WASHINGTON — From Honduras and Guatemala they came. Marching and staggering through the rain and heat and sometimes swimming across the tropical rivers of southern Mexico. Faces stoic, but with a strange, passionate silence. Six to seven thousand of them, in a desperate “caravan.”
Officials from the White House to Mexico City called it an “invasion” — and they were right about that — but even Napoleon’s soldiers marching to Moscow in 1812 would have been humbled by this journey of 2,500 miles to dreamed-of redemption in “El Norte.”
President Trump immediately threatened to send the American military to close off the southwest border and to cut off our already tiny aid to countries in Central America. But those officials were wrong about the most important reasons behind this invasion, and certainly wrong about solutions to it.
For these marchers are not the poor, bedraggled men and women they seem. They are not sad. In fact, they are wide awake. These until-recently passive descendants of the great Mayan empire the brutal Spanish conquistadores are now saying metaphorically, as the TV anchor famously pronounced in the movie “Network,” “I’m not going to take it anymore!”
What is happening in Central America is a massive awakening of peoples, inspired by American principles and prosperity but sadly without the institutional structures to realize them.
Our leaders are treating this crisis on our southern border as an economic problem. But at heart, the problem is political: There is no answer to the “invasion” unless those men and women have meaningful representation in their own countries and in the world. And then, and only then, will they stay home.
I lived in Peru in 1964-65, covering all of Latin America from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, and even though John F. Kennedy was already dead, his Alliance for Progress lived on.
From the Inca huts at the top of the Andes to the desperate and dangerous villages of Guatemala, one found sacred pictures of the slain American president. And for the first time in the history of Latin America, governments put up their own money (originally about $2 billion) to modernize their countries from within.
Until then, American policy in Latin America had been almost entirely to overthrow “reformist” governments, fearing they would be too radical, and after JFK’s death, Central America soon fell into war and conflict under corrupt local governments and blood-soaked militaries.
In 1984, I was talking with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the White House after he had led another fruitless commission to study Central America. I asked him: “How has it been possible for a country like the U.S. to have allowed such a poisoned situation to develop on our very peripheries?”
To my surprise, he thoughtfully acknowledged the problem. In his previous 20 years in power, he said, “I do not recall anyone submitting a memorandum saying that the situation in Central America was getting out of control and you’d better do something.” (Besides, careers spent in places like London, Tokyo and Beijing sound more grand than Tegucigalpa, Ahuachapan or Quetzaltenango.)
This fall, Kevin McAleenan, top border security official for the U.S., was sent to the area. He left saying there was no “easy fix” to the problem. (News!)
At the same time, professors at Yale University upset the entire apple cart of immigration numbers, estimating there are now between 16 and 22 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., almost two times more than most demographers had figured.
Even after all these lost years, there ARE things that can be done:
— A U.N. anti-corruption body, known as the CICIG, has been working in Guatemala but came up against the corruption-riddled regime of President Jimmy Morales, who has now refused to renew its mandate.
American officials, once again, just couldn’t make up their minds to support reform. Yet The Washington Post reports that when McAleenan asked a group of coffee producers how to help them create more jobs, one prominent executive told him forthrightly that the U.S. should stand up for the U.N. body because “corruption is the main source of poverty” in the hemisphere.
— The respected conservative economist Richard W. Rahn, writing in the Washington Times this month, strongly advised that the White House should make “financial support conditional on policy changes, rather than funding infrastructure projects that are too often corrupted,” including even the temporary use of foreign judges to try corruption cases.
In the end, one can only note that every great nation has prospered not by looking halfway around the world for fruitless adventures, but by securing the well-being and loyalty of its neighbors. In this case, those neighbors include the very people who share the history of America and whose wait, in their minds at least, is over.