THE BLOG
06/24/2014 09:42 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

How US Aid to Central America's Rich Drives Its Poor to Our Borders

Over the last several months, tens of thousands of children have crossed our southern border in a desperate attempt to escape the violence, hunger and chaos that now engulf a large part of Central America.

The children -- traveling alone or in packs led by professional smugglers -- have overwhelmed the border patrol and immigration facilities. Pre-teens and adolescents are stuffed into overcrowded detention facilities while immigration officials frantically try to find relatives in the US to keep them while they wait for deportation hearings. The president has correctly called it a "humanitarian crisis."

Predictably, Republicans blame Obama for being too soft on "illegals," while Democrats blame the Republicans for not passing the president's immigration reform bill.

Lost in this domestic political noise is the role that US foreign policy plays in creating the intolerable conditions that drive the streams of immigration from the south. Ninety-five percent of the children in this latest flood come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- nations that are virtual economic colonies of the United States.

For over 100 years successive American governments have supported the oligarchs and the military chieftains who rule these countries for the benefit of themselves and American corporate investors. The major beneficiaries of US aid and protection dwell in luxury, educate their children abroad and generally live the life of the global rich. Meanwhile, ordinary people are without education, adequate health and legal rights. Their role in this system of crony capitalism is to provide the cheap labor to cut the sugar cane, haul the coffee and bananas, and slave in sweatshops and the kitchens of tourist resorts.

Certainly, US aid also trickled down to hospitals, schools and housing that have helped the poor. And there are the ubiquitous mini-programs to teach the principles of capitalism to people who already spend their lives buying and selling in order to survive. The most important economic program of course was the 2004 Central America Free Trade Agreement that guaranteed US investors access to the US market for goods produced under substandard labor and environmental conditions. Whatever one might think of these efforts, they hardly make up for our support of the oppressive social conditions that keep the people poor and powerless.

The most important political figure in these countries is not the president; it is the US ambassador. Our military trains, subsidizes and indoctrinates the local armed forces and police to assure that those in power will protect the interests of global corporations and their local partners. Whenever, serious change is threatened, the Pentagon and the CIA are sent to rescue the ruling class.

In 1954, when Guatemalans elected a left-leaning reformer as president, the US organized a military takeover. Over the next 30 years the Guatemalan army murdered or disappeared some 200,000 people in that small country.

In 1963 the US toppled the elected president of Honduras who threatened the United Fruit Company's iron grip there. In 2009, the US trained army ousted another reformer. The Obama administration publicly decried the coup, but privately maneuvered to make sure that it succeeded.

In the decade of 1980s, under US guidance, the Salvadorian military launched a vicious "scorched earth" campaign against peasants rebelling against their exploitation, which included brutal massacres of men, women and children in rural villages.

After the Cold War ended, the anti-communist rationale for US interventions was no longer credible. So it was replaced by the War on Drugs, which has justified billions of dollars worth of equipment, training and other military aid to Central America.

The War on Drugs has been an abject failure, in large part because so many of the government leaders who receive the Pentagon's largesse are themselves knee-deep in narco-trafficking. Indeed, the proliferation of guns and the lure of illegal drug profits have made life worse for people who were already trapped in underdevelopment and reactionary politics. Criminal gangs -- with connections to the ruling elite -- have expanded from drugs to extortion, kidnapping and armed robbery. Ordinary citizens of these countries today not only face poverty, but the prospect of violent death. Honduras, for example, flooded with weapons from the Pentagon, now has the highest rate of intentional murders in the entire world.

In a recent visit to Guatemala, I was given an insight into how that society is systematically breaking down. When I first arrived, several people told me that they were afraid to take local buses to work because the buses were periodically boarded by masked men who shot the drivers and robbed the passengers.

A few days later, a young man explained to me that it was now impossible to get a steady job unless you had a connection to one of the five families that ran the country or the military. So, he said, everyone he knew wanted to leave for the US. But the price of a "coyote" to take you across the border is $10,000. And the only place to get that kind of money is to borrow it from the criminal gangs.

Some of his friends did. But with the tougher US immigration policies, they were either caught at the border or if they made it across, deported soon after. Then they were back in Guatemala with no prospects and big debt to some very bad people.

"We want our money now," say the criminal creditors, "or we will kill you. But first we will kill your mother." The only other option is to go to work for the gangs. A typical first assignment is to take a mask and a gun, board a bus belonging to a company that hasn't paid this month's protection fee, shoot the driver and rob the passengers.

This reality is not unknown in Washington. When Vice President Joe Biden met with leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador on June 20, he urged them "to address the root causes of this immigration in the first place. Especially poverty, insecurity and the lack of the rule of law."

Well said. But American officials have said it for decades, to little effect. Biden is talking hope, not policy. In fact there is no evidence that the administration -- and certainly not the Republican leadership -- has any intention of ending the root cause of these "root causes": our support for the corrupt regimes that are driving out their own people. Until this changes -- whatever the fate of Obama's immigration bill -- they will keep coming.