“If you want to know about the causes, you have to ask, What’s the cause of poverty, violence, and corruption? And that second question is what the Biden administration isn’t asking.”
During Vice-President Kamala Harris’ brief first trip to the US-Mexico border at the end of June, the VP emphasized the importance of understanding the reasons behind Central American migration—“the root causes,” she said. The phrase also popped up amid her trip to Guatemala and Mexico earlier that month, where she simultaneously pandered to the hardliners… “Do not come, do not come.”
So what does she mean by the ‘root causes’? In the words of the Biden Central America Plan, these are “violence, transnational criminal organizations, poverty, and corrupt and ineffective public institutions.”
But there’s more to the story. In the recently released book, Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, Salem State University history professor Aviva Chomsky digs deeper.
“That’s always the triad that they go for: poverty, violence, corruption,” Chomsky said in an interview. “But poverty, violence, and corruption also have causes. Those aren’t the root causes, those are the symptoms. And so if you want to know about the causes, you have to ask, What’s the cause of poverty, violence, and corruption? And that second question is what the Biden administration isn’t asking.”
Notably, mentioned nowhere in the Biden plan, or by Harris during her Central America trip, or by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, or by most of the news media in their coverage, was the oversized role that the United States has played, and continues to play, in creating the very conditions of poverty, violence, and corruption that drive Central Americans from their homes, and across dangerous borders.
In 248 pages, Chomsky synthesizes the history of colonialism, indigenous resistance, repression, revolution, and counterrevolution in Central America, building a bedrock of understanding for today’s crises. The US role looms large, from the banana republics of the early 1900s (led by the Boston-based United Fruit Company), to the CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 (elected on the promise of land reform), to the US military aid and support of brutal counterrevolutionary war, masacre, and genocide waged by dictatorships in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in the latter parts of the century, to Reagan’s covert and illegal support of the Contras in Nicaragua, to the enforcement of neoliberal economic development throughout the region in the post-war years, to the US-supported coup of Hondouras’ democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 …
For Chomsky, the main goal in writing this book was to bring together the existing scholarship for students, activists, and the general public. She has been disheartened to see the Central American peace and solidarity movement lose much of its energy since she came of age politically in the 1980s.
“I’ve just been struck again and again about how important that period was to those of us who’ve lived through it, and how invisible it’s become,” she said. “I do feel that there’s a lot of disempowerment and a lot of maybe engaging in specific kinds of local issues, like university issues, but kind of feeling like the world is too big and too awful to do anything about.”
While the role of the US was easier to see during the war years of the ’80s, Chomsky notes that migration has actually significantly increased in El Salvador and Guatemala since the signing of the respective 1992 and 1996 peace accords, and the ensuing influx of foreign investment. In Honduras, migration spiked significantly following the coup in 2009.
“The peace treaties did not address things like land reform, workers rights, peasants rights, the things that had caused the uprisings to begin with,” Chomsky said. “Really what the peace treaties did was got the left, which had been absolutely decimated by the wars, and in Guatemala by the genocide, to lay down arms, and open the floodgates to US investment and the neoliberal economic model.”
Today, Chomsky warns that the Biden administration is continuing to promote the same basic US approach toward Central America, featuring increased military aid (promoting the militarization of borders throughout the region, outsourcing our dirty work) and the extractivist export-based economy friendly to US corporate interests. Notably, two of the core tenets of Biden’s Central America plan are “improving security and rule of law” and “mobilizing private investment in the region.”
“At the same time that Biden’s trying to show this humanitarian face to his immigration policy, this is basically empowering the very forces that make the journey so dangerous,” the author said. “It’s going to result in more murders, more massacres, more kidnapping of people trying to flee to safety.”
This is all coupled with the increasing effects of the climate crisis, a problem created by the rich’s overconsumption, impacting the poor. But while the outlook may be bleak, Chomsky urges the people of Massachusetts to get involved. Ultimately, the writer and professor believes that the only way to adequately address this myriad of crises is through an anticolonial, globally-based Green New Deal, akin to the Green New Deal for Europe.
On a local level, Chomsky specifically encouraces people in Mass to pressure their representatives and senators to be stronger voices on Central American policy, and to advocate for legislation like Safe Communities, and driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented residents. None of those measures have passed in the Bay State, and Gov. Charlie Baker opposes them all.
“I think that there’s a lot of energy still to be mobilized,” Chomsky said.
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.