In watching Central American migrants pile up at our southern border, it occurs to me to try to offer some insight into the background, given all of the time I have spent there. I admit my information is dated, but some observations I will offer are timeless.

You may have heard that the migrants camped out on the other side of the fence tend to come from the same three northern countries: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and, to a lesser extent, from Nicaragua. Yet Costa Rica, Belize and Panama are in the neighborhood, but undocumenteds from those countries? … Not so much.

The thing is all seven countries started out pretty much the same way. They were provinces of Spain, run out of Guatemala but lacking the gold or riches of the Aztecs or Incas and pretty much existing on agriculture-based economies.

They all gained independence from Spain about the same time in the early 1800s. Mexico might have had a tenuous hold on the provinces of Central America when it gained independence, but Mexico was busy with a bunch of rebellious Texans and so it let the former Spanish provinces of Central America go their own way.

So why such a disparity in development? I will get there, but first let me tell you a little about my time in those countries.

My first experience goes back to 1964 when I hitchhiked from Mexico City, where I was a student, through Central America to the Panama Canal. I remain grateful for the way I was treated by wonderful, hospitable and often humble people along the way.

Here’s proof: When I started hitchhiking back to Mexico from Panama, I had $1.86 in my pocket. When I got back to Mexico City, I had more than $20 in unsolicited cash. I was well fed, had enjoyed plenty of free lodging and had political discussions with wonderful families that took in a perfect stranger.

A couple of years later, with a new wife in tow, I drove from San Francisco to the north coast of Honduras on a graduate project for the University of Missouri. Wife Ellie and I spent six months near the city of San Pedro Sula, a dirt-poor area now furnishing more than its share of would be migrants. We lived surrounded by extreme poverty, saw authoritarian brutality, underfed kids with distended bellies and a few people getting rich – like the pharmacist charging 50 cents for an aspirin taken out of a big bottle of economy-sized Bayer, and selling it as a cure for dysentery.

In 1977, working for the Associated Press in Manhattan, I was assigned to Panama and we drove the Pan American Highway once again, stopping along the way to look up people that had befriended me earlier and to return a little of their largesse.

Two big stories were unwinding when we reached Panama – the turnover of the canal and the Nicaraguan civil war. The latter led to long stays in Nicaragua, with travels throughout the war-torn countryside.

There also were intermittent visits to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which meant parachute journalism duty covering everything from guerrilla attacks, to presidential and ambassador interviews to assassinations and hurricanes. Then there was the occasional assignment in peaceful Costa Rica or Belize, where nothing much ever seemed to happen.

Which brings me to my first observation about Central America: Early on after independence certain leaders, like Gen. Francisco Morazán of Honduras, dreamed of uniting the region as a republic modeled after the United States.

Morazán headed the Federal Republic of Central America for about nine years, and his dream came to be known as the Five Stars of Morazán. His assassination a couple of years after he was driven out and tried to return pretty much buried any hope of uniting the region.

As each country went its own way, their development began to differ. The three northern tier countries had large indigenous populations, many of whom still do not speak Spanish, and that led to a kind of feudal system overseen by the large landowners backed by the military and, often, the church.

Armies were grown to keep neighbors, workers and Indians in line.

Costa Rica, Belize and Panama followed different tracks. Costa Rica pretty much killed or drove off whatever indigenous population it had; so, unlike its northern neighbors with large labor forces that could be pressed into service to work large estates, Costa Ricans with land had to work it themselves. They banded together to form schools and communities, adopted a U.S. style constitution and, with a few hiccups, democracy flourished. For a long time, Costa Rica didn’t have an army.

Belize too was different. With an English speaking population half the size of El Paso, it was settled by British subjects and became a colony in 1840 when Guatemala began making noises about claiming it. Belize got its independence in 1981, but Guatemala still claims it. The Brits aren’t about to let Guatemala seize the former colony. I saw British military bases equipped with Harrier jump jets and British officers commanding Gurka troops – the fierce little Himalayan mercenaries.

The populations of Belize, Costa Rica and Panama are all highly literate – thanks, in the case of Belize, to a hard-nosed universal British style elementary education system. Panama, after so many decades of U.S. control also had a good educational system. When I was there, the Costa Rican capital of San Jose had more bookstores than most American cities.

This has translated into much greater income for the countries with the highest literacy and democratic traditions. The CIA says Panama and Costa Rica have the highest per capita incomes in the region at about $9,500. It scales down from there with Nicaragua having the lowest at about $1,291 per capita.

So who are the people of the caravans? One thing most of them are not is indigenous people. The Indians of Central America live pretty much as they have for the last millennium, speaking their own languages and surviving on subsistence agriculture.

My impression in watching interviews with the migrants is that these are people who have descended from people who have migrated out of agriculture to the larger towns in hopes of employment. With graft and corruption widespread at the top, and the military watching over dissent, development has been stifled. Layer on to that gangs and the drug trade, and you have a recipe for the humanitarian disaster we are witnessing.

Some migrants are genuinely trying to escape violence, but my bet is that a majority are simply looking for better opportunities.

The problem, as I see it, is the people in power in the three northern countries and Nicaragua are working hard to hang on to their system. A few are very rich by any international standard, while most of the population is mired in poverty.

So if the United States won’t take most of these migrants, what can be done to make staying home more enticing? Three things come to mind – none of which are likely to happen:

1) The rule of law must be imposed, adhered to and respected. Everyone who can must pay a fair share of taxes to support education, infrastructure and development.

2) Developing new sources of employment must become a priority.

3) Corruption must be eliminated. How bad is it? When Anastasio Somoza was ousted from Nicaragua in 1979, it was said that he had a slice of every large business operating in the country. It sure doesn’t sound like things have changed that much. In fact when the Guatemalan congress approved its most recent budget, there were complaints that contracts were doled out to the president’s friends.

If it sounds like the northern countries might be ripe for revolution, you would be right except that the military doesn’t like change unless it is behind it. There was a revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, and it brought a socialist to power who apparently has since decided to rule by divine right “until the people are ready for democracy.” The country is now seeing widespread violent protests against his policies and rule – just like it did with Somoza.

I hate to be Debbie Downer here, but the truth is I don’t see much hope for the situation changing in the near future. I also think we have to be very careful about putting aid money into Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras lest it simply enrich and further empower those in control.

One other thought: The State Department ought to be holding town hall meetings all over the northern countries advising would be migrants what to expect if they arrive at the border without papers and showing photos and interviews with those camped out along the border.

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