I’ve thrown a lot of statistics at readers in the first two installments. I’ll open here with a personal story. In November, 1985, I was part of a union delegation to El Salvador to attend the 17th Congress of an independent union federation, and to escort its Secretary-General, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Hector Recinos, back from a year in exile after four years in prison for leading a strike. While in prison, his wife and daughter were “disappeared.” His young sons made their way illegally to the U.S. and applied for asylum. El Salvador was in the throes of a civil war between leftist rebel guerillas and a U.S.-backed military government and its army. Unions were seen as a potential “third force” that could help bring about peace to the six-year-old conflict.
The insurrection came after reforms failed, elections were stolen, and protests ended in massacres by the military, helped by right-wing “death squads” which were guided by Salvadoran military intelligence. The U.S., fearing a communist takeover, poured about a million dollars a day into the country during both the Carter and Reagan Administrations. Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who pleaded publically for peace, was assassinated in 1980, and in the same year Salvadoran National Guardsmen raped and killed three American nuns and a laywoman accompanying them to provide relief to families of death squad victims. The government, meanwhile, launched a “scorched earth” campaign modeled on U.S. efforts in Vietnam, with U.S. “advisors” assisting. Many hundreds of civilians were killed.
Our visit started uneventfully, but the Congress’s proceedings were halted when an official of the telecommunications union came into the hall. He had just been released from jail, but his 18- and 20-year-old sons were being kept locked up and drugged. Their crime? They were leaders of a Boy Scout troop which distributed food, and were therefore assumed to be rebel sympathizers. Our delegation went to the jailhouse, which had a tank in front of it, to make inquiries, facing intimidation by young men in military and police uniforms with semi-automatic weapons pointed at us. Police officials refused to let us see the sons, but produced a certificate with an official stamp stating they were all right. A protest strike resulted with over 40,000 workers walking off their jobs despite such strikes being illegal.
After the Congress we struck out on our own, with enough Spanish-speakers among us that we didn’t require guides or escorts. I visited a church-run refugee center housing some 400 people, mostly children. The military, it seemed, bombed civilians as often as rebels. A priest there called it “state terror.” A nun told me, “We need humanitarian aid, not military aid…para los niños,” for the children.
A colleague from the Santa Clara Labor Council, a fluent Spanish-speaker, went to Mariona Prison to talk with political prisoners. She was cut off by another prisoner who claimed to be a gun runner. He told her, with convincing details, that a lot of the U.S. arms sent to El Salvador by the U.S. were sold to the rebels by corrupt government officials. A tape recording of that conversation was stolen from the hotel room of a Machinists’ Union official who was going to transport it home.
On Sunday morning a bunch of us ate local foods in the huge marqueta. We were approached by a young woman who had been a rank and file observer for her independent union at the Congress. Loli had no interest in unions or politics, she said, calling herself a “pessimist” living in the country, eking out a living on the land. That changed, she said, when several young government soldiers ordered her brother to buy them a bottle of liquor. He refused. They cut his throat.
That was 34 years ago. “Peace” officially came in 1991, but the paramilitary death squads remained at large and active. So imagine, if you can, a nation devastated by war, its economy in ruins, with a total breakdown of anything resembling law and order, a people whose families have been hit by murder and repression, a huge trove of arms supplied by Uncle Sam, and a lot of “pessimism” about the future.
The stories from Guatemala and Honduras are much the same. In Guatemala some 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared” during the 36-year civil war. Leftist governments had been elected in 1944 and 1951, but in 1954 the U.S. engineered a military coup followed by a series of military dictators. Repression was the order of the day, especially against the native Mayan population, until, finally, a revolt broke out in 1960, with acts of often-senseless, terrorist, violence on both sides. Israeli “advisors” joined Americans in keeping the battles going – and in the torture of suspected rebels. Apartheid South Africa held trainings for the Guatemalan military. Civilian militia, often teenagers, were trained by U.S.-trained Kaibiles special forces to be brutal.
Things got so bad that the Carter Administration cut military aid to Guatemala, citing the Foreign Assistance Act which calls for no military aid to a country that “engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” The Reagan Administration reversed that. A peace agreement was finally reached in 1996 for the shattered nation.
Honduras escaped civil war, but endured years of military rule and repression, with bloody coups, sometimes instigated by the dominant economic power in the country, United Fruit. The U.S. military established a large presence as a staging area for the Contra war against the leftist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua. Leftist groups carried out kidnappings and bombings, and right-wing death squads prowled the streets. Heroin showed up in quantity as a U.S.-sanctioned way to secretly finance the Contras against the leftists.
With these nations destabilized, with violence an everyday occurrence, with families split, no jobs and no future, enter the drug dealers. There was a way to make money, lots of money, with a huge and hungry market in El Norte. Central America was good growing country for marijuana, and for opium poppies to make heroin. Drug dealers and human mules caught crossing the U.S. border were jailed, and in American prisons learned to form gangs. Those gangs, when their founders returned home, became the powers on the streets where poor people lived. To escape the violence, the instability, the rapes, to keep their kids from being forced into drug gangs, many looked north.
The current U.S. efforts to oust Venezuela’s left-wing dictator and replace him with a more friendly military dictator are a continuation of the same kind of bipartisan covert activities that created the current migrations. Power outages, believed caused by U.S. action, have left children dead in Venezuelan hospitals. Not exactly ‘how to win friends and influence people.’ The U.S. has put Venezuela on the path to destablization and civil war, and one day we can expect to see new caravans of refugees coming north.
And the U.S. continues to intervene in other nations. Some 7,500 U.S. military personnel, including contractors/mercenaries along with Navy SEALs, Green Berets and Special Forces, are in 20 African countries conducting air strikes, drone attacks, and sometimes boots-on-the-ground combat. Military bases are constructed with U.S. counter-narco-terrorism funds. Recent secret U.S. air strikes in Somalia left 14 civilians dead and more wounded. “Collateral damage” or “unintended consequences,” are just multi-syllabic platitudes to cover up d.e.a.d.
Mexico has a different story, but it’s still labeled Hecho en USA. With the long common border there have always been Mexicans coming north in search of work, mostly in agriculture and construction. Sometimes it was formalized, as with the bracero program, but with or without permission, workers came to employers eager to hire them. The maquiladora program encouraging U.S. companies to open factories south of the border began in 1965, and really took off in the 1980s and ‘90s, especially after Clinton’s NAFTA went into effect in 1994. Production in some 3,000 factories employing about one million workers peaked in 2000, then declined as the not-so-great recession spilled over. About 90 percent of maquiladora production is shipped north to the U.S.
American-owned maquiladoras get U.S. tax breaks, plus escape from pesky U.S. environmental laws and unions. Wages are much lower, lower now than in China, and while there are safety and other rules ostensibly in place to safeguard workers, it remains a fact that many factories qualify as sweatshops. An unintended consequence in the drive for maximum profits is the up-ending of Mexican society.
Many – perhaps most — of the maquiladoras mainly employ young women. While this is empowering to the workers, it challenges the traditional male machismo culture of Mexican society. I am not a defender of male supremacy by any means, but the effect on the culture cannot be underestimated. The young men who are not employed have little else to turn to except el norte, or the drug cartels. There is money to be made from those drug-hungry yanquis, and for unemployed young men who already feel diminished, there is power.
(Part 4 will consider the “War on Drugs” and the role of immigrants. Sources: My 1985 union report on El Salvador, Wikipedia, Strategic Culture Foundation, Business Insider, The Nation, U.S. General Accounting Office, Amnesty International, Fiscal Times, ThoughtCo, CPA Journal.)