American newspaper columnist William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, coined the term “banana republic” at the beginning of the 20th century. It described a nation with an undeveloped economy that’s reliant upon the exploitation of natural resources, with an elite ruling class that siphons off the profits for themselves at the expense of an oppressed and impoverished working class. Mr. Porter created the term after living in Honduras, which is one of the Central American countries, along with neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, which have produced the recent surge of immigrant children seeking asylum the U.S.
Mr. Porter chose the adjective banana because American fruit companies operating banana plantations dominated Honduras at that time. American foreign policy in Central America during the first half of the 20th century was focused on protecting the commercial interests of the large American fruit companies operating there. The U.S. Marines were sent to the region so often their activities are now called the Banana Wars. American troops, for example, occupied Cuba four times between 1899 and 1922.
U.S. Meddling Has Contributed to Problems in Central America
After WWII, and the advent of the Cold War, the focus of U.S. foreign policy in the region shifted to the threat of Communism. Like it had during the earlier part of the century, the U.S. government continued to bankroll the region’s dictators and right-wing militias in order to protect its perceived interests. This intensified the growing leftist sentiment among the poor.
A CIA sponsored military coup authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, overthrew a popularly elected leftist government in Guatemala in 1954. This led to the outbreak of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1960. The U.S. trained Guatemalan army, along with right-wing death squads, conducted genocide against rebellious peasants, particularly Mayan Indians. In addition to the estimated 150,000 people killed during the war, about 45,000 people were “disappeared” before it ended in 1996.
There was another civil war in neighboring El Salvador. It began after there was a popular coup in 1979 against the nation’s murderous and corrupt military dictatorship. The reforms proposed by the coup leaders provoked violent resistance from the military and the wealthy elite. A right-wing assassin killed El Salvador’s Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was giving mass on March 24, 1980, one day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians. Then on December 2, 1980, the Salvadoran National Guard raped and murdered four American nuns and a laywoman. In 1981 a coalition of leftist guerilla groups called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) began attacks against the U.S. backed Salvadoran army. It’s estimated about 75,000 people were killed, and about 8,000 were “disappeared” by right-wing death squads by the time the war ended in 1992.
In comparison to Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras was relatively stable during this time. This allowed the Ronald Reagan administration to use it as a base of operations for the Contra rebels it sponsored to fight against the leftist Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. The terrorist tactics the Contras used against Nicaraguan civilians prompted the U.S. Congress to cut off funding to them in 1985. But the Reagan administration decided to continue funding the Contras by other means, which led to the Iran-Contra Affair scandal of 1986–1987. The scandal revealed the Reagan administration had funded the Contras using the proceeds from arms sales to Iran, and had employed known drug traffickers.
The U.S. also provided support to Operation Charly during the Reagan presidency. This was a program by Argentina’s military dictatorship to implement covert operations in Central America against leftists. Their tactics included the use of death squads, and Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were among the countries in which they operated.
Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have democratic governments now but their political institutions are fragile, as shown by the right-wing coup which removed Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Furthermore, many of the social issues that led to the wars are still unresolved. Their economies are still undeveloped, they still lack a significant middle class, and the vast majority of their people still live in poverty. This economic void, unfortunately, has been filled by violent drug cartels that have become the de facto governments in many neighborhoods. They make their money by smuggling illegal drugs to customers the U.S.
The flood of more than 57,000 minors that have fled to the U.S. from these countries since last fall has prompted many American right-wing protestors to take to the streets and angrily scream, “Send them back, they’re not our problem!” Tolerance for this type of hatred and ignorance is a good example of what’s wrong with the modern Republican Party. It’s difficult to believe it’s the party of Lincoln, the party that was founded to fight slavery.
On January 20, 2017, Republican Donald Trump took office and began to take measures to eliminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of refugees from Central American countries, even though most had lived in the U.S. for years. He also began to implement a variety of measures, often challenged in the courts, to make it more difficult for immigrants, including asylum seekers from Central America, to enter the U.S.
In the November 26, 2017, national election it initially appeared that the voters in Honduras had elected newcomer Salvador Nasralla to replace President Juan Orlando Hernandez, whose National Party had supported the 2009 coup that removed President Manual Zelaya. Protests erupted after it became obvious that the Honduran government was manipulating the vote count in favor or Hernandez. On December 17 a special Honduran court declared Hernandez the winner by a slim margin. The Organization of American States (OAS) responded to the announcement by calling for the election to be held again, citing irregularities, supporting a similar call from Nasralla’s Anti-Corruption Party. The U.S., however, recognized him as the winner.
On December 10, 2018, the Mexican government announced it planned to spend $30 billion over the next five years on Central American development, an initiative to slow migration from those countries.
On December 18, 2018, the U.S. State Department announced that it would contribute $5.8 billion to the Comprehensive Development Plan for Central American initiated by Mexico.
On January 25, 2019, the Trump administration appointed Elliott Abrams to be the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela. As an Assistant Secretary of State in the 1980s, Abrams supported the murderous right-wing dictatorships in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. He was also convicted in the Iran-Contra Affair, but pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.
On May 30, 2019, Pres. Trump threatened Mexico with escalating tariffs on its imports to the U.S. unless it increased its efforts to stop immigrants from crossing the border into the U.S.
On Jun 8, 2019, Pres. Trump tweeted that his tariff threat had worked, and Mexico had agreed to his demands, so he was cancelling his planned tariffs. It was subsequently reported that the measure Mexico had agreed to implement were negotiated before the tariff threat.
On June 24, 2019, the Mexican government announced it had deployed almost 15,000 troops to the U.S. border to try and and manage the immigrants seeking to enter the U.S.
On July 26, 2019, the Trump administration announced a deal with Guatemala that gives U.S. immigration authorities the ability to send asylum seekers from the U.S. border to Guatemala.
On September 20, 2019, the Trump administration announced a deal with El Salvador that gives U.S. immigration authorities the ability to send asylum seekers from the U.S. border to El Salvador.
On September 25, 2019, the Trump administration announced a deal with the corrupt government of Honduras that gives U.S. immigration authorities the ability to send asylum seekers from the U.S. border to Honduras.
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