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What is the source of misery that drives migrants to brave the journey to the US?

“We came to work. I know I’m not getting asylum because they don’t give you asylum for hunger,” a young migrant from Honduras told a reporter. “But us on the caravan would rather die fighting than sitting in Honduras waiting to starve or be killed.”

A history of US intervention

These stark words show the desperation of thousands of people, half of them women and girls, who have recently fled Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. What could force so many people to leave home and everything they know for a future that is uncertain at best? The history of US intervention in Central America largely supplies the answer.

Guatemala: coup,
civil war, climate change

In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup against the government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz. A 36-year civil war ensued, during which the US militarily aided one bloody, right-wing regime after another. Each has conducted a genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples, who are the majority of the population.

During the war, more than 200,000 people were killed and another 43,000 “disappeared.” More than 80 percent of the victims were indigenous Mayans. Prosecution of the main military and political figures responsible for mass murder is still rare 23 years after peace accords were signed ending the war.

Half of Central America’s people live in poverty. Global warming, caused mainly by carbon emitted by richer countries, is leading to drought and crop failures and making the situation even more dire. With hunger common across the region, Guatemala has one of the world’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition.

A new political upheaval is in the making today. Guatemalans take a dim view of President Jimmy Morales trying to escape corruption charges by creating a constitutional crisis.

The legacy of exploitation in Honduras

The US has dominated tiny Honduras since the early 1900s, when the author O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” to describe countries run by tyrannical regimes on behalf of US fruit companies.

During the 1980s, Honduras was used as a base for counterrevolutionary warfare directed by the US against El Salvador and Nicaragua. It still houses US military bases designed to guard against rebellion anywhere in the region.

Honduras is the most impoverished and underdeveloped nation in Central America. Gang violence, drug wars and corruption are commonplace, and the country is notorious for having the world’s highest murder rate per capita. More than half a million of its people have been affected by severe drought.

In November 2017, Hondurans rose up against Juan Orlando Hernández’ theft of the presidential election, rubber-stamped by the United States. Hernández, who also “won” a fraudulent election in 2013, has consolidated his power over the judiciary, armed forces, and legislature. He has slashed social services, privatized public property, doubled the police budget, and sent military patrols into the poorest neighborhoods.

During his presidency, murders of LGBTQ advocates and other political activists have increased. Among those killed is Berta Cáceres, a renowned indigenous environmental leader.

In El Salvador,
no relief from violence

El Salvador is one of the many Latin American countries that the US for decades ruled by proxy through brutal generals and dictators. Resistance to repression and a 1979 coup spawned a devastating 12-year civil war, complete with death squads terrorizing civilians and strong US backing for the murderous Salvadoran government.

El Salvador today is scarcely less violent than during the war. Los Angeles Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) Organizer Karla Alegria, who recently visited her home country, reports, “Ruthless gangs rule supreme in certain places where safety from them is measured block by block. Gang membership is not necessarily voluntary, as many are forced to join under threat of death or injury.”

Women’s rights are taking center stage in El Salvador, where the Catholic Church and fundamentalist Protestantism are highly influential. Abortion is illegal, and women are jailed even for miscarriages. The rate of femicide is appallingly high, with domestic violence and murder largely ignored by the justice system. Last summer, women protesting domestic abuse and rape picketed outside the attorney general’s office with banners reading, “It’s not a crime of passion, it’s a crime of patriarchy.”

In solidarity with migrants, against the right-wing barrage

The Trump administration has aimed all its “national security” weapons against the current migrants whom the president infamously describes as a looming “invasion” of “drug dealers, criminals and terrorists.” He is also notorious for the Dec. 11 press conference at which he declared, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security.”

Trump’s government is tightening immigration laws, separating children from parents, stalling asylum procedures, and detaining and deporting people at breakneck speed. His actions are helping to exacerbate tension in Mexico over limited economic opportunities for Mexican workers and the poor who, despite everything, have been admirably kind and supportive to thousands of hungry migrants. Support was strong in southern Mexico, and individuals and organizations have offered aid in Tijuana.

Across the US, large and small solidarity protests have taken place, including at the border. A number of progressive religious groups and legal and social service organizations are providing the refugees with assistance and battling daily with immigration judges and bureaucrats.

Seeking a place simply to live

As part of these efforts, FSP activists Val Carlson and Norma Gallegos spent several days in January working with the National Lawyers Guild and the Border Rights Project of Al Otro Lado. They write, “We were profoundly moved by the determination of the migrants to find a place in the world where they could simply live, raise their children, and do productive work without fear and harassment. ”In a world with economic democracy—socialism—people would migrate by choice, not compulsion. In a capitalist world, however, profit governs all. The ruling classes of richer nations have gained their wealth by plundering the less developed countries, whose people leave not because they want to, but in order to survive.

On the streets, at the border and in the courtrooms, battle lines are being drawn between human rights warriors and those who back the privileged. The times are calling out for labor organizations and social justice movements to join together to fight for the rights of migrant workers and their children.

Reprinted with permission from the Freedom Socialist, February 19, 2019.  For more information, see “Volunteering at the Border” at


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