In an article in USA Today (July 15) William Lambers proposed that the U.S. institute a Marshall Plan for Central America “if we truly want to end the migrant border crisis.” The Marshall Plan helped Europe rebuild after the devastation of World War II and “it would provide the thing that the people of Central America need most: hope.” Because we are so unaware of the history of Central America, many Americans will no doubt wonder why these migrants have lost hope. History gives us the answer.

After a revolt in 1944 Guatemala’s new president instituted many reforms to improve living conditions for the vast majority of peasants who lived in poverty. This included purchasing land that had been taken from the indigenous population by the large plantations and making small plots available so peasant families could earn a living. Unfortunately, much of this land was owned by United Fruit Company and John Foster Dulles (U.S. secretary of state) and Allen Dulles (head of the CIA) were major stockholders. The Dulles brothers had just successfully overthrown the democratic government of Iran and installed the Shah so British Petroleum could have Iran’s oil. They decided to do the same thing to Guatemala, so the CIA engineered a plot which overthrew the government and installed a military dictator in 1954. This led to a civil war in 1960 which lasted for 36 years and resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 Guatemalans, most of whom were innocent civilians. The United States supported the Guatemalan army with arms and training and ignored reports that the army was massacring entire villages of indigenous farmers and their families. After the destructive war ended in 1996, Guatemala was faced with trying to rebuild the country amid problems with limited resources, a rising crime rate, government corruption, and more extreme weather events.

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The story is the same in El Salvador where military dictatorships used repression and violence to control the country from 1930 to 1980. A civil war started in 1980 and by the time it ended in 1992 more than 75,000 people had been killed (mostly civilians). Again, the United States sided with the military government providing them with weapons and training in counter insurgency warfare at Fort Benning, Georgia. The new government that was created after the war faced an economy in shambles with massive damage to infrastructure.

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While Honduras did not have a civil war, it has long been ruled by a small elite with strong support from a military known for human rights abuses. When the president elected in 2006 attempted reforms to reduce the poverty rate, he was overthrown in a military coup in 2009 that was supported by the U.S. Since then, the explosion of gang and drug violence has made Honduras, the original banana republic, into a very dangerous place to live.

President Trump has proposed ending U.S. aid to Central America as a punishment for permitting people to seek asylum here. This is exactly the wrong thing to do because it will undermine efforts to address the very problems that are driving people to abandon their homes and head to the United States. Instead of spending billions on a wall, helping Central American people rebuild their communities and giving them hope is a better choice so that the 300,000 who died in the cause of freedom did not die in vain.