PHOTO: Partial image of a recent caravan to the United States from Central America.
The trails a blood and tears abound in Central America. Some of those mournful traces are buried in the past, but plenty still paint with signs of agony and despair the pillaged region. A great chunk of that area was once the home of Mayan prowess and knowhow. Today that land with such a glorious past has become the dwelling of hopelessness and strife. The roots of their ills go back a while, at least to a time that predates the Spaniards, when the ancestors of today’s inhabitants were forced to move from one to another haunt, leaving their urban digs behind for still unknown reasons.
Then came the conquistadores and also the pirates, especially in Panama. They sucked the earth dry of its wealth and decimated the indigenous population with wars and disease. They also plundered the region with slave trade. The pirates did their thing and stole what the Spaniards had stolen, but also destroyed waterfront garrisons like the one in Panama Viejo.
Then came the American villains, once Central Americans gained their independence from Spain. One of those scoundrels was the filibuster William Walker, an American bandido and a mercenary. His main objective was to establish English-speaking colonies in the area, basically slave states. Although Walker didn’t have the blessing from the U.S. government, his actions went unchecked. The South supported him, though. On July 12 of 1856, he took over the presidency of Nicaragua and held the position for almost a year, until he was defeated by a coalition of Central American governments. Because of political pressure from Costa Rica and other countries in the coalition, he was detained by the U.S. Navy on May 1, 1857, and repatriated to United States, but later set free.
Then, in the early 1870s, more Americans came, not to set up slave colonies, but to build railroads and eventually steal the land and on it raise bananas. It was the beginning of a long and unfriendly friendship between railroad barons, and later other tycoons, and the people they basically enslaved in the banana plantations. The era also marked the beginning of ongoing meddling by the United States in the internal political affairs of those countries. It was done with the excuse of protecting the rights of Americans and of American enterprises, which had varied and storied names. The United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit come to mind.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the region had become in many ways an American colony. The United States had its hands all over those countries and did whatever it wished there. Instead of paying Colombia for the right to build a transisthmian canal, Teddy Roosevelt and the stars and stripes nation persuaded a few Panamanians to declare their independence from their motherland.
There were many other awful and illegal acts perpetrated by the United States. To stop other countries from gaining a foothold in Nicaragua or to build a canal there, U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1912 until 1933. Again, the excuse for the occupation was always the same: to protect Americans living there. Once the Marines abandoned Nicaragua, the United States left Nicaragua’s Guardia Nacional in charge. It was led by General Anastasio Somoza. He was ruthless, but had the backing of the U.S. President. In 1939, FDR allegedly said the following about the Nicaraguan leader: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
In a covert operation, America’s CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) deposed the democratically elected president of Guatemala Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. The meddling in that country continues even today.
In mid-December of 1989, George H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause to go after Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. The excuses for the assault were many, but none of them justified the casualties caused. A few Americans died, but close to one thousand Panamanians, mostly civilians, were killed by friendly and unfriendly fire. El Chorrillo, a barrio I well knew when I was stationed in the Canal Zone in the late nineteen sixties, was destroyed. Noriega was soon caught and deposed, but the price paid to catch a former U.S. intelligence informant was way too high.
The most atrocious meddling in the region by the United States took place recently, in the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It involved the Contras, U.S. supported right-wing rebels mainly based in Honduras. The objective was to topple the newly elected Nicaraguan government and to halt the spread of communism in the region. The strife and the aftermath of the battles, though, along with other civil unrest, turned Honduras, El Salvador and other neighboring countries into a permanent war zone. Again, the United States done it. But many Central Americans are the ones paying for the meddling, often with their lives or those of their offspring.
It’s up to us to fix the messes we left behind. And give shelter to those whose nations were destroyed by the whims and miscalculations of some our national leaders. The current government, however, instead of owning up to past mistakes, is closing the doors to most Central American immigrants and cancelling Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visas to Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorians. How sad.
FINAL NOTE: The United States often acts like the usual miscreant that jams the office copier and doesn’t fix the mess, and gets out of there before anyone catches him red handed and can point to him as the culprit. And when caught in the act, he’s the kind that will surely deny that he did it. But our country doesn’t have to act that way anymore. We’re grown ups and as such we must act responsibly.
And extend a sincere and helping hand to Central America.
AUTHOR: Pedro Chávez