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Deconstructing the US’s Privilege of Forgetting Its Role in Central American Crises

A Q&A with Aviva Chomsky

US-Mexico Border Fence, just south of San Diego, CA, at the Pacific Ocean. From the US side, facing south.
US-Mexico Border Fence, just south of San Diego, CA, at the Pacific Ocean. From the US side, facing south. Photo credit: Tony Webster

She really said that, didn’t she? During her visit to Central America, Vice President Kamala Harris told Guatemalans, “Do not come” because “the United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.” There is a lot to unpack, namely the US’s history of interventions in Central America and the cycle of its neocolonial policies implemented there, which caused the migration crisis we see unfolding today. That’s missing from her statement. Historical amnesia at work. Aviva Chomsky delves into this suppressed history in Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration. Our publicity assistant, Priyanka Ray, caught up with her to chat about it and about Harris’s visit.

Priyanka Ray: In Central America’s Forgotten History, you argue that the US interventions of the 1980s and 90s set the stage for violent unrest and neoliberalism in Central America. How did this, in turn, lead to the influx of refugees seeking asylum today? How else has the US been complicit in creating migration?

Aviva Chomsky: The United States has tried to remake Central America in its own (US) interests and in the interests of US corporations, time after time. During the 1970s and 80s, Central Americans rose up in protest against a system that dispossessed peasants from their land in favor of big plantations and export agriculture enforced by US-supported militaries and police. Nicaraguans won their revolution in 1979, toppling the US-supported Somoza dictatorship. In Guatemala and El Salvador, popular movements and armed guerrilla forces also fought to overthrow the system that left foreigners and small elites in control of their countries’ politics and economies.

The United States intervened savagely to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution and to crush the movements for social change in Guatemala and El Salvador. By the 1990s, a US-supported government was elected in Nicaragua and peace treaties signed in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the path was clear for a full-fledged neoliberal assault. The Central America Free Trade Agreement followed in the footsteps of NAFTA, basically “opening” the economies to US imports, foreign extractivism and megaprojects, maquiladoras (export-processing plants), and tourism.

What makes most profit for foreign investors is exactly the opposite of what the poor in Central America need. Investors want low wages, low taxes, easy access to land, no environmental regulation, and a strong, armed police presence to make sure that workers and peasants don’t get ideas about trying to fight for their rights. That’s basically the neoliberal project.

Central American refugees from the US-sponsored wars started coming to the United States in the 1980s. But neoliberalism is another kind of war against the poor.

PR: You write that, in Central America, “forgetting is layered upon forgetting.” And in the US, we have the “privilege of forgetting” our culpability in producing many of Central America’s crises. What is the “politics of forgetting”? And how has “forgetting” shaped both US and Central Americans’ conceptions—or misconceptions—about Central America’s history? 

AC: People in the United States are taught that our country is essentially good and innocent, and that we go around helping people around the world. When we hear facts that contradict that narrative, we dismiss those as errors or exceptions.

Most people in the United States don’t even know—that is, they have the privilege of forgetting—how many times the United States has invaded Central American countries, how many times we’ve overthrown democratically-elected governments there, how many war criminals and death squad leaders we’ve trained and armed, how many peasants our corporations have displaced, and how much our corporations have profited from US “aid” to Central America and from their investments there.

Biden and Harris claim that they want to address the “root causes” of migration, which they’ve defined as poverty, violence, and corruption. But those aren’t the “root causes”—they are the result of over a hundred years of US imposition of our policies and our goals in Central America.

We can’t go back and undo that history. But if we want to change course, we need to begin by confronting honestly what we’ve done rather than pretending that Central America’s poverty, violence, and corruption have nothing to do with us.

PR: On her recent trip to Central America, Vice President Harris told Guatemalans, “Do not come,” warning them that the US will “continue to enforce our laws and protect our borders.” How do these statements reflect the “politics of forgetting”? 

AC: Harris takes it for granted that “our laws” treat people fairly and “our borders” are something that should be “protected.” But our immigration laws are unjust and discriminatory, and our border was created by colonialism, conquest, and genocide. The militarized border serves to “protect” stolen privilege, stolen resources, and stolen labor on stolen land.

PR: Given the US’s role in creating much of the violent conditions that Central Americans are forced to flee, you point to the need for accountability and restorative reparations. What should restorative reparations look like? And considering Vice President Harris’s controversial statements, do you think the Biden administration will actually take steps towards meaningful accountability? 

AC: Biden has made it clear that he has no interest in accountability. His Plan for Security and Prosperity in Central America emphasizes militarization and foreign investment, and its prime aims are making profits and stopping migration, not helping Central Americans.

Given how much harm the United States has caused in Central America, it’s kind of the height of arrogance to think that now, suddenly, we’re going to come up with the “right” solution and impose it.  But I do have some ideas about ways we could be thinking about restorative reparations.

One.) There is something very concrete that Central America needs from us right now: vaccines. That one’s simple: we have them, they need them. And not, as Biden-Harris have insisted so far, with strings attached, like requirements that Central American governments up their enforcement of US immigration policy.

Two.) We could undo the provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement that privilege corporations over the Central American people. Some aspects of this are very straightforward, like removing the legal privileges the agreement gives to corporations that invest there, or to US agricultural companies that want to dump their products there.

Three.) Central America, like other poor regions, is ensnared in unpayable debts that undermine governments’ ability to carry out progressive social policies. We need to have a debt jubilee.

Four.) Central America, again like other poor regions, is suffering inordinately from the effects of the warming planet. Think drought, hurricanes, floods. And who is responsible for the climate crisis? More than anywhere else, we need to look in the mirror. The United States bears, by far, the greatest responsibility for cumulative emissions—the amount of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere.  We need to stop burning fossil fuels.

Finally, we could open our borders, remove restrictions on working, and raise the minimum wage. That would allow Central Americans to travel freely, increase remittances (one of the most effective forms of foreign aid), and reduce inequalities between the United States and Central America. The purpose of the closed border is to turn the United States into a kind of gated community, hoarding resources and keeping the poor out (while continuing to exploit their resources and their labor).


About Aviva Chomsky 

Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and the coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. The author of several books including Undocumented and “They Take Our Jobs!”, Chomsky has been active in the Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights movements for over 30 years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.