By Tom Gallagher
July 24, 2019
Imagine we’re no longer battling Trump Administration abuse of asylum-seekers on our southern border and we have a chance to “do the right thing.” What would we do? How about a Marshall Plan for Central America?
The original Marshall Plan (named for U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall) spent the equivalent of $100 billion in today’s dollars to rebuild Western Europe following World War II. Many complex calculations went into spending that kind of money, yet today few would call it a mistake. But why would we consider a similar undertaking in the current circumstances? The answer requires a vision of the future, along with an understanding of the past extending beyond the headlines of the present.
In his 2013 book, “The Right to Stay Home,” activist and journalist David Bacon wrote of Mexican farmers finding themselves considering the difficult and dangerous trek to El Norte, after their livelihoods were destroyed by the cheap American corn flooding their country as a result of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Bacon posed the question of whether there should be a “right not to migrate.” Today’s situation is more complex. Migrants now predominantly come from three separate countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—and for many violence has replaced poverty as the driving force. Yet the fundamental question remains the same: What would it take to make tomorrow’s potential refugees decide staying home was a better option than giving their life savings to smugglers and risking their lives crossing deserts and rivers?
What also remains the same is deep U.S. involvement in the history of those countries—history that Central Americans know, and North Americans mostly don’t. The longest-running U.S. intervention in the region has been in Guatemala, starting with the 1954 CIA-engineered overthrow of the country’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, continuing with using the country as staging ground for the 1960 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (putting down a local rebellion in the process), and involvement in the country’s civil wars running into the 1990’s.
The most expensive intervention may have been El Salvador where $4 billion (equivalent to $9-10 billion today) was invested in fighting insurgents in the 1980–1992 civil war (including a secret $1.4 million CIA investment in a presidential election.) The most recent intervention was the U.S. government’s clandestine support of the 2009 overthrow of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, a country where we had also trained Contra soldiers to overthrow the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s. People flee these countries today because this history has produced three nations that have in this decade all recorded murder rates ranked in the top ten in the world.
As Bacon noted, while “proposals for human rights for migrants in the United States and Canada have won some attention … proposals … for alternatives to forced migration, have not.” Certainly not in Washington which budgets $4 billion annually on border security—and about $180 million in foreign aid to the three countries.
So, is the situation driving the asylum-seekers our problem—in the sense of being something our government had a hand in creating? Yes. Is it something we need to spend large amounts of money on? We already do. As we know, when the threat of communism was the issue, we spent big. And if the issue in Central America were Islamic terrorism, ample funds from the nearly $6 trillion we’ve spent fighting that would certainly be available. Why not then find the funds to create alternatives to forced migration?
How exactly? Exactly, I don’t know. But the Green New Deal has persuasively demonstrated that if we want to move a big idea politically, we need to agree on the nature and the magnitude of the problem before we fight about the details.
How much longer will we watch the suffering and inhumanity before we agree that we need to do something big, call it what we will—common sense, compassion, or a Marshall Plan for Central America?
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