Film review: Harvest of Empire

Harvest of Empire will be showing at the Gene Siskel Film center through April 24. Click here for screening times and tickets.

“We are all Americans of the New World and our most dangerous enemies are not each other, but the great wall of ignorance between us.” – Juan González

This is a quote presented at the end of the new film Harvest of Empire, based on the book by Juan González, who has been a journalist and author for thirty years. The aim of his book and the film based on it is to bring to light the ways in which US policies in Latin America contributed to emigration from those countries to the United States. As González said in a part of his interview, the ‘harvest of empire’ is the “major migrations [that] come from countries that the USA once dominated and even occupied.” The intention of Harvest of Empire is to educate the US public about that history in order for them to be better informed and empathetic, especially in regard to their opinions regarding US immigration policy. As González states in the film: “the greatest danger we have is ignorance.”

The film is structured into sections that are each about one country or territory—Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and El Salvador—providing overviews of the more salient aspects of those places’ relationship with the United States. This includes various occupations (e.g. Dominican Republic, 1916 and 1954, etc.); assassinations (DR’s dictator Rafael Trujillo, etc.); coups (e.g. Guatemala 1954, etc.); clandestine, questionable and/or exploitative military and economic policies—and overall, the protection of US interests over those of Latin American peoples and more. To provide a summary of the significant and seldom-told histories outlined in Harvest of Empire would be an arduous task, but the film does great job of doing in less than a couple of hours.

The film cuts archival footage and notions by Juan González from his book with several dozen interviews. The interviewees are people ranging from scholars, writers, artists, activists, historians, journalists and political figures to people who lived out the some of the consequences of US interference in Latin American countries and experienced a subsequent migration to the United States. The range of perspectives that this assortment of people gives the audience of Harvest of Empire a more comprehensive and personal look at the historical events, making its audience empathetic to their experiences both as Latin American people affected negatively by US policies and as immigrant people in the USA. On the other side are a few interviewees that gave the US perspective, such as a sobering post-WII mentality of the US government in regards to Latin American, which was summarized by Robert White, the US ambassador to El Salvador during its civil war.

Though much of the US-Latin American history in this documentary is presented in typical history book manner (i.e. focus on rulers, large political or military events, etc.), of equally immeasurable importance was the gathering of personal stories and experiences of people who had lived in these various Latin American areas during turmoil and, for one reason or another, emigrated, fled or were exiled to the US where they (legally or illegally) lived and at times faced hardship and discrimination, but also safety and prosperity. Together these interviews and historical facts presented in this film provide uncomfortable truths about the experiences of Latino peoples not only in the United States but also abroad due to US foreign and domestic policies.

For example, in the first section about Puerto Rico, poet & lawyer Martin Espada makes a strong point about the “imposition of US citizenship”, emphasizing the irony that this was done “just in time to draft 20,000 people and send them to fight in WWI” while living in a territory in which they were not allowed to vote for governor and where the official language of courts and schools was English. Beginning with Puerto Rico’s history with(in) the United States was an excellent choice on the filmmaker’s part because that island’s relationship is paradoxically the most established and the most complex. The island’s history makes more apparent the benefits for some and the high, often violent, costs for most people within a Latin American nation in bed with the US.

There is much information in this documentary that complicates the often unquestioned ideals and moral superiority of American exceptionalism, multinational corporation power, and economic and political dominance of the US (which perhaps could have been better historicized as post-Monroe Doctrine, paternalistic policy). The film covered a lot of ground and did so well, but it could have also benefitted from adding a big more recent history, perhaps related to the Drug Wars and contemporary economic relationships in the Americas. Even so, the film makes the strong case that the actions the US government and military in Latin America has and continues to directly contribute to migration from Latin American countries. Not to mention that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz put it: “We [in the US] actually make immigration a more horrific experience than it needs to be.”

Though the movie’s tagline is “The untold story of Latinos in America”, many of those who have studied Latin American history or the vast and powerful role of the US and of multinational companies in so-called third world countries will be familiar with much of the information in Harvest of Empire. However, the film serves as a good refresher course for those of us who are familiar with that information, especially since it is replete with fascinating interviews and perspectives as well as archival footage. The apparent intended audience of this film is people living in the US who don’t have this kind of knowledge—specifically those who hold strong anti-immigrant sentiment and a narrow view of US history. The idea is that if people only know of these stories, they would have more empathy for the people who can find more safety and a better life in the United States. “Once they have the facts, they rarely let injustices stand.” At the end of the day, US policies—ranging from naïve and well-intentioned to self-serving and heartless—hold a large amount of responsibility in creating and facilitating instability and poverty in other countries, thus the USA has a responsibility to those people its government and military made unsafe in their own countries and to those who emigrate to the United States—and this is true not only in Latin America, but around the world as well.

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2 thoughts on “Film review: Harvest of Empire

  1. Great documentary if you are interested in how we embroiled ourselves in the affairs of others. In Latino country’s and now in the middle east we stomp in like bullies stealing lunch money, with no concern for who starves. We do all in the name of PROFIT, we became complicit in installing dictators, and tyrants that have raped and pillaged people who had no defense. Then in our entitled attitude we wash our hands of the dirty affairs, and try to lay the wrap on the CIA puppets whose depravity and greed match only those who set them up in the first place. Every American should watch this…

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