HALFWAY THROUGH 2019, thousands of impoverished refugees from Guatemala and Honduras remain crowded along our southern border. June is the best month to reflect on this crisis because it marks the anniversary of two crucial events that helped create it.
In June 1954, the United States deposed a popular democratic government in Guatemala. Fifty-five years later, in June 2009, the government of Honduras, also freely elected, was overthrown in a coup that the United States strongly endorsed. Both of these Central American countries succumbed to waves of repression and violence. Refugees at our border are fleeing horrific conditions that are in part the long-term results of American interventions in their homelands.
Before Darwin discovered the science of evolution, species were said to have burst out from nothingness, through a natural magic called “spontaneous generation.” Americans often look at world crises the same way. We think of their origin the way Topsy thought of hers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “I s’pect I growed. Don’t think nobody ever made me.” Topsy did not understand where she came from. We too have trouble realizing that our problems in the world have causes. To understand the desperation driving Guatemalan and Honduran migrants, it helps to recognize our own role in creating it.
Guatemala and Honduras — the Central American countries closest to the United States — are plagued by violence and dominated by corrupt thugs. They were not always so unfortunate. Both went through promising periods of stability and progress. Projects of national development in Central America, however, always faced opposition from the United States. Leaders who promoted social reform — and who sought to pull their countries out of Washington’s orbit — became targets of our wrath. By striking down those leaders and supporting autocratic regimes instead, the United States pushed Guatemala and Honduras off the path toward democracy. Today’s refugee caravans are a legacy of those interventions.
In one of the most dramatic political transitions in Latin American history, Guatemala moved from old-style dictatorship to electoral democracy following a peaceful uprising in 1944. President Jacobo Arbenz proclaimed his determination “to convert Guatemala from a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state.” That led him into conflict with the Boston-based United Fruit Company, which owned vast plantations in Guatemala. President Dwight Eisenhower sent the CIA to overthrow him.
On June 27, 1954, after an intense campaign that involved everything from radio propaganda to aerial bombardment, his government collapsed. A few years later civil war broke out. It lasted for three decades and took the lives of more than 200,000 people, most of them Maya Indians. Guatemala has fallen under the sway of drug traffickers and murderous urban gangs. Even trekking two thousand miles across Mexico to be thrown into a border prison, many Guatemalans have concluded, is a better option that waiting to be killed at home.
Honduras has a comparable history. Americans first deposed a president of Honduras in 1911; his sin was borrowing money from European banks rather than from J.P. Morgan. Yet although Honduras remained poor during the mid-20th century, it enjoyed a measure of social peace. That ended abruptly in the 1980s. The United States turned Honduras into a base for the Contra force fighting leftist rule in neighboring Nicaragua. Many who protested were killed by police-sponsored death squads, which had never before been seen in Honduras.
In recent years Honduras, like Guatemala, has been devastated by the return of citizens who fled during the 1980s, absorbed gang culture in Los Angeles, and brought it back home after being deported. A socialist-oriented president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, sought to ease these tensions with social reforms. He increased the minimum wage, poured money into the wretched education system, and encouraged protest against entrenched interests. Even worse, from Washington’s perspective, was his support for other leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Wealthy Hondurans who detested him read signals from Washington. Before dawn on June 28, 2009, a squad of soldiers swooped down on Zelaya’s home, pulled him out of bed, threw him onto a plane while he was still in his pajamas, and flew him out of the country.
In a cable to the State Department — revealed by WikiLeaks — the US ambassador to Honduras called this what it was: “an illegal and unconstitutional coup.” The United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States agreed and demanded Zelaya’s return. Washington refused to allow it. Several members of Congress flew to Honduras to congratulate the new regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who saw the coup as a win over anti-American forces in the hemisphere, became one of its chief promoters. In the 10 years since then, the regime has held power through electoral fraud and has tolerated waves of violence in which dozens of activists, especially environmental protesters, have been murdered.
The US-led invasion of Iraq was not the only American intervention that had terrible consequences. Many others have also ended badly. Not everything awful that has happened in Guatemala and Honduras is the fault of the United States. Nonetheless, we have decisively shaped those countries’ destinies, and so cannot consider ourselves blameless. Babies torn from their families at detention centers along our southern border are the children of our past interventions.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.