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The Human Toll of U.S. Cold War Policy in Latin America Continues

Thoughts on Obama's visit to Cuba
March 22, 2016

Central American Migrants

Central American Migrants
Central American Migrants

President Obama has arrived in Cuba for a historic visit, seeking to establish himself as “the president who ended the Cold War in Latin America.” Restoring relations with our estranged island neighbor is, assuming it plays out fully, a major achievement.  However, even as we celebrate this rapprochement, it’s important to remember that the Cold War in our hemisphere did not begin with the Cuban Revolution, and its social and political consequences will not end with normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.

The well-documented 1954 overthrow of democratic reformist President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala was arguably the first salvo of the Cold War in the region.[i] In a pattern that would be repeated (with variations) multiple times elsewhere in Latin America (and followed the model used in Iran in 1953), the U.S. staged and funded a coup d’état that crushed democracy, empowered the most reactionary military and civilian sectors, and served not to stamp out but rather to radicalize the Left, whose leaders concluded that a democratic reformist option was inviable. Indeed, Che Guevara, who was in Guatemala at the time of the coup, drew the conclusion that the United States was “a priori ruthlessly opposed to any attempt at social and economic reform in Latin America,” convincing him that armed struggle was a “necessity.”[i]

This set off decades of horrific violence in Central America, which escalated in the 1980s under U.S.-sponsored late Cold War counterinsurgency campaigns. With implicit or explicit U.S. blessing, and frequently using military equipment acquired from the U.S., state forces in Guatemala, El Salvador, and (on a lesser scale) Honduras used death squads and scorched earth tactics to murder and disappear opponents and to terrorize and destroy entire communities. United Nations-sponsored truth commissions in the 1990s documented hundreds of thousands of deaths and attributed 85% of acts of violence in El Salvador and 93% of violations in Guatemala to state agents.  In Guatemala, where much of the violence was aimed at groups of Mayan people, these constituted “acts of genocide.”

When these countries transitioned to formal democracy (Honduras in 1982, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1990s), decades of violent conflict, authoritarian rule, and brutal repression left their institutions and social fabric in tatters.  Plagued by severe poverty and inequality, hobbled by social dislocation, and flooded with weapons, they were ideal breeding grounds for narco-fueled organized crime.  The security focus of the U.S.-led War on Drugs in the region exacerbated the situation.

It is hardly surprising, then, that over the past decade these countries have seen gangs flourish, corruption proliferate, and rates of homicide, femicide, human trafficking, and other violent crime skyrocket.  And it is these nightmarish conditions that have driven tens of thousands of Central Americans to flee in family groups or, even more desperately, to send their unaccompanied children northward, hoping to seek refuge in the United States. In 2014, US Border Patrol apprehended 47,000 unaccompanied migrant children from Central America, constituting what President Obama declared to be an “urgent humanitarian situation.” In recent months, there has been another surge.  In the last quarter of 2015, “border agents detained 21,469 people travelling in family groups” and “17,370 unaccompanied children, compared with just under 7,987 in the last three months of 2014.” The U.S. government response has been mixed, with many of the migrants facing deportation. Under pressure from human rights groups and members of Congress, however, the administration has recently signaled that it would expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to include individuals and families fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

While President Obama’s decision to engage Cuba may thus formally close the last chapter of the Cold War in the Americas, the larger human toll of U.S. Cold War policy in Latin America continues. Addressing it will require much more than a normalization of relations with Cuba, and will, ultimately, depend on policy decisions made by the leaders Americans choose to succeed Obama.

[i] Michael Reid, Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), at p. 86.

[i] See, e.g., Stephen G. Rabe, “Guatemala: The Mother of Interventions,” The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 36-58.