The Latin American Migration Crisis Was Born Out of Greed and Myths About Race

published on Thursday, September 12, 2019

In Unwanted People, historian Aviva Chomsky’s essays explore the roots of this violent history.

For more than a century, Latin American governments have promoted a model of national development based on land privatization and privileging the interests of foreign investors rather than the rights of workers; policies that in fact promoted economic growth without development. In many cases, this kind of economic growth instead increased inequality and poverty. Democratic or dictatorial governments implemented these policies by hook or by crook, which often forced the people to choose between renouncing their rights or submitting to the brutality of power concretized in armies who served the creole oligarchy in the name of “national security” against foreign invaders. In such armies, often the most deprived individuals were the most zealous and violent guardians of the privileges of others.

This domestic and national economic policy was concretely connected to the interests of international corporations. The social structure in which creole elites of the postcolonial era served the ruling classes mirrored the relationship between the indigenous nobility who served the Spanish crown. In the 20th century, such power lodged itself in traditional commodities-export ruling classes and transnational foreign companies, which were often supported by direct interventions from superpower governments. Despite repeated attempts to prove otherwise, Latin American history cannot be understood without taking into account the history of U.S. interventions, from the Monroe Doctrine (1823) to the dozens of U.S. military interventions in Latin America. The latter includes the annexation of more than half of the Mexican territory in mid-19th century, a long list of military interventions leading to the dramatic establishment of bloody puppet dictators throughout the 20th century, which left hundreds of thousands murdered, and the destruction of democracies such as Guatemala or Chile in the name of freedom and democracy. Large multinational corporations, such as the United Fruit Company in Central America, Pepsi Cola in Chile and Volkswagen in Brazil, motivated or supported many of these coups d’état. The dominant creole classes in turn supported the overthrow of legitimate governments because they stood to gain more from the export business of cheap natural resources than from the internal development of their nations.

The extreme violence that resulted directly from these social inequities generated internal displacements and international migrations, especially to the United States, the world hegemonic economy. Yet many immigrants arrived in a country that denied them the same individual rights that had been withheld from them in their home countries. As Aviva Chomsky illustrates in her new book, Unwanted People: Histories of Race and Displacement in the Americas, the United States’ history of racially motivated class stratification and anti-labor policy dovetailed with the shape that the country’s immigration took in the 1960s.

Unwanted People presents a selection of historian Aviva Chomsky’s writings, which explores the roots of these problems from the concrete perspective of groups who have experienced the effects of this violent history. Chomsky’s work is always incisive and challenging. Each text dismantles modern myths about Latin American immigration, U.S. history, and the labor movement. Specifically, she highlights popular superstitions about immigration that are exacerbated by international reporting and the “master narratives” that have been consolidated by a strategic forgetting, both from U.S. and Latin American perspectives. Chomsky brings these challenges to the dominant narratives of colonial history to bear on topics ranging from the United States’ global and colonial economy to an analysis of the colonial history of Africa in the movie Black Panther.

In “The Logic of Displacement” and “A Central American Drama,” Chomsky analyzes two apparently different realities that are nevertheless connected by their subterranean logics. The historical displacement of Afro-Colombians, she argues, has been caused not only by racism but also by the logic of economic convenience. Chomsky questions the historical explanation of La Violencia in Colombia (initiated with the murder of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948) as a simple dichotomy, “liberal versus conservative,” and reviews the interests of the white Catholic elite of Antioquia over Afro-Colombian regions, rich in natural resources. Thus, in Colombia there is a case similar to that of others on the continent: the internal displacement of rural, indigenous or afro-descendant communities for economic reasons (gold, platinum, wood) is executed “voluntarily” through the purchase of property accompanied by violence inflicted by paramilitary groups, which functioned as an extralegal arm and ally of the armies and the governments of Latin American countries.

Leftist guerrilla groups emerged as a counter to the paramilitary groups that represented the typically conservative right interests of the government. These also served largely as an excuse for military and paramilitary violence. Although it could be argued that the guerrilla groups’ amplification of regional violence also played a role in the displacement of people, Chomsky argues that displacement was not one of their objectives, as it was in the case of paramilitaries, who furthered the interest of the big businesses laying claim to the land and its natural resources. Meanwhile, the impunity of those in power contributed dramatically to the scale of this movement’s violence.

Neoliberal economic policies combined with an increasingly militarized southern United States border had an impact on Central American migration and was the direct result of United States foreign policy.

Internationally, displacement was not always due to direct military actions, but it was always the result of economic forces. The United States increased control of immigration, especially immigration of the displaced poor, as a solution to the increased migration that resulted from years of interventionist foreign policy. The Mexican-American border, which had been permeable for centuries, became a violent wall in 1965, forcing job seekers to avoid returning to their homes in the south as they used to do. This reality was aggravated by the policies and international treaties of the new neoliberal wave of the 1990s, such as NAFTA, which financially ruined the Mexican peasants who could not compete with the subsidized agriculture of the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. conservatives attacked leftist guerrilla and community groups, such as the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, who resisted such policies.

Neoliberal economic policies combined with an increasingly militarized southern United States border had an impact on Central American migration and was the direct result of United States foreign policy. In Chomsky’s words:

“U.S. policies directly led to today’s crises in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Since Washington orchestrated the overthrow of the reformist, democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, it has consistently cultivated repressive military regimes, savagely repressed peasant and popular movements for social change, and imposed economic policies including so-called free trade ones that favor foreign investors and have proven devastating to the rural and urban poor.”

As Chomsky rightly points out in her book They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration (2007), it is no coincidence that when racial discrimination became politically incorrect in the 1960s, it was replaced in the law and in the political and social discourse by national discrimination. This, coupled with the fact that Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants were no longer returning to their countries because of widespread violence, made the new border policies even more dangerous and sometimes deadly for both migrant workers and those fleeing political and social violence, mostly people from the Northern Triangle of Central America.

This sequence of historical events has countless consequences in the present. However, politicians, major media, and U.S. citizens only see the faces of children, men and women speaking a “foreign language” (though, of course, Spanish is older than English in the United States). Political and news discourse represents immigrants as “invading” cities to take advantage of the services and benefits of American democracy, which strips immigration politics of its historicity. It is a false logic that turns workers into idlers, imagines welfare abusers when in fact immigrants sustain the care economy with their labor and their taxes, and sees the victims of neocolonial trade policies as invading criminals. In a recent interview with Aviva Chomsky about the current myths that dominate the social narrative in the United States today, she explains:

“I’d say there are two [myths]: one, that immigrants are criminals, and two, that immigrants come here to take advantage of the United States. In a way, these are connected—by turning immigrants into ‘bad hombres,’ Trump helps to erase history and the disasters that U.S. policy has helped to create in the countries that immigrants are currently fleeing, especially in Central America.”

Unwanted People, a collection of Aviva Chomsky’s writings, approaches complex discussions about race, labor, and immigration in the United States from the more nuanced perspective of a historian. Often conversations about immigration center on the subject of labor, and yet, as Chomsky illustrates in the essays collected in her new book, labor in the United States has its own troubled history. With a focus on New England, and especially Boston, Chomsky connects the history of labor struggles dating back to the 19th century to modern-day discussions about race and immigration. By uncovering hidden histories that challenge the dominant narratives about the working class, Chomsky reveals the importance of discussing racial justice alongside economic justice. Rather than participating in the shrill and polarizing rhetoric of political and media hype, Chomsky invites us to look to the economic and political history that has led up to this point. As Chomsky points out, “Until we are able to acknowledge and understand the past, we will not be able to act in the present for a better future.”

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. It is an adapted excerpt from the foreword by Dr. Sarah Parker and Jorge Majfud to the new book by Aviva Chomsky, Unwanted People (University of Valencia Press, 2019).


Dr. Sarah Parker is an associate professor in the English department at Jacksonville University. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and book chapters on topics ranging from the history of medicine to French feminist theory.


Jorge Majfud

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan American writer and an associate professor at Jacksonville University.



Aviva Chomsky Cover 2

¿Qué hace el neoliberalismo en las elecciones de Uruguay?

El Uruguay moderno (ese desarrollado a fines del siglo XIX con J.P. Varela) siempre ha sido batllista-artiguista, con períodos de epilepsia oligárquica y neoliberal. No importa la ideología, no importa el partido político: todos los uruguayos son, más o menos, batllistas artiguistas. No siempre en la práctica, pero sí como un superego freudiano: los uruguayos son artiguistas cuando reconocen su opción por los de abajo, su antimilitarismo y su antirracismo, y son batllistas cuando en sus decisiones personales reconocen el valor del Estado como agente de gestión colectiva, como administrador de justicia social, susceptible de corrupción pero insustituible. El mito de Maracaná es otro hito posible por el espíritu batllista artiguista. Sin José Batlle, Uruguay no hubiese sido dos (o cuatro) veces campeón del mundo ni quince veces campeón del continente, ni esa pasión sería hoy una marca de identidad nacional. El batllismo inventó el espíritu del fútbol uruguayo y el batllismo artiguista marcó hasta su literatura, esa literatura con conciencia crítica, tan alejada de la frivolidad del mercado, de la diversión y del sentimentalismo de alcoba.

Cualquier política de Estado que niegue esa profunda raíz es un injerto condenado a dar frutos amargos. Los mismos períodos de epilepsia neoliberal lo han demostrado y, a juzgar por las actuales disputas electorales, es una condición persistente.

El neoliberalismo ha hecho estragos en muchos países alrededor del mundo. Ha quebrado a casi todos. Incluso en aquellos pocos ejemplos publicitados como el de Chile, el supuesto éxito no fue posible sin inundaciones de dólares y propaganda estadounidense a partir de 1973 para apoyar no solo una dictadura de corte nazi que le era conveniente a la oligarquía criolla y a las poderosos transnacionales, sino para tener un ejemplo positivo que mostrar al mundo y a América Latina en particular (los bloqueos y las demonizaciones quedaron reservados a todos aquellos que se atrevieron a decir no o probar un camino diferente).

Pese a todo, los supuestos logros de la economía chilena no se reflejan en un milagro social, sino todo lo contrario. La educación es “un bien de consumo”, no un derecho, y para eso, como en Estados Unidos, los jóvenes deben endeudarse de forma que sólo los ricos se gradúan listos para la “libre competencia” y el resto dedica media vida a pagar sus deudas. Cuando lo logra, ya se han especializado en pensar sólo en el dinero, no en su vocación, y no saben hacer otra cosa que más dinero, lo cual, claro, es una bendición para la economía y para la industria de las drogas.

Lo mismo, el modelo de inversión chileno de las jubilaciones privadas. El fracaso del modelo neoliberal de jubilaciones en Uruguay (afortunadamente, la opción estatal siempre fue la preferida) fue recientemente salvado por el Estado, como siempre. En 2018, la mitad de los afiliados a las AFAP creadas durante los años 90s, se pasaron al sistema estatal porque los privados le estaban retornando mucho menos dinero del calculado y del prometido.

El Estado es ineficiente hasta que cunde el pánico. Porque el capitalismo tiene esa eterna ventaja: cuando acierta, se lleva todo; cuando pierde, el maldito Estado lo salva, empezando por los de arriba para que algo gotee a los de abajo. Con una diferencia: en Uruguay ocurrió al revés, cosa rara en el mundo, porque los salvavidas fueron para los de abajo. Solución batllista artiguista.

En otros casos diferentes al “éxito del neoliberalismo chileno”, donde siempre se aplaude al principio y se niega tres veces al final, la misma ideología, los mismos créditos multimillonarios y las mismas adulaciones descendieron en muchos otros países del continente sin siquiera llegar a aumentar el PIB nacional sino las deudas externas y arruinar la economía y la sociedad: la Argentina de Martínez de Hoz, la de Menem y Cavallo, la de Mauricio Macri; la Bolivia de Víctor Paz Estenssoro; el Uruguay de Luis Alberto Lacalle; el Ecuador de Febres Cordero; la Venezuela de Andrés Pérez; el México de Miguel de la Madrid, el de Carlos Salinas de Gortari y el de Ernesto Zedillo, etc. Sí, ya sabemos las recurrentes respuestas: “si estás contra el neoliberalismo estás a favor de Stalin, de Khmer Rouge y de Josip Broz Tito”.

Pero cuando hablamos del neoliberalismo en América Latina, no nos referimos a lo que podría ocurrir y que nunca ha ocurrido, sino a algo que ha ocurrido innumerables veces con los mismos resultados y, por si fuese poco, es una propuesta orgullosa de candidatos como el economista de la Universidad de Chicago, el Dr. Ernesto Talvi en Uruguay.

En Uruguay, como en otros países de la era poscolonial, la imposición de recetas salvadoras ha sido siempre catastrófico. Ese país, con escasos doscientos años de historia, invento del imperio británico en 1828, en realidad nació en 1813, con el general José Artigas, un hombre con una sensibilidad social superior para la época, extraña, nunca analizada del todo; un hombre que repartió tierras a negros, indios y blancos pobres. Un mujeriego que terminó sus días en el exilio viviendo (¿o conviviendo?) casi treinta años con un poeta negro que liberó antes de abandonar su tierra, derrotado en 1820 en Tacuarembó. Por entonces, el fundador del partido colorado, el primer presidente, otro patriota mata indios, Fructuoso Rivera se pasó a las filas portuguesas y luego, como presidente de Uruguay, ordenó darle caza, vivo o muerto. Pero los indios paraguayos le dieron el título de “El hombre que resplandece”.

Si el artiguismo fuese hoy una inmoralidad, como lo es el racismo de, por ejemplo, el venerado esclavista y mata indios Andrew Jackson en Estados Unidos, es comprensible que se luche por demoler esa tradición. Pero no, es básicamente lo contrario.

Si el batllismo, cien años después, hubiese sido un fracaso económico y social, es comprensible que se luche por demoler esa tradición. Pero no, es básicamente lo contrario.

Es por esta razón que en Uruguay se da la paradoja de que somos, a un mismo tiempo, progresistas y tradicionalistas. Pero no de cualquier tradición. No de la tradición feudalista de las haciendas donde los peones y los gauchos eran animales de carga, sino de la otra tradición, la que creía y todavía cree en la educación universal, desde la primaria hasta la universidad; que cree en el derecho a la salud y al equilibrio social a través de la protección de los derechos de los menos fuertes, como lo son, incluso, las trabajadores; que cree en el derecho de nuestros viejos a un retiro en paz.

El artiguismo no es un sentimiento nacionalista ni militarista. Artigas negó (como Jesús negó lo que tanto adoran hoy los cristianos protestantes: la riqueza como signo de preferencia divina) el despotismo militar y el abuso de los de arriba. Luego, el batllismo creó lo demás, hasta la tradición del fútbol. Lo mismo la visión moderada de un estado benefactor, estabilizador, social y, no en pocos aspectos, directamente socialista.

El batllismo artiguista, el Uruguay donde “nadie es más que nadie ni menos que ninguno”, donde hasta Charles Darwin se sorprendió de la inexplicable autoestima de los gauchos más pobres, es eso: progresismo con memoria, porque el progresismo no es ruptura ni es inmovilidad sino perpetuo cambio y mejora de algo que sabe, que no olvida, quién es, de dónde viene y hacia dónde va.


JM, setiembre 2019

¿Qué hace el neoliberalismo en las elecciones de Uruguay?