“I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come … you will be turned back.”
That quote, despite its conservative-leaning rhetoric, did not come from former President Donald Trump or anyone from his administration. Rather, it came from Vice President Kamala Harris during a recent trip to Guatemala, where she traveled to meet with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. The statement received condemnation from many, including prominent Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who called it “disappointing to see.”
However, that’s not all that the vice president said on that trip — and other quotes deserve greater scrutiny. Just before her “do not come” line, she delivered a more positive-sounding message, stating that, “The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home.” I would certainly hope that the Biden administration is able to help Guatemalans to build better lives… or at least help to lower their 59% poverty rate. However, it’s important to understand why Guatemalans currently lack “hope at home” and consider those reasons before turning them away. Put simply, much of why Guatemalans lack “hope at home” circles back to the actions of the U.S. government.
Chief among those actions is the 1954 military coup that the U.S. backed against social-democratic President Jacobo Arbenz. The U.S. backed the coup because Arbenz had the gall to redistribute land from the United Fruit Company, which essentially controlled the country and its economy at the time. This coup plunged the country into a decades-long civil war in which over 200,000 people were killed, 83% of them indigenous and 93% of them by the U.S-backed government and its paramilitary proxies. It’s regularly referred to as a genocide today. The war thankfully ended in 1996, but — even if the U.S. had done nothing to Guatemala since — backing a decades-long slaughter of Guatemala’s indigenous people would be more than enough to indict the U.S. for Guatemala’s present state.
Of course, this is not the only time U.S. actions in Guatemala have led to adverse consequences. More recently — starting in 2012 — then-President Otto Perez Molina vastly increased the military’s domestic presence, using it essentially as an extension of the country’s police force. In 2013, the first full year of increased militarization of the country, the murder rate increased by 10%, including a 40% increase in the murder of human rights activists. The U.S. funded this murder, causing militarization to the tune of $14 million in 2012, a significant amount when compared to the country’s overall military budget of just under $300 million. This violence is almost certainly a large part of why roughly 230,000 Guatemalans immigrated to the U.S. between 2007 and 2015.
Guatemala is far from the only Latin American country where emigration can be traced to U.S. policy. A recent spike in migration from Honduras can be traced to the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya that the U.S. backed. The recent uptick in violence by gangs in El Salvador such as MS-13 was in large part caused by the mass deportation of Salvadoran-American gang members back to their home country in the 1990s. This violence, as expected, caused around 220,000 Salvadorans to flee for the U.S. between 2007 and 2015. Finally, as I’ve written about before, the U.S. funded Colombian government violence that killed over 100,000 people, causing the number of Colombian immigrants in the U.S. to increase by nearly 250,000 between 2000 and 2010.
All of this is to say that if the Biden administration is serious about helping Guatemalans “find hope at home,” they have a lot of work to do. While the administration has taken some promising steps, such as committing to sending $4 billion in developmental aid to Central America, other promises merit concern. Notably, Harris announced on her trip that the Biden administration would start an anti-corruption commission that would train Central American prosecutors to fight corruption in their countries.
This has concerning precedents in the region. Notably, in Brazil, U.S. officials collaborated with prosecutors in the country’s Lava Jato case, an anti-corruption investigation that began in 2014. While this may seem benign at first, in the years following the peak of the investigation, leaked messages have revealed that Lava Jato prosecutors illegally collaborated with the case’s judge in order to lock up former President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva and prevent him from running for re-election in 2018. This paved the way for the election of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who upon election immediately appointed Lava Jato judge Sergio Moro as his Justice Minister. Under Bolsonaro, attacks on journalists have increased, the burning of the Amazon has accelerated and Brazil has had one of the worst responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the world, having one of the highest death rates of any country. Needless to say, there is reason to be skeptical of the U.S.’s attempts to promote anti-corruption efforts in Central America if what happened in Brazil is to be viewed as more than an isolated incident.
Essentially, if the Biden Administration wants to — as Harris says — address the root causes of migration, there are a lot of root causes to address, and a lot to change about its current approach. But until they address those root causes, it would behoove them to be a bit more compassionate toward Latin American migrants. We’ve contributed a lot to those root causes, after all.
Brandon Cowit is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.