The Central American Child Migrant Crisis and Neoliberalism

Ramiro S. FĂșnez Aug 9, 2014

The livelihoods of tens of thousands of women and children from Central America remain precarious for the month of August. 

President Barack Obama met with presidents Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala on July 25 to discuss the ongoing child migrant crisis; a recent surge in the number of unaccompanied and separated refugee children arriving to the United States from the three violence-ridden, poverty-stricken countries (commonly referred to as the region’s Northern Triangle). The United States Congress, however, currently in the embryonic stages of reviewing drafted legislation to address the issue, convened its annual August recess, further delaying direct action on the humanitarian crisis. 

Startling figures demonstrate the severity of the issue: the total number of apprehensions of child refugees from these countries by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) jumped from 4,059 in 2011 to 10,443 in 2012 and then more than doubled again, to 21,537, in 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports in a recent study. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are not the only Mesoamerican countries affected by the crisis — in 2011, the number of Mexican children apprehended was 13,000, escalating to 15,709 in 2012 and totaling 18,754 in 2013. Most have been deported to their native countries while those who remain under U.S. custody face the likely risk of deportation.

Public concern for the ongoing predicament largely manifested last June, when leaked images of unaccompanied and separated refugee children from Central America sleeping in cages inside CBP facilities surfaced online. Since then, corporate media personalities, high-ranking politicians and neo-liberal non-governmental organizations (NGOs) aligned with the Washington Consensus have kicked around ideas for possible solutions. These include “short-term” reforms proposing tougher transnational immigration policies and “long-term” reforms advocating U.S. investment in Central America in order to “attack the root of the problem,” as Molina suggested during an interview with the Washington Post.

Although many of these aforementioned institutions and individuals have acknowledged the severity of the child migrant crisis, much of their analyses are absent of a broader, systemic comprehension of the problem and its role as a direct consequence of global capitalist imperialism. Many in the Western world have anathematized studying social problems through the lens of anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, in what is known as dialectical materialism, claiming its validity as a socialist theory collapsed alongside the former Soviet Union while cataloguing its employers as “ideologues.” However, most of these analysts have yet to understand why crises, like the ongoing mass exodus of children from Central America, are central to the nature of capitalism and imperialism and how they are in relation with other crises around the world. Oftentimes, they are even unable to make sense of what capitalism and imperialism are in general and the many forms they may take.

What is Dialectical Materialism, Capitalism and Imperialism?

Dialectical materialism, based primarily on the philosophical writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin, is a methodology used for understanding relations in both nature and society and their mutual interactions. It conceptualizes the natural world as an ecosystem of interrelated “processes” in constant motion, rather than understanding them as isolated, stagnant “things.” In essence, a change in one relation will affect a change somewhere else, since they are all interrelated. It also holds that physical, or “material,” conditions in the natural world determine relationships and ideas in society, which are also intertwined and in constant motion. Thus, the universe is composed of internally related “matter in motion.”

In nature, these relationships may be seen on a number of different scientific levels: atoms, cells, bodies, wind patterns, planets, solar systems and galaxies. In society, the same holds true—politics, economics, religion and other socially-constructed systems affect one another. 

How do dialectical materialist analyses differ from traditional methodologies? Since it holds that everything in the world is in constant motion and is interrelated, it allows for a broader understanding of particular topics and includes more information about material conditions and their facilitation of certain outcomes. 

Traditional approaches to examining the ongoing child migrant crisis often focus only on the seemingly “relevant” components of the issue while leaving out other crucial information. For example, while most reports begin their analyses of the issue chronologically from 2011, when migration patterns began to dramatically increase, dialectical materialism searches for the specific conditions that created the crisis to begin with, namely U.S. imperialist foreign policy in Central America under the guise of free-market capitalism. Essentially, the child migrant crisis is in relation with past and ongoing crises also caused by capitalist imperialism. 

Capitalism and Imperialism in Central America

In his 1917 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin discussed how capitalist governments and corporations are driven, by necessity, to maximize profits at home in order to maintain their wealth, forcing them to invest capital in underdeveloped countries with weak economies. Many of these underdeveloped countries often have pro-imperialist governments with loose restrictions on labor and natural resource laws, leaving an open door for exploitation. This behavior is central to the nature of capitalism, since its own metabolic growth depends on the expansion of capital and wealth, regardless of the inhumane outcomes. 

In El Salvador, U.S. imperialism and its need to strengthen capitalist maximization of profits in the country, especially during the 1980s, contributed to the child migrant crisis. During the Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1979 to 1992, U.S. government bodies like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Agency for International Development (USAID) trained, armed and funded the violent right-wing dictatorships of Roberto D'Aubuisson and José Napoleón Duarte, who favored U.S. privatization of the country’s economy. The El Mozote Massacre, which led to the death of almost a thousand civilians who were suspected of being in favor of a nationalized economy, was perhaps the most ruthless example of this. In years following, thousands more were killed, including notable leftist Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero. As a result of the U.S.-initiated civil war, the country sank deeper into poverty, forcing millions of Salvadoran children to move to the United States.

In Honduras, the same may be said of two important events in the country’s history: the United Fruit Company’s exploitation of wage laborers who in response organized the 1954 general strike and the 2009 coup d'état that removed democratically-elected President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales from office. In both scenarios, the United States also trained, armed and funded the country’s military in order to prevent left-leaning forces from nationalizing the country’s economy, which is based primarily on banana and coffee exports. Both events created a number of internal economic, political and social crises within the country, forcing many to head toward the United States, which had and continues to have the means to support itself as a “developed” nation because of its imperialist exploitations abroad. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become one of the most dangerous and impoverished countries in the world.

The same holds true for Guatemala. 

In 1954, the CIA launched Operation PBSUCCESS, a brutal military coup that ousted leftist and democratically-elected President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán from power. Árbenz was guilty of attempting to curb the monopolization efforts of the United Fruit Company and bring the private corporation into public, national control for the benefit of the country’s working class. During the 1980s, when Guatemala was also experiencing a civil war, the United States showed uncompromising support for right-wing dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, who slaughtered thousands of indigenous and socialist activists fighting against U.S. privatization. Both events also forced millions out of the country and into the United States. 

What do all of these events, which have for the most part been left out of mainstream analyses of the child migrant crisis, have in common? They created the material conditions, mainly economic, that led to mass poverty and oppression in Central America, thus further facilitating the need to leave the Northern Triangle and seek a “better” life in the United States, which has yet to be as brutally pillaged by a superior imperial power. 

All of these aforementioned events are dialectically and materially interrelated with the child migrant crisis, which should not be seen as an isolated “thing,” but rather a process that is ongoing and will continue to perpetuate if the conditions that created it continue to stay the same. Capitalism, where the means of production are owned by private individuals with private, profit-maximizing interests, is in its current imperialist stage, as Lenin pointed out, and will continue to create crises like these as long as it continues to exist. 

In attempting to understand crises such as these, one must first be able to understand how capitalist imperialism works systemically and how, as a system of interrelated processes and events, it is responsible for a number of crimes against humanity. The bottom line is this: the child migrant crisis is a direct consequence of our dominant economic mode of production, which creates the conditions for periodic crises many are often unable to understand or point out. 

Ramiro S. Fúnez is a Honduran-American political journalist, activist and foreign policy analyst earning his master's degree in politics at New York University. Follow him on Twitter at @RamiroSFunez.

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