources and workers, while receiving tax exemptions and contributing very little to local economies.
The same was true in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Panama, among other nations. Through military interventions in what are known as the “Banana Wars,” and by co-opting and corrupting political systems, the U.S. brought these young nations under its control. When these countries resisted and challenged these abusive relationships, democratically elected governments were overthrown by U.S.-led interests.
During the Cold War, the United States prioritized keeping communism out of Latin America. This meant suppressing any movement regarded as leftist or that challenged the status quo, which ensured U.S. capitalist agendas and investments. After 50 years of exploitation by the United Fruit Co., in 1951 Guatemala democratically elected Jacobo Árbenz, who called for the redistribution of land. Without credible evidence, United Fruit Co. executives convinced President Eisenhower that Árbenz planned to align Guatemala with the Soviet Union, prompting a CIA-led coup in 1954. Democratically elected Honduran President Ramón Villeda Morales faced removal by military coup as well in 1963, after enacting policies that favored the working class and the poor at the expense of U.S. interests.
One of the most notable military coups occurred in 1973 in Chile, where democratically elected President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-aided operation that led to the installation of brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. In Nicaragua, the U.S. supported dictators such as Anastasio Somoza and terrorist groups such as the Contras to suppress political mobilization of the masses. During the Reagan administration, Abrams advanced these efforts with his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal and, under the guise of preserving human rights, endorsed the use of lethal tactics against leftist groups in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Over the past three decades, a recession in Latin America enabled the International Monetary Fund to demand countries seeking loans adopt policies that promote the free-market fundamentalism preferred by the United States. These policies widened the wealth gap between the rich and the poor throughout Latin America. As Latin American economies have struggled, young people have turned to the lucrative drug underworld.
At the same time, U.S. rhetoric toward Latin America has shifted from preserving and promoting democracy and anti-Communism to fighting the war on drugs. Accordingly, the U.S. has enacted policies that have brought further instability to Latin America. Yet it has been the American appetite for drugs that gave rise to drug cartels and gangs throughout Latin America and made the drug trade so lucrative. This has led to a drug war in Mexico that accounts for an estimated 200,000 dead and disappeared people, while giving rise to lawlessness not only in Mexico but in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, countries where local gangs have been recruited to work for drug cartels.
The common thread in all of these policies has been not only the prioritization of American interests over the interests of Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans and others, but also paternalism, because the United States considers itself more enlightened and therefore entitled to force its policies and ideology on its neighbors.
Over the past century and a half, the U.S. has extended its power and influence throughout Latin America while benefiting from the dependence of the region’s countries. Mexican dictator and U.S. ally Porfirio Díaz described it best when explaining Mexico’s relationship to the U.S., “¡Pobre México, tan lejos de dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!” (“Poor Mexico, so far from God yet so near to the United States!”)
The same can be said about the rest of the Americas. Whether the goal was enhancing profits for American companies, forestalling anything that hinted at collectivism or fighting the drug war, the United States has freely intervened in ways grossly destructive to the lives of millions of people in numerous countries.
It is no surprise, then, that waves of these people, confronting poverty, havoc and danger in their home countries, wish to decamp to the United States. Unless and until the U.S. addresses the negative effects of centuries of oppressive policies and actions that have depleted Latin American nations of their natural resources, wealth and human potential, no crackdown will solve the immigration crisis.