June 14, 2021 | revcom.us
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Guatemala on June 7 to deliver a stern warning to people desperately seeking refuge in the U.S. from hunger and violence: “Do not come! Do not come! The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders. If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”1
Harris’s threats came somewhat dripping with crocodile tears—fake sympathy for refugees and “concern” about “the dangerous journey” to the U.S., all wrapped up in empty promises of making things better in Guatemala so that people would not have to leave.
Let’s look at the reality behind her words.
Why Are People Fleeing Guatemala?
Harris acknowledges most people don’t leave their homelands unless they are “fleeing some harm or they simply cannot satisfy their basic needs.” But her words outrageously understate the reality: that straight-up starvation is stalking Guatemala and neighboring countries, especially for indigenous peoples in the highlands who live by subsistence farming on small plots of land and/or by working as laborers on big plantations.
Guatemala has long been marked by oppression, impoverishment, and genocide against indigenous peoples. Now climate change and other factors have created a severe agricultural crisis. A National Geographic journalist described the situation in the highlands in 2018, which has gotten only worse since then:
Eduardo Méndez López lifts his gaze to the sky, hoping to see clouds laden with rain. After months of subsisting almost exclusively on plain corn tortillas and salt, his eyes and cheeks appear sunken in, his skin stretched thin over bone. The majority of his neighbors look the same.
It’s the height of rainy season in Guatemala, but in the village of Conacaste, Chiquimula, the rains came months too late, then stopped altogether. Méndez López’s crops shriveled and died before producing a single ear of corn. Now, with a dwindling supply of food, and no source of income, he’s wondering how he’ll be able to feed his six young children.
The article describes a nun riding a donkey from village to village, providing food for children of “families too poor and weak to seek help.” She says, “These children have so many health problems that are compounded by severe, chronic malnutrition. Their hair is falling out, they’re unable to walk … you hear about many cases of children dying from malnutrition. They don’t even get reported to the news.”
This nightmare is being repeated throughout Guatemala, which now has the world’s sixth highest rate of chronic malnutrition. In some areas, 70 percent of children are chronically hungry. Families go days without eating; they watch children starve to death. “I came because we didn’t have anything to eat,” said a crying 12-year-old boy who had made it into the U.S.
Why Are Conditions So Desperate?
Mainstream news coverage of Harris’s trip echoes her promise that the U.S. will help dig up the “root causes” of immigration. The words “corruption,” “injustice,” and “poverty” are repeated, as if they were natural conditions of the region.
But here is the plain truth that is being covered up: The root cause of the humanitarian catastrophe gripping tens of millions is the U.S. and the system of capitalism-imperialism that it sits on top of.
Nearly 200 years ago,3 the U.S. claimed the whole Western hemisphere as its backyard. In 1904, it explicitly proclaimed its “right” to exercise “international police power” and intervene in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Ever since, the history of this region has been one of U.S. invasions, coups, and other actions aimed at crushing any government, leader, or social movement perceived to threaten U.S. economic or strategic interests.4
In the early 1950s, Guatemala elected Jacobo Árbenz as president. When Árbenz tried to distribute unused land belonging to the United Fruit Company to landless peasants, the U.S. responded in 1954 by orchestrating a coup overthrowing Árbenz. Decades of civil war followed; U.S. Special Forces and Israeli military helped carry out the murder of 200,000 people, mainly indigenous.
In 1982, the U.S. backed a military coup led by General Rios Montt.5 Montt, who had close ties to Christian fascists in the U.S., unleashed still more horrific crimes—systematic destruction of 600 indigenous Mayan villages, killing 75,000 people. In some attacks, children’s hearts were cut from their bodies and put before their parents. U.S. President Reagan called Montt “a man of great personal integrity.”
The bloody imperialist interventions and brutal, oppressive and corrupt U.S.-backed governments like these are fundamental causes for the situation in Guatemala today: a living hell for so many.
And it is America’s criminalization of immigrants that forces desperate families to risk what little they have and endanger their lives to make the trek toward the U.S.—depending on criminal smugglers, which puts them in grave danger of robbery, rape, and murder.
What About U.S. Aid and Investment?
Kamala Harris promised U.S. “aid” to Guatemala. But U.S. “aid” and investment are part of the problem, not the solution. Decades of U.S. investment have devastated subsistence agriculture in Central America, converting much of the land to production of a few cash crops for the international market. Guatemala now imports staples like corn that it once grew. Peasants became impoverished cogs in the global market, or were forced onto smaller and less fertile plots of land, or driven into the cities or abroad to work in foreign-owned sweatshops. This kind of “development” is very profitable for imperialist investors—but enforces misery on the masses of people.
And capitalist-imperialist “investment” and “development” worldwide have built a globalized economy that is destroying the planet and posing unprecedented dangers to ecosystems of the whole planet and life itself. This climate crisis is leading to unprecedented droughts, hurricanes, and floods that have destroyed the meager livelihoods that people were once able to eke out of the land.6
As to “aid,” according to data from the U.S. Agency for International Development (which oversees U.S. foreign aid), 80 percent of U.S. aid to Central America from 2016 to 2020 went to U.S. companies.7 Aid experts say that about half of that goes to profits, executive salaries, and other “overhead.” “It’s a business,” says one expert, and “the same implementers win the contracts again and again, despite … not showing any level of impact and not changing anything.”
The situation confronting our people in Central America is gut-wrenching. Any decent person should want to act to end this horror. But looking to the leaders of this profit-driven system we live under to solve this problem is worse than useless—it means condemning people to continuing suffering and death.
Biden and Harris may have a different “tone” than Trump and the fascists on immigration—they don’t talk about people coming from “shithole countries” or call immigrants “rapists.” But the reality is that the Democrats and the Republi-fascists are both representatives of this capitalist-imperialist system. The “solutions” that each have for the people desperately fleeing their homes and seeking a means of survival in the U.S. are based on what they think will best protect and advance their interests as exploiters and oppressors.
1. “Turned back” means people from Guatemala (and other Central American countries) who manage to reach the U.S.-Mexico border being refused entry and condemned to years in squalid and dangerous refugee camps in Mexico. Under U.S. law, people seeking asylum have a right to remain in the U.S. until their asylum claims are processed. When Trump held power, he overrode this law, using the pretext that refugees would spread COVID. Biden denounced this when campaigning for president, but now his administration is largely continuing the policy—the only difference is Biden doesn’t turn away unaccompanied minors but incarcerates them in detention camps. [back]
2. This article doesn’t address another major factor driving immigration: terrifying gang violence, which Harris refers to blandly as “fleeing some harm.” This is gone into in a previous article on revcom.us: “Hell in Honduras—American Made.” [back]
5. See American Crime Case #95: Reagan’s Butcher Carries Out Genocide in Guatemala, at revcom.us. [back]
7. U.S. Aid to Central America Hasn’t Slowed Migration. Can Kamala Harris?, New York Times, June 6, 2021. [back]