VP Harris Misses the Point on Guatemala and Immigration

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By Quentin Choy

June 9, 2021

Vice President Kamala Harris recently went on her first foreign trip as vice president to Mexico and Guatemala to deal with the issue of migration and asylum seekers from the region. Harris echoed already existing migration policy saying that those who tried to cross the U.S. border would be turned away and would need to enter the country through legal means.

She was direct and blunt in telling migrants “do not come.”

While Harris and the Biden administration discussed the issue of corruption in Guatemala under its president, Alejandro Giammattei, corruption is not an issue endemic to Guatemala, nor is it a major cause in large numbers of emigrants from Latin America, which according to Axios is at the highest rate since 2006.

According to The New York Times, the Biden administration plans to invest “$48 million in entrepreneurship programs, affordable housing and agricultural businesses in Guatemala, part of a four-year, $4 billion plan to invest in the region.” Private companies like Microsoft and Mastercard will also invest in economic development in Latin America.

While this is good, it is not enough. Biden-Harris missed the point of why so many people are fleeing Central America. The lack of state governance and power of drug cartels essentially turn the region into a warzone.

Decades of U.S. interference in Guatemala and nearby countries such as Nicaragua, Panama, and Cuba have destabilized much of Central America. In Guatemala itself, a CIA-backed coup deposed Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz, a leftist modernizer.

In fact, Guatemala was the clearest example of U.S. intervention justified by the protection of U.S. economic interests. With the interests of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) at stake and with the Dulles Brothers both having worked for UFCO, their positions as both the Secretary of State and CIA Director propelled this intervention to the forefront of American foreign policy priorities. The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala said that Arbenz “talked like a communist, thought like a communist, acted like a communist, and if he is not one, he will do until one comes along.”

President Arbenz, a modernizer, legalized the Communist Party in Guatemala, passed land reform which aimed to distribute over 1 million acres of land to peasant families, and was prepared to expropriate 234,000 uncultivated acres of UFCO land. The planned expropriation of UFCO land was the inciting factor for CIA intervention in Guatemala and the eventual overthrow of Arbenz.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was toppled by the United States.

Lies about Arbenz spread through the country, with many now believing he was going to ban Catholic Holy Week, exile the archbishop, and force young children into reeducation centers. After Arbenz realized that he would not be protected by his military, many of whom were anti-communists, Arbenz handed the presidency to Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz who stepped down and was replaced by Castillo Armas and his military junta, who would reverse Arbenz’s reforms and would be friendly to American economic interests.

The reversal of Arbenz’s reforms disillusioned poor and indigenous Guatemalans to their government and sparked guerilla resistance which killed around 200,000 people and destabilized the region while decreasing trust in the Guatemalan state. This intervention clearly showed the justifications of anti-communism, protection of U.S. economic interests, and started a pattern, demonstrating that interventions decrease faith in the government and prevent necessary reforms to improve Latin America out of fear of being labeled a communist by the United States. 

The current state of Central America is much a result from American foreign policy in the region, especially in a Cold War anti-communist lens. The continued interference in Central American politics and the fear of U.S. involvement if governments sought leftist economic reforms discouraged the region from economic independence, industrialization, and political strength.

This is the point that Vice President Harris and the Biden administration miss when they simply tell migrants “do not come.”

The U.S. must do more than investing in small communities and entrepreneurship programs but must enact a new Marshall Plan for Central America like the U.S. did for postwar Europe. Much of the Marshall Plan’s justification was to reestablish Europe as a trading partner and as a viable home of democratic rule.

The Marshall Plan for Europe. Courtesy of CoVstat.

The same can be done for Latin and Central America, and investing in these communities while maintaining a vigilant eye on corruption can transform the region and drastically reduce the need to leave the region and emigrate to the U.S.

Image Courtesy of Politico.

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