WASHINGTON — Not surprisingly, the “riots” along the southern border this week, with hundreds of Central Americans throwing themselves against the “walls” of the United States, have frightened many Americans.
President Trump says a lot of zany, strange and even stupid things, but — let’s be fair-minded for once — his claim of an “invasion” rings true. Tear gas, employed by the Border Patrol, seems to many Americans to be quite appropriate, but the TV coverage of last Sunday’s assault on the border was so ideological as to be monumentally misleading.
If more Americans understood what was really going on, they would be even more disturbed.
Let’s start by throwing away the two extremes on this border crisis, which are grotesquely deforming much of the coverage.
On the left, with its soppy political correctness, the would-be immigrants are seen as quintessential good fellows, invariably family folks who had an unfairly bad time back home in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. While on the rigid and unfeeling right, these same folks are almost unequivocally viewed as liars, cheats and even would-be murderers.
Oh dear God, let me say a final goodbye to both of these absurdities!
First, the migrants. Only a small percentage of them would qualify for asylum in the traditional sense. Of course, there is terrible violence in that triangle of sad little countries, but that in itself calls only for different political and economic development policies than we are providing.
Most of the horror stories you hear about how our lack of viable border policies distorts and poisons everything and everybody are true. The Washington Post has run long, tragic pieces, including one memorable article about the village of Chanmagua in Guatemala, showing how impoverished mothers sell their babies to smugglers to take north.
Second, the problem is not primarily economic. Yes, these migrants have walked 2,500 miles and suffered intolerably. But one’s sympathy dissolves when one learns from business leaders in Tijuana that they are passing up thousands of jobs available there in the maquiladoras, or Mexican-American assembly plants, in order to get better-paying jobs in the U.S.
The problem, my friends, is at heart political. There has never been any real land reform in Guatemala, and today farmers cannot live on the failing coffee crop. El Salvador, considered the “little Taiwan” of Central America in the 1950s, is now essentially ruled by criminal cocaine-running gangs, its over-the-top population growth forced upon it by the Catholic Church having doomed the country. Honduras’ political class is so corrupt that President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s own brother recently was indicted in Miami for drug and weapon-smuggling — he had used the police, with machine guns, to protect his “products.”
Third, when we get to the roots of the problems behind these caravans, we see these three Central American countries are suffering from the cursed history of the Spanish conquistadores. While the English Pilgrims were voluntarily signing pacts establishing how to govern themselves as they settled in their new homes, the “great” Hernan Cortes was saying, “I came for gold, not to toil the soil like a peasant.”
The situation is getting worse, and not only in the Central American isthmus. With the clarifying events on the American border — this mass movement of people — that triangle of political injustice has become a metaphor and a lesson for the hemisphere.
The brilliant French thinker Guy Sorman wrote a sad article in the Spanish newspaper ABC recently titled “The Future Recedes in Latin America.” The Latin Americans have tried everything institutionally to develop, Sorman writes, and still, most of the continent remains unstable and miserable.
Where to start? The United States could return to the spirit of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy or, even better, JFK’s Alliance for Progress, and use Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras as examples of what creative American policies could do. It would not be so hard; these are tiny countries where Washington has long had great influence, which it has too often used against, instead of for, political reform.
But we have to want to do it, and first, we have to free ourselves of the grotesque extremes and embrace the reality that is, in the end, truth.