During the Reagan era of the 1980s, America and the Republican Party were still selling the idea that the U.S. was exposed to the dangers of Communism. The president was very effective at spreading the fear across the land, and his acolytes even used the premise to support their election campaigns. Republican Texas Congressman Jim Collins ran TV commercials warning his constituents in Dallas that Nicaragua was just a two-day drive from Texas. Even back then, though, gas prices made it unlikely a Central American country could afford to even reach the Rio Grande.
Americans are reliably uninformed about the world outside their borders. The Internet has transformed our ability to get information, but it has also enabled the access to falsehoods that can seem even more viable than the facts. With the Internet, LBJ might have had less trouble spreading his nonsense of the “Domino Theory,” the fear that if Vietnam became Communist the hordes of Southeast Asia would soon be at our doorstep. His task was made much easier, however, by simply manufacturing the false flag event of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which he used to launch a failed and purposeless war that cost more than 58,000 lives of U.S. service members. The fake attack was fed to TV networks and newspaper correspondents, and a war ensued. Vietnam, in 1995, provided a formal estimate that more than 2,000,000 civilians were killed and 1,100,000 fighters.
History’s oldest lesson is that the occupied always outlast the occupiers, which is why much of American imperialism since World War II has involved CIA facilitated coups. When the democratically elected leader of a country defies our paradigm for democracy and challenges policies beneficial to American corporations and military power, our government finds clandestine measures to overthrow the non-compliant politicians and defy the will of their people. Inevitably, complications arise from our meddling, and history’s course is altered, generally not for the good. The most glaring example of the past 75 years happened in Iran, and we are still dealing with the geopolitical ramifications.
In 1953, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt, was a leader in the orchestration of deposing Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had been elected Prime Minister of Iran. Roosevelt was a CIA operative who organized and paid politicians to fight against the democratic government while also busing in violent non-state actors to brutalize supporters of Mosaddegh. Ultimately, U.S. taxpayers funded the violent overthrow of a democracy. The sole reason for the intervention was because the U.S. and the U.K. were resisting an audit of their oil companies to make certain they were paying fees owed for extraction rights. The CIA installed Shah Reza Pahlevi, who was, quite literally, a puppet of the West. Pahlevi tortured and killed political opponents using his secret police, SAVAK, which was fine with American and British powers as long as he left alone their oil companies and spent Iranian wealth buying armaments from multi-national defense contractors in the U.S.
The outcome of such oppression tends to be predictable. Only sixteen years transpired before the Islamic Revolution, which resulted in 52 Americans taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Teheran. Iran’s internal turmoil was never truly grasped by the U.S. population and its fixation was on the hostage crisis, a standoff that was a principal cause of President Jimmy Carter’s political demise. A rescue attempt he ordered failed after a helicopter crash in the Iranian desert, and covert backchannel messages to Iran’s new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, led to the revolutionaries holding the hostages until after Ronald Reagan was elected to benefit his political power and stature. While a subsequent U.S. president vilified Iran’s religious government as part of the “Axis of Evil,” American citizens remained largely oblivious to the geo-political crimes committed in their name before Iran became an Islamic Republic. U.S. policy with Iran and in the wider Mideast still suffers from its earlier sins.
A year after the American coup in Iran, the emboldened CIA used its blueprint in the Western Hemisphere to toss out Guatemala’s president, Jacobo Árbenz, who had been elected by his fellow citizens. Árbenz had committed the un-American sin of seeking land reforms that upset U.S. corporations along with his push for modest wage increases for peasants working for United Fruit Company. The coup had been authorized by President Eisenhower, whose key staffers Allen and John Foster Dulles, were busily trying to shape the Post War world to fit their vision of American global hegemony, and they were empowered by developing the CIA. Both men had ties to United Fruit and when Árbenz had been toppled they convinced U.S. leadership to facilitate Guatemalan military regimes with funds, training, and equipment to set up decades of oppressive rulers acting at the behest of American interests.
Eventually, social movements arose in Guatemala but those military units moved through indigenous communities, mostly Mayan, and committed 600 massacres between 1981 and 1983. Reagan, still pushing a communism phobia, asked Congress for more money to support the dictatorial regimes running Guatemala even as the genocide of Mayans was unfolding. His advisors comforted military killers of the peasants with the message that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done.” The American president publicly complained that his hand-picked dictator of Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, was getting a “bum rap” and was “totally dedicated to democracy.” Montt’s commitment to democracy apparently prompted him to kill 75,000 indigenous people, an attempted genocide. Reagan’s dedication to his friend, though, was unwavering and he referred to Montt in public statements as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”
Less than a day after the American president’s initial praise, Montt’s troops killed 160 people in the Dos Erres village, a number than included 65 children. Witnesses claimed the children’s heads had been smashed on rocks. This must have been the “dirty work” Reagan was mentioning. Ultimately, the U.N. reported that between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 people had died, 50,000 had been disappeared, and 93 percent of human rights violations were committed by paramilitary and state forces, funded and backed by American taxpayers and their presidents. The CIA, trying to justify its geo-political histrionics, conducted an operation called PBHistory to search for evidence of Soviet influence in the country, and found nothing.
Reagan was merely continuing a policy the CIA had implemented after its successful coup in Iran. The Soviet Union was our “throw-down” boogie man and political leaders in the U.S. spent much of their time in office convincing constituents that commies were around every corner. In his book, Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano described the horrors perpetrated by strong men dictators living off American support in Guatemala.
“In 1967, all the men of the village of Cajón del Rio were exterminated; those of Tituque had their intestines gouged out with knives; in Piedra Parada, they were flayed alive; in Agua Blanca de Ipala they were burned alive after being shot in the legs. A rebellious peasant’s head was stuck on a pole in the center of San Jorge’s plaza. In Cerro Gordo, the eyes of Jaime Velázquez were filled with pins. In the cities, the doors of the doomed were marked with black crosses. Occupants were machine-gunned as they emerged, their bodies thrown into ravines.”
My first trip to Central America in the 1980s was to report on a U.S. military exercise of massive proportions, designed, obviously, to deter Soviet interest in the region and let Communists know that interference was our job, not theirs. I was stunned by the poverty in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and nearly emotionally exhausted every morning when I walked out of my hotel to be surrounded by a dozen naked children, homeless and begging for food. A few hundred miles distant, on the Nicaraguan border, the Contras were growing fat on steaks and lobster, champagne and beer, provided by illegal funding from the U.S. government. Honduras was being used as a military staging area to destroy revolutionary movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. U.S. mining and banana companies had gained control of the country by backing authoritarian leaders willing to work for American corporate interests and plunder.
The Contras, little more than motorcycle thugs and drug traffickers, were described by Reagan as, “the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.” In fact, they were servants of the American obsession to stop social movements in Central America, which threatened U.S. economics and control of the region’s natural resources. The Contras were trying to stop the Sandinistas’ ascension to power after their overthrow of Anastasio Somoza, another tin pot dynastic dictator whose family had used the country to enrich themselves while oppressing workers and political opposition. Reagan operatives, using the CIA, established arms sales to Iran, a sworn enemy of the U.S., as a method to support the Contras. Money from the sale of weapons to Iran would go to the Contras to circumvent congressional opposition to their funding, a tactic that led to an investigation and one of Reagan’s many controversies, which became known as Iran-Contra.
There is neither time nor space here to relate all the American transgressions in Central America, and the ruination they have brought to the lives and environment of indigenous peoples and the general populations of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Our government enabled death squads, assassinations, torture, mutilations, and disappearances in the name of keeping our authoritarian flunkies in power. Social and revolutionary movements within those countries, born of resistance to historic inequities, were brutally crushed and their leaders eliminated. There were even credible reports that the CIA was involved in helping the Contras traffic cocaine to the U.S., which may have launched the cartels and drug economies of those countries.
The chaos and harm caused by the U.S. has hardly abated and is as contemporary as the struggles of the immigrants coming to our border. As late as 2009, the Obama administration gave in to pressures from American economic interests in Honduras after they became concerned about attempts to raise the minimum wage and increase community involvement in corporate projects. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led U.S. involvement in a coup that deposed democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya. She told the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa to “engage elements of the Honduran Armed Forces and de facto regime,” which led to brutal austerity measures for citizens and caused activists to be murdered. The leaders of military governments in Honduras, since the U.S. okayed the 2009 coup, have presided over what has been described as a “nightmarish cycle of violence” directed at human rights activists, peasants, indigenous leaders, journalists, LGBTQ people, and anyone who dared confront what was wanted by the authoritarian strongmen and their American masters.
Among the most prominent victims was Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores, a defender of the rights of the Lenca people and the Gualcarque River, considered sacred by indigenous peoples. Caceres organized against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam because it threatened livelihoods and ecosystems. Her work connected the rights of indigenous peoples to resist capitalism and imperialism. She had also very publicly denounced the 2009 coup, and called out Clinton’s role, which led to assassins shooting Caceres on March 2, 2016. A court ruled that Agua Zerca Dam executives ordered her murder.
The violence has not ended in Honduras and the ravaging of resources and suppression of rights with American assistance has led to endless chaos and suffering in Central America. The current government of Honduras operates a thinly veiled alliance with the world’s most powerful drug cartels, and American citizens continued consumption of narcotics sustains demand and business for the traffickers. The only work available in Honduras is often taking on jobs with drug traffickers. People cannot be expected to remain in place and suffer, though, and fill out their digital online applications to the U.S. and wait for asylum while their children are forced into crime and their families go hungry. They will keep marching northward, hoping for opportunity in the nation that destroyed their countries with its greed. Joe Biden and Donald Trump and any other president can build their walls, but the seeds of our greed have grown into broad fields of fear and desperation and are spreading beyond anyone’s control. The stranger at our door, asking for help, is someone we have already robbed of a future.
And they are out of options.