WASHINGTON -- To many shocked Americans, the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border is simply a breakdown of everything America stands for. To me, it is even more.
To me, it is a foreign policy issue -- a question of the deepest possible blunders in American strategy that demands serious, not sentimental, response.
I spent much of my professional life covering Latin and Central America for the Chicago Daily News, and I knew those poor folks at the border. I buried myself in their history and suffered with them over the original sin of the Spanish conquistadores, who destroyed much of the brilliant Mayan culture and put little in its place in terms of decent governance.
In the 20th century, when countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were in their formative modern periods and could have truly progressed, the United States opted in every case not for the necessary land, government and political reforms but to support military dictators and far right candidates who kept Central America locked in the hopeless despair that still drives tens of thousands of them to El Norte.
Those were the years when American policy and pressure could have made all the difference. But instead of supporting reforms, American companies, which virtually dictated Washington policy, mistakenly identified with the ruling classes -- United Fruit in Honduras, for instance, and also in Cuba. When the political disasters came, as they had to, we were on the side that was more than wrong, it was unworkable.
Guatemala, the largest of the Central American nations and historically the leader, is an especially egregious case study. The Guatemalan military has always been particularly cruel, and in the 1950s, it was no surprise that new reformist leaders emerged in Jacobo Arbenz and Juan Jose Arevalo.
Arbenz was to become famous in Washington as the forerunner of the "communist threat" -- the era in which Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and then united with Moscow. Arbenz designed the most comprehensive land reform ever seen in Latin America, but Washington chose to see him as a communist and moved to overthrow him. Arevalo was an even less radical leader, also removed by Washington.
Guatemala never benefited from those reforms. But it did go through terrible guerrilla wars, supported by Havana, in the '60s and '70s, and today it is a beautiful but sad land, where every village remembers thousands of dead.
El Salvador went through a similar tragic drama in the '70s and '80s, as mostly middle-class young men wanting change created another guerrilla war against a cruel and retrograde landed class and the far right ARENA party. Washington tried to create a "middle," but there was none, and today, although the leftist "guerrilla party" holds the presidency, the untamed violence within the society, as in almost all of Central America, is expressed in the brutal gangs that poison these societies anew. And in the tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing for the American border.
The most sobering reality for Americans is that, in almost every case and at almost every moment when productive change in these small societies could have taken place, Washington moved decisively to stop it. In fact, we were stopping them from going through the very same processes we employed for ourselves as we developed OUR society. (Ever heard of Teddy Roosevelt breaking up the trusts?)
Now, I'm quite aware that nobody is going to be thanked for trying to bring history into the emotional drama at the border. Sobbing mothers, lost children and a cruel White House get starring roles, no matter how you look at it. But it would help if we could at least start to think about a couple of the bigger themes that offer long-term ways to solve this immediate problem.
On the immediate scale, the only answer is for America to hammer out a tough but reasonable immigration policy. Everybody says it, but nobody does it. In the bigger picture, we still have virtually no productive foreign policy toward our neighbors in Central America. Remember FDR's Good Neighbor Policy or JFK's Alliance for Progress? It can be done.
Yet, ironically, we read news stories about the U.S. involving itself deeply everywhere else -- as far away as Yemen and Somaliland. Do such policies, focused so far afield, really make sense, or are they the inventions of our leaders' adventurous whims? Wouldn't it simply make common sense for our neighbors to come first?