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).