Trump threat to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, will be counter-productive. The refugee ‘caravans’ will not stop, but increase. He will also further alienate the Mexicans, who refuse to pay for the wall along their border with the United States, but who also want to discourage Central American asylum seekers. Can Mexico’s new left-wing president stand up to Trump?
In January 2019 I wrote for Pearls and Irritations of the disastrous humanitarian consequences of President Trump persisting with plans to build his wall, deny processing to asylum seekers from Central America, and separate families trying to get into the US. He has now gone further, threatening to close the border altogether, cut off all US aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and punish Mexico for allowing the caravans to go through Mexico on their way north to the US border.
As many trenchant critics in Washington have noted, including Republicans, closing the border would be disastrous for bilateral trade. Even if only temporary, closure would send many companies broke. It would also be a humanitarian disaster for the thousands of families, both Mexican and American, who work or study or have relatives on one side of the border but live on the other.
This does not appear to phase Trump. Nor does he give any indication in his frequent tweets and pronouncements that he knows about the significance of the Monroe Doctrine – which by giving US administrations the moral sanctity to influence affairs in Central America throughout the 19th century, shaped the economic history of the Central American Republics. If he did, he’d know that the causes of poverty are American compradors who throughout the 20th century induced compliant Central American dictators to protect vast US land holdings, deny farming lands to local peasants and force them to work on the vast banana, coffee and sugar plantations of the United Fruit Company, its forebears and successors. He’d also know that every time a leader with a social conscience appeared and threatened the status quo, he’d be cut down in a military coup. President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was overthrown by a US military-backed coup in Guatemala in 1960; El Salvador’s reformist Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed by military assassins in March 1980; and in 2009 Manuel Zelaya the democratically elected left-wing president of Honduras was deposed.
If he bothered to find out, Trump would also know that many American statesmen, and some women, have been complicit in these actions. Notable among them were Eisenhower’s Secretary John Foster Dulles and his CIA brother Allan, who protected their substantial holdings in United Fruit by engineering the coup against Arbenz; President Reagan who supported military death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s; and Hillary Clinton who as Obama’s Secretary of State, supported the coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.
If it were still relevant, Trump would be attracted to Reagan’s Cold War narrative that peasants slaughtered in Central America were all ‘Communists’, with shadowy puppet masters pulling their strings in Moscow and Beijing. Instead, he demonises the asylum seekers as drug pushers and addicts, rapists and murderers, and even says that the columns of wretched families attempting to gain succour across the border are infiltrated by Middle Eastern terrorists – a classic politician’s ploy to keep Americans scared.
Mexico’s newly elected president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, promises social reform. He wants a secular state, democracy through diversity, cultural freedom, respect for the environment and non-intervention in international affairs according to the Estrada Doctrine. Supported by most Mexican presidents since 1932, Obrador follows this Doctrine in his refusal to fall in line with most other Latin American leaders and condemn President Maduro in Venezuela, as their chorus leader Mike Pence wants them to.
Meanwhile, Obrador supports a $US 5.8 billion job creation scheme for the Central American northern triangle, which is probably far too little too late. He has also reinforced migrant processing centres at Tijuana and other entry points along the northern border. These are gestures to accommodate President Trump. But they are not enough. Will he now meet Trump and try to work out a modus operandi, either to allow more of the refugee caravans to enter the United States or provide them with an incentive to return to their own countries? Like many presidents who have gone before him, Obrador will probably stand up to Trump’s unreasonable demands. He won’t pay for the wall, and he may even remind Trump that many of his political supporters in California, Florida, Texas and Illinois depend daily on hispanic labour.
Richard Broinowski was Ambassador to Mexico, the Central American Republics and Cuba from 1994 to 1997.