CENTRAL AMERICAN CHILDREN WILL CHANGE US
By David Bacon
Social Policy, Fall 2014
"When I heard Father Romero was killed I began to weep," Bishop Bobadilla told me. "I saw that the forces of evil had won. He wanted change, but not through violence. The bitter truth today, though, is that in Guatemala we are still living the legacy of that violence."
Rodolfo Bobadilla was the bishop in Huehuetenango when I last saw him. During the civil war he'd been a hero to poor Guatemalans in the indigenous Qanjobal and Mam towns where the worst massacres took place. He was a friend of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in San Salvador, when Romero headed the church at the beginning of El Salvador's civil war. When Romero denounced the death squads, soldiers from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion charged into the capital's cathedral and gunned him down.
For thirty years I've worn a button with Romero's picture on my old Irish tweed cap -- the one I take with me when I go out to photograph marches and demonstrations. On the other side of the cap I've pinned a button with the face of Jose Rizal, the Filipino revolutionary nationalist executed not long before the U.S. took possession of the Philippines in 1898. Both buttons remind me of the long the history of the American empire, that there have always been people who resisted it, and of the price of their resistance.
I went to Guatemala with my friend Sergio Sosa. His father and mother still lived in Huehuetenango at the time of that visit -- it's where he grew up. But Sergio wanted us to stay in the diocese rather than at home, so we could talk with Bobadilla. He also wanted me to see first hand what his life had been like as a seminarian in the church there. I'm not a religious person really, but I respect Catholics who hold to liberation theology, like Romero and Bobadilla. Sergio was not only brought up in the church -- as a young man he was on his way to becoming a priest. Even today there's more than a little of the priest about him -- the way he listens so intently, his moral certainty, his enormous capacity for beer late at night.
So one morning we were having coffee with Bishop Bobadilla and Father Maco. The evening before we'd spent a long time talking about the civil war of the 1980s, and the fact that the massacres of tens of thousands of indigenous inhabitants of the mountains above Huehuetenango were carried out with guns that came from the U.S., by soldiers whose officers had gone to the School of the Americas in Georgia. Yet in all the talk I felt no anger towards me as someone from the U.S.
Why not? I asked that morning over the coffee. "Because we know you have as little control over your government as we do over ours, probably less," Maco answered. "But you're interested in us. You want to hear about what happened, you know it was wrong and you want to take some responsibility for it. That's true of most Americans, I believe."
Today when I read about the children from Guatemala in detention at the U.S./Mexico border, and see their photographs, I think about what Mario said. It sounds so unbelievably hopeful -- this idea that as people here in this country we want to take responsibility, and recognize the history of all that's happened between us and the people of Central America.
But do we really want to know? How did these children come to be here, after all? And what does taking responsibility mean? It's not just that all children should be valued and cared for with the greatest tenderness and love. You can't get more basic than that. But it's not enough. We need to know why they're here, in such an obviously dangerous and painful situation, enduring separation from their families and the adults in their lives.
I don't expect anything from the vituperative shouts and placards of the Tea Party. One sign in the demonstration that protested busses carrying these children in Murrieta, California, read "Send them back with birth control!" After the Hobby Lobby decision this was probably an unfortunate slip, since it implied that the sign's holder might actually favor birth control, even if only to prevent the multiplication of brown Spanish-speaking children from the south.
But you don't hear much discussion of responsibility or acknowledgement of history in the discourse of our national leaders either. Actually, the more disturbing remarks came from President Obama and Vice-President Biden. The President told mothers not to send their children north, as though they were bad parents. "Do not send your children to the borders," he said. "If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it." He made some acknowledgement of the poverty and violence that impelled them to come despite his warning, but drew the line at recognizing this migration's historical roots, much less any culpability on the part of our government. Then he called the presidents of three sovereign countries -- Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- to Washington to discuss what he wanted them to do to stop the flow. Vice-President Biden traveled south carrying the message that immigration reform is dead, and anyone coming north will be sent back.
Sergio Sosa, after a union election victory in a meatpacking plant.
It's not hard to see the imbalance of power in this imperial relationship. It's always been there. It's so much a fact of life that it merits no mention at all in the pages of our largest national newspapers. But it's obvious to anyone born south of the Mexican border.
To Sergio, migration is not just a journey from one point to another. Migration is a form of resistance to empire. "People from Europe and the U.S. crossed borders to come to us, and took over our land and economy," he points out. " Now it's our turn to cross borders. Migration is a form of fighting back. We're in our situation, not because we decided to be, but because we're in the U.S.' back yard. Not only that, people have to resist to keep their communities and identities alive. We are demonstrating that we are human beings too."
While the faces of the children in detention or caught at the border are all over the U.S. media, one other obvious fact has escaped mention. They are overwhelmingly indigenous youth -- that is, they often come from communities where people speak languages like Qanjobal, that were already old when the Spanish colonizers arrived in the Americas. Even where the language has been lost, as it has been in many communities, the people who spoke it remain. Some of those communities became integrated with other marginalized people, like former African slaves along the Caribbean coast. Today these people of indigenous and African roots make up the bulk of migrants, especially from rural areas.
"Mams and Qanjobales are facing a situation of exclusion," Sergio explains. "Their communities are poor and isolated, which is why they are coming here to begin with." While the young people in detention are mostly looking for family members in the U.S., he reminds us that families are part of a larger social structure. "We're not just individuals. We're communities, with hometown associations, unions and sports leagues. We use our identity, skills and traditions to organize, wherever we are." Even the gangs that have become the media symbol for Central American violence are social organizations. "Of course," Sergio cautions, "not every kind of organizing is positive - coyotes and drug traffickers do the same thing. It's all become internationalized."
When Sergio and I first went to Guatemala together, his plan was to use those international networks to link churches in Huehuetenango to parishes of immigrants in Omaha, where he's lived for many years. Sergio frames his perspective in religious terms, but to me it is also a profoundly human vision, and offers human answers to the migration of children -- and adults as well. "I come from a faith tradition," he says. "Borders are for countries, not for Christians. Faith crosses borders. It says this world is our world. It's for all of us. If you open markets and economies, why can't they be opened to people too? We have to open our own internal borders, and let strangers into our lives."
Sitting in the Huehuetenango diocese, I remembered the first time I thought much about Central America, over twenty years earlier. I was working in an electronics plant in Silicon Valley, where we were trying to organize a union. That activity eventually cost me my job and put me on the valley's blacklist. I thought we were facing the worst the industry could throw at upstart workers -- psychological profiling, massive propaganda, a rumor mill that had everyone believing that you'd be fired if you joined up, and actual firings for those who didn't get the point.
Then I met Ana Martinez. It was the early 1980s, just as the civil war in El Salvador was getting hot. Some friends in the solidarity groups that were just starting asked us if we'd be interested in meeting someone who'd worked in an electronics plant in El Salvador. Maybe we could raise some money and help her out. So one Sunday morning we were holding our regular monthly meeting in a classroom at Sacred Heart church in downtown San Jose. That church and its priest, Father Cuchulain Moriarity, had offered sanctuary to refugees fleeing Chile after the fascist coup in 1973. It seemed like every progressive group met there. When we got our union committee going, we did the same.
Ana was twenty-four when she walked into the room. I've always thought of her as one of the hard ones. She didn't smile much. She told her story in a flat voice, with no flourishes. Her affect was almost unemotional, but this gave her words even more power. And what she recounted shook us.
Ana Martinez, on the picket line with the workers' committee at Cal Spas in Pomona, CA.
"I started as a worker in 1974 in El Salvador," she began. She was 19. Along with a thousand others, mostly women, Ana got a job at Texas Instruments, a giant U.S. electronics company that operated an assembly plant in Ilopango, on the outskirts of San Salvador. Workers in the factory assembled computer chips, spending long hours at benches, peering through microscopes, attaching tiny wires to the circuits.
In 1976 her first son was born, and then another in 1978. The pressure of growing families led many of the assembly workers to begin organizing a union in the plant. "Ninety-five percent of us were women, and our children didn't have adequate supervision," Ana recalled. "We were risking our eyes working with the microscopes, and we had problems with the chemicals." Their fledgling union demanded wage increases, nurseries for the children, and treatment for the workers' deteriorating eyesight. Ana called it a revolutionary union because workers also had a vision of larger changes beyond the problems in the plant. "We learned, not just to fight for our union in the factory, but for a more just society."
Those were dangerous years. Because her union and most others advocated social change beyond bread and butter, the country's generals and business leaders accused them of being allies of the guerilla groups in the countryside. By 1980, many unionists had been killed by the rising death squads, including two from the Texas Instruments plant. In response, Salvadoran unions called a general strike. "On the day of the strike I worked in the calculator department," she recalled. "I kept asking myself what I was going to do, and how I was going to get my department to stop. I thought that if I went to each person and said 'Stop!' they would be too afraid to do it. My compañeros just gave me the job and left it up to me to find a way. A mechanic told me where to find the button that turned the machines off. So I told my coworkers that at 8 AM the strike would start, and the whole country was ready.
"When the moment came, I pressed the right button and all the machines stopped. We looked around and saw that the workers in the other departments had stopped too. It was very emotional, and very scary. The army came into the factory."
The head of plant security walked up and down the rows of machines, a pistol in each hand. Outside, soldiers grabbed two workers who'd come from the printing plant next door to help, and shot them. The next day Ana and her friends from Texas Instruments went to their union office to hold a memorial service for one of the murdered workers. The army arrived and arrested everyone. "They shot up the union office, and two compañeros died that day." She was held by the soldiers for hours, and then fired for helping organize the action.
Three days after the general strike, a death squad sent by Colonel Roberto d'Auboisson entered the national cathedral in central San Salvador, and assassinated Archbishop Romero. The civil war had begun.
Ana's activity made her a target. She decided to leave the country, but felt enormous conflict over her decision. "We had one foot on earth and one foot in the grave," she told our group in the San Jose church classroom. "We didn't know if the next day we would wake up alive. It is a horrible trauma that marked all of my generation. I had small children, and I was afraid for their future. Others were hard enough to be able to say 'I'm here, and here I'll stay.' Many made that decision, and many died. I thought I was more concerned with myself than with the struggle of our people, and I called myself a coward."
The strike took place March 21, 1980. She left the country on April 21, leaving her children behind, hoping to bring them later. When she spoke to our union committee she'd arrived in California just weeks before. After listening to her, many of us joined what later became the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. President Reagan called CISPES a terrorist organization, but we knew who the real terrorists were. We could also see that Reagan's support for El Salvador's military was driven by at least one strong economic motivation -- making the country safe for Texas Instruments, and ensuring that the workers in the plant there had no union. Just like us, we thought. Electronics workers in the U.S. still don't have unions.
The workers' committee at Cal Spas holds a meeting in a Pomona park.
Twelve years later I met Ana again. Both of us found ourselves on a picket line in front of a giant sweatshop in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles. For six weeks we practically lived under a tree at the corner of Ninth and East End in Pomona, from five in the morning until nine at night. For Ana, that tree marked one end of a road that had its beginnings in Ilopango, then took her through the immigrant experience in Los Angeles, and finally led to a job as a union organizer for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), trying to put into practice the same ideals that forced her from her native land.
On Ninth Street, immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America had gone on strike against Pomona's largest employer, the Cal Spas factory. Cal Spas' products are symbols of the good life in southern California, conjuring up images of warm evenings in the breeze on the patio, bathing in a hot tub's warm turbulent water. But the 530 workers who labored in the sprawling factory were far removed from suburban homes with patios and tubs. Earning minimum wage with no holidays or vacations, most lived in cramped apartments. The $5000 price of a spa made it as inaccessible to them as a TI calculator was to the strikers in the Ilopango factory.
Immigrants in Los Angeles and laborers in a Salvadoran maquiladora are all workers on the bottom. They produce the luxury goods they can never hope to own, clean the luxury hotels where they will never stay, and nail up the drywall in the dream homes where they will never live. That was the reality Ana found when she exchanged work in El Salvador for work in Los Angeles. With a little prodding, as we sat under the tree on Ninth Street, she told me what had happened to her after she'd visited us in San Jose.
Her first job was in a garment shop. Sewing on piece rate she was paid $5.00 for a day's work. "I thought, my God, I'll never be able to do anything here," she remembered. Then she got a job as a domestic worker. Cooking and cleaning for a family, she earned more than she could in a garment factory, but still hardly enough to eat. "I carried my clothes and possessions around with me. I would go to the house of friends, who would give me a place to sleep. Sometimes I would sleep in a closet. Sometimes there were five of us sleeping on the floor in a hallway."
She began to get jobs cleaning houses, but that had its dangers for women. She explained: "We were in a strange country where we didn't understand the language, and our culture was very different. When people offered to help us, we didn't know if they were honest or not, and we had such a great need to survive. Sometimes we would go to a certain place, and men, really bad men, would tell us they would take us where there was work. I had friends who were tricked by men who said they'd find them work, and later raped them. It was so dangerous, and we were so poor."
Ana kept looking for other Salvadorans who were involved in supporting the movement back home. Finally she found people who helped her bring her children to the U.S. It took four years to save enough money. Today many who argue for restrictions on immigration claim immigrants bring their children to the U.S., or have children here, to take advantage of social services and supposedly a better life. Yet Ana's attempt to reunite her family in the U.S. had bitter results, and was ultimately unsuccessful.
Her sons stayed with her for five years, while they lived in the MacArthur Park neighborhood downtown. In the 1990s this neighborhood was the focus of the Ramparts scandal, which exposed massive corruption in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (or C*R*A*S*H) anti-gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department. In the name of combatting gang activity, especially among young immigrants from Central America, cops dished out unprovoked shootings and beatings, planted false evidence, framed suspects, stole and dealt narcotics themselves, robbed banks, lied in court and, and covered up of evidence of their crimes. It was one of the most extensive cases of police misconduct in U.S. history.
In the end, Ana sent her kids back to live with their father in El Salvador. "I tried to ensure they got an education," she lamented, "but I began to see that Los Angeles wasn't a healthy place for them to grow up. Even though I was trying to give them good values at home, how could I control the corruption they were exposed to outside? The gangs, the drugs, how? Our neighborhood, in the center of the city, was a lost and corrupt place. I don't think any parent could do it."
A poor barrio in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
When Ana sent her children back voluntarily the formation of Central American gangs in Los Angeles had just started, as had the deportations of gang members by the U.S. government. Ten year later it had reached a flood. Steven Dudley, on the InSight Crime website, writes that these gangs, now painted in our media as the source of the violence in Central America forcing people north, had a U.S. origin. "Thousands of refugees and economic migrants fled to the United States and settled in big cities such as Los Angeles. Feeling vulnerable to other gangs in these cities, some members of these new enclaves formed their own gangs," he says. "Gangs' emergence in the mid-1990s coincided with state and federal initiatives in the United States that led to longer and higher incarceration rates for gang members and increased deportations of ex-convicts. The number of gang members deported quickly increased, as did the number of transnational gangs operating in [Central America]."
Some 129,726 people convicted of crimes were deported to Central America from 2000 to 2010. "With the deportations, the two most prominent Los Angeles gangs - the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18 - quickly became the two largest transnational gangs," he adds. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, U.S. law enforcement assistance pressured local police to adopt a "mano dura" or hardline approach to gang members. Many young people deported from the U.S. were incarcerated almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment.
Today El Salvador, with a leftwing FMLN government, at least has a commitment to a policy of jobs and economic development to take young people off the street, and to providing an alternative to migration. Even there, conservative police and military forces continue to support heavy enforcement. "Under one of the more recent pilot programs in El Salvador, the FBI released lists of suspected gang-member deportees to a special unit within the Salvadoran national police, which then disseminated the list across the country's law enforcement," Dudley says.
In Guatemala and Honduras, the U.S. is supporting rightwing governments that exclusively use a heavy enforcement approach. U.S. funding for law enforcement and the military still flows, two decades after the wars ended, through the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Marine Corps General John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, frames migration as a national security threat, calling it a "crime-terror convergence." He describes "an incredibly efficient network along which anything - hundreds of tons of drugs, people, terrorists, potentially weapons of mass destruction or children - can travel, so long as they can pay the fare."
Of the last decade's deportees of alleged gang members, 44,042 wound up in Honduras. Recently the Border Patrol created a graphic that was reproduced in articles in many mainstream newspapers. It purports to show which cities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras send the greatest number of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. Topping their list is San Pedro Sula, in Honduras, which is touted as "murder capital of Central America."
This city, by no coincidence at all, was the site of one of the largest programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the years after the wars ended, in the mid 1990s. Under the rubric of economic development, USAID set up export processing zones where working conditions became even more regimented than those at Texas Instruments in nearby El Salvador, although in place of killings, factory owners used mass firings to keep workers in line. Financing from USAID paid for road construction, sewers, buildings, transportation, and the basic infrastructure for manufacturing. U.S. companies were then wooed to either directly invest in plant construction, or guarantee work to contractors who operate factories for them.
Workers pile on the back of a pickup truck while it's still dark, on their way to work in a factory in San Pedro Sula.
As a result, today San Pedro Sula is very much a factory town. Lining its main arteries are tilt-up concrete buildings housing enterprises that sew garments, pack shrimp, or run injection molding machines churning out plastic parts. At shift change young women stream through the gates, while men pilot the trucks that carry containers full of merchandise for export down to the nearby docks in Puerto Cortez.
Several years ago I met one of San Pedro Sula's working women, Claudia Molina when she came to California. In front of a microphone at our local community radio station she described conditions that sounded like the stories I heard as a garment union organizer, when the old timers talked about sweatshops and the big strikes that gave birth to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. "Our work day is from 7:30 AM to 8:30 PM," Molina said, "sometimes until 10:30, from Monday to Friday. On Saturday we start at 7:30 AM. We get an hour for lunch, and work until 6:30 PM. We take a half hour again to eat, and then we work from 7 PM until midnight. We take another half hour rest, and then go until 6 on Sunday morning. Working like this I earned 270 lempiras per week [about $30 at the time]."
Molina worked for a company, Orion, which sewed garments for big U.S. clothing lines. Orion used terror to beat back efforts by its workers to change conditions. On June 10, 1996, a company security guard shot a worker three times in the head. He'd gone into the plant without an ID card to collect his paycheck. Workers stopped work. "We demanded that the company give the worker's family the pay they owed him, and that they recognize our union," Molina recalled. Instead, Orion fired over 600 people.
Molina came to the U.S. with a young Salvadoran woman, Judith Viera, who'd been fired at Mandarin, a similar garment plant in San Salvador. "Our workday started at 7 AM and went to 9 PM, Monday to Thursday," Viera said. "On Friday we went from 7 AM to 5 PM, and then started again at 7 PM, and worked until 3 on Saturday morning. Then we went to sleep on the dirt floor of the plant, and woke up to start working again at 7 AM, and worked until 5 PM Saturday evening." For this she got 750 colones a week - about $43. There too workers organized in response, and the company fired 350 of them. When those who remained struck in protest, company managers called the police, who pulled the organizers out of the plant. Police kidnapped the general secretary of the union, threatening and beating him. According to Viera, "they told him to turn over the names of the members of the union's executive board, and that if he didn't, they would kill his family."
The National Labor Committee, which organized support in the U.S. for the fired workers, eventually convinced The Gap, Mandarin's main client, to insist that the fired worker be rehired. But Molina and Viera exposed conditions that existed in all the export processing factories, which were the result not just of the avarice of the owners, but of U.S. policies.
Their accounts were strikingly similar of the intense preoccupation by the companies, both in El Salvador and Honduras, with the sexual lives of young women workers. Many of the maquiladoras had a company doctor, whose main function was to see to it that workers didn't qualify for disability payments. At both Mandarin and Orion, they handed out contraceptives. "When we complain that we're sick, he gives us contraceptive pills," Viera said. When the doctor's pills made one woman on her line feel ill, she went to the public social security clinic. "At the clinic they told her that she was pregnant, which she hadn't known, and that the pills she'd been given were to produce an abortion."
It is more than ironic that the placard held by the protestor in Murrieta advocated a measure that was actually implemented years earlier. Distribution of birth control pills in factories was not motivated by a concern for the reproductive rights of the women who were required to take them. The wholesale administration of contraceptives is described in two studies made by Price Waterhouse, a large U.S. accounting firm, under a government contract to evaluate USAID programs. Its mandate was to identify problems hindering the growth of offshore plants in the Honduran export processing zones, the largest being San Pedro Sula. These studies, in October 1992 and May 1993, identified the main problem faced by employers as a potential labor shortage. Not only would this restrict growing production, Price Waterhouse said, but it would exert an upward pressure on wages.
In the Honduran EPZs, 50 factories had been set up and were in operation in March 1992, employing 22,342 workers. Price Waterhouse predicted that in a year 287 factories would employ 105,000 people. Consequently, the report concluded, "EPZ's labor demands could not be met by natural population growth." The most important way to solve labor needs, it said, was through "an increase in the labor participation rates of young women," that is, by drawing more young women into the workforce and keeping them there.
Women made up 84% of the workforce in Honduran maquiladoras at the time. In almost every country where U.S.-owned garment and assembly plants have been set up, this same general proportion holds true to this day. Over 95% of the women in the Honduran plants were younger than 30, and half were younger than 20. As might be expected, many of the young women in the factories were at the point in their lives where they wanted to begin their own families. But Price Waterhouse noted with disapproval that "the pregnancy rate among women of childbearing age was 4% in June 1992, up from 2.5% six months earlier. This is regarded as too high (3% would be the maximum acceptable)."
The home of a dockworker in Puerto Cortez, the port for San Pedro Sula.
Therefore, to keep women from getting pregnant, and leaving the factory to have children, USAID funded the Honduran Association for Family Planning. Following the example of a similar association set up by USAID in the Mexican maquiladoras, the Honduran association established "contraceptive distribution posts staffed by nurses in three EPZ factories: Monty, and Hanes...and MAINTA (Osh Kosh B'Gosh)." The report noted that the Mexican program "claims spectacular results in higher productivity, lower staff turnover and training costs, reduced absenteeism and reduced costs for maternity leave...and medical care." The report concluded, "USAID officers would favor the establishment of distribution posts for pills and condoms in every EPZ factory."
The studies looked at every aspect of workers' lives that might affect an adequate labor supply, from the number of stoves and bicycles per household and the size of families, to the amount of each family's budget spent on food and transport. And they examined the age of the workforce. As the companies began to run out of girls in their late teenage years, younger and younger girls were drawn into the plants. One study featured a table showing that children between 10 and 14 made up 16% of the women either employed or seeking jobs. A footnote claimed "the legal minimum working age in Honduras is 15, but in the rural economy it is normal to work from ten onwards."
This was the alternative to migration in the worldview of policy makers in Washington DC. The U.S. government promoted EPZ construction in the interests of providing low-cost labor to U.S. corporations, and in promoting economic development policies that tied the economies of Central American countries to U.S. corporate investment. Since these countries have little capital for export-oriented industrial development, the U.S. provides it. This assistance ranges from the construction of the infrastructure for manufacturing to the supply of labor itself. With U.S. expertise paving the way, it's not coincidental that the industrial parks look the same, that the demographics of their workforce are virtually identical, and that the working conditions in the factories are carbon copies of each other.
Even as the war in El Salvador was winding down, apparel imports by U.S. garment companies surged from $10 million to almost $398 million by the mid-1990s. But Salvadoran wages, adjusted for inflation, fell from 382 colones per month to 180 colones, according to the New York-based National Labor Committee, quoting from USAID and business sources.
As a migration-preventing strategy it was a bust. By the end of the 1990s the number of Salvadorans in the U.S. had reached 2 million. Migration from Guatemala and Honduras was not far behind. But preventing migration was a pretext anyway. Not only did the policy of maquiladora development continue, but it evolved into an even larger strategy of encouraging foreign investment through privatizing state utilities, services and assets, and negotiating free trade agreements, first in Mexico, and then in Central America.
When the Central America Free Trade Agreement came up for a vote in the U.S. Congress in 2005, its supporters claimed this kind of economic development would produce jobs in new maquiladoras and slow migration down. In Central America, progressive social movements wouldn't drink the Kool-Aid, however. When the Honduran Congress took up ratification, over a thousand demonstrators filled the streets of Tegucigalpa, angrily denouncing the effort. The Honduran Congress ratified CAFTA anyway, but the crowd was so angry that terrified deputies quickly fled.
"We chased them out, and then we went into the chambers ourselves," said Erasmo Flores, president of the Sindicato Nacional de Motoristas de Equipo Pesado de Honduras (SINAMEQUIPH), the union for Honduras' port truckers. "Then we constituted ourselves as the congress of the true representatives of the Honduran people, and voted to scrap Congress' ratification." While admittedly an act of political theater by the leftwing Bloque Popular, the protest showed how dramatically unpopular the agreement was in Central America among workers and farmers - those people most likely to become migrants.
Guatemala's National Civilian Police sealed off the streets around the Guatemalan Congress after it voted to ratify CAFTA, and then used clubs and teargas against almost 2000 demonstrators. Following the vote, popular organizations began mounting highway blockades throughout the country, effectively halting commerce and travel. At a blockade in Colotenango, at the Puente Naranjales crossroads, police and the army fired on the crowd. Juan Lopez Velásquez was killed, and nine others wounded by bullets.
CAFTA reinforced the transformation of Central American economies, using a low standard of living as a means to attract investment in factories producing, not for an internal market, but for export to the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Central American jobs were already tied to export production. The George W. Bush administration used them as bargaining leverage, threatening economic disaster by raising the specter of import barriers against countries that wouldn't adopt the trade treaty and the economic model behind it.
Erasmo Flores, head of the union for port truckers in Honduras, talks with drivers about the impact of CAFTA.
Then the U.S. administration turned around and made the opposite threat to keep people from electing governments that might not go along. Right-wing Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) put forward a measure in 2004 to cut off the flow of remittances (money sent back to Salvadoran families from family members working in the U.S.) if people voted for a leftwing party, the FMLN, in El Salvador's national elections. Otto Reich, a violently anti-communist Cuban who was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the U.S. government was "concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory could have on the commercial, economic, and migration-related relations of the U.S. with El Salvador." The U.S. embassy later admitted it had interfered in the election. Salvadoran papers, especially those on the right, were full of the threats and the FMLN lost.
In 2009 a tiny wealthy elite in Honduras overthrew President Manuel Zelaya because he raised the country's minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates and instituted free education. All of these were measures that, by raising living standards, would have given people a future at home. Nevertheless, after a weak protest, the Obama administration gave de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the U.S.
One of the most devastating effects on workers has come from privatization, enforced by the free market mandate to create investment opportunities for foreign corporations. As national enterprises get sold off, sometimes for just a fraction of their worth, new private owners cut labor costs by slashing jobs and gutting union contracts. Honduras' longshore workers' union twice beat back government efforts to privatize the docks of Puerto Cortez, mobilizing the whole town in the process. "We put our union's assets, like our soccer field and clinic, at the service of the town," explained Roberto Contreras, a union officer and Honduran representative for the International Transport Federation. "When the government tried to privatize our jobs, we told people that if we didn't cooperate to defeat it, the whole town would lose, not just the port workers."
Despite that opposition, however, the Honduran government finally did privatize the shipping terminals in Puerto Cortez last year, and gave a contract to a company from the Philippines, ICTSI, to run them. As an incentive, it gave the company the freedom to fire workers who belonged to SGTM, the General Union of Dock Workers. After dockers saw newly hired laborers in jobs they'd done for generations, they protested. The coup government that replaced Zelaya sent in the army and arrested 129 people, charging them with "terrorism." Last September attackers tried to break into the home of the union's general secretary, Victor Crespo, shouting that he should "stop making noise about organizing stevedores." Following that, a truck mysteriously hit and killed his father, and injured his mother, in front of their home. Crespo had to leave the country.
Crespo's future as an exile has yet to unfold. But it may be like that of Ana and many Central Americans. We owe a great debt to them, not just because of the loss and separation they've experienced, but because of what they've given us in spite of it. If you take a look at the leaders and organizers who've changed the political face of Los Angeles, for instance, Salvadorans in particular number among them in outsize proportions.
When they began pouring into the city as war refugees, a few unions realized the resource Central Americans represented, in terms of hard experience organizing workers under conditions far more difficult than those in California. Eliseo Medina, a Mexican farm worker who became a national union leader, once told me, "if you've lived in a world where going on strike may cost your life, getting fired for organizing a union doesn't seem so threatening."
One union that saw the possibilities was the United Electrical Workers. It's Los Angeles leader, Humberto Camacho, began giving organizer jobs to people like Ana, who'd organized unions in San Salvador and then had to run for it. He brought in others from the left in Mexico who'd fled the repression after the massacre in Tlatelolco Plaza in 1968, who saw the huge numbers of Mexicans in the LA workforce as their natural constituency. His union became an early school in tactics for organizing immigrants. Camacho himself was for many years the strongest voice in the city's labor movement advocating the unionization of undocumented workers, rather than seeing them as interlopers and job competitors, or even just "unorganizable."
Joel Ochoa, a refugee from Tlatelolco who today is a leader in the Machinists Union, says of that period, "Central Americans were a positive influence. They came with experience in labor organizing and politics, which they transformed into action here." It was, and still is, a powerful combination -- workers on the bottom with not much to lose in minimum wage jobs, and politically sophisticated organizers hardened in a war zone. That should inspire progressive movements in the U.S. to look at immigration in a different way. Simply being an immigrant may not bend a person politically to the left. But many immigrants bring organizing skills and working-class political consciousness with them, depending on where they come from, and their previous experiences.
In the past few years I've thought about what might happen if more people came here from Iraq. Both in Baghdad and Basra I met veterans of that country's long leftwing labor tradition. Today those leaders and organizers have lived through experiences like those of Central America. If the door opened for Iraqi refugees, it's not hard to imagine that people with experience in its social movements would be among them. We would benefit. Perhaps that's one unspoken reason why the number of people admitted is so low. Yet even with that restriction, today Qasim Hadi, for instance, who organized the union of the unemployed when the occupation first started, lives in California. Perhaps he'll use his knowledge and experience to organize Arabic-speaking workers here, despite what must be great bitterness over the destruction visited on his homeland.
Yanira Merino talks with workers doing asbestos removal on the campus of California State University Northridge, urging them to join the Laborers Union.
That possibility was certainly realized in the life of Yanira Merino. Like Ana, she also came to Los Angeles from El Salvador at the beginning of the war, in 1979. During her first years here, she was an outspoken supporter of the FMLN when it fought the government in the mountains, long before it became a political party and eventually, today, the country's government. In the 1980s, however, supporting the guerrilleros was dangerous, even in L.A.
Her father in El Salvador was not sympathetic to her politics, but the military there nevertheless threatened him because he couldn't stop her. In 1987 her car was forced off the road by people who tried to abduct her and her son. When that didn't produce a big enough scare, a month later two Salvadorans kidnapped her on a Los Angeles street at knifepoint. She was driven around in a van, tortured and raped. Her tormentors burned her with cigarettes and cut the letters E M into her hand, which stand for Escuadron de Muerte, or Death Squad. Finally she was pushed out onto a freeway ramp. No one was ever caught in her case.
Yanira's ordeal had precedents among activist migrants living in the U.S., who also got on the wrong side of U.S. policy. Former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his aide Ronni Moffitt were murdered by a bomb blast in Washington DC in 1976. Subsequent investigations and trials revealed the perpetrators had been working for Chile's secret police with the knowledge of U.S. intelligence agencies. At the end of the Vietnam War, a rightwing terrorist group of former South Vietnamese soldiers, nicknamed The Frogmen, operated from a southern California military base. They murdered several Vietnamese activists living in the U.S. as well as Professor Ed Cooperman, because they all called publicly for normalizing relations with Vietnam.
Yanira and I have been friends for many years, since I interviewed her after her kidnapping ordeal. Later we both spoke out for the rights of immigrant workers in unions where we worked as organizers. She is a remarkable woman, and was able to transform the brutality of her terrifying experience into the hard determination organizers need.
"I'm part of the workforce in this country," she told me long ago. "I worked in a shrimp-processing plant when I first came here, and experienced the terror employers use when their workers say they've had enough and start organizing. Coming from a third-world country like El Salvador, I never thought I'd see that in a first-world country like this. But even though you put your life on the line to organize a union back home, you have to fight for your rights in either place. I don't see much of a difference."
Yanira became an organizer for the Laborers Union, one of the few unions in construction with a large immigrant and African Americans membership. It was a good fit -- the union understood the resources she was bringing. She headed a national campaign to organize chicken plant workers in the South, and then worked to bring asbestos removal workers, who do one of the world's most dangerous jobs, into the union in southern California and New York. She rose through the hierarchy, no small achievement for a Spanish-speaking woman, and eventually was put in charge of immigration policy. She convinced the union to start seeing immigrant day laborers on street corners, not as cheap competition in the labor market, but as potential allies and even members.
Today Yanira coordinates immigration policy at the AFL-CIO. It is a difficult job. Not all unions want to welcome immigrants as members. Others want to take whatever immigration deal is on the table in Washington DC, regardless of how many more detention centers get built or how many workers stand to lose their jobs to immigration enforcement. Unions and progressive social movements need someone with her experience in that job.
In her most radical days Yanira's favorite writer was Che Guevara. She'd say things she'd probably get in trouble for today. But her words inspired me, as did her confidence that immigrant workers would produce a new generation of leaders, and would expect a lot more of their unions. "That's the challenge the labor movement has to meet here," I remember her declaring. "Are the leaders of this movement ready for it? Are they ready to fight at the side of these workers? Because if they're not, somebody else will. This fight is going to happen, with or without them."
Like Yanira and Ana, Sergio too became a working class activist. In Omaha he first got a job as a community organizer. He organized Omaha Together One Community from a base in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in South Omaha. There the city's Latino barrio is populated by hundreds of meatpacking workers. When I met him, he was trying to build resistance to Operation Vanguard, the largest Federal effort in modern history to drive undocumented workers from their jobs. In the final years of the Clinton administration, over 3000 immigrant laborers in Nebraska meatpacking plants wound up on the street as a result, desperate to find a way to feed their families. Sergio was particularly angry because these workplace firings had targeted the activists he'd brought together in the meatpacking plants, in committees he hoped would become the nuclei of union organizing campaigns.
Immigrant asbestos removal workers march through the campus at California State University Northridge, protesting the danger of mesothelioma from breathing asbestos fibers.
Despite the reverses caused by Operation Vanguard, within a couple of years Sergio had helped the meatpacking union win an election at the city's largest beef slaughterhouse. Today he heads the Heartland Workers Center. In all the small meatpacking towns of eastern Nebraska, he organizes committees among the Guatemalans and Mexicans, as well as non-Latino immigrants from Somalia and Croatia. Nebraska may still be a Republican stronghold, but unions are growing. In a state where May Day marches would have been attacked as Communist two decades ago, immigrant workers take to the streets every May 1, as many of them did in the countries they come from. You can feel the rumblings of demographic and political change beneath the surface. Nebraska won't be a conservative bastion much longer.
But despite finding a place to put his organizing abilities to work, coming to the U.S. was a painful process for Sergio -- not a triumphal march. In conversations through many long nights and bottles of beer, I realized that his migration had been a very mixed experience, and faced him with many of the same dilemmas Ana described. Sergio had been more than a seminarian. I still jokingly call him mi comandante, which means my commander, or combatiente, which means soldier or fighter. Even as a boy he carried messages for the guerrilleros, when Guatemala's civil war started. The war shaped him in many ways, not least by giving him the anger he carried for years afterwards. "My conscience was born by seeing injustices every day," he explained, "in seeing the dead, and dead, and more dead. I saw the murder of a neighbor who was like my brother, in front of his house. This begins to create something inside that enrages you. You want to do something."
Recounting his country's history, he had no hesitation in placing the blame. "The US was responsible for the coups that happened in Guatemala in 1944 and later in '54. Our army was trained at the School of the Americas, and they would come back afterwards and kill our own people. Add to that all the money that came in, about 2 million dollars every fifteen days, which were taxes paid by U.S. citizens. The U.S. used its power and we buried the dead."
Only love could have overcome such anger. Organizing young people from a base in the church during the conflict, he met a woman who'd come to Huehuetenango, sent by a Christian foundation in Kansas City. Working together they fell in love, got married, and had a child. Sergio gave up his dream of becoming a priest. Still, he would not consider leaving Guatemala, despite ever more numerous death threats and growing danger.
"I married Jill with one condition -- that I would never come to the U.S.," he laughs. "And the reason was that I hated gringos. But I realized that before being a gringa Jill was a person. I started to understand that there was a sector in the U.S. population that had a political consciousness about foreign policy. And the other part was love. I loved her. My wife had lived almost five years away from her parents and home, and it was no longer just my life I had to consider. It was her life as well. I felt selfish not to support her by coming and being here with her. Finally, I decided to leave for 'Gringolandia.'"
He remembers crying on the plane, feeling he was abandoning his homeland, unsure of how he would put his values to work in a new country where he knew no one besides his wife and didn't speak the language. And a migrant's life in Nebraska, he discovered, was neither a Guatemalan dream nor an American one.
"We are becoming acculturated," he worried. That was one reason he wanted to return to Guatemala -- to understand what migration meant for those left behind, beyond remittances. "We learn other forms of living and rich forms are lost. It creates not only a rupture, but it accelerates social decomposition. People from the north come back and we look at them differently because they act differently. They send money, but years apart break up families. Those with remittances might be better off than those without them, but depending on checks from the north doesn't really give anyone a future, especially the young. They grow up thinking the only way to have a future is to leave."
Like millions of others, Sergio did survive. In the process he changed the world he found in Omaha. When we think of the children in those detention centers today, we might think of them as change agents too. Children grow up. If they're treated with respect, as though they're of value to us, many will live to fulfill our shared ideals. "Latin American immigrants are changing the social, economic and political structure of this country," he says. "And this country has had an impact on us too. We come with documents or without them, but we're here to stay. They can try to send us home, but we will be back. Globalization opened the economic borders, but it didn't open the cultural ones. Sooner or later we will have to learn we need to open those cultural borders in order to survive. If we don't learn this we will destroy each other."
When we look at the Central American children in the detention centers today, the responsibility we have towards them is to give them a world in which the choice to leave Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras is truly voluntary -- where they have a future with dignity if they choose to stay. The ability to stay home is as important as the ability and right to migrate. Mixtec professor Gaspar Rivera Salgado says, "The right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to be poor, or the right to go hungry. Choosing whether to stay home or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future, in which we are all respected as human beings."
That right can't be achieved in Central America alone. The policies pursued by our government, whether through war and military aid, or through trade agreements and pressure to keep wages low, all produce migration. If President Obama had lived up to his promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and its corollary in Central America (which he boasted of having voted against), and had done so out of concern for their impact outside our borders, we might have made more progress by now in keeping those children out of detention.