San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Did we forget the lesson the ‘Greatest Generation’ fought so hard to learn?

Costa Rica’s former President Óscar Arias is correct in his assessment of the cause of the current U.S. “child immigration problem.” The clear takeaway is: If you interfere in the internal affairs of another country you create a responsibility for the outcomes. At least, try not to be shortsighted to the point of repeating past mistakes.

What to do about the existing problem is one issue addressed by some of the commentators. The problem with some of the solutions offered is that unless we understand the root cause correctly, “The Problem” will always be with us. No amount of border security is going to solve it.

During the Cold War, the United States acted as though we forgot the lesson the “Greatest Generation” fought so hard to learn. That lesson was that the insulting and damaging economic policy applied to Germany following World War I, and the resulting social destabilization of that country, were the conditions that allowed Hitler to ascend. That generation knew we should not make the same mistake twice. The result was the Marshall Plan, which turned out to be one of the most productive national investments since the Louisiana Purchase.

But the “Greatest Generation’s” children – my generation – forgot the lesson. From the 1950s through the ’80s, we dabbled in covert, Central American, military and political activities to short-term ends, leaving the “beneficiaries” of our interventions to cope with the results. The article’s photograph of Guatemalan policemen is appropriate. Our interventions there, beginning in 1954, led to the longest and most vicious civil war in the Western Hemisphere. During the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. supported the Guatemalan oligarchs and their army with aid used to perpetuate the existing lack of opportunity within the country. And it directly led to the most horrendous slaughter of civilians since the conquistadores.

Recommended: Guatemalans bury victims of 1982 civil war massacre

Guatemala is the poster child, but those same policies manifested in different ways in Nicaragua (the Contras and missiles to Iran) and El Salvador. Even Costa Rica was not completely immune (see Martha Honey’s book, “Hostile Acts”). For the most part, dictators’ policies in the central and southern Americas were supported by corporate stakeholders and oligarch families within each country. These are the entities with the most to gain and retain by preventing even modest systemic adjustments. Early families took the land from the indigenous, created agricultural wealth and installed a government-based entitlement system that limited opportunity to those same families and their designees. The governments were the families, and they were a pushover for U.S. protection money.

Mayan Ixil Margarita Hermoso attends the wake of victims of a 1982 Guatemala civil war massacre, in Nebaj, Quiché, on July 30, 2014. According to a report backed by the United Nations, the civil war in Guatemala (1960-96) left 200,000 dead and disappeared, with 669 massacres carried out, mostly by state security forces.

Johan Ordóñez/AFP

U.S. covert (and not-so-covert) activities directly prevented Latin American nation-states from making the moderate adjustments necessary to address root causes. The Árbenz administration (pre-1954) in Guatemala is a case in point. Worse, those U.S. activities supported state-sponsored terrorism for so long that the national cultures mutated. They came to expect, if not embrace violence. To paraphrase a national security commentator of the time, the ruling oligarchs and their armies became so addicted to murder as a method of political discourse they could not see any alternative.

It was and is a fertile environment for drug cartels. They even use some of the same personnel, now working for a new employer with (much) better pay. “Civil wars,” ex-President Arias says, “have been replaced by street wars. Mothers no longer cry because their children are marching off to battle. They cry because their children are falling victim to another kind of violence or because they have to send them in search of a better life.” He is obviously correct. The solution is not so obvious.

A Honduran police officer shows part of a batch of weapons in disuse, abandoned or seized from criminal gangs to be destroyed at police headquarters in Tegucigalpa on June 3, 2014.

Orlando Sierra/AFP

The problem highlighted by Arias’ comments may seem arcane and irrelevant to some. After all, we live in a world where the social instability of the United States, due to inequality of opportunity, approximates that of the “Banana Republics” of the 20th century. The same result was obtained in the Soviet Union, pre-1989, when the party oligarchs created similar preferences for themselves. (The oligarch system there has returned in an updated, capitalistic form). Systemic inequality has occurred in most of the developed world.

In the approach to violence, border security may be a short-term political necessity in a politically wracked United States, but let us not kid ourselves. It is not a solution.

Like the tipping point in climate change, the opportunity to turn back the clock on the violence and instability situation may have passed. “Violence begets violence,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., paraphrasing the Gospel of Matthew. It’s folk wisdom, but there is ample evidence that it is true. Another extended and violent crackdown, like the one that created cultures of violence, is not the answer.

There is no obvious or easy correction to the situation, particularly since any approach – even the superficial “War on (fill in the blank)” approach – requires complicated political agreements. More security, though perhaps a short-term necessity, is a mirage of an answer. The “Greatest Generation” had a collaborative approach that worked beautifully when the U.S. was rich enough to fund it. We can’t do that anymore, but the principles apply.

Whatever we do, we must address the social and economic opportunity issues and the interrelatedness of all our peoples, irrespective of borders.

Michael Crump is retired to a small coffee farm in Turrubares, San José, with his wife, Janet, and dogs Rose and China. He writes short stories and novels of the Cold War period in Central America, specifically Guatemala. His short stories have been published in La Revista de Lenguas Modernas (UCR), and are found on his website:

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Dan Adams

I hope this does not come across as too much of a lengthy tirade, but here goes.

At minimum the article is at least historically correct. The US has and does control Central America very tightly. As a type of Neo-Monroe doctrine even more so due to what happened in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, Cuba 60 years ago and even Mexico in their 1917 constitution that was finally acted upon in the 1930s when they nationalized oil and most noticeably created PEMEX. (In the early 1900s US companies owned or controlled roughly 80% of all oil production, gold, silver and copper mines in addition to 70% ownership of the railroads and port authorities in Mexico. As will be noted in the last paragraph below, this is not necessarily defined as evil or bad just because US companies had the capital and the best technology for the time)

Going back to the specifics of Nicaragua. Think about it – No matter how “justified in his heart” and even well meaning Reagan and his inner circle felt about the situation, they consistently and completely lied, mis-appropriated funds, traded and delivered weapons, etc behind the backs of the the entire US Senate, Congress and the American people during the the Contra war and the Iran-Contra Scandal. (Does anybody remember the Boland Act?) Come on, let’s at least acknowledge the facts. Ollie North and Reagan are now heroes but they engaged in treasonous acts. A lot of people have forgotten how close to being impeached Reagan was. Due to his advanced age and early stages of Alzheimer’s it could be reasonably accepted during his testimony when repeatedly said that he “just couldn’t remember” all those conversations with his advisors regarding arming the Contras, building military landing strips in northern Costa Rica, and giving missiles to the Ayatollah of Iran. ( Does anybody really know how and why CRUSA was created? see
It could be said that Russia today is not doing anything different with Ukraine from what we did to Nicaragua in the 1980s. But unlike Reagan, at least Putin isn’t completely and overtly lying to his entire cabinet and Russian parliament.

Regarding the inequality issue………No matter how idealistic the socialists’ experiment, there is always going to be some form of inequality of opportunity. To my mind, the most noticeable example is the rate of change caused by new technology, international wealth patterns and cultural changes that are simply labeled as “globalization”
As an example – the super rich of the international corporate class ( and this is not just the super wealthy of the USA ) are perfectly happy if 50 million Americans are sinking from middle class salaries and status and becoming lower-middle class or even poor as long as new international markets produce 500 million new Indians, Chinese and other Asians especially, that are moving in the opposite direction. Hundreds of millions of Asians are going from poor to middle class to rich due to these changes in technology, production of goods and services and the financial markets. I personally may not like it, but it is what it is.

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Nice job with the analysis Dan, I fully agree wih your point of view.

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Dan Adams

Thank you for your comment, SDPUS. – Dan

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Ken Morris

My first reaction is to say, “And here I thought that the main achivements of the greatest generation were to build interstates for sprawl and make sure their Social Security benefits kept increasing at the expense of later generations.”

However, this is a cheap shot at a very good article and the crucial achievements of the Marshall Plan, which does stand as a glowing (and costly) rare instance of successful US foreign policy. Indeed, this policy mentality applied to Central America could do wonderful things.

Yet I wonder whether there might be a deeper issues here. Was not the mentality that produced the Marshall Plan the same one that produced the intervention in Guatemala in 1954 as well as the those later in Chile, throughout Central America, in Vietnam, etc.?

True, the substance and therefore results of the policies were very different, and that is the important point this article makes, but I wonder if changing substances and results aren’t to be expected. Once you empower a Leviathan to run the world, or said monster takes it upon itself to run it, what control does the world have overhow it is run? I suspect that a bad Leviathan is just as likely, even more likely, than a good one.

Yes, the US could do better than it has been of late, and in fact the US has itself done better in the past, but I have increasing reservations about it doing anything, since the interventionist mentality that justifies this also justifies everything else.

This spring I was flipping through a real estate brochure in a US industrial city in which a large stately home was for sale at an asking price of $10,800. Recognizing that this was BELOW Nicaraguan prices, I asked why. The answer was that the area is infested with drug gangs.

I have to wonder whether the US is in any position to help Central America to fight the drug gangs and all that go with them when it can’t stop them on its own turf, some of which is more third world than the third world. Heck, maybe Central America needs to develop a Marshall Plan to help the US. That is where the drug gangs originate, where the market is for the drugs, and so forth.

I like this article very much, and on the surface agree with it, but just wonder if the assumption of any US intervention might be a deeper problem.

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Does anyone remember the satirical song writer/singer from the 60’s, Tom Lehrer? Well, he totally nailed it with his song Send The Marines – attached here for your enjoyment!

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The sixties are a bit of a memory blur.
That song is the perfect analysis of the physique of US foreign policy. Thanks

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Tyler Wells

While it is true that the United States has often been a nefarious influence; exaggerating our lack of neighborliness so that it seems to be the root of all of Central America’s problems does the millions of Central American’s living in poverty no service. Most of Central America’s problems are endemic and well known to anyone who has lived there. They include: corruption, lack of rule of law, poor education, and the lack of economic opportunity. Similarly, the solutions need to be supported by the United States but can only come from within. We need to generate employment by opening our markets to free competition (what millions of Central Americans have moved to the US for), improve the rule of law, and improve basic, universal education. Without commitment for reform on these matters it won’t really matter what the US does in the region.

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Donald Waltz

I agree with everything that you said USEXPAT but the US does not owe any country anything and everything that happens is the US fault. All of Central America and S. America is corrupt and will continue to be corrupt with or without US involvement so the US should just stay out of their affairs.

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You broke it bought it.
Except when it comes to South and Central America. Here the US keeps shaking the broken pieces on hopes they will re-align themselves.

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Good article, there is no doubt the U.S. has squandered many opportunities in Central America . On the other hand they cannot be the worlds police force, they also cannot be the worlds orphanage, they desperately need border security. No nation in history has been able to survive with open borders.

Unfortunately the U.S. has some huge problems being created by a president that feels he can make his own laws, ignore laws that he does not like, and change laws at his own whim. There is a serious constitutional crisis coming if this president continues to act like a king.

This means the U.S. will be embroiled in their own problems and other parts of the world will have to fend for themselves. The greatest generation fought communism and brought it to its knees. Unfortunately the communist/socialist did not go away, they just morphed into education. The U.S. learned nothing from the greatest generation, and as the story goes “those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” I fear for what is in store for the U.S.

Hopefully someone can restore the Moral character of the U.S. Before it is too late, and show that they indeed have learned from the greatest generation. As it is today Christians are being attacked by the government and media and shunned as radicals or malcontents. There is a movement to remove God from every facet of American life which attacks even one of the most sacred institutions of the Christian religion, marriage. I pray that the politicians come to their senses and realize that the U.S. Was founded on Christian principles and religious freedom and act accordingly.

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Marvelous Marv

Sad to see that we export right wing Christian fundamentalists to Costa Rica who look at the world through a lens comprised of fiction, intolerance and political dysfunction.

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