US Intervention in Central America and Refugees on the Border

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US Intervention in Central America and Refugees on the Border
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By Robert Bernstein


In recent years, much has been made in the news about Central American refugees at the southern US border. But historical context is almost never provided.

The Humanist Society was privileged to have UCSB Distinguished Professor of Chicano Studies and History Mario Garcia give us the historical context.

HSSB President Judy Flattery began by explaining some of the Humanist connections: Humanists care about justice and fairness in society. We work to eliminate discrimination and to help the disadvantaged.


I went on to explain my own involvement in the 1980s that led to working with Professor Garcia. I grew up in a Humanist Jewish family. We were raised with a strong awareness of how too many Germans stood by and did nothing as the Nazis rose to power, taking away all rights of the Jews and other minorities. Culminating in the extermination of six million Jews and other groups.

My parents used that awareness to work against the US war in Vietnam and to support the civil rights movement. For me, Reagan's war against the people of Central America was a call to action for justice.

As a busy physics grad student at UCSB I made time to work with the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and COMPA and helped found and direct the Central America Response Network.

We had a very dedicated Santa Barbara group for eight years that put on educational and cultural events and organized direct aid, letter writing and rallies. Tens of thousands of us activists traveled to Central America to help. Millions more rallied and protested across the US.

Here is a photo of us standing along Highway 101 in 1986 in busy rush hour traffic, before the traffic signals were removed!

Here we marched downtown in 1987.And again on State Street in 1989, with many other marches and rallies before and after these.Professor Garcia was very kind and generous with helping to sponsor our organizations and events. Including showing Haskell Wexler's film "Latino" to a sold out crowd at Campbell Hall.

He has published at least a dozen scholarly books and was also a Teacher of the Year at UCSB.


Garcia began his talk noting our recent challenging times with Trump, poverty, inequality and millions displaced. But he pointed out this is not new.

During the 1980s Reagan funded death squads and "authoritarian" governments that tortured, raped and killed tens of thousands of innocent people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. At the same time, Reagan declared that refugees from these atrocities were not really refugees but merely "illegal aliens". A hateful, racist term.

Garcia affirmed that they are refugees. They are human beings in need. A million Salvadoran refugees came to the US. Half a million of them settled in Los Angeles.


Reagan threatened to hunt them down and deport them. The Sanctuary Movement was the result. Mostly through churches. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. Giving refugees legal, medical and psychological assistance as well as jobs and housing. Housing in some cases provided in these churches as a last resort.

The idea was that government officials would not dare to enter churches to hunt down refugees. But many secular groups gave support as well. Our little Santa Barbara organizations brought refugees to speak about the atrocities they had endured and we raised money for their protection. My car was lent out on multiple occasions to shuttle them here and in LA. For awhile, they had more miles on it than I did!

One American who reached out to the refugees was Father Luis Olivares, the subject of Garcia's latest book. Garcia kindly shared his presentation slides. Here is a photo of Father Olivares from his book cover.

Olivares developed an extensive Sanctuary movement out of Our Lady Queen of Angels Church near Union Station in LA. The oldest church in LA, going back to the Spanish era. Also known as "La Placita" – the little plaza. Olivares said he saw Jesus in the faces of the refugees.


Garcia talked of the historical context of US engagement in Central America and Mexico. Imperialism can involve physical conquest of land. Or economic control of another country. The US did both and it continues to this day. The US has done many good things, but colonialism is part of the bad.

In the 1830s and 1840s the US took all of northern Mexico "El Norte" from Texas to California. Part of Manifest Destiny that claimed that God wanted the US to eventually take over all of the Americas.

This was not seen as taking land, but bringing "blessings" of democratic government. This at a time when men without property and women could not vote. And millions of African Americans were enslaved.

Think of city names like Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Barbara. "These names didn't come from the Mayflower."

In 1898 the US declared war on Spain to take Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Part of Colombia was taken to create Panama for the canal for the US.

In 1916 General Pershing fought Pancho Villa in Mexico.

"Dollar diplomacy" created "banana republics". Agriculture served US corporations, providing cash crops like coffee and bananas, rather than feeding the people. United Fruit became the largest land owner in Guatemala.

President Theodore Roosevelt had a very progressive domestic program. But he expanded the Monroe Doctrine to allow the US to intervene in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to force US interests to be fulfilled.

Later, President Franklin Roosevelt infamously said of Nicaraguan dictator Somoza: "He may be a son of a bitch. But he is our son of a bitch."

In 1954 Guatemala had a democratically elected government that was starting to buy back land from United Fruit to give back to the people to grow food. John Foster Dulles and the CIA under Eisenhower overthrew that government and they have never recovered.

The 1959 Cuban revolution was a nationalist revolution to throw out the Mafia and corrupt US businesses. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, launched from the US, tried to roll back the revolution, but the Cuban people defeated it. The US imposed a blockade that continues to this day, with a partial break during the Obama administration.

Garcia's book begins in the 1970s as people in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala began to fight back against US funded atrocities and oppression. The US School of the Americas in Ft Benning, GA trained many Central American troops in torture. One result was the 1981 massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador. 1,000 people murdered in a small town, half of them children.

Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador pleaded with the US to stop sending weapons. He was murdered by the Salvadoran military with knowledge of their US supporters.

Soon after, three US nuns and a female lay worker were raped and murdered by the Salvadoran military.

In 1979, ABC journalist Bill Stewart was murdered on camera by the US supported Somoza dictatorship. Another embarrassment for Jimmy Carter and his talk of "human rights" while he funded dictators. Carter was forced to cut off aid to Somoza and the Nicaraguan Revolution was able to succeed.

Carter and Reagan both believed that it was OK to support brutal dictators as long as they claimed they were fighting "Communism". But it was all a lie as union and land reform organizers were called "Communists" and hunted down and murdered.


Garcia went on to tell more of the story of Father Olivares. His parents were refugees of the 1910 Mexican revolution and he grew up with a sense of helping refugees. At age 13 he wanted to become a priest. He joined the Claretian Order of missionaries, attending high school, college and theological training there.

He eventually became treasurer of the order, leading to being wined and dined and taken to Broadway shows by Wall Street investors. He came to be known as Father Gucci for his fancy shoes! He was living high, but in 1975 he met United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez and he realized he belonged in the community. He worked with United Neighborhoods Organization in LA.Olivares invited refugees to sleep in his La Placita church. He officially declared the church a Sanctuary on December 12, 1985. But he didn't stop there. He expanded his invitation to undocumented Mexicans and homeless. 600 people on some nights. The church hierarchy didn't like this.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants who had arrived before 1982. But it came down hard on those who arrived after that. Employers were penalized for hiring such people, which led to discrimination against legal Latinos as well.

Olivares was part of a larger Liberation Theology movement that began in 1960 among Latin American bishops. It has its roots in Matthew 25. Where Jesus praised those who fed him when he was hungry, clothed him when he was naked and housed him when he was homeless. It was a call for the church to prioritize serving the poor and oppressed.

Central to the idea was "praxis". That one should read, learn and think about issues. But then one should act on them. "Applied theology."

The church spent much time concerned about "personal sin". Liberation Theology was now emphasizing "social sins" like slavery, racism, genocide oppression of women and exploitation at work. It was OK to break the law to serve a higher law of God.

In 1990 the church found Olivares too controversial and wanted to transfer him to Texas. But he was diagnosed with HIV and he was also being threatened by Salvadoran death squads that had migrated to LA.

Olivares was arrested many times. Garcia showed photos of him being arrested along with people like Martin Sheen and Blase Bonpane. Sheen was asked if he was a Communist. "Worse! I am a Catholic!" was his reply.

Blase Bonpane had been a Maryknoll priest in Guatemala and went on to direct the Office of the Americas in Los Angeles. Here he spoke at one of our events in De La Guerra Plaza.On January 19, 1992 the Peace Accords were signed in Mexico City that brought an official peace to El Salvador. Olivares died two years later.


Garcia ended with some "take aways". Migration is a human right. People should be treated with dignity. We must oppose policies of economic and political oppression.

He called for the legalization of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. They are not criminals, but essential parts of the US economy.

"Dreamers" are immigrants who were brought as children and know no other country but the US. Yet they have no legal status here.

Garcia praised Americans for welcoming European refugees from the war in Ukraine. But he said we need to extend this welcome to those with darker skin who are fleeing horrors in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

His final words were about democracy. We almost lost it on January 6. We need to stay mobilized or we can lose it. And we need to vote!

Garcia then took questions.Humanist Society President Judy Flattery asked if there was any truth to the claims of "caravans" of refugees. Garcia said there were some for very good reason: Security. Refugees migrating alone through Mexico risk being robbed and raped. But many good people in Mexico offered food, shelter and water to these refugees.

Judy Fontana asked about the maquiladoras (factories mostly in border areas) hiring only women. Garcia said this has a long history. These factories are often controlled by US or Japanese companies. They claim women are better at assembly work. But the real reason is they are easier to exploit and they suffer sexual assault and murder.

I asked about President Biden sending Vice President Harris to Central America to solve the crisis causing the refugees. Garcia said she was trying to get US industries to invest there, but that hasn't worked in the past. He gives credit to them for funding private aid agencies that are less corrupt.

But the challenge is to establish real democracy and there is a long history of the US undermining that.

Meredith asked about NGOs that we can support. I suggested CISPES. Judy Flattery suggested UN High Commission on Refugees and Direct Relief International.

Professor Garcia was still answering our questions after almost two hours! He pointed out that the Trump people want to return to a time of a majority white country. That is not going to happen. California is already a majority minority state and others are going that way, too.

Trump plays up fear of dark-skinned people. But these are the people who pick the crops, do construction, wash cars and serve as nannies. They are not "taking jobs" but doing the work others don't want to do.

We must not let the right wing monopolize our flag. Latinos fought in every US war including 500,000 in WWII. They are the true patriots.

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a-1658635455 Jul 23, 2022 09:04 PM
US Intervention in Central America and Refugees on the Border

US intervention in Central America and around the world usually ended in disaster. The interventions rarely were to help the people in those countries. Just an excuse to prop up unsustainable US corporations and weapons manufacturers.

Thanks for this report and history of why we still see refugees from these interventions.

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