From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.

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U.S. Building Blocks of the Border Crisis
by Shontina Vernon

So much of the rhetoric surrounding those attempting to cross U.S. borders has sought to criminalize them rather than contextualize what is happening in the countries — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua — from which they are seeking asylum. This isn’t an accident.

Corporate interest in the continued expansion of the privatized prison system has given us a voracious appetite for consuming our own and others. Somehow, though, we find it easier to metabolize a steady diet of narratives absolving us from complicity and responsibility than to face the truth. When it comes to the present border crisis, this country can’t claim innocence. In fact, we’re the reason many of these immigrants are here.

And when I say we, let me be clear: I am an American, but I am also a Black, queer woman — and these are the very same oppressive tactics that have been used to suppress the communities to which I belong. I stand in solidarity because I must. I understand that my liberation is tied up in the fate of those immigrant families.

What follows is a non-comprehensive list of efforts the U.S. has led to destabilize their homelands, helping to create the conditions for these mass departures.

El Salvador. The civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s was largely one of farmers and working-class folks trying to gain higher wages and better working conditions, not to mention protections against a harsh government that favored the wealthy. (Sound familiar?) Much of the working class was repped by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). To suppress the voices of the poor, the U.S. backed, trained, and armed the El Salvadoran government for a war that resulted in a massacre of more than seventy thousand, with the government responsible for 95 percent of those deaths. This war formed the basis of the country’s tenuous present conditions, including its internally displaced population. Today, El Salvador has high rates of violence linked to the suppression of its justice-seekers; it’s also one of the most dangerous places for girls and women in the world.

Ah well, that’s just how we do.

Guatemala. We made our landing in Guatemala in 1954 with our CIA-launched effort to remove Jacobo Arbenz, the country’s second democratically elected president, after he succeeded in passing the Agrarian Reform Law, which distributed unused land larger than 224 acres to peasant farmers and compensated them for their stewardship with government bonds. More than five hundred thousand people were aided by his program, many of them indigenous folks who had been “dispossessed” after the Spanish Revolution. Yeah… we didn’t like that. The United Fruit Company — you’ll learn more about them in a moment — lobbied to have Arbenz overthrown, and the U.S. didn’t disappoint. We installed Castillo Armas, a mercenary with a history of doing our dirty work, in his place. Forty years of civil war followed with over two hundred thousand (mostly indigenous) people killed.

Starting to be a running theme here, huh?

Honduras. Honduras really hasn’t had a stable government since it gained independence in 1840. Power has passed from dictator to dictator, all while the country has been engaged in conflict with its neighbors Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Back to United Fruit Company: as early as the 1930s, they owned not only half of the land in Guatemala, but also 10 percent of the land in Honduras, and a total of 3.5 million acres in Central America. For more than forty years they controlled many of the railroads, land rights, and agricultural systems.

In the 1970s, overcrowding in El Salvador led Salvadorans to start migrating to Honduras (which is five times bigger), resulting in tensions between the two countries and between the wealthy and peasant classes. In 1974, newly installed President Oswaldo Arellano, in an effort to aid Hondurans, returned expropriated land from United Fruit Company to the peasant class, stating that it had been given under dictatorship. UFC lobbied the U.S. government to intervene, and… how could we not? We pushed Arellano out as soon as we could, and installed a puppet.

Honduras became a proxy U.S. wall against communist encroachment in the region, in exchange for American money. Thousands of “subversives” — environmentalists, activists, journalists, and union organizers — have been killed, silenced, or detained.

Mexico. It’s no secret: the U.S. likes its drugs. We’re the world’s biggest consumer. And where do we get the product? Mexico — at least it’s a huge point of entry. (I’ll just slip in here that the legalization of marijuana in the U.S. would reduce some of that demand from Mexico.) This may sound like the best possible argument for a border wall — except that we were also responsible for training the greatest drug cartel in Mexico’s history. It started as a paramilitary force, trained right here, and went on to make annual profits estimated at between $19 billion and $29 billion. While the price of cocaine has gone down considerably, our spending on the “war on drugs” has gone up. You know why? We’ve got military ops on both sides doing plenty of dirty work. And that’s how we like it. The billions of dollars we spend each year in our media-friendly drug war hasn’t really helped one bit.

What it has done is turn the appetite for drug gangs, in an effort to meet supply and demand, onto Mexico’s civilians. Sons and daughters are being forced to participate or suffer execution, and we wonder why we have mamas and babies at our border.

Nicaragua. Anastasio Somoso ruled Nicaragua like a pimp for forty-three years with unconditional support from the U.S. I’m talking killing, raping, and torturing Nicaraguans with complete impunity. The minute the Sandinista Revolution overthrew Somoso in 1979 and began implementing a government centered on social programs to elevate the poor — making sure everybody could read, had adequate healthcare, understood government, and upheld gender equality — we were ready to throw down. Courtesy of Ronald Reagan, the CIA showed up to save the day, which is to say destabilize any efforts by the Nicaraguan people to sustain democratic process. We mined their ports until they were bone dry. And when we were ordered to pay reparations, we were like, “Nah, we don’t recognize the international court of law.”

Today, Nicaragua has descended into violence as people protest social security reforms amid calls for President Daniel Ortega to step down. Per our State Department spokesperson, “attacks on peaceful protesters are unacceptable.”

Someone should tell that to Donald Trump. In each of these instances, land rights and the rights of the poor have been the inciting themes for U.S. involvement. We aren’t capitalist-imperialists for no reason.

So yeah. Turns out we do have a debt to these people who arrive here after we’ve participated in leaving their countries in disarray. This has been the American approach to “democracy” all over the globe — at least where Black, Brown, and Indigenous people live.

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Shontina Vernon is a writer/filmmaker/musician currently based in Seattle, WA. She also serves as Creative Director of the Visionary Justice StoryLab.