Aviva Chomsky

The 'dark side' of American exceptionalism is due for a reckoning

Recently, making my way through the New York Times — and yes, at 77 and a creature of habit, I still read its paper version — I found two articles of special interest to me, one above the other, on page 17. These days, I hardly need to say that the front page (and its online equivalent) remains a riot of Ukraine news. That day, four major Ukraine stories were piled atop one another there (plus grim photos) with the overarching headline being: “Survivors Found in Theater Rubble, but Suffering Widens.”

There can be no doubt that the ongoing disaster in Europe and Russia remains a story of major and developing, even world endangering, significance. Still, I wondered whether there shouldn’t also have been a place somewhere far more obvious for those two buried stories on page 17. The smaller one at page bottom was headlined, “Drought Conditions Expected to Worsen, and Spread Farther, Through the Spring.” Just 12 modest paragraphs, it offered the latest news on the climate-change-induced megadrought, the worst in 1,200 years, that’s now struck much of the western half of this country and shows no sign of letting up soon on this ever hotter, more disturbed planet of ours. Above it, taking up a significant part of the page, was a story headlined “Largest Federal Utility Chooses Gas, Undermining Biden’s Climate Goals.” Oh, and like the Postal Service, led by a Trump appointee, that now plans to spend $6 billion purchasing 165,000 new gasoline-powered mail trucks, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board is “dominated by members nominated by former President Donald J. Trump, who frequently mocked climate science and was an ally of the fossil fuel industry.”

At the heart of both those stories lies a human inability at least as devastating as the one in Ukraine to deal with a peril of world-endangering significance. It seems to me that it should now be eternally in our sightlines, but anyone who watches TV news or checks out major mainstream websites knows that it seldom is. Yes, we can live 24/7 with horrifying news of the developing disaster that is Ukraine, but not the one that increasingly is our entire planet.

As you may have noticed, however, TomDispatch does consider the climate emergency an ongoing top-of-the-news story, not just a page 17 item, which is why today it’s publishing the latest piece by TomDispatch regular Aviva Chomsky, author of the new book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice, who focuses on the way the very organization of this planet in terms of our well-being or lack of it (think, for instance, about the 700 American billionaires whose wealth only grew by $1.7 trillion in the pandemic years) has helped heat this planet to what increasingly looks like the boiling point. Then think with Chomsky about just how this world of ours is organized at present. Believe me, it’s a headline story or at least it should be. Tom

The United States Is Exceptional: Just Not in the Ways Any of Us Should Want

Three years after the end of World War II, diplomat George Kennan outlined the challenges the country faced this way:

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.

That, in a nutshell, was the postwar version of U.S. exceptionalism and Washington was then planning to manage the world in such a way as to maintain that remarkably grotesque disparity. The only obstacle Kennan saw was poor people demanding a share of the wealth.

Today, as humanity confronts a looming climate catastrophe, what’s needed is a new political-economic project. Its aim would be to replace such exceptionalism and the hoarding of the earth’s resources with what’s been called “a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

Back in 1948, few if any here were thinking about the environmental effects of the over-consumption of available resources. Yet even then, however unknown, this country’s growing wealth had a dark underside: the slow-brewing crisis of climate change. Wealth all too literally meant the intensified extraction of resources and the production of goods. As it happened, fossil fuels (and the greenhouse gases that went with their burning) were essential to every step in the process.

Today, the situation has shifted — at least a bit. With approximately 4% of the world’s population, the United States still holds about 30% of its wealth, while its commitment to over-consumption and maintaining global dominance remains remarkably unshaken. To grasp that, all you have to do is consider the Biden White House’s recent Indo-Pacific Strategy policy brief, which begins in this telling way: “The United States is an Indo-Pacific power.” Indeed.

In 2022, the relationship between wealth, emissions, and climate catastrophe has become ever clearer. In the crucial years between 1990 and 2015, the global economy expanded from $47 trillion to $108 trillion. During that same period, global annual greenhouse-gas emissions grew by more than 60%. Mind you, 1990 was the year in which atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) first surpassed what many scientists believed was the level of safety — 350 parts per million, or ppm. Yet in the 22 years since then, more CO2 and other greenhouse gases have been emitted✎ EditSign into the atmosphere than in all of history prior to that date, as atmospheric CO2 careened past 400 ppm in 2016 with 420 ppm now fast approaching.

Inequality and Emissions

Growing global wealth is closely associated with growing emissions. But the wealth and responsibility for those emissions are not shared equally among the planet’s population. On an individual level, the wealthiest people on Earth consume — and emit — far more than their poorer counterparts. The richest 10% of the world’s population, or about 630 million people, were responsible for more than half of the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions over the last quarter-century. On a national level, rich countries are, of course, home to far more people with high levels of consumption, which means that the larger and wealthier the country, the greater its emissions.

In terms of per capita income, the United States ranks 13th in the world. But the countries above it on the list are mostly tiny, including some of the Persian Gulf states, Ireland, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Switzerland. So, despite their high per-capita emissions, their overall contribution isn’t that big. As the third-largest country on this planet, our soaring per-capita emissions have, on the other hand, had a devastating effect.

With a population of around 330 million, the United States today has less than a quarter of either China’s population of more than 1.4 billion or India’s, which is just under that figure. Four other countries — Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan — fall into the population range of 200 to 300 million, but their per-capita gross domestic products (GDPs) and their per-capita emissions are far below ours. In fact, the total U.S. GDP of more than $19 trillion far exceeds that of any other country, followed by China at $12 trillion and Japan at $5 trillion.

In sum, the United States is exceptional when it comes to both its size and wealth. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, until 2006, it was also by far the world’s top CO2 emitter. After that, it was surpassed by a fast-developing China (though that country’s per capita emissions remain less than half of ours) and no other country’s greenhouse gas emissions come close to either of those two.

To fully understand different countries’ responsibilities, it’s necessary to go past yearly numbers and look at how much they’ve emitted over time, since the greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere don’t disappear at the end of the year. Here again, one country stands out above all the others: the United States, whose cumulative emissions reached 416 billion tons by the end of 2020. China’s, which didn’t start rising rapidly until the 1980s, reached 235 billion tons in that year, while India trailed at 54 billion.

Having first hit 20 billion tons in 1910, U.S. cumulative emissions have only shot up ever since, while China’s didn’t hit that 20 billion mark until 1979. So the U.S. got a big head start and, cumulatively speaking, is still way ahead when it comes to taking down this planet.

The U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) argues that excessive emitters like the United States have already used up far more than their “fair share” of this planet’s carbon budget and so, in fact, owe a huge carbon debt to the rest of the world to make up for their outsized contribution to the problem of climate change over the past two centuries. Unfortunately, the 2015 Paris Agreement’s voluntary, non-enforceable, and nationally determined limits on emissions functionally let rich countries continue on their damaging ways.

In fact, nations should be held responsible for repaying their carbon debt. The world’s poorest people, who have contributed practically nothing to the problem, deserve access to a portion of the remaining budget and to the sort of aid that would enable them to develop alternative forms of energy to meet their basic needs.

Under the fair-share proposal, it’s not enough for the United States just to stop adding emissions. This country needs to repay the climate debt it’s already incurred. USCAN calculates that to pay back its fair share the United States must cut its emissions by 70% by 2030, while contributing the cash equivalent of another 125% of its current emissions every year through technical and financial support to energy-poor nations.

Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal proposal adopted the concept of the “fair share.” True leadership in the global climate fight, Sanders has argued, means recognizing that “the United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.”

On this subject, however, his voice and others like it sadly remain far outside the all-too-right-wing mainstream. (And if you doubt that, just check Joe Manchin’s recent voting record).

Are We Making Progress Thanks to New Technologies?

In 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade — the goal that the countries involved in the Paris Agreement, including the United States, accepted as their baseline for action. It concluded that, to have a 50% chance of staying below that temperature increase, our future collective emissions couldn’t exceed 480 gigatons (or 480 billion tons). That, in other words, was humanity’s remaining carbon budget.

Unfortunately, as of 2018, global emissions were exceeding 40 gigatons a year, which meant that even if they were flattened almost immediately (not exactly a likelihood), we would use up that budget in a mere dozen years or so. Worse yet, despite a Covid-induced decline in 2020, global emissions actually rebounded sharply in 2021.

Most scenarios for emission reductions, including those proposed by the IPCC, rely optimistically on new technologies to enable us to get there without making substantive changes in the global economy or in the excessive consumption of the world’s richest people and countries. Such technological advances, it’s hoped, would allow us to produce as much, or possibly more energy from renewable sources and even possibly begin removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support the likelihood of such progress, especially in the time we have left. No matter how much new technology we develop, there seems to be no completely “clean” form of energy. All of them — nuclear, wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, and perhaps others still to be developed — rely on massive industrial operations to extract finite resources from the earth; factories to process them; facilities to create, store, and transmit energy; and, in the end, some form of waste (think batteries, solar panels, old electric cars, and so on). Every form of energy will have multiple dangerous environmental impacts. Meanwhile, as the use of alternative forms of energy production increases worldwide, it hasn’t yet reduced fossil-fuel use. Instead, it’s just added to our growing energy consumption.

It’s true that the world’s wealthiest countries have achieved some gains in decoupling economic growth from rising emissions. But much of this relatively minor decoupling is attributable to a shift from the use of coal to natural gas, along with the outsourcing of particularly dirty industries. Decoupling has, as yet, made no dent in global greenhouse gas emissions and seems unlikely to accelerate or even continue at a meaningful enough pace after these first and easiest steps have been taken. So almost all climate modeling, like that of the IPCC, suggests that new technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will also be needed to counter rising emissions.

But negative emissions technologies are largely aspirational at this point. Instead of counting on what still to a significant extent remain technological fantasies, while the wealthy continue their profligacy, it’s time to shift our thinking more radically and focus, as I do in my new book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice, on how to reduce extraction, production, and consumption in far more socially just ways, so that we can indeed begin to live within our planet’s means. Call it “post-growth” or “degrowth” thinking.

Make no mistake: we can’t live without energy and we desperately do need to turn to alternatives to fossil fuels. But alternative energies are only going to be truly viable if we can also greatly reduce our energy needs, which means reconfiguring the global economy. If energy is a scarce and precious resource, then ways must be found to prioritize its use to meet the urgent needs of the world’s poor, rather than endlessly expanding the luxuries of the wealthiest among us. And that’s precisely what degrowth thinking is all about: scaling back the mindless pursuit of production, consumption, and profit in favor of “human wellbeing and ecological stability.”

Abandoning Exceptionalism

In April 2021, President Biden made a dramatic announcement, setting a new goal for U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions — to reduce them 50% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Sounds pretty good, right?

But given that this country’s CO2 emissions had hit a high of 6.13 billion tons in 2005, that means by 2030 we’d still be emitting three billion tons of CO2 a year. Even if we could reach net-zero by 2050, our country alone would, by then, have used up one-quarter of the entire remaining carbon budget for the planet. And right now, given the state of the American political system, there’s neither a genuine plan nor an obvious way to reach Biden’s goal. If we stay on our current path — and don’t count on that if the Republicans take Congress in 2022 and the White House again in 2024 — we would barely achieve a 30% reduction by 2030.

At this point, there’s no guarantee we’ll stay on that path, no matter the political party in power. After all, consider just this:

  • In 2010, about half of the new vehicles sold in the United States were cars and half were SUVs or trucks. By 2021, close to 80% were SUVs or trucks.
  • In 2020, more than 900,000 new houses were built in this country, their median size, 2,261 square feet. Most of them had four or more bedrooms and 870,000 had central air conditioning.
  • President Biden’s infrastructure bill, signed in November 2021, included $763 billion for new highways.

And let’s not even talk about the military-industrial-congressional complex and war. After all, the Department of Defense is the single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels and emitter of CO2 in the world. Between its worldwide bases, promotion of the arms industry, and ongoing global wars, our military alone produces annual emissions greater than those of wealthy countries like Sweden and Denmark.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the climate-change meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, in the fall of 2021, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry insisted repeatedly that the United States must work to bring China on board. Joe Biden too kept his attention focused on China. And indeed, given its greenhouse gas emissions and still-expanding use of coal, China does have a big role to play. But to the rest of the world, such an insistence on diverting attention from our own role in the climate crisis rings hollow indeed.

A 2021 study shows that almost all of the world’s remaining coal, not to speak of most of its gas and oil reserves, will need to stay in the ground if global warming is to be kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade. Back in 2018, another study found that even to meet a 2-degree centigrade goal, which it’s now all too clear would be catastrophic in climate-change terms, humanity would have to halt all new fossil-fuel-based infrastructure and immediately start decommissioning fossil-fuel-burning plants. Instead, such new facilities continue to be built in a relentless fashion globally. Unless the United States, which bears by far the greatest responsibility for our climate emergency, is ready to radically change course, how can it demand that others do so?

But to change course would mean to abandon exceptionalism.

Degrowth scholars argue that, rather than risking all of our futures on as-yet-unproven technologies in order to cling to economic growth, we should seek social and political solutions that would involve redistributing the planet’s wealth, its scarce resources, and its carbon budget in ways that prioritize basic needs and social wellbeing globally.

That, however, would require the United States to acknowledge the dark side of its exceptionalism and agree to relinquish it, something that, in March 2022, still seems highly unlikely.

Migration isn't the crisis: Biden and Harris are pushing a failed policy in Central America

Earlier this month, a Honduran court found David Castillo, a U.S.-trained former Army intelligence officer and the head of an internationally financed hydroelectric company, guilty of the 2016 murder of celebrated Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres. His company was building a dam that threatened the traditional lands and water sources of the Indigenous Lenca people. For years, Cáceres and her organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, had led the struggle to halt that project. It turned out, however, that Cáceres's international recognition — she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 — couldn't protect her from becoming one of the dozens of Latin American Indigenous and environmental activists killed annually.

Yet when President Joe Biden came into office with an ambitious "Plan for Security and Prosperity in Central America," he wasn't talking about changing policies that promoted big development projects against the will of local inhabitants. Rather, he was focused on a very different goal: stopping migration. His plan, he claimed, would address its "root causes." Vice President Kamala Harris was even blunter when she visited Guatemala, instructing potential migrants: "Do not come."

As it happens, more military and private development aid of the sort Biden's plan calls for (and Harris boasted about) won't either stop migration or help Central America. It's destined, however, to spark yet more crimes like Cáceres's murder. There are other things the United States could do that would aid Central America. The first might simply be to stop talking about trying to end migration.

How Can the United States Help Central America?

Biden and Harris are only recycling policy prescriptions that have been around for decades: promote foreign investment in Central America's export economy, while building up militarized "security" in the region. In truth, it's the very economic model the United States has imposed there since the nineteenth century, which has brought neither security nor prosperity to the region (though it's brought both to U.S. investors there). It's also the model that has displaced millions of Central Americans from their homes and so is the fundamental cause of what, in this country, is so often referred to as the "crisis" of immigration.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the U.S. began imposing that very model to overcome what officials regularly described as Central American "savagery" and "banditry." The pattern continued as Washington found a new enemy, communism, to battle there in the second half of the last century. Now, Biden promises that the very same policies — foreign investment and eternal support for the export economy — will end migration by attacking its "root causes": poverty, violence, and corruption. (Or call them "savagery" and "banditry," if you will.) It's true that Central America is indeed plagued by poverty, violence, and corruption, but if Biden were willing to look at the root causes of his root causes, he might notice that his aren't the solutions to such problems, but their source.

Stopping migration from Central America is no more a legitimate policy goal than was stopping savagery, banditry, or communism in the twentieth century. In fact, what Washington policymakers called savagery (Indigenous people living autonomously on their lands), banditry (the poor trying to recover what the rich had stolen from them), and communism (land reform and support for the rights of oppressed workers and peasants) were actually potential solutions to the very poverty, violence, and corruption imposed by the US-backed ruling elites in the region. And maybe migration is likewise part of Central Americans' struggle to solve these problems. After all, migrants working in this country send back more money in remittances to their families in Central America than the United States has ever given in foreign aid.

What, then, would a constructive U.S. policy towards Central America look like?

Perhaps the most fundamental baseline of foreign policy should be that classic summary of the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm. As for doing some good, before the subject can even be discussed, there needs to be an acknowledgement that so much of what we've done to Central America over the past 200 years has been nothing but harm.

The United States could begin by assuming historical responsibility for the disasters it's created there. After the counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s, the United Nations sponsored truth commissions in El Salvador and Guatemala to uncover the crimes committed against civilian populations there. Unfortunately, those commissions didn't investigate Washington's role in funding and promoting war crimes in the region.

Maybe what's now needed is a new truth commission to investigate historic U.S. crimes in Central America. In reality, the United States owes those small, poor, violent, and corrupt countries reparations for the damages it's caused over all these years. Such an investigation might begin with Washington's long history of sponsoring coups, military "aid," armed interventions, massacres, assassinations, and genocide.

The U.S. would have to focus as well on the impacts of ongoing economic aid since the 1980s, aimed at helping U.S. corporations at the expense of the Central American poor. It could similarly examine the role of debt and the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement in fostering corporate and elite interests. And don't forget the way the outsized U.S. contribution to greenhouse gas emissions — this country is, of course, the largest such emitter in history — and climate change has contributed to the destruction of livelihoods in Central America. Finally, it could investigate how our border and immigration policies directly contribute to keeping Central America poor, violent, and corrupt, in the name of stopping migration.

Constructive Options for U.S. Policy in Central America

Providing Vaccines: Even as Washington rethinks the fundamentals of this country's policies there, it could take immediate steps on one front, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been devastating the region. Central America is in desperate need of vaccines, syringes, testing materials, and personal protective equipment. A history of underfunding, debt, and privatization, often due directly or indirectly to U.S. policy, has left Central America's healthcare systems in shambles. While Latin America as a whole has been struggling to acquire the vaccines it needs, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua rank at the very bottom of doses administered. If the United States actually wanted to help Central America, the emergency provision of what those countries need to get vaccines into arms would be an obvious place to start.

Reversing economic exploitation: Addressing the structural and institutional bases of economic exploitation could also have a powerful impact. First, we could undo the harmful provisions of the 2005 Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Yes, Central American governments beholden to Washington did sign on to it, but that doesn't mean that the agreement benefited the majority of the inhabitants in the region. In reality, what CAFTA did was throw open Central American markets to U.S. agricultural exports, in the process undermining the livelihoods of small farmers there.

CAFTA also gave a boost to the maquiladora or export-processing businesses, lending an all-too-generous hand to textile, garment, pharmaceutical, electronics, and other industries that regularly scour the globe for the cheapest places to manufacture their goods. In the process, it created mainly the kind of low-quality jobs that corporations can easily move anytime in an ongoing global race to the bottom.

Central American social movements have also vehemently protested CAFTA provisions that undermine local regulations and social protections, while privileging foreign corporations. At this point, local governments in that region can't even enforce the most basic laws they've passed to regulate such deeply exploitative foreign investors.

Another severe restriction that prevents Central American governments from pursuing economic policies in the interest of their populations is government debt. Private banks lavished loans on dictatorial governments in the 1970s, then pumped up interest rates in the 1980s, causing those debts to balloon. The International Monetary Fund stepped in to bail out the banks, imposing debt restructuring programs on already-impoverished countries — in other words, making the poor pay for the profligacy of the wealthy.

For real economic development, governments need the resources to fund health, education, and welfare. Unsustainable and unpayable debt (compounded by ever-growing interest) make it impossible for such governments to dedicate resources where they're truly needed. A debt jubilee would be a crucial step towards restructuring the global economy and shifting the stream of global resources that currently flows so strongly from the poorest to the richest countries.

Now, add another disastrous factor to this equation: the U.S. "drug wars" that have proven to be a key factor in the spread of violence, displacement, and corruption in Central America. The focus of the drug war on Mexico in the early 2000s spurred an orgy of gang violence there, while pushing the trade south into Central America. The results have been disastrous. As drug traffickers moved in, they brought violence, land grabs, and capital for new cattle and palm-oil industries, drawing in corrupt politicians and investors. Pouring arms and aid into the drug wars that have exploded in Central America has only made trafficking even more corrupt, violent, and profitable.

Reversing climate change: In recent years, ever more extreme weather in Central America's "dry corridor," running from Guatemala through El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, has destroyed homes, farms, and livelihoods, and this climate-change-induced trend is only worsening by the year. While the news largely tends to present ongoing drought, punctuated by ever more frequent and violent hurricanes and tropical storms, as well as increasingly disastrous flooding, as so many individual occurrences, their heightened frequency is certainly a result of climate change. And about a third of Central America's migrants directly cite extreme weather as the reason they were forced to leave their homes. Climate change is, in fact, just what the U.S. Department of Defense all-too-correctly termed a "threat multiplier" that contributes to food and water scarcity, land conflicts, unemployment, violence, and other causes of migration.

The United States has, of course, played and continues to play an outsized role in contributing to climate change. And, in fact, we continue to emit far more CO2 per person than any other large country. We also produce and export large amounts of fossil fuels — the U.S., in fact, is one of the world's largest exporters as well as one of the largest consumers. And we continue to fund and promote fossil-fuel-dependent development at home and abroad. One of the best ways the United States could help Central America would be to focus time, energy, and money on stopping the burning of fossil fuels.

Migration as a Problem Solver

Isn't it finally time that the officials and citizens of the United States recognized the role migration plays in Central American economies? Where U.S. economic development recipes have failed so disastrously, migration has been the response to these failures and, for many Central Americans, the only available way to survive.

One in four Guatemalan families relies on remittances from relatives working in the United States and such monies account for about half of their income. President Biden may have promised Central America $4 billion in aid over four years, but Guatemala alone receives $9 billion a year in such remittances. And unlike government aid, much of which ends up in the pockets of U.S. corporations, local entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats of various sorts, remittances go directly to meet the needs of ordinary households.

At present, migration is a concrete way that Central Americans are trying to solve their all-too-desperate problems. Since the nineteenth century, Indigenous and peasant communities have repeatedly sought self-sufficiency and autonomy, only to be displaced by U.S. plantations in the name of progress. They've tried organizing peasant and labor movements to fight for land reform and workers' rights, only to be crushed by U.S.-trained and sponsored militaries in the name of anti-communism. With other alternatives foreclosed, migration has proven to be a twenty-first-century form of resistance and survival.

If migration can be a path to overcome economic crises, then instead of framing Washington's Central American policy as a way to stop it, the United States could reverse course and look for ways to enhance migration's ability to solve problems.

Jason DeParle aptly titled his recent book on migrant workers from the Philippines A Good Provider is One Who Leaves. "Good providers should not have to leave," responded the World Bank's Dilip Ratha, "but they should have the option." As Ratha explains,

"Migrants benefit their destination countries. They provide essential skills that may be missing and fill jobs that native-born people may not want to perform. Migrants pay taxes and are statistically less prone to commit crimes than native-born people… Migration benefits the migrant and their extended family and offers the potential to break the cycle of poverty. For women, migration elevates their standing in the family and the society. For children, it provides access to healthcare, education, and a higher standard of living. And for many countries of origin, remittances provide a lifeline in terms of external, counter-cyclical financing."

Migration can also have terrible costs. Families are separated, while many migrants face perilous conditions, including violence, detention, and potentially death on their journeys, not to speak of inadequate legal protection, housing, and working conditions once they reach their destination. This country could do a lot to mitigate such costs, many of which are under its direct control. The United States could open its borders to migrant workers and their families, grant them full legal rights and protections, and raise the minimum wage.

Would such policies lead to a large upsurge in migration from Central America? In the short run, they might, given the current state of that region under conditions created and exacerbated by Washington's policies over the past 40 years. In the longer run, however, easing the costs of migration actually could end up easing the structural conditions that cause it in the first place.

Improving the safety, rights, and working conditions of migrants would help Central America far more than any of the policies Biden and Harris are proposing. More security and higher wages would enable migrants to provide greater support for families back home. As a result, some would return home sooner. Smuggling and human trafficking rings, which take advantage of illegal migration, would wither from disuse. The enormous resources currently aimed at policing the border could be shifted to immigrant services. If migrants could come and go freely, many would go back to some version of the circular migration pattern that prevailed among Mexicans before the militarization of the border began to undercut that option in the 1990s. Long-term family separation would be reduced. Greater access to jobs, education, and opportunity has been shown to be one of the most effective anti-gang strategies.

In other words, there's plenty the United States could do to develop more constructive policies towards Central America and its inhabitants. That, however, would require thinking far more deeply about the "root causes" of the present catastrophe than Biden, Harris, and crew seem willing to do. In truth, the policies of this country bear an overwhelming responsibility for creating the very structural conditions that cause the stream of migrants that both Democrats and Republicans have decried, turning the act of simple survival into an eternal "crisis" for those very migrants and their families. A change in course is long overdue.

Copyright 2021 Aviva Chomsky

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Aviva Chomsky, a TomDispatch regular, is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. Her new book, Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, will be published in April.

The grim truth about Biden's plan for the border

Joe Biden entered the White House with some inspiring yet contradictory positions on immigration and Central America. He promised to reverse Donald Trump's draconian anti-immigrant policies while, through his "Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America," restoring "U.S. leadership in the region" that he claimed Trump had abandoned. For Central Americans, though, such "leadership" has an ominous ring.

Although the second half of his plan's name does, in fact, echo that of left-wing, grassroots organizations like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), its content highlights a version of security and prosperity in that region that's more Cold War-like than CISPES-like. Instead of solidarity (or even partnership) with Central America, Biden's plan actually promotes an old economic development model that has long benefited U.S. corporations. It also aims to impose a distinctly militarized version of "security" on the people of that region. In addition, it focuses on enlisting Central American governments and, in particular, their militaries to contain migration through the use of repression.

Linking Immigration and Foreign Policy

The clearest statement of the president's Central America goals appears in his "U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021," sent to Congress on January 20th. That proposal offers a sweeping set of changes aimed at eliminating President Trump's racist exclusions, restoring rights to asylum, and opening a path to legal status and citizenship for the immigrant population. After the anti-immigrant barrage of the last four years, that proposal seems worth celebrating. It follows in the footsteps of previous bipartisan "comprehensive" compromises like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and a failed 2013 immigration bill, both of which included a path to citizenship for many undocumented people, while dedicating significant resources to border "security."

Read closely, a significant portion of Biden's immigration proposal focuses on the premise that addressing the root causes of Central America's problems will reduce the flow of immigrants to the U.S. border. In its own words, the Biden plan promises to promote "the rule of law, security, and economic development in Central America" in order to "address the key factors" contributing to emigration. Buried in its fuzzy language, however, are long-standing bipartisan Washington goals that should sound familiar to those who have been paying attention in these years.

Their essence: that millions of dollars in "aid" money should be poured into upgrading local military and police forces in order to protect an economic model based on private investment and the export of profits. Above all, the privileges of foreign investors must not be threatened. As it happens, this is the very model that Washington has imposed on the countries of Central America over the past century, one that's left its lands corrupt, violent, and impoverished, and so continued to uproot Central Americans and send them fleeing toward the United States.

Crucial to Biden's plan, as to those of his predecessors, is another key element: to coerce Mexico and Guatemala into serving as proxies for the wall only partially built along the southern border of the U.S. and proudly promoted by presidents from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump.

While the economic model lurking behind Biden's plan may be old indeed, the attempt to outsource U.S. immigration enforcement to Mexican and Central American military and police forces has proven to be a distinctly twenty-first-century twist on border policy.

Outsourcing the Border (from Bush to Biden)

The idea that immigration policy could be outsourced began long before Donald Trump notoriously threatened, in mid-2019, to impose tariffs on Mexican goods to pressure that country's new president into agreeing to his demand to collaborate with Washington's anti-immigrant agenda. That included, of course, Trump's controversial "remain in Mexico" policy that has continued to strand tens of thousands of asylum-seekers there.

Meanwhile, for almost two decades the United States has been bullying (and funding) military and police forces to its south to enforce its immigration priorities, effectively turning other countries' borders into extensions of the U.S. one. In the process, Mexico's forces have regularly been deployed on that country's southern border, and Guatemala's on its border with Honduras, all to violently enforce Washington's immigration policies.

Such outsourcing was, in part, a response to the successes of the immigrant rights movement in this country. U.S. leaders hoped to evade legal scrutiny and protest at home by making Mexico and Central America implement the uglier aspects of their policies.

President Trump blustered and bullied Mexico and various Central American countries far more openly than the previous two presidents while taking such policies to new levels. Under his orders, Mexico formed a new, militarized National Guard and deployed 12,000 of its members to the Guatemalan border, even as funding from Washington helped create high-technology infrastructure along Mexico's southern border, rivaling that on the U.S. border.It all began with the Mérida Initiative in 2007, a George W. Bush-initiated plan that would direct billions of dollars to military equipment, aid, and infrastructure in Mexico (with smaller amounts going to Central America). One of its four pillars was the creation of "a 21st century border" by pushing Mexico to militarize its southern border. By 2013, Washington had funded 12 new military bases along that border with Guatemala and a 100-mile "security cordon" north of it.

In response to what was seen as a child-migrant crisis in the summer of 2014 (sound familiar?), President Barack Obama further pressured Mexico to initiate a new Southern Border Program. Since then, tens of millions of dollars a year have gone toward the militarization of that border and Mexico was soon detaining tens of thousands of migrants monthly. Not surprisingly, deportations and human-rights violations against Central American migrants shot up dramatically there. "Our border today in effect is Mexico's border with Honduras and Guatemala," exulted Obama's former border czar Alan Bersin in 2019. A local activist was less sanguine, protesting that the program "turned the border region into a war zone."

Trump called for reducing aid to Central America. Yet under his watch, most of the $3.6 billion appropriated by Congress continued to flow there, about half of it aimed at strengthening local military and police units. Trump did, however, temporarily withhold civilian aid funds to coerce Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador into signing "safe third country" agreements that would allow the United States to deport people with valid asylum claims to those very countries.

Trump also demanded that Guatemala increase security along its southern border "to stem the flow of irregular migration" and "deploy officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to advise and mentor host nation police, border security, immigration, and customs counterparts." Once the Central American countries conceded to Trump's demands, aid was restored.

This February, President Biden suspended those safe third country agreements, but is clearly otherwise ready to continue to outsource border enforcement to Mexico and Central America.

The Other Side of Militarization: "Economic Development"

As Democratic and Republican administrations alike outsourced a militarized response to immigration, they also sought to sell their agendas with promises of economic-development aid to Central America. However, they consistently promoted the very kind of assistance that historically brought violence and poverty to the region — and so led directly to today's migrant crisis.

The model Washington continues to promote is based on the idea that, if Central American governments can woo foreign investors with improved infrastructure, tax breaks, and weak environmental and labor laws, the "free market" will deliver the investment, jobs, and economic growth that (in theory) will keep people from wanting to migrate in the first place. Over and over again in Central America's tormented history, however, exactly the opposite has happened. Foreign investment flowed in, eager to take advantage of the region's fertile lands, natural resources, and cheap labor. This form of development — whether in support of banana and coffee plantations in the nineteenth century or sugar, cotton, and cattle operations after World War II — brought Central America to its revolutions of the 1980s and its north-bound mass migration of today.

As a model, it relies on militarized governments to dispossess peasant farmers, freeing the land for foreign investors. Similarly, force and terror are brought to bear to maintain a cheap and powerless working class, allowing investors to pay little and reap fantastic profits. Such operations, in turn, have brought deforestation to the countryside, while their cheap exports to the United States and elsewhere have helped foster the high-consumption lifestyles that have only accelerated climate change — bringing ever fiercer weather, including the rising sea levels, more intense storms, droughts, and floods that have further undermined the livelihoods of the Central American poor.

Starting in the 1970s, many of those poor workers and peasants pushed for land reform and investment in basic rights like food, health, and education instead of simply further enriching foreign and local elites. When peaceful protest was met with violence, revolution followed, although only in Nicaragua did it triumph.

Washington spent the 1980s attempting to crush Nicaragua's successful revolution and the revolutionary movements against the right-wing military governments of El Salvador and Guatemala. The peace treaties of the 1990s ended the armed conflicts, but never addressed the fundamental social and economic divides that underlay them. In fact, the end of those conflicts only opened the regional floodgates for massive new foreign investment and export booms. These involved, among other things, the spread of maquiladora export-processing plants and the growing of new export-oriented "non-traditional" fruits and vegetables, as well as a boom in extractive industries like gold, nickel, and petroleum, not to speak of the creation of new infrastructure for mass tourism.

In the 1980s, refugees first began fleeing north, especially from El Salvador and Guatemala, then riven by war, repression, and the violence of local paramilitary and death squads. The veneer of peace in the 1990s in no way brought an end to poverty, repression, and violence. Both public and private armed forces provided "security" — but only to elites and the new urban and rural megaprojects they sponsored.

If a government did threaten investors' profits in any way, as when El Salvador declared a moratorium on mining licenses, the U.S.-sponsored Central America Free Trade Agreement enabled foreign corporations to sue and force it to submit to binding arbitration by a World Bank body. In the Obama years, when the elected, reformist president of Honduras tried to enact labor and environmental improvements, Washington gave the nod to a coup there and celebrated when the new president proudly declared the country "open for business" with a package of laws favoring foreign investors.

Journalist David Bacon termed that country's new direction a "poverty-wage economic model" that only fostered the rise of gangs, drug trafficking, and violence. Protest was met with fierce repression, even as U.S. military aid flowed in. Prior to the coup, Hondurans had barely figured among Central American migrants to the United States. Since 2009, its citizens have often come to predominate among those forced to flee their homes and head north.

President Obama's 2014 Alliance for Prosperity offered a new round of aid for investor-driven economic development. Journalist Dawn Paley characterized that Alliance as in "large part a plan to build new infrastructure that will benefit transnational corporations," including "tax breaks for corporate investors and new pipelines, highways, and power lines to speed resource extraction and streamline the process of import, assembly, and export at low-wage maquilas." One major project was a new gas pipeline to facilitate exports of U.S. natural gas to Central America.

It was Obama who oversaw Washington's recognition of the coup in Honduras. It was Trump who looked the other way when Guatemala in 2019 and Honduras in 2020 expelled international anti-corruption commissions. And it was Trump who agreed to downplay the mounting corruption and drug trafficking charges against his friend, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, as long as he promoted an investor-friendly economy and agreed to collaborate with the U.S. president's anti-immigrant agenda.

The January 2021 Caravan Marks the Arrival of the Biden Years

All signs point to the Biden years continuing what's become the Washington norm in Central America: outsourcing immigration policy, militarizing security there, and promoting a model of development that claims to deter migration while actually fueling it. In fact, President Biden's proposal designates $4 billion over four years for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to distribute. Such disbursement, however, would be conditioned on progress toward Washington-approved goals like "improv[ing] border security," "inform[ing]… citizens of the dangers of the journey to the southwest border of the United States," and "resolv[ing] disputes involving the confiscation of real property of United States entities." Significant resources would also be directed to further developing "smart" border technology in that region and to Border Patrol operations in Central America.

A preview of how this is likely to work came just as Biden took office in January 2021.

One predictable result of Washington's outsourcing of immigration control is that the migrant journey from Central America has become ever more costly and perilous. As a result, some migrants have begun gathering in large public "caravans" for protection. Their aim: to reach the U.S. border safely, turn themselves in to the border patrol, and request asylum. In late January 2021, a caravan of some 7,500 Hondurans arrived at the Guatemalan border in hopes that the new president in Washington would, as promised, reverse Trump's controversial remain-in-Mexico policy of apparently endless internment in crowded, inadequate camps just short of the U.S.

They hadn't known that Biden would, in fact, continue his predecessors' outsourcing of immigration policy to Mexico and Central America. As it happened, 2,000 tear-gas and baton-wielding Guatemalan police and soldiers (armed, trained, and supported by the United States) massed at the Guatemala-Honduras border to drive them back.

One former Trump official (retained by President Biden) tweeted that Guatemala had "carr[ied] out its responsibilities appropriately and lawfully." The Mexican government, too, praised Guatemala as it massed thousands of its troops on its own southern border. And Juan González, Biden's National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere lauded Guatemala's "management of the migrant flow."

In mid-March, President Biden appeared to link a positive response to Mexico's request for some of Washington's surplus Covid-19 vaccine to further commitments to cracking down on migrants. One demand: that Mexico suspend its own laws guaranteeing humane detention conditions for families with young children. Neither country had the capacity to provide such conditions for the large number of families detained at the border in early 2021, but the Biden administration preferred to press Mexico to ignore its own laws, so that it could deport more of those families and keep the problem out of sight of the U.S. public.

In late January 2021, CISPES joined a large coalition of peace, solidarity, and labor organizations that called upon the Biden administration to rethink its Central American plans. "The intersecting crises that millions in Central America face are the result of decades of brutal state repression of democratic movements by right-wing regimes and the implementation of economic models designed to benefit local oligarchs and transnational corporations," CISPES wrote. "Far too often, the United States has been a major force behind these policies, which have impoverished the majority of the population and devastated the environment."

The coalition called on Biden to reject Washington's longstanding commitment to militarized security linked to the creation and reinforcement of investor-friendly extractive economies in Central America. "Confronting displacement demands a total rethinking of U.S. foreign policy," CISPES urged. As of mid-March, the president had not responded in any fashion to the plea. My advice: don't hold your breath waiting for such a response.

Copyright 2021 Aviva Chomsky

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The following is an excerpt from, They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky (Beacon Press, 2007).

In 1993, Toni Morrison wrote, in a special issue of Time magazine on immigration, that the "most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture" for immigrants was "negative appraisals of the native-born black population. Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete." Blacks, she said, were permanent noncitizens. "The move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens."

Italian, Polish, and Jewish immigrants may not have identified with, or been accepted into, white society when they first arrived in the United States. But they, or more often their children, assimilated by becoming "white" and experienced upward mobility as they melded into the white majority. And part of the assimilation into whiteness meant the adoption of white racial attitudes.

Black Puerto Rican author Piri Thomas described the generational gap among Italians in his Bronx neighborhood in the 1940s: the mothers and grandmothers accepted him as one of their own while the new generation attacked him as a "spic." One of the Italian boys speculated that if Piri had a sister, they could "cover the bitch's face with the flag an' fuck er for old glory," in a graphic rendering of Toni Morrison's point.

James Loewen points out that just as European immigrants moved out of their inner-city enclaves and merged into white America, African Americans were being residentially segregated as the phenomenon of "sundown towns," which explicitly prohibited blacks from remaining in them after the sun set, spread across the country. Assimilation for people of European origin was accompanied by ongoing exclusion of people of color already in the United States.

For immigrants of color, assimilation means something very different than it historically has for European immigrants. For Latin American immigrants, assimilation more often means shedding their American dream and joining the lowest rungs in a caste-like society where Native Americans and African Americans, the most "assimilated" people of color, have been consistently kept at the bottom. When Haitian immigrants assimilate, explains one study, "they become not generic, mainstream Americans but specifically African Americans and primarily the poor African Americans most vulnerable to American racism."

As Toni Morrison suggested, racial inequality is so deeply embedded in the national culture and social fabric of the United States that assimilation has historically meant finding, learning, and accepting one's place in the racial order. If new immigrants could succeed in challenging and transforming the racial order of the United States, that would be a good thing. But the signs do not point in that direction. The current anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces racial inequality.

The United States, as we have seen, defined itself from the first as a white, Anglo-Saxon country. Africans and Native Americans may have lived in the territories claimed by the United States, but they were not citizens. The Mexicans--primarily people of Spanish and Native American origin--who were added to the U.S. population with the 1848 conquest were granted citizenship, of a sort--but without shaking the firmly held idea that the United States was an Anglo-Saxon country.

The new, non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, starting with the Irish in the 1850s and growing with the southern and eastern Europeans from the 1870s on, were neither Anglo-Saxons nor people of color. Many of these new European immigrants came from nations that Anglo-Saxons considered inferior, and many of them came from peoples without states. They were oppressed minorities in the countries or empires they came from. Many came from the Ottoman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many were Irish, from a land controlled by England, or they were Jews from Eastern Europe. Some were southern Italians, in a country only just unified, where the South was economically dependent on the North.

When European immigrants assimilated, they joined white society in social and cultural terms. Obviously, the color of their skin did not change--but the category of "white" expanded from its former association with Anglo-Saxons to include these newcomers. Anglo-Saxonism was fundamentally based on the domination of Africans, Native Americans, and Asians, and the institutions and ideologies of the United States reflected this reality. Southern and eastern Europeans were not originally part of this racial dynamic. Assimilating into it meant accepting it and identifying with the racial inequality it entailed--insisting, successfully, on their place among whites.

When Asian and Latino immigrants assimilate, they also assimilate to the United States racial hierarchy, but in a different way. Very few of them can cross the line into whiteness. Instead, they assimilate by becoming people of color in a racially divided society. Assimilation, instead of bringing upward mobility, brings downward mobility. Of course there are exceptions, but overwhelmingly, the social and economic statistics have told the same dreary story for many generations: blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, even--perhaps especially--those whose ancestors have the longest presence in the country. It's not lack of assimilation that keeps them marginalized--it's assimilation itself.

The relationship between assimilation and downward mobility has been especially noted in studies of schoolchildren. Education professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco conducted two major studies of Latino adolescents in which he found that the most recent immigrants tended to be the students with the highest aspirations and the strongest belief in the American dream. This was because, as immigrants, they were not yet educated into the U.S. racial order. Teachers consistently reported on new immigrants' commitment to education, their work ethic, and their respect for their teachers. As they became more Americanized, they entered an oppositional inner-city teenage culture that valued money, drugs, and reckless behaviors defined as cool--the opposite of the hopeful and hard-working recent arrivals.

Over time new immigrants lost their optimism. They became acculturated by becoming aware of the long-standing historical place of Latinos in U.S. society. They realized that education was not the solution they had originally believed it was. In fact, studies have shown that the higher the educational level, the greater the income disparity between whites and nonwhites in U.S. society. Rather than leveling the playing field, educational achievement maintains or even exacerbates inequalities.

Although students of color may not be aware of the statistics, their decisions seem to reflect a larger awareness that education is not an automatic ticket to the American dream. A 2000 study found graduation rates to be 76 percent for white students, 57 percent for Native Americans, 55 percent for African Americans, and 53 percent for Hispanics. The newest immigrants look a lot like the oldest "foreigners" in the United States in terms of social status. Unlike whole generations of European immigrants, no amount of assimilation will ever make them white.

Like earlier generations of immigrants, those arriving today still see learning English as crucial to survival and success. But new immigrants also become aware that learning to speak English will not resolve the problems of race. Native Americans and African Americans are native speakers of English--but this has not helped them to assimilate into a U.S. society that still in many ways defines itself as white.

Of all Latino groups in the United States, it's Puerto Ricans who are the most assimilated. All Puerto Ricans have been citizens since 1917. Puerto Ricans tend to know English, and to speak English as their primary language, at much higher rates than other Latinos. Puerto Ricans also have a huge advantage over other immigrants because their citizenship status makes them eligible for public social services and gives them the automatic right to work, rights that many immigrants from other parts of Latin America lack.

Although Mexican nationals are not automatically citizens the way Puerto Ricans are, Mexicans have the longest history in the United States of any Latino group. Mexicans residing in the territories taken by the United States in 1848 were granted citizenship, and Mexicans have been migrating into the United States for a longer time than any other group.

Yet Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have the highest poverty rates of any group of Latinos in the United States. Cubans, the vast majority of whom came to the United States after 1959, Dominicans, who started coming in large numbers in the 1970s, and Central Americans, whose massive migration dates to the 1980s, all have much lower poverty rates: 24.1 percent of Mexicans and 23.7 percent of Puerto Ricans in the United States lived below the poverty line in 2003, while only 14.4 percent of Cubans did.

In an interesting study of black West Indian immigrants, Mary Waters found that "immigrants and their children do better economically by maintaining a strong ethnic identity and culture and by resisting American cultural and identity influences . . . those who resist becoming American do well and those who lose their immigrant ethnic distinctiveness become downwardly mobile . . . When West Indians lose their distinctiveness as immigrants or ethnics they become not just Americans, but black Americans."

The picture is clear. Immigrants of color do assimilate into U.S. society, but, in contrast to white immigrants, for people of color assimilation means downward mobility. Assimilation means learning the racial order of the United States, and for people of color it means joining the lower ranks of that racial order. The association often made between assimilation and upward mobility is based on the experience of white immigrants. For immigrants of color, the trajectory of assimilation is a very different one.

Reprinted from
They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths about Immigration by Aviva Chomsky Copyright © 2007 by permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org
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