Two weeks ago I read Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change, written by professors John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade and Thomas W. Walker. The book provides an overview of the political and economic histories of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Interestingly, the authors chose to leave out the countries of Belize and Panama for the absurd reason that Belize is a British creation and Panama is more South American. While that is true, of course, for roughly two generations most Central Americans (myself included) have considered the two countries to be within the fold — a notion encouraged by the fact that all seven countries have been in the same FIFA confederation since 1961.
During the week I spent reading the book, I accompanied my wife and her mother to the Chicago offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Eighteen years after submitting her application for a green card — with the help of a notary public who either didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t care whom he was screwing — my mother-in-law finally had been granted her interview with an immigration officer. (When she applied back in 1997, the USCIS didn’t even exist, nor did the Department of Homeland Security, both of which emerged in the wake of 9/11.)
I sat in a chair against the back wall of the interview room and let the ladies do all the talking, as I was merely their driver for the morning. The interrogation lasted about an hour, during which a couple more obstacles were placed on the road to permanent residency.
As we got up to leave, the officer asked: “Sir, I’m curious to know what you think of that book?”
I had brought Understanding Central America along so that I would have something to read in the waiting room (good thinking on my part, as it turned out). I told him the book was good enough for a brief summary. He explained that he had recently read the book in an attempt to better familiarize himself with the places and circumstances many of the people he interviews come from, though he admitted he was “disappointed” with the authors’ tone.
I instantly knew what he was getting at.
Throughout their text the professors consistently place much of the blame for Central America’s most recent conflicts and economic woes on neoliberal policies foisted on the region by the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank and the United States, which forced the establishment of the disastrous Central American Common Market in 1960 that drastically altered the economies of Central America and led to collapses in the 1970s.
Along with their condemnation of trickle-down economics, the authors also seem to side with the formerly marginal socialist movements that became more and more popular in the midst of falling wages, soaring unemployment and a series of austerity measures which expanded the gaps in income and wealth. The U.S.-backed efforts to suppress the sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional in El Salvador and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca in Guatemala are denounced for causing most of the blood spilled during the 1980s.
Though the text is unabashedly left of center, it must be said that it is no fault of the professors’ that Uncle Sam has treated his “backyard” far worse than the average homeowner treats theirs. The professors cannot be castigated for pointing out that flawed economic policies adopted under duress in the 1960s led to assaults on the living standards of rural and urban workers, which led to popular leftist movements that were violently resisted in the 1980s by the same powers who had imposed the doomed polices in the first place.
As Understanding Central America went to print in November 2009, the people of Honduras were suffering severe repression at the hands of a cabal that had just overthrown the democratically elected president. Mel Zelaya was illegally removed from office by leaders of the two governing political parties, both generally conservative, who viewed with a wary eye the president’s efforts to his country’s poor by raising the minimum wage by 80 percent and redistributing land to poor campesinos whom had been swindled into destitution.
That’s not the reason for the coup given by the golpistas, of course, who claimed Zelaya was trying to pull a Chávez by extending his presidency — a charge disproved by the fact that Zelda’s proposed referendum, asking Honduran voters if they approved of a constitutional assembly to change the constitution, would have appeared on the same day the voters elected Zelaya’s successor. Not to mention the coup regime — still in power to this day — has recently used its highest court to allow its current president to remain in office past his term, making the coup’s entire rationale irrelevant.
So when the immigration officer expressed to me his disappointment that the authors of Understanding Central America hadn’t presented a more centrist portrayal of the region’s volatile past and present, I had a powerful urge to remind him that the truth, especially in Latin America, often has a leftist bias.