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Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration

Author(s):Chomsky, Aviva
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (August 2022).

Aviva Chomsky. Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021. 294 pp. $25.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0807056486.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.

 

It is often disturbing how uncritically economic history tends to treat imperialism and colonialism. (I recently described some of these problems in my review of The Economic History of Colonialism; see Capital & Class 46:1). There are, however, new works of social, political, and economic history that don’t make the repeated errors of eurocentrism and instead use primary sources that give voice to the unheard and suppressed. Historian Aviva Chomsky’s Central America’s Forgotten History is one of these books. It explores the true human costs of interventions that are often justified in the name of “economic development.”

The book basically explains why so many people have been and are immigrating to North America from Central America and how American economic interests led to the invasion, occupation, conquering, and violent suppression of peoples and societies in Central America. Importantly, it restores and re-centers the memories of witnesses of these events.

The first section discusses how memory suppression favors certain economic and political goals, and outlines the major markets (coffee, bananas, etc.) and the central role of anti-communist Cold War rhetoric in these American interventions. The second section looks at each place and episode of crisis and economic imperialism (from roughly the late 1800s to 1990s): Guatemala (ch. 4), Nicaragua (ch. 5), El Salvador (ch. 6), and Honduras (ch. 7). Chapter 8 looks at Central American solidarity in the United States. The last section looks at what happened in Central America the last forty years in light of American foreign policy, from the neoliberal program of Ronald Reagan’s administration to the immigration restrictions of Donald Trump’s.

Chomsky highlights the “Good Neighbor Policy” in Guatemala during the 1930s and its connections with the New Deal. “Too much democracy had allowed workers, peasants, and the government to challenge” US corporations; “United Fruit discovered that it was much more profit to do business with a dictator than with a democratic president” (p. 46). Furthermore, with the rise of Soviet communism, “Cold War counterrevolution targeted not only communism but virtually any movement for social change” (p. 46). The military dictator Jorge Ubico “subjected Indians to forced labor,” “provided tax exemption for the United Fruit Company and [invited] the United States to establish its first military base in the country” (p. 48). By the 1950s, most of the country’s exports went to the U.S. When the country elected a reformist (who proposed to outlaw forced labor, redistribute land, and grant rights to peasants), the America CIA orchestrated a violent overthrow of the government in 1953-54, and purged the land of “communists” (anyone who resisted, unionized, or refused to work for private capital). Investors wrote the economic laws; American oil companies wrote laws for drilling, the Bank of America revised the bank code and opened branches in the country and government loans were granted to buy products from General Motors. “For US businesses …the coup brought magnificent windfalls” (p. 76).

Then came big economic shifts. “First came the cotton boom…For peasant farmers, cotton meant eviction…forced recruitment through debt and low wages…child labor,” etc. (p. 54). Then came the “beef boom,” which created few jobs but absorbed massive amounts of land—all while the population exploded in growth. While multinational companies profited, these changes caused mass malnutrition for Guatemalans and economic servitude; “by the early 1980s, all five Central American companies held debts significantly larger than their annual earnings” (pp. 56-57). The people resisted by forming economic cooperatives and latched on to Liberation Theology amidst their Catholic tradition and offered an alternative society. “They established hospitals, health clinics,” training programs, and other essential services that the “free” market failed to produce (p. 83). The U.S. tried to train Guatemalans to invade Cuba on their behalf, but this effort failed miserably. Meanwhile, factories continued to be built for textiles, canned foods, soda pop, shoes, where workers were “surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by armed men and police dogs, and patrolled inside by armed supervisors” (p. 85). When the people rose up in revolt in the late 1970s to 1983, the government enacted scorched-earth violence, massacres, executions, displacement, and genocide of indigenes (pp. 90-94)—and then facilitated a civil war. Although military aid from the US officially ended in 1977, the country has not recovered from such trauma.

In Nicaragua, the US occupied the country for most of the first third of the twentieth century, to ensure that no other country built canals for competing economic trade. In the late 1970s a revolution led by the Sandinistas rose up against the Somoza family dictatorship and gained control (p. 99). Chomsky writes that the Sandinista government, despite armed opposition, got off to an impressive start:

“The gains of the first years of the revolution were close to astonishing. Land reforms transformed the agricultural structure and increase productivity, both in basic grains like corn, beans, and rice, and in exports like sugar and coffee. The population was eating more—significantly more—and imports of basic grains dropped close to zero. Public health campaigns reduced or eradicated malaria, polio, measles, and tetanus, and the infant mortality rate dropped by a third. Hundreds of new schools were built… [the revolution had] extraordinary mobilization, voluntarism, flexibility and optimism.” (p. 105).

Conservatives in the U.S. sought to take Nicaragua back and get its people, institutions, and land working for American capital. Chomsky carefully explains how Reagan fought hard during his Presidency—on behalf of investors, and against Congress and public opinion—to cover up his administration’s illegal war against Nicaragua.

In El Salvador the coffee industry had long exploited workers, much as it had in Nicaragua. American companies moved in during the 1960s. “When the country implemented the first rural minimum wage in 1965, coffee planters responded by simply expelling peasants from their plantations. The cotton, sugar, and cattle revolutions after WWII concentrated more fertile land in the hands of the oligarchy and further squeezed El Salvador’s peasants…” (p. 125). The country suffered decades of civil war, regime change, and constant U.S. intervention.

Honduras was arguably the training ground for these economic programs, and in the 1980s it was literally the training ground for the U.S.-financed contra rebels attempting to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (Thus the nickname “The USS Honduras.”) In addition to special economic zones, neoliberal land reform in the 1990s privatized the real estate market and essentially removed collective and cooperative lands from the people so that private companies could monetize the palm oil market (pp. 156-57). In familiar fashion, a leftist, socialist-oriented President was elected by the people in 2005 and then deposed in 2009 in a coup that Chomsky describes as western- and U.S.-backed. Thereafter, free-market reforms created mass poverty (66%) and doubling of unemployment (p. 161). Foreign investors, however, profited well—which would seem to have been the point.

By the end of the book, it is all too clear why so many people from Central America are moving North, and why Trump’s “shithole countries” remark about some Central American (as well as African) countries actually points to the legacy of American imperialism. It’s also clear why few in America want to remember this legacy.

Central America’s Forgotten History is similar to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and Jonathan Katz’s Gangsters of Capitalism, both of which look at the devastating effects of American economic interventionism in Central and Latin America. Chomsky gives more attention to the role of the Catholic Church, social repression, and provides a sweeping, lucid narrative summary of this history. Given the effects and sheer scale of these interventions, they deserve recognition not just from political and social historians, but from economic historians as well.

 

Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century